Monday 3 January 2011

Yet Another Top 10...errrr 12... of 2010

Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2011 is wonderful to all of you, bringing you everything you wish for yourselves, and much more besides.

Well, everyone else is doing it, so here is a round-up of my favourite books of 2010. No particular order but I've put the Scottish crime fiction first.

LOST IN JUAREZ - Douglas Lindsay
Published: 2008
Publisher: Long Midnight Publishing
Setting: Scotland and London
Protagonist: Lake Weston
Series?: Standalone
First Line: 'The house stood on the side of a hill looking down over the glen, across the Ullapool Road, out over Ben Wyvis.'
Best known for his wonderful darkly comic Barney Thomson, barbershop death junkie series, LOST IN JUAREZ is a much more sinister proposition. Lake Weston writes children's books about a 7-year old boy called Fenton Bargus. Very successful books that have made him an award-winning millionaire and much in demand to give talks at schools. He does, however, have to be reminded not to swear in front of the children. He also has an addiction to Bob Dylan, two ex-wives, drinks far too much, and can't remember the names of the many women he sleeps with. He's cynical, jaded, and can't seem to get out of the cosy little rut he's in. However, when his latest manuscript - Fenton Bargus Take on The Prime Minister - gets into the hands of someone in the Government, his publishers are told to withdraw it, or else.

It's hardly a major political tract, but with terrorist threats on a daily basis and the Government using these threats as a means of trampling all over personal freedoms, they're coming down heavy handed and jack-booted - even on a children's book author. So that makes Lake a little bit peeved and he decides to write a book about heavy-handed Government trampling all over personal freedoms.And if you think that's going to get him in even more trouble than writing a book about a seven year old boy who takes on the Prime Minister then you would be absolutely correct.

It was a very timely read for me - what with the whole WikiLeaks thing. It's thrilling, sinister, and a fast and fascinating read. Great fun and a little bit scary.

THE OSSIANS - Doug Johnstone
Published: 2008
Setting: Scotland
Protagonist: Connor Alexander
Series?: I presume it's a standalone
First Lines: '"Connor, I don't know why I let you drag me to the stupidest places."'
Indie guitar band The Ossians are on the verge of signing a major record deal and their lead singer Connor decides that now would be a good time to tour Scotland, going to some of the dreariest, bleakest places - in winter. Connor - self-destructive and full of himself - spends most of the tour drunk or high on a cocktail of drugs. But this is definitely not what you would typically consider a rock and roll lifestyle with its series of tedious gigs in seedy venues. And, unlike most tours (I would hope!) the tension mounts with drug dealers, stalkers and gun-toting Russian sub-mariners. I didn't like Connor at all - he's got a chip on his shoulder the size of a bag of King Edwards - but I really loved reading about him and wanted to know what would happen to him. Connor has led a pampered, rather empty, middle-class life and the tour seems to be a search for the holy grail of his own identity, as well as that of Scotland. A thought-provoking and fascinating read. And really good fun. I will definitely be looking out for more from this author.

Published: October 2009
Setting: Dundee
Protagonist: McNee
Series?: 2nd
First Lines: 'He doesn't waste a moment. Lets go of the axe, brings both hands round on either side of my head and slams them together.'
Hard-boiled Dundee PI McNee is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. He's reluctant, since the girl is the god-daughter of David Burns - someone that McNee is not particularly fond of, and that's putting it lightly. McNee lets himself be beguiled by his dislike of Burns - as well as his desire to right some wrongs - as he investigates the secrets and lies that lead him to become more and more emotionally involved in the case. Brutal, chilling, pacy and dramatic, THE LOST SISTER is superb - but very sad. I felt melancholic from about half way through and burst into tears at the end (it seems a pattern is developing!) McNee is an excellent character - tough as nails on the outside, but much softer on the inside - something he does his best to hide. He is uncompromising about right and wrong, his moral compass is firmly set, and his prickly exterior hides a troubled and isolated person who just can't get close to people. You don't know whether to hug him or punch him. Russel McLean spins a fine and expertly told tale.

SHADOWPLAY - Karen Campbell
Published: 2010
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Setting: Glasgow
Protagonist: Chief Inspector Anna Campbell
Series?: 3rd
First Line: 'On a hill swept by oak, a single soft glow shines from a darker bulk.'
Anna Cameron has been promoted to Chief Inspector and moved to a new Division. A fresh start and a clean sheet should be just the ticket. Unfortunately, Anna discovers that she now has the worst boss in the world. On top of that her Mum - who she doesn't have a great relationship with - is seriously ill. Anna has plenty of work to keep her busy - the racially motivated attack of a young man, the disappearance of an elderly lady from a nursing home, added to the fact that someone is threatening one of her officers. Underlying everything in this book is the theme of motherhood. This is one of the best books I've read this year. The first two in the series were excellent but this is something else - gorgeous and atmospheric writing, a wonderful sense of place with a mix of darkness and humour that is the very heart and soul of Glasgow, an authentic depiction of police work that makes you wonder why anyone wants to join up, characters that you really get to know and an absorbing plot. Gritty, witty, and pretty bloody amazing. I was totally captivated from start to finish.

