A good book is for life, not just for Christmas: Our critics select the best novels to put under the tree
- Literary critics rounded up a selection of their favourite novels from the year
- Geoffrey Wansell’s crime & thrillers picks includes The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
- The novel follows DI Matthew Venn as he investigates a religious cult in Devon
- Other critics picked the best historical, contemporary, debut and sci-fi novels
OLIGARCHY by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate £14.99)
by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate £14.99)
Nothing I’d previously read by Scarlett Thomas prepared me for the wall-to-wall joy of Oligarchy — a wickedly well-turned black comedy centred on an Instagram-fuelled wave of anorexia among teenage girls at a Home Counties boarding school favoured by dodgy plutocrats.
by Salvatore Scibona (Cape £16.99)
The Volunteer offered more of a slow-burn pleasure — a big American novel involving a love-starved youth who enlists to serve in Afghanistan to try to please his equally screwed-up father, who fought in Vietnam.
by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray £12.99)
A spookier take on parental guilt came from Hurley’s chiller Starve Acre, about a couple mourning the death of their nightmare-plagued five-year-old in the Yorkshire Dales.
by Oisín Fagan (JM Originals £12.99)
The wildest novel I read all year was easily Nobber, an eye-poppingly anarchic tale of greed and gore in a medieval Irish village struck by the Black Death.
CHRISTMAS IN AUSTIN
by Benjamin Markovits (Faber £16.99)
For more seasonal fare, Christmas In Austin is a sympathetic portrait of fraught festivities among three generations of one well-to-do Texan family.
THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton £14.99)
THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING
by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton £14.99)
Quite why this didn’t make the Booker shortlist, or win it, is this year’s biggest mystery. Deborah Levy filters the traumatic history of 20th-century Europe through the shattered mind of a delirious man in this extraordinary, tricksy masterpiece.
by Mark Haddon (Chatto £18.99)
Feminist revisionist stories have been everywhere lately, but by far the best this year came from Mark Haddon, with his exquisite retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, which refocused attention on the play’s forgotten daughter of the incestuous King Antiochus.
WHERE REASONS END
by Yiyun Li (Hamish Hamilton £12.99)
GIRL by Edna O’Brien (Faber £16.99)
A mother imagines a series of conversations with her dead teenage son in this heart-pummelling philosophical novel, which confronts the limitations of language in the face of unspeakable loss.
Li’s son committed suicide in 2017, and the courage and humanity on display here is profoundly humbling.
by Edna O’Brien (Faber £16.99)
A scorching fever dream of a novel about the 2014 Chibok kidnappings in Nigeria, which imagines the abuses committed against the girls through the voice of one of the stolen. Edna O’Brien may be 88, but her powers remain undimmed.
THE FOURTH SHORE
by Virginia Baily (Fleet £16.99)
A wholly enjoyable historical novel about a widow rediscovering her lost family, set partly in Tripoli during the fascist Italian occupation between the wars.
THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead (Fleet £16.99)
THE NICKEL BOYS
by Colson Whitehead (Fleet £16.99)
In this masterful novel, The Underground Railroad author draws on actual events to tell the story of two young black boys sent to a brutal Florida reform school. A split timeframe is employed to great effect, and the late-arriving twist will floor you.
by Louise Doughty (Faber £14.99)
How did teacher Lisa Evans come to die on the tracks at Peterborough Railway Station? This atmospheric page-turner, narrated by Lisa herself, is only partly a whodunnit. It’s also a thought-provoking examination of coercive control and a powerfully moving meditation on the nature of love.
THE TOPEKA SCHOOL
by Ben Lerner (Granta £16.99)
This is the third in a loose autofictional trilogy by one of America’s coolest young authors. Moving between the viewpoints of school debate champion Adam and his psychologist parents, it’s an often painful, but consistently brilliant, picking-apart of masculinity in crisis and the breakdown of public speech.
LATE IN THE DAY by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape £16.99)
LATE IN THE DAY
by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape £16.99)
Tessa Hadley is one of those rare authors who keep getting better and better. Here, she addresses infidelity and ageing, while probing the complex history of two intertwined, arty couples. The themes might be autumnal, but the writing is joyous, and the conclusion will set your heart singing.
THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS
by Jill Dawson (Sceptre £18.99)
Dawson’s fictionalised take on the Lord Lucan murder case eschews sensation to explore questions of nature and nurture, and celebrate female friendship and desire. It’s fantastic on Seventies London, too.
THE NIGHT FIRE by Michael Connelly (Orion £20)
CRIME & THRILLERS
THE NIGHT FIRE
by Michael Connelly (Orion £20)
One of the greatest crime writers roars back with a superb story that embraces all three of his major characters, Harry Bosch, Renee Ballard and Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller. It opens with a homeless man being burned alive, and never once draws breath.
by Simon Kernick (Century £12.99)
A charming psychopath and serial killer — who’s also a politician with a great chance of becoming prime minister — is pitted against an ex-cop recruited to kill him by a shadowy branch of the security services. This is Kernick at his spine-chilling best.
