IoS Books of the Year: Page-turners

Jaw-dropping turns and killer twists

Whether because your dreariest uncle has invited himself for a festive mini break, you dread communal viewings of Doctor Who, or you have just had enough Hilary Mantel for now, everyone needs a page-turner at Christmas. Don't panic – here are the pick of the bunch.

For those who think it can't get any gorier than eight o'clock on Christmas evening, this year's crime novels have been explosive and insightful in equal measure. Ian Rankin's Rebus made a more than welcome return, after a five-year hiatus, in Standing in Another Man's Grave (Orion, £18.99). It saw the iconic, laconic (yet not moronic) detective still managing to make waves from the cold case unit where he now serves as a retired officer. The scenes with Malcom Fox, Rankin's recent leading man, are particularly good fun. The case itself is gripping, and Rankin has once again more than succeeded at combining narrative drive with social history, and with a disarming lightness of touch.

Nicci French's Tuesday's Gone (Viking, £12.99) was another warmly received return, this time for their Frieda Klein character, who remains unknowable yet hypnotic. A psychotherapist, she finds herself assisting the police in a case in which a confidence trickster and an unidentified dead body have baffled all concerned. Set partly in Deptford, and a direct sequel to last year's Monday's Child, it is similar to Tana French's Broken Harbour in that its depiction of the global recession's icy grip says more about society than many, more self-congratulatory state-of-the-nation novels do.

For those who devour thrillers during the holidays, in hours rather than weeks, a comparable US-set read is Gillian Flynn's astonishing Gone Girl (Orion, £7.99). What begins as a simple tale of wife gone missing turns into a dual narrative with taut dialogue and a couple of cliff-hangers so unexpected that the reader is a borderline psychological wreck by the end; a masterclass in thriller writing, and impossible not to discuss at length once finished.

The surprise thriller of the year came from John J Niven, which is the discreet new identity for Kill Your Friends' John Niven. Cold Hands (Heinemann, £12.99), a gruesome read set in snow-swept Canada, has a handful of jaw-dropping set pieces and a killer twist, but is most definitely not for the squeamish; the pages all but drip with blood. Less gory but just as readable is Erin Kelly's third novel The Burning Air (Hodder, £16.99). A big two-part adaptation of her first, The Poison Tree, is currently on ITV, but her latest sees her reach another level. Kelly excels at thrillers set in middle-England idylls, that sidestep the clichéd and the cosy to go for the jugular. This time, a well-to-do family holiday starts with cashmere and fresh coffee and ends with family secrets haemorrhaging from every member.

Similarly insightful about middle-class angst at its most creepy is Jessica Ruston's The Lies You Told Me (Headline, £7.99). Ruston debuted with the Shirley Conran-esque Luxury, three years ago, but is now heading towards Rosamund Lupton territory, which suits her clear-sighted depiction of family dynamics. The Lies You Told Me sees a daughter starting to doubt everything her father told her about her dead mother. Unnerving.

Of course, the greatest of the blockbuster maternal-identity novels is Lace, from Shirley Conran herself. It received a magnificent new package from Canongate (£7.99) to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and became a bestseller all over again. From the silk negligees to the goldfish to the immortal line "Which one of you bitches is my mother?", little of its jubilant gloss has faded since 1982.

Somewhat gentler is Harriet Evans's Happily Ever After (Headline, £6.99), a fine example of current women's commercial fiction. Following traditional tracks, it is about a young girl trying to excel in the office and find happiness and a sense of belonging outside it, but it is better written and has a sharper sense of character than many of its peers.

Jojo Moyes – who has had a blockbuster 12 months, with Me Before You being the pick of last year's round up – has also delivered the classy The Girl You Left Behind (7.99), in which First-World-War France meets a modern-day romance. It is done with such a lightness of touch that one almost forgets how rare it is to find a genuinely engrossing page-turner that doesn't compromise on language or insight. These treats must be treasured as much as the Christmas pudding itself.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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