Best Reads January – April 2023

I’ve picked six Best Reads from the fifty-one books that I’ve read so far this year. They are a diverse bunch.

Two are contemporary novels looking at people who are a little different, one is a sort of golden-age mystery in space, one is a cosy witchcraft novel and one is an unsettling horror thriller novel. Three of them are less than twelve months old. The oldest was published in 2012. The authors are from England, Ireland, Sweden and the United States.

I hope you’ll find at least one book among them that calls to you.

A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman

I finally got around to reading A Man Called Ove, which had been sitting in my TBR pile for far too long and it was wonderful.

The early chapters are amusing, even though they involve Ove constantly being thwarted in his efforts to end his life, because they capture perfectly the small rages and habit-fed obsessions of an older man that I’m familiar with in myself. But it’s the backstory that makes the book fly. In between episodes showing Ove’s reluctant and often angry engagement with his daily life, Backman reveals Ove’s backstory and in doing so he turns Ove from a comic archetype into a person.

As I learned about Ove’s life, I came to understand that Ove is who he has always been but that the world has changed, turning his strengths into eccentricities. Most importantly I understood that Ove’s wife was the one who illumined his life and made it worth living. To me, choosing to leave a world that you feel out of step with and a life which no longer includes the one person who brought you joy and made you feel seen, made perfect sense.

For me, this is the perfect kind of feel-good story: it was based on hope and love but it was honest about all the things and people who conspire every day to leach those things out of our lives.

The Spare Man (2022) by Mary Robinette Kowal

I loved the style of ‘The Spare Man’. The tone of the storytelling channelled the sangfroid, charm and mild humour of upper-class amateur sleuths from an early golden-age mystery to tell the tale of a murder on a luxury space liner that they are honeymooning on.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It had a clever plot, fast snappy humour, an adorable dog and a sleuthing couple that I want to see more of. The science worked and was integral to the plot. The murder mystery was a (very large) locked room mystery, complicated by mistaken identities, additional killings, a focused effort to frame our heroine’s newly acquired husband and by the belligerent intransigence of the aggressive, self-confident and mostly incompetent Head of Security.

While ‘The Spare Man’ echoes the charm of a Golden-Age mystery, it had moved away from early Twentieth Century mores and expectations. Non-binary gender pronouns are de rigueur, the passengers and crew are diverse in their styles and orientations and our heroine is physically disabled and suffering from PTSD. I admired Mary Robinette Kowal’s ability not only to make this work without sounding preachy or saccharine but to make it feel normal and part of the fun.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches (2022) by Sangu Mandanna

‘The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches’ doesn’t look like the kind of book that I’d normally pick as a Best Read. It looks like a cosy book about magic and modern witches with a dash of romance thrown in, The kind of book that is fun while I’m reading it but which quickly evaporates from my imagination.

‘The Very Secret Society Of Irregular Witches’ does have all those elements in it but somehow, Sangu Mandanna manages to mix them all together and come up with something life-affirming and memorable that speaks to the challenges and opportunities of being different and of the choice between surviving in safety or living fully but being constantly at risk.

I loved the gentle humour and the affection that permeates the book. Most of all, I enjoyed meeting a heroine who managed to be hopeful without being blindly optimistic and who could see the power of making the world better through small changes.

Strange Sally Diamond (2023) by Liz Nugent

‘Strange Sally Diamond’ manages to be both compelling and deeply disturbing. It has one of the strangest openings I’ve ever read:

‘Put me out with the bins’ he said regularly. ‘When I die, put me out with the bins. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know any different. You’ll be crying your eyes out,’ and he would laugh and I’d laugh too because we both knew that I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out. I never cry.

When the time came, on Wednesday 29th November 2017, I followed his instructions. He was small and frail and eighty-two years old by then, so it was easy to get him into one large garden waste bag. 

If it was mandatory for books to provide trigger warnings on the first page after the title, ‘Strange Sally Diamond’ would have a long list: abduction, rape, child abuse, abuse of power, misogyny, violence, torture and psychological abuse would all have to be included.

None of these things is there to thrill or entertain or to build up psychological pressure. They are there as truths to be confronted and dealt with. They are there because they explain Sally Diamond’s strangeness although they do not define Sally Diamond.

This is a deeply disturbing story that is more truthful than hopeful. It is dark but credible. It looks not at how we make the darkness go away but how we live with what it has done to us. None of the answers are comfortable ones and some of the outcomes are very dark.

Broken (2020) by Don Winslow

I was deeply impressed with this collection of six novellas by Don Winslow. The stories and the people are engaging but what really stands out is the quality of the writing.

Four of the novellas were so good that anyone of them would have made it to my Best Reads list: ‘The San Diego Zoo’, Broken, Crime 101′ and The Last Ride

The San Diego Zoo’ hooked me from its first two sentences:

“No one knows how the chimp got the revolver. 