THE LONG CALL
by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan £16.99)
Cleeves introduces a fresh new detective, DI Matthew Venn, who’s gay and married to his male partner. They live together in the author’s childhood home of north Devon, where Venn investigates a religious cult.
DEATH IN THE EAST
by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker £12.99)
Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham is back, but this time, he is fighting his opium addiction, as well a ghostly figure from his past in Twenties India. An absolute delight.
AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD by John le Carre (Viking £20)
AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD
by John le Carre (Viking £20)
The master of the espionage novel returns with a perfectly nuanced story of a spy on the scrapheap at the age of 47 and uncertain who to trust in the world of Brexit and divided loyalties. He takes refuge in badminton, which brings him his nemesis. An utter joy.
by James Patterson (Century £20)
African-American psychologist Dr Alex Cross, Patterson’s favourite character, is being pursued by a master criminal from his past out to frame him for the mistaken conviction of another killer and destroy his reputation. Sensationally plotted, it leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat.
WHAT SHE SAW LAST NIGHT
by M. J. Cross (Orion £7.99)
Jenny Bowen, on the verge of divorce, is escaping to her childhood home in the Highlands on the overnight sleeper when she encounters another young woman with a small girl. By the morning, that woman is dead and the girl is gone, but no one else saw her — was Jenny hallucinating? Gripping stuff.
THREE LITTLE TRUTHS by Eithne Shortall (Corvus £12.99)
THREE LITTLE TRUTHS
by Eithne Shortall (Corvus £12.99)
Pine Road, a posh residential street in Dublin, is controlled by a WhatsApp group of gossipers. They’re straight on to the trio of new arrivals: desperate-for-friends Edie, mysterious, glamorous Martha and single mother Robin with her car-crash past. How are they connected? Unputdownable.
THE GIVER OF STARS
by Jojo Moyes (Michael Joseph £20)
Moyes swaps Me Before You territory for the Thirties Deep South of America. A horseback lending library, delivering to literature-starved hill-dwellers, gives a group of misfit women the chance of friendship, freedom and love. Inspiring and wildly romantic.
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE
by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire £18.99)
This state-of-America novel is about doctor Toby, married to Rachel, an uber-agent earning millions. But she’s not such an uber-mother, so they split, and Toby goes back to basics, seeking out old friends and finding women online. Quite long-winded, but worth it for the savage social satire.
THE END OF THE OCEAN
by Maja Lunde (Scribner £16.99)
I’m including this because the subject is climate change, which almost no one writes novels about. The story of a present-day Norwegian eco-campaigner alternates with that of a French family in the overheated future. They are in a camp for refugees from eco-disaster — but it’s not all doom and gloom. They find friendship, love and an unexpected gift from the past.
WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin (Sceptre £8.99)
WHEN ALL IS SAID
by Anne Griffin (Sceptre £8.99)
Eighty-year-old curmudgeon Maurice Hannigan sits alone in a hotel bar and raises five pints to five family members during one unforgettable night. A fantastic piece of bravura storytelling that is my pick of the year.
MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER
by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic £8.99)
When Ayoola makes a move on the man her sister Korede loves, will Korede be able to keep schtum about her sister’s unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends? This fast-paced, brilliantly executed comic novel of psychological suspense had me on the edge of my seat.
THE AGE OF LIGHT
by Whitney Scharer (Picador £12.99)
The love affair between surrealist artist Man Ray and photographer and model Lee Miller is told with exhilarating intimacy as Scharer conjures up Thirties Paris in all its seediness and glamour.
THE DOLL FACTORY
by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador £12.99)
A pre-Raphaelite painter, his model and a malign taxidermist are brought together in this well-researched gothic tale of passion and obsession set in Dickensian London. Cleverly told and all-consuming.
LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman (Faber £12.99)
LADY IN THE LAKE
by Laura Lippman (Faber £12.99)
This is a fascinating history lesson wrapped up in a thriller. In the newspaper world, amid the racial tensions of Sixties America, a Jewish woman becomes obsessed with solving the death of a child, while having a secret affair with a black policeman. Packed with suspense and real literary charm.
THE SILENT PATIENT
by Alex Michaelides (Orion £12.99)
Be one of the first to discover this brilliant new writer. A psychotherapist is determined to break through to a young artist who’s been mute ever since she killed her husband. The writer’s own experience of psychotherapy lifts the storytelling to another level.
by Annie Ward (Quercus £12.99)
This is a sometimes tender, sometimes gory, but endlessly gripping book. An American travel writer falls for a troubled British soldier, with terrifying consequences that will keep even the most experienced thriller reader guessing until the last page.