Published: 2010
Publisher: Preface Publishing
Setting: Edinburgh
Protagonist: Gus Dury
Series?: 4th
First Line: 'The doctor was a no-nonsense west-coaster, type that called a spade a shovel and if you didn't like it would add, You got a problem with that?'
Gus Dury is back on the bevvy - and no bloody wonder after what happened in book 3. Not only is he back on the drink but he's in hospital and in a bad way after being run down by an old lady on a mobility scooter. When his best friend Hod visits and asks him to help him investigate the death of a student - son of a high-profile actress, Gus is reluctant - let's face it, his career as a PI hasn't turned out very well for him so far, has it? However, since he feels partly responsible for the cash-strapped state in which Hod currently finds himself, he agrees. One more bad decision in a whole string of bad decisions. Sometimes it feels as though nothing Gus does is ever going to be right. For me he's a thoroughly noir protagonist. He's constantly trying to dig himself out of a hole that's too big for him to scrabble out of. What's more, fate is standing giggling at the top, shovelling in more earth on top of him. And, when someone does finally throw down a shovel, it hits Gus on the head. This is a very dark book, but relieved by Gus' cynical, self-deprecating humour. After this entry in the series, I want a little gladness for Gus. Wonderful stuff.

THE DEVIL'S STAIRCASE - Helen Fitzgerald
Published: 2010
Publisher: Polygon
Setting: London
Protagonist: Bronny
Series?: Standalone
First Line: 'It was fifty-fifty. Mum had it, and had died in a pool of her own mad froth.'
When Bronny escapes Australia three weeks after her eighteenth birthday, it's because she doesn't want to find out whether she has the disease which killed her mother. So she decides to go to London and do some living. Living consists of cleaning the hair out of the drains in a female sauna and steam rooms, living in a squat, taking loads of drugs, trying to lose her virginity, and worrying about the noises coming from the basement. Less overtly humourous and with a darker feel than most of her other books, this one is a fast and furious read with plenty of heart-stopping moments and twists and turns. Helen - having met you at Crimefest last year, my Dad wants to know how much of this is autobiographical. I told him that I didn't think the bit about the basement was true, but that I couldn't vouch for the sex and drugs.

Published: 2010
Publisher: Pocket Books
Setting: Las Vegas
Protagonist: Charlie Howard
Series?: 3rd
First Lines: 'Stealing a man's wallet is easier than you might think.'
Crime-writing thief Charlie Howard is having a not entirely enjoyable holiday in Las Vegas. He's lost at poker, and Victoria - his literary agent - is under the spell of the Fifty-Fifty Casino's superstar magician and illusionist, Josh Masters. Charlie's a bit miffed, not to mention a tad jealous. So he decides to pick Josh Masters' pocket and steal his wallet. And then use his keycard to break into his room. Which turns out to be an unwise move - mostly due to the nasty surprise he finds in the bathroom. This series just gets better and better with each book. It's funny, entertaining, exceedingly well-plotted and full of fascinating atmosphere. Charlie is a great character - Raffles meets Cary Grant meets The Saint meets Raymond Chandler. He's disarming, has his own - slightly offbeat - moral code, and is definitely someone you would want on your side. Of course, he's just as liable to get you into trouble as out of it - but he's so charming you wouldn't care. In fact, you'd relish the fact.

BAKED - Mark Haskell Smith
Published: 2010
Publisher: Black Cat
Setting: Amsterdam and Los Angeles
Protagonist: Miro Basinas
Series?: Standalone
First Line:'One bullet can really fuck up your day.'
Miro - a mild mannered botanist type - has invented a new strain of cannabis which he has named Elephant Crush. When it wins the prestigious Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, suddenly, all sorts of people are interested - not all of them nice - especially drug dealer Shamus Noriega (yes, really) and medical marijuana guru Vincent - the totally compassion-less owner of the 'Compassion Centers". I've waited far too long for another Mark Haskell Smith. As with his other books BAKED is full of mindless violence, black humour, and wonderfully absurd characters - in this one a paramedic with a strap on, a young Mormon both fascinated and scared by sex and assorted bad guys including one called Shamus Noriega - half Salvadoran and whose "father was an Irish merchant seaman turned construction worker turned bartender turned Latina impregnator turned deportation victim who was sent back to Cork when Shamus was only five". Wickedly funny and warped. Loved it - I felt as though I was inhaling when I got a fit of the giggles.

