If there’s one positive to come out of a global pandemic (and admittedly, there are few), it’s that – like many across the nation – I’ve had plenty of spare time to rediscover my love of reading, and catch up on some of the books I’ve been meaning to read for years. 2020 was also a blessed year for book releases, and though I encountered plenty of gems worthy of note, I’ve managed to narrow the list down to my top five reads of the year…
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
The year is 1634, and the Saardam is making its return voyage from the Dutch East Indies back to Amsterdam. Carrying an assortment of sailors, soldiers, and nobles alike, the ship has barely left port before it’s blighted by murders, mysterious symbols, and suspected cases of devilry, leading to mass panic and suspicion as rumours of a whispering demon begins to spread across the decks.
At its heart, this book is essentially a 17th Century take on the classic Sherlock Holmes-style murder mystery, with a palpable sense of danger at every turn and a cast of characters who all have secrets to hide. The unusual historical setting acts as the perfect atmospheric backdrop for the plot, and the clever reveal absolutely has the shock value indicative of a successful thriller.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
The dark academia vibe is strong in the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, which follows historian Diana Bishop and geneticist Matthew Clairmont, two Oxford academics that fall in love after Diana discovers a centuries-lost alchemical manuscript that attracts every supernatural creature within a 50-mile radius to Oxford. Thought to contain the secrets to the futures of vampires, witches, and daemons, the manuscript’s discovery disturbs a tenuously-held peace between the species of their world that subsequently begins to unravel.
This is a well-written supernatural romance with a fascinating historical undercurrent that carries through to the rest of the series, supplemented by excellent world building and interesting sub-plots outside of those of the main protagonists. Also, who doesn’t love to just indulge in a paranormal romance every now and again? Liars.
The Binding by Bridget Collins
This is the book that ended my three-year reading slump, primarily because it completely lived up to the hype surrounding it. The Binding follows Emmett Farmer, a young man who – after a mysterious debilitating illness – is sent away by his family to become a bookbinder’s apprentice, a career considered taboo because of what exactly they bind in books: not carefully crafted written works, but memories. Whatever secret you wish to forget is safely hidden in a bookbinder’s vault, with all the pain it caused locked away alongside it. Emmett is just beginning to come around to the benefits of such a practice, when he finds a book in his mentor’s vault with his own name on it.
This book is beautiful. Emmett’s journey to discover what – or rather, who – he’s forgotten opens his eyes to the good, the bad, and the (really, really) ugly of the society he lives in. The underlying themes of doing what’s right and fighting for who you love, even if it’s hard, shine through, and make this book a must read for anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in 1950s Mexico, this book focuses on socialite Noemí, whose recently married cousin claims that her new husband is trying to kill her, and that ghosts live in the walls of his ancestral home. Noemí is sent to investigate, and when she arrives, finds her cousin drugged up to the eyeballs and diagnosed with hysteria, leaving her to face her cousin’s menacing new husband and unnerving father-in-law alone.
This book is a wild ride from start to finish. Genuinely. Whatever you’re expecting or predicting before you go into it, you just need to abandon and accept that you’re completely wrong. I had “hallucinogens???” in the back of my mind the whole time I was reading this, and I wasn’t even close. This book is seriously disturbing, and truly worthy of its title.
The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup
The premise of this book is that a year ago, Danish MP Rosa Hartung’s daughter went missing and was never found. Rosa has only just resumed office when her daughter’s fingerprint is found at the scene of a brutal murder, on a little figurine made of chestnuts. The victim? Missing a hand. New colleagues Naia Thulin and Mark Hess are charged with finding the murderer as the kill count – and the missing limb count – continues to rise.
If you read one crime thriller in the coming year, make it this one. The embodiment of the Nordic Noir sub-genre of crime fiction, this book is a gritty, dark, and disturbing take on the ramifications of what happens behind closed doors. It seriously exceeded my expectations, and I’m crossing all body parts in the hope that this isn’t the last I’ll see of Thulin and Hess.
Words by Rebecca Harrison
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