Exiles - Jane Harper



The story's main character wasn't so much the detective as the lovely small-town Australian setting which, intriguing as that was for a Brit like me, made it not very thrilling for a thriller and not very mysterious for a mystery. Although the plot unfolded agonisingly slowly, I did keep on reading, which was something, but came away with a sense of it being a deeply conservative tale of people unable, or unwilling, to make a life away from the town they were born in.

Black Cake - Charmaine Wilkerson



This was an engaging family saga, and the historical and cultural details gave it an extra layer of interest. It was a shame, then, that most of the characters seemed only to be there as cyphers, and that several elements of the plot were either unconvincing or just didn't make sense. And there was a weird sense of mythical history about events that only took place 50 years ago. So, as usual, more editing might have moved it towards the 'Masterful' promised on the cover but it remains a reasonable read.

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill



This modern classic was spectacularly (spectre-cularly?) well written on a line level, a model for using different techniques to create atmosphere, which explains its presence on Eng Lit reading lists. But the pace and the story itself didn't match that poetry. It wasn't particularly scary and only slightly creepy. And it never was clear why the woman wanted to get her revenge on random people. She just did. I suppose ghosts don't need to explain themselves.

A Lady's Guide to Scandal - Sophie Irwin



I normally avoid Heyer knock-offs, but this author had written an academic thesis on her so I decided she'd know how to approach it. The clincher was some reviewers' horror at the (actually rather sweet) lesbian subplot - what fun, I thought, and it was. It was no Heyer, of course - the characters lacked her vividness, and the immersion was spoilt by too much 'telling', too much modern-tinged dialogue, and several glaring errors that should have been picked up by an editor. But, yes, it was fun - and, yes, I have rated it higher than a few of Heyer's novels.

Factory Girls - Michelle Gallen



This won a prize for being funny but I didn't find any jokes amongst the misery of living with death and the threat of death in '90s small-town Northern Ireland. There also wasn't much of a plot. Which was a shame, because the protagonist was exactly the same age as me but I couldn't identify with her at all. The many inaccuracies about the Oxbridge entrance process at that time were also annoying - it was a small thing but noticing the errors ruined the immersion and veracity of what was otherwise a vivid account of a particular culture at a particular time.

Grave Expectations - Alice Bell



This was never going to be high literature or deeply poetic but it was a fun, funny and well written update of the supernatural murder mystery genre - the realistic volume of swearing and a non-binary character could upset die-hard (ha!) cosy mystery fans but it worked for me. It did wander a bit in the middle (as did the main character - it's always best to focus on one location in stories like this) but, overall, it was dead good (ha again!).

How To Kill Your Family - Bella Mackie




This was diverting enough but it could have done with another draft to make the relentlessly unsympathetic anti-hero(ine)'s motivations less muddled, to cut the dull details and weird cultural observations, to streamline the plot, to focus the humour and to sharpen the characters. (And another copy edit to get rid of the irritating comma splices; also distracting in Cat Lady - is this a thing now?) I think at the end you were supposed to shout 'The injustice!' but frankly she had it coming.

Cat Lady - Dawn O'Porter



'An absolute joy'? 'Laugh out loud'? 'Hilarious'? Only if you think an irritating narrator with unresolved trauma and possible neurodiversity dealing badly with more trauma is funny. I'm all for dark humour but this wasn't funny - or well paced or feminist or based on any sort of reality (owning a cat is not in itself quirky and weird). After a slow and laboured three-quarters, the ending was rushed, with the emphasis on all the wrong elements.

The Book of Koli - MR Carey



Carey specialises in post-apocalyptic dystopian survival stories, lovingly worldbuilding often at the expense of the plot. The Girl with All the Gifts worked better than this, which meandered about, much like the rather passive narrator. I wonder whether this was originally the first third of a longer book rather than the first in a trilogy.

My Murder - Katie Williams



The idea of a clone trying to solve their own murder isn't new but I really enjoyed this take on the theme. It's strikingly well written on both a sentence and chapter level, the characters are interesting, the worldbuilding is clever and the issues of identity, parenthood, death and the ethical use of technology are well explored. What spoilt it was the annoying ending that exposed various plot holes and didn't address its own implications. But the first 90% - fantastic!

The Lincoln Lawyer - Michael Connelly



What makes this interesting - other than the details of how the urban American legal system works - is the character development arc. It could have been a standard procedural but the narrator goes from shrugging off the ethical issues of defending guilty people to confronting and eventually embracing the complexity of different cases. There was a lot of unnecessary visual detail, though - who cares what side of the sofa people are sitting on? 

I'm Sorry You Feel That Way - Rebecca Wait




This book is much better than the weird cover image suggests. It's character led - without feeling unfocused - and so sharply observed that it's impossible not to flinch - or to laugh out loud at the awkward humour of dysfunctional families who just want to find some sort of mutual understanding.

(Fleeting and unnecessary mention of the pandemic. This annoys me more and more. It's fiction - there's simply no need!)

The Weather Woman - Sally Gardner



Objectively, this novel could have been better. The author admits in her acknowledgements that it wasn't planned out, and that much is clear - it ambles along with little conflict, pacing or plot and is about 100 pages too long. Such books are usually character driven but all the characters are blandly, uncomplicatedly nice except for the two pantomime villains. Modern concerns are awkwardly shoved in - everyone, with their early 19th-century sensibilities, immediately accepting and understanding neurodiversity, climate change, sexual freedom, and queer and trans characters. Yes, we get it, they're born in the 'wrong time'. But, somehow, for all these flaws, it was still an evocative and engaging read.

A Tidy Ending - Joanna Cannon



I started this a couple of times and didn't get too far but this time I focused on getting through it. I've previously found Cannon's prose too flowery and her plots too heavy handed and this was no exception. And I'm all for unreliable and even unsympathetic narrators but it was very difficult to root for this one. That said, the observational comedy was sharp and the awkward Britishness well captured.

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone - Benjamin Stevenson



There's a thin line between cleverly self-referential and plain irritating, but I think this mostly balanced on it successfully. It's an entertaining murder mystery that plays by the rules - all sorts of rules - and is a lesson in writing (and editing) itself too. The actual story was more confusing than exciting but the hook - a family of killers! - held it together, even though (spoiler!) that turned out to be somewhat misleading.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time - Gillian McAllister



Points for cleverness and attention to detail. Time travel mysteries need careful planning and plotting, and this clearly had plenty of that - even if some other aspects were slightly off (who picks up their 18-year-old kids from school?). Also points for only mentioning the pandemic in passing.

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer



More Heyer, more fun, more predictable romance with a less predictable mystery which, nevertheless, was resolved with panache by the engaging and resourceful characters.

Mexican Gothic - Silvia Moreno-Garcia



I've struggled with Moreno-Garcia's style before - it feels awkwardly translated even though it was originally written in English. This story was also awkward - "walk through rooms, hallucinate, argue, repeat" with a final few chapters that didn't make sense. Not at all creepy, anyway, and, the colonial point was lost as the baddies could have been any nationality, as long as they were outsiders.

Uglies - Scott Westerfield



Interesting concept and world building, with its pace hampered by being split into a trilogy, so that, in the end, it felt incomplete.

Confess - Colleen Hoover



"Hey, AI! Write me an overwrought romance featuring characters that describe their thoughts and actions in tedious detail but still create unnecessary tension by failing to communicate with each other. Ensure the woman is weak and weepy and needs to be saved by a man. Ensure that very little actually happens and that nobody behaves like real humans. Put that Hoover name on it and it'll sell millions!"