RUT - Scott Phillips
Published: 2010
Publisher: Concord Free Press
Setting: Gower, smalltown USA
Protagonist: Bridget (but with fine support from a mad ensemble cast)
Series?: Standalone
First Line: 'Her week's supplies purchased, Bridget walks the bicycle in lurching bumps over the shattered asphalt away from the center of the town of Gower until she reaches the ruin of an old commercial district glimpsed the week before, when she was too busy to take pictures.'
It's almost impossible to describe RUT and still sound sane. So here goes. Take some crystal meth. Now drink a bottle of tequila. And now imagine a post-apocalyptic novel but without the apocalypse. See what I mean? It's set in a dystopian near-future where wine is traded on the black market, religious fundamentalism is a must, toxic waste hasn't had a positive effect on the wildlife and Big Brother is most definitely watching. RUT is quirky, witty and funny but also thought-provoking and slightly unsettling.

RADGEPACKET 4: Tales From The Inner Cities - Various - short story collection
Published: March 2010
Publisher: Byker Books
Setting: Various
Protagonist: Various rapscallions, madmen and cutpurses
Series?: Luckily, yes, there are more
A collection of 22 short stories - gritty, funny, weird, warped and wonderful. Some of my favourites were Ray Banks' THE DEACON SHUFFLE about a robbery in a chemist's shop, Keith Gingell's REPO - a chilling tale of a man who values houses that have been repossessed, Danny King's IT STARTED WITH A DISS - a great story of a schoolboy crush, Steve Porter's creepy BLURRED GIRL DIARIES, Paul Brazill's THE NIGHT WATCHMAN and Blaine Ward's AN EYE FOR AN EYE. They're not all crime stories but many of them have a crime in, and all of them are deliciously nasty. An anthology for those who like their fiction twisted, profane and depraved. Me, I loved it.

Published: 2008
Publisher: Transworld Ireland
Setting: Galway
Protagonist: Jack Taylor
Series?: 7th
First Lines: 'Dear Mr Taylor, please forgive the formality.'
Jack Taylor is sober. That's worth mentioning because it doesn't happen very often, nor last very long. He was on his way to the airport, getting ready to leave Ireland, but his friend Ridge was diagnosed with breast cancer, so he stayed. He might live to regret that when he gets a letter from someone. It's a list: 'Two guards, one nun, one judge. And, alas, one child.' And it seems they're all going to die. Spare prose, dark humour. My addiction to Bruen is like Jack's addiction to the bottle. Only I'm never giving up.

SILENCE OF THE GRAVE - Arnaldur Indridason
Published: 2006 (first published 2002)
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Setting: Iceland
Protagonist: Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson
Series?: 2nd
First Lines: 'He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.'
As a decades old skeleton is slowly and carefully unearthed, so detective Erlendur Sveinsson slowly and meticulously uncovers the solution, fleshing out the bare bones of the story by painstaking detective work.Erlendur is lonely, miserable, and he doesn’t seem to have that much going for him. His ex wife hates him, his children avoid him, and his daughter is a pregnant drug addict. Indridason is one of those authors who do social realism really well. The main theme of SILENCE OF THE GRAVE is domestic violence – past and present. And a very compelling and sad tale it is too. It made me feel quite melancholy as I was reading it and heartsick for several of the characters.

And my favourite non crime fiction book of the year:

Published: 1975
Publisher: Vintage
Setting: USA
Protagonist: John Wilder
Series?: Standalone
First Line: 'Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960.'
John Wilder sells advertising space and has a comfortable but boring life in Manhattan. He's disappointed - with his family, his job, his life, himself. To mask the disappointment and alleviate the boredom, he drinks and has affairs. Away from home at a convention he has a breakdown and, on his return to New York, he calls his wife from a bar and tells her that if he comes home he'll kill her and their child. As a result of his threats he's commited to Bellevue. This is a great tale of delusion and paranoia, which feels a lot like a cross between One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Mad Men. The beginning, in particular, is depressingly wonderful and the book is heartbreaking, simple and raw. For god's sake don't read it if you're feeling miserable.


  1. enjoyed this, Our Donna. A few more to add to the TBR pile. Do you think you could arrange with my boss to get some time off work to catch up?

  2. Donna, had to bookmark this post as there is so much to read and I don't want to forget about any of these. Nice recap's to go along with the recommendations. Have a great 2011!

  3. ... trying to hit the comment button without looking at all your reviews. Donna, I can´t afford reading your blog, I just came to wish you a happy New Year! ;D

  4. Michael - not a problem - I'm sure that would be OK!

    Sean Patrick - thank you, and you too!

    Dorte - sorry about that and thanks!

  5. Great list, Donna!

    I love to see more love for RUT. When I finished, I wondered if anyone else could have loved it as much as I did. Happy to see so many other folks were on board with it!

  6. Chris - me too! It's so good and so different.

  7. Donna,
    thanks for having the Radge lads and lasses in that bunch. Black, Bruen and Phillips came up with the goods and it's nice to be included in the same breath as them. Still need to read Chris Ewan!

  8. Paul - I loved Radgepacket! And you definitely need to read Chris Ewan.