A Deadly Education - Naomi Novik




Naomi Novik is up there with Frances Hardinge in terms of original, well written, speculative fiction. And this compelling, deliciously dark take on the magic school genre could have been brilliant if only its endless exposition had been trimmed by a no-nonsense structural edit and its awkwardly inconsistent Anglo-American phrasing had been transformed into a proper dialect. But I've noted a frustrating lack of editing in her previous novels (here, here and here) - she's not doing her writing any favours when such promising material isn't polished to the extent it deserves. 

Shadowplay - Joseph O'Connor




Well, it was a confidently written reimagining of the relationship between three very interesting (real) people that got me checking their achievements on Wikipedia. The possible influences on the development of 'Dracula' were cleverly handled. It was also on the wrong side of pretentious and went on even after the main story had ended. And on. And on some more. 

Deeplight - Frances Hardinge




Hardinge's worldbuilding skills are not in doubt, and nor is her lyrical prose. She can cover awkward subjects, in this case a psychologically abusive relationship, among other things. But this was just a bit... boring. I struggled to care about anyone, and the plot limped along like the old seacraft she describes so vividly.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng




On the one hand, this was intensely readable. On the other, best not to think too hard about the trite and frankly rather dull plot, unlikely characters and assorted moralising, or how it's become trendy to set novels in the 90s to stop mobile phones and the internet from ruining the story. 

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke



This multi-textured modern fairytale/mystery/philosophical musing could have been pretentious and awkward. It mostly - miraculously - wasn't. I loved it as much as I did Strange and Norrell. I'd be surprised if I read anything else as good this year.

Spencer's List - Lissa Evans



She's now known for her wartime epics (see here and here) but Evans' first novel is really just a collection of set pieces about likeable, linked characters. But it is brimming with her characteristic panache, painful pinpoint humour and the sudden powerful pathos that comes out of nowhere. 

Small Pleasures - Clare Chambers



This was compared to Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler - well, it's a low-key story about women struggling through society but otherwise it was too heavy handed to reach those dizzy heights. Readable enough but from all the smog 'n' smoking (yes, we get it, it was the 50s) to the unnecessarily tragic or possibly open-ended ending (not a spoiler - the preface prefigured the probable death of a character), it just needed a lighter touch.

Arabella - Georgette Heyer



This was a lovely example, and slightly more gritty than usual for a Georgette Heyer (i.e. slight references to poverty; it's all comparative).

The Stepsister - Jenny O'Brien



Shame about the poor research, editing, proofreading, characterisation and creaky plot. Even the cover looks more like Amsterdam than the story's setting, Delft (in the Netherlands, not Holland, dammit!).

The Choir - Joanna Trollope



This was my first J Trollope and actually it was quite good, in a rather dated, middle-class, tropes of little England sort of way. 

Redhead by the Side of the Road - Anne Tyler



This is maybe the 15th Tyler novel I've read, and it's not her best and it's not her worst. It is vintage Tyler, though - a carefully nuanced snapshot of a loner man <check>, chaotic loving family <check>, not much actual plot <check> ... really, just people bumbling on through life. More phones and computers than her early novels but the same unerring dissection of relationships.

The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden



Beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and fascinating from an historical/folklore viewpoint but, even more than its predecessor, also rather fractured and confused, with characters it's hard to care about.

The Lantern Men - Elly Griffiths



The 12th in the series and the template is set - including the very optimistic journey times between places that are actually quite far apart. But this one was slightly more sophisticated in its plotting, and it was an undemanding - and uncontroversial - read.

Pilgrims - Matthew Kneale


I much enjoyed Kneale's English Passengers nearly 20 years ago and, while not quite in the same league, this was a similarly well-researched, well-characterised and entertaining insight into all the aspects of the extraordinary 13th-century trend for walking from Britain to Rome (and back). 

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden



A very dark folktale with some lovely descriptions but, as is the case with modern trilogies, more the first third of a longer novel than a self-contained story.

The Visitors Book - Sophie Hannah


This is why I don't normally read short stories.

Half Bad - Sally Green


This YA fantasy thriller is notable for its gritty Britishness, as a direct challenge to You Know Who, but ultimately it felt unfinished and underdeveloped, as if an early draft had been sent to the publisher. I think setting up first novels as the start of a series does them a disservice.

Three Things About Elsie - Joanna Cannon


Three things about this novel:
1. The metaphors. Dear God, the metaphors. It was like a 464-page creative writing exercise.
2. The 'twist'. Oddly, it was both obvious from about halfway through, and also inconsistently handled.
3. The story. Lumpily structured and didn't really make sense.

A Rare Benedictine - Ellis Peters


Brother Cadfael's offcuts. I won't remember anything about it in a month.

Into the Blue - Robert Goddard


I usually avoid reading books by white, middle-class, middle-aged men in which I am supposed to sympathise with the suffering of white, middle-class, middle-aged men. And in this case all the white, middle-class, middle-aged men were depicted very vividly, unlike everyone else. But I grudgingly admit that it was unusually well written and cleverly plotted and I found myself rooting for the protagonist despite my prejudices. (It was also amusing to note that the story was only possible because of its late-1980s, pre-mobiles, pre-internet setting.)