Page-turners: If it's not death, it's Life, in this year's best commercial reads

Books Of The Year: This year's crop of top-selling fiction stars heroes, villains – and even bankers – in stories that will have you reading until the fire burns down

Alexandra Heminsley
Sunday 11 December 2011 01:00

While the practicalities of actually turning the pages in a novel as big as Stephen King's 11.22.63 (Hodder, £19.99) are hard to ignore, so is the fact that he writes incomparably good stories.

His latest sees 35-year-old Jake Epping afforded the extraordinary opportunity to travel back in time to the early 1960s. Being a Stephen King novel, this doesn't involve space ships and lasers so much as magical leaps of imagination rooted in classic Americana. Once he has finished exploring his home town of 50 years ago, Jake realises that he could, if he plays his cards right, change history. But does he want to? King's mastery of plot and his ability to create characters and situations both homespun and far-fetched means that this is the book you dream of getting stuck on the train home with.

The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99) sees Robert Harris step away from the traditional political environment of The Ghost and focus on where we now know the real power lies: investment banking. Deftly avoiding the more agonising clichés of financial thrillers, it stars Dr Alex Hoffman, a scientist who has developed computer software that is uniquely able to track human emotions, and therefore to run a hugely profitable hedge fund almost by itself ... until things start to go wrong. Admittedly, it's hard to care about the moneymen in the novel, but the idea of sentient computers is always intoxicating and Harris undeniably uses it well.

Similarly unsympathetic is Jo Nesbo's Roger Brown, who is the star of Headhunters (Harvill Secker, £11.99). A headhunter and art thief, he is quite the anti-hero in this gripping tale of a heist gone badly awry. Those thirsting for their next fix of the erratic but loveable detective Harry Hole will be disappointed to hear that this is a stand-alone novel, but Nesbo's wily way with a manipulative plot is no less strong without Hole, and nor is the intoxicating Scandinavian atmosphere. It has been adapted into a movie due for release in the spring, so it's worth indulging in the novel before the marketing blitz begins in earnest.

For those afraid that they may be approaching Scandi-crime saturation point, Tom Thorne is back in Mark Billingham's 10th novel Good As Dead (Little Brown, £16.99), and Billingham is as reliably readable as ever. Solidly British, utterly engaging and apparently reinvigorated since the success of the TV adaptations, he has provided a treat for fans, with only one possible drawback: it doesn't feature Thorne as strongly as most of the rest of the series. This is really his colleague Helen Weeks's story. She is taken hostage by a father whose son died while in youth custody and who is determined to find out the truth. The dialogue crackles and the cast is exemplary, so the series' page-turning credentials remain more than in tact.

Kay Scarpetta is another regular back for more in Red Mist (Little Brown, £18.99), Patricia Cornwell's 19th Scarpetta novel. The iconic forensic consultant is as brittle as ever, and the body count is as high as Cornwell fans have come to expect. Its pages are awash with female killers and the stomach-churningly gruesome descriptions that have made Cornwell's name. Things take a while to get going, and readers who have trouble with gore may struggle, but Cornwell hasn't sold 100 million novels for no good reason, and the plot does grip before long. It's worth noting that Angelina Jolie is soon to play Scarpetta on the big screen, and after her dismal turn as Amelia Donaghy in the film of Jefferey Deaver's The Bone Collector, it is a tense time for those who feel that they know the character well.

Back in the UK, crime fiction is taking an interesting turn at the moment, and apparently merging with women's commercial fiction, as crime writers such as Sophie Hannah tackle issues traditionally dealt with by novels between pink covers. Ali Knight's debut Wink Murder (Hodder, £6.99) is another good example of the trend. Kate Forman has a charming north London life, married to her university sweetheart who makes television shows based on true crimes. When she is woken by him staggering into the kitchen, drunk and professing to have killed someone, everything changes. Forman is a heroine it is not easy to like, but Knight's knack with plot ensures that everything rattles along nicely in Nicci French territory.

Somewhat less grounded in grim urban reality is Cecilia Ahern's latest, The Time of my Life (HarperCollins, £16.99). Lucy is an only moderately happy everywoman, a girl who dislikes her job, misses her ex- and neglects her friends. She is summoned for a meeting with "Life" who forces her to confront the way she's been doing things. Introducing life personified is an idea so whimsical it demands almost epic levels of confidence and panache. Luckily Ahern's imagination and breezy style makes for a winning read. Sitting delicately on the right side of saccharine American perkiness, it is a charmer.

Snapping at Ahern's heels is newcomer Ali Harris, whose Miracle on Regent Street (Simon & Schuster, £6.99) is the best of a sparkly crop of Christmas-specific novels published this month. Set in a once glamorous, now shabby central London department store, it blithely ignores the recession in order to focus on vintage Christmas decorations and a healthy dollop of old-fashioned charm. It's not going to convince anyone that women's commercial fiction is cutting-edge stuff, but if you've already watched Elf and you want something to accompany your fifth mince pie, it certainly ramps the Christmassyness up a notch.

Perhaps the biggest treat of this selection will be published in January, and is more than worth the wait. Following her unashamedly romantic The Last Letter From Your Lover, Jojo Moyes has managed the almost impossible and produced a novel capable of prompting even more tears than its predecessor. Despite its hard-to-pitch premise (it is a romance featuring a quadriplegic hero who is heading for Dignitas), Me Before You (Penguin, £6.99) is a heart-stopping read. Destined to be the novel that friends press upon each other more than any other next year, it is a tremendous example of what commercial fiction can do when in the hands of an expert.

Moyes does a majestic job of conjuring a cast of characters who are charismatic, credible and utterly compelling; Lou and Will are a couple who readers will take to their hearts as they did One Day's Emma and Dex. Categorically not a story about issues, it is a story about people: a novel that demands an afternoon on the sofa with a fistful of tissues, which is pretty much the gold standard for a wintry page-turner.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit

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