Books read in 2014

1. Philomena, Martin Sixsmith (book club, Elaine+). A boy born to a young mother out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland. The Catholic church dominates everything and subdues everyone beneath what can only be considered its deep-seated and vile outlook. No one, from the young mum's family to the government itself is prepared to stand up to the church which effectively imprisons the mothers while they have their babies and then send them off to American Catholics at the age of three. We follow the story of the boy, Mike Hess, née Anthony Lee, as he becomes a Washington lawyer and a big cheese in the GOP, hiding his homosexuality. It's tragedy upon tragedy from start to finish with the evil of the church throughout.

I was sorry, and surprised that Sixsmith didn't describe the detective work he'd had to do to uncover the story – I'd have been interested in that as well as the boy's own history, but it was skated over. Familiar themes from the adoption world pervade the story too.

2. The Dogs of Riga, Henning Mankell. The second Wallander novel, set largely in the Latvian capital, where I read some of this (I finished it on the flight home). It gives an impression of Riga immediately after independence with Russian attitudes towards secrecy and fear running throughout. In 2014 it's not as bad as that now, but I detected traces of it in the way in which the idea of open data is regarded as a threat to government power.

3. Snow White Must Die, Nele Neuhaus (Book club). We all enjoyed this multi-layered police story. Some aspects of the plot were rather predictable and it felt like it was written for the screen at times but that's nit picking. The basic plot about a small village closing ranks to protect their own is a good story and this one works. None of us knew before reading this that it's one of a series that feature the same police characters. Whether the others will translate as well – or sell as well – remains to be seen. This one worked as a standalone.

4. The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (Book club). This won the 2013 Man Booker prize and it's obvious why. It is the best book I've read in many years. The construction of the story, the way it moves from one protagonist's perspective to another, the many layers gradually peeling away… wonderful. And the word power is astonishing too. When describing someone at their work, Eleanor Catton uses the terms from that trade to great effect (although at times I did wonder whether she'd researched the terms and then set out to use as many as she could). But 19th century New Zealand, the men turning up to make their fortune, the near absence of women and complete absence of children make you believe you're living right there in the frontier town.

It's not a quick read by any means. Every page is densely written with exquisite prose so it does take a while to get through – it's not a page turner and I re-read the opening paragraph many times just to take it all in. Definitely one to read again, perhaps on a holiday when I can work through it relatively quickly and remember the detail.

5. Descent, Ken MacLeod. Set in relatively near-future Scotland (an independent Scotland, mind) this story is told through the eyes of a late teenager through to his 30s. Advanced space ships, or weather balloons-cum-launch vehicles are the possible UFOs. Lots of head messing, not falling for the conspiracy etc. You know they're not alien UFOs, everyone does, but they're definitely tied to something very odd… which is the central plot.

Ken MacLeod stays on my 'pre-order everything' list.

6. Killing Floor, Lee Child (Book club, Gina). The first Jack Reacher novel stretches credulity and then keeps on going. A man with no roots who is an expert at all forms of combat who is drifting through life with no fixed abode or income happens upon a small town where one of the recently murdered men turns out to have been his brother who was investigating what turns out to have been a massive currency counterfeiting operation. Enjoyable, light reading but you can almost hear the cries of 'please ask me to turn this into a movie script.'

7. The White Lioness, Henning Mankell. Wallander 3. Mankell is into his stride with this one. It's significantly longer than the previous two and is much richer. There are elements of the story in Sweden and South Africa and the background of the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of Nelson Mandela is important throughout. The various elements work well together and are just the right side of credible – with the usual allowances for last minute saving of the day. The character of Wallander himself is developed significantly in this novel with several references back to events in the Dogs of Riga.

Very much a page turner, so much so that picking up number 4 immediately afterwards was irresistible.

8. The Man Who Smiled, Henning Mankell. Wallander 4. So I'm well into Wallander now. This one begins with Wallander wandering on the beaches of Skagen (pronounced Scain) and determined to resign from the police force. The Man Who Smiled is a reclusive almost Blofeld-like character. Very atmospheric and the characters are all developed further.

9. Sidetracked, Hennink Mankell , Wallander 5. Probably the strongest so far (although I think the White Lioness is also particularly good and when Mankell really got into his stride). This is the one about the serial axe murderer with a thing about Native American Indians.

10. The Fifth Woman, Henning Mankell, Wallander 6. Another serial murderer, this one out for revenge. The threads between the victims are extremely tenuous and Mankell stretches credulity a little in having Wallander put it all together, but it's cracking stuff. I was 80 or so pages from the end when on a trip to Rome and stupidly left the book at the restaurant where I had lunch before going to the airport. Very frustrating as I then had to go to Waterstone's the next day to get a new copy, by which time…

11. A question of Belief, Donna Leon. I bought this at Ciampino airport as a substitute for the Wallander I'd left at the restaurant. At less than 300 pages it's not a long book but even so it was a struggle. Actually it made me realise just how good the Wallander series is as this was rather slow. One thing that did come through is how the characters dealt with the heat. Having been in oppressive Italian heat and having been frowned upon for not wearing a jacket, despite the temperatures being well into the 30s, I sympathised with that. And the corruption ran through the whole thing with guilty parties all getting away with their crimes. So I guess it wasn't that bad… but I wanted to get back to…

12. One Step Behind, Henning Mankell, Wallander 7. I just managed to begin reading this at Aalborg airport on my way home having squeezed in a trip to Skagen during the conference. And I finished the last page at bus stop 7 of the Mid Stay at Stansted on my way back from Berlin. More of the same of course. This time we have someone who can't stand that other people are happy and who knows all about them somehow so he's able to pick them off just at the height of their joy. And it's bad news for Svedberg…

13. Firewall, Henning Mankell , Wallander 8. As the title suggests, this is one has a computer expert at its heart and, as ever, it stretches computer vulnerabilities to breaking point. The story is a good one though with plenty of depth and tensions.

14. Before the Frost, Henning Mankell, Wallander 9. This one is different as it is Linda who takes the lead. At the end of Firewall she announces that she wants to become a police woman and in this novel she's between the completion of her training and beginning work. That's the backdrop to a story based on religious fanaticism that begins with a lone survivor of the Jonesville suicide/slaughter.

15. The Pyramid, Henning Mankell, Wallander 10. A set of short stories filling in some of the gaps in Wallander's past. We learn about his first case which he undertook while still in uniform, early cases and injuries and something of his life with Mona. The final (titular) story ends with the phone ringing on 8 Jan 1990, the beginning of Faceless Killers.

16. The Troubled Man, Henning Mankell, Wallander 11. And so the final story: part detective story, part spy novel. Whose side is everyone on? It's a tale of challenging loyalties among family, old friends and country.

I raced through the Wallander series. This last one I finished sitting on a rocky outcrop on the Brittany coast (not far from Dournanez) and the physical condition of the book is testament to what happens when you leave the front window of the caravan open in driving Breton rain. Are they good books?

Well, the stories have a great deal of depth, that's for sure. The plots are as rich as any 'police procedural' is likely to be and you do get inside Wallander's head. But there are some short cuts. The role of Svedberg in One Step Behind doesn't seem to fit with previous stories. Anne Brit Hoglund went as easily as she came despite being a primary character in the middle of the series. And the writing is pedestrian. Lots of short sentences. Wallander went for another cup of coffee. Then he went back to his office and phoned his father. And so on. But, of course, you keep turning the page, you keep wanting to know what happened next, how he's going to solve the case.

And who wants more from a detective novel?

17. The Long Mars, Stephen Baxter & Terry Pratchett. The third in the series. I struggle to remember all the detail from one book to the next – like all series they're probably best read back to back, not as they come out. The usual mix of the two authoring styles with plenty of very creative aliens. Enjoyable, certainly, and the central idea of the Long series is intriguing. Probably run its course now at book 3…

18. The Secret Rooms, Catherine Bailey (book club, me). When I saw this in Waterstone's for some reason I thought it was a mystery novel. How wrong I was – it's a non-fiction tale of a Duke and his family history. How a remarkably complete and fabulously detailed archive of the family with documents going back to Domesday have three deliberate gaps. Catherine Bailey attempts to fill those gaps in, with mixed results. No grand revelation, no derring do. Interesting, yes, and I got right to the end. But not riveting and a little disappointing – just because the subjects themselves were disappointing.

19. The Husband's Secret, Lianne Moriarty. (Book club, Gina?) Essentially chick lit but well into the better end of the scale. The lives of a small group of school run mums and their families get intertwined with an old tragedy that leads ultimately to a modern day tragedy. Well plotted out and reasonably well written.

20. The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, Simon Mawer. Debbie bought this as a holiday read and it looked intriguing. Similar to Sebastian Faulks's Charlotte Gray which, like this, is about a woman going behind enemy lines in war time France. This one follows the heroine through recruitment, training and her mission in France, all mixed up with a (much older) childhood sweetheart. The end is a little surprising.

21. A Spy Among Friends, Ben Macintyre. I love the way he writes these books, taking facts and spinning them with the suspense and pace of a novel. And I learned a lot about Kim Philby along the way. I hadn't realised just how severe his betrayal was, and it mirrors the undertones Macintyre revealed in Operation Mincemeat – people believe what they want to believe. Old boy network, breeding, the right accent and your word is your bond. Even when you’re lying.

22. The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill. This is billed as the first Simon Serailler novel but actually he plays no more of a part in the story than many other characters. The lead character is a female detective who is new on the local force who has ll the right instincts and, of course, is charmed by Serailler. It's very gentile; a picture of the rural south west with the local choir and the weirdos in what sounds like a very thinly disguised Glastonbury. But it's a page turner, with plenty of plot to roll