THOSE PEOPLE by Louise Candlish (Simon & Schuster £12.99)
by Louise Candlish (Simon & Schuster £12.99)
Hot bath and scented candle time. Louise Candlish applies her genius for property porn and social observation to the posh residents of a road whose lives are disrupted in shocking ways when their new, downmarket neighbours start selling second-hand cars.
THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS
by Lisa Jewell (Century £12.99)
A young woman is shocked to inherit a fabulous house, and even more shocked by the dysfunctional family and its sordid secrets that are part of the package. This is a complex plot in expert hands.
ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday £8.99)
ONCE UPON A RIVER
by Diane Setterfield (Doubleday £8.99)
A drowned child is carried into a Thamesside inn famous for its storytelling gatherings. Hours later, she revives. But how? Magic or science, and who is she? Part thriller, part mystery, part love story, this is a gripping, immersive and enriching prize-winning novel with huge appeal.
THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST
by Caroline Scott (Simon & Schuster £12.99)
In 1921, photographer Harry Blythe and his sister-in-law, Edie, journey to a ravaged France to find Francis, her husband, missing presumed dead. A beautifully written and haunting debut that tackles the damage of war’s aftermath.
A SINGLE THREAD
by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins £14.99)
Post-World War I, spinster Violet Speedwell is a ‘surplus’ woman. What can she do to rise above the financial and emotional limbo in which women like her are left? Absorbing, empathetic, poignant — and catnip for those keen on embroidery.
THE WARLOW EXPERIMENT
by Alix Nathan (Serpent’s Tail £12.99)
In 1793, a rich man pays for a labourer on his country estate to live in solitude for seven years and to keep a diary of his reactions. A meaty, shocking and original novel of obsession gone sour.
VERY NICE by Marcy Dermansky (Bloomsbury £14.99)
by Marcy Dermansky (Bloomsbury £14.99)
Smooth, sexy and sharply hilarious, this is an utterly addictive page-turner. Rachel kisses her creative writing professor, Zahid, and ends up looking after his dog. Fabulous in every way.
AFTER THE END
by Clare Mackintosh (Sphere £12.99)
Max and Pip are the parents of Dylan, a sick child, who are torn apart by his terminal diagnosis and engage in a legal battle. My most moving read of the year.
by Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze £12.99)
Queenie is a young, black British woman trying to find her way in a white world that keeps telling her she’s either too much or not enough. Vital, uncomfortable and important.
A VIEW TO A KILT
by Wendy Holden (Head Of Zeus £18.99)
The third in Holden’s Laura Lake series sees our glossy magazine editor heading to Scotland, where a plethora of baronial castles are for sale to billionaires with more money than judgment.
The sparkling prose contains tons of memorable one-liners and laugh-out-loud moments.
FANTASY & SCI-FI
A BRIGHTNESS LONG AGO by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder £19.99)
A BRIGHTNESS LONG AGO
by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder £19.99)
It’s the Italian renaissance brilliantly shot through with fantasy. Finely faceted scenes dazzle as strong, wilful characters create a high-stakes world of love and hate, threat and reward.
THE HOUSE OF SACRIFICE
by Anna Smith Spark (HarperVoyager £16.99)
Marith Altrersyr, the Imperial anti-hero to end all anti-heroes, slaughters his drug-addled way to the dazzling conclusion of this landmark trilogy. Wrong, but romantic, with knobs on.
by Elizabeth Bear (Gollancz £16.99)
Pursued across space by a sexy, ruthless pirate and befriended by a giant praying mantis, Haimey’s troubled past starts to catch up with her in this crackling, awesome space opera.
by Jay Kristoff (HarperVoyager £14.99)
This conclusion to The Nevernight Chronicle rollicks to new depths of obscenity and reaches new heights of violence with a fine mythic backstory and a sexily searing love triangle.
BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH by M. C. Beaton (Constable £18.99)
BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH
by M. C. Beaton (Constable £18.99)
There comes a time in every adult’s life when the chief blessing of Christmas is a relaxing book and an easy chair. M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series fulfils the first of these requirements admirably. The story races along, taking time out only for Agatha to pursue her erratic love life and to vent her anger on those who are out to obstruct justice. Her putdowns are classics of crime fiction.
THE NIGHT OF FEAR
by Moray Dalton (Dean Street Press £9.99)
A mystery set in a snow-coated country house is so much a part of the Christmas tradition it would be churlish not to come up with at least one commendation. The Night Of Fear, first published in 1931, fits the bill.
Police are called in when a game of hide-and-seek ends abruptly with the murder of one of the players, a scandal-mongering writer. The climax is a murder trial that is as plausible as it is riveting.
THE CHRISTMAS EGG
by Mary Kelly (British Library £8.99)
What a pleasure it is to come across that rarity in crime fiction, a policeman who admits his faults. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale is exceptional in other ways. Highly educated, and given to quoting Greek, he is married to a singer who is curiously detached from the dangers he faces. ‘Must go, kettle on the boil,’ she says, after Nightingale has telephoned to announce his escape from death.
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