Only that it’s a problem.”

What followed was a charming, hopeful story that might count as a fairy tale if it wasn’t so firmly grounded in real life. As we follow Chris Shea’s navigation of an internal politics minefield to find the answer to how the chimp got the gun, we see a good man doing his best in a complicated situation. There’s a lot of humour, sprinkled with moments of tension and violence, wrapped around Chris Shea’s central dilemma, how to solve a case that isn’t his without getting everyone mad at him and ruining his career.

‘Broken’ is a bleak, violent, rage-driven story that follows the structure of a classical tragedy where a personality flaw dooms the hero to become his worst self. The hero is Jimmy McNab. He leads a crack team in the Narcotics Unit of the Special Investigations Unit. Jimmy runs his team like his own private gang, making war on the narcotics dealers. He is an angry, aggressive, dangerous man who inspires and expects fierce loyalty from his team. He’s at the peak of his power. He’s just run a dangerous but successful operation that snags a record-breaking amount of drugs. Then he gives in to hubris and sends a message to the drug dealer he’s just hit: ‘Jimmy McNab Says Hello‘. Those four words doom him and the people around him. What follows is an act of brutality that cryies out for bloody revenge, regardless of the cost.

What makes the story stand out is that it’s about more than a doomed war between the police and drug dealers. It’s about pride and grief and rage and the violence that they trigger. Exploring this using words that sound like they come straight from the mouth of a seasoned cop amplifies the emotional impact significantly.

‘Crime 101’ is the story of a very clever, very careful jewellery thief with his own set of ‘Crime 101’ and responsible and the Police Lieutenant who is trying to catch him. The whole story is an homage to Steve McQueen. My favourite line was:

“Crime 101: always do what Steve McQueen would do.”

The Last Ride’ is the story of Cal Strickland, and honest man who is trying to do the right thing. He is working as a Border Patrol Officer in Texas when Trump’s  “zero-tolerance” immigration policy led to 2,000 children of undocumented migrants being separated from their parents and held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Stations. 

The story starts with Cal visiting the huge CBP Detention Centre in Ursula and making eye contact with a little girl behind the chain link fence. It opens with these lines:

“The first time he saw the child, she was in a cage. “Ain’t no other word for it”, Cal thought at the time.

You can call it what you want, a detention centre, a holding facility, a temporary shelter, but when you got a bunch of people penned up behind a chain link fence, it’s a cage. 

He thought about what his daddy said when Cal called his old man’s cancer his ‘health problem’. “Call it what it is,” Dale Strickland told his son, “Ain’t no point in calling it what it ain’t” 

So that was bone cancer and this was a damned cage.”

Cal doesn’t know why that particular child caught his eye but he does know that he looked away and walked past her and ended up thinking;

And how a man can walk past a crying child would be a good damned question. Except the answer was that there were so damned many, there was nothing else a man could do” 

The story is about Cal Strickland deciding what a man should do and what kind of man he is going to be.

He decides he has to reunite the girl with her mother because it’s the right thing to do. It turns out to be a very difficult thing to do. But Cal can’t let it go. He’s partly driven by his father’s voice in his head.

“His daddy used to say that most people will do what’s right when it don’t cost much, but very few will do what’s right when it costs a lot and no one will do the right thing when it costs everything.“

Cal eventually finds himself doing things that there’s no coming back from. What he does and how it works out gave me an exciting, emotionally taxing, action-packed, surprising and deeply sad read that I enjoyed tremendously.


The Chill (2020) by Scott Carson

‘The Chill’ was a very satisfying horror/thriller read. It had a storytelling style that reminded me of early Stephen King, but with a distinctive tone of its own and it was powered by an original idea worthy of a Michael Chrichton thriller.

The supernatural threat in this book is strange and disturbing. The real world consequences of the threat are on a scale that I normally associate with thrillers about terrorist plots.

Carson does a great job of ratcheting up the tension by slowly revealing the nature of the threat while getting me to be more invested in the main characters. Characters that I learn fairly early on may not survive the book even when they seem central to the plot.

By the time I fully understood the nature of the supernatural threat, I was completely hooked and had to keep turning the pages to see whether anyone would survive.

Carson has a flair for generating an atmosphere of large scale inescapable doom while keeping the story personal by focusing on characters whose history, weaknesses, strengths and willingness to make sacrifices can tip te balance towards or away from catastrophic violence.

2 thoughts on “Best Reads January – April 2023

  1. I’m definitely adding ‘The Chill’ and ‘The Spare Man’ to my wishlist! I’ve heard of all these books in passing but never ventured to really check them out. What would you say is your favourite genre to read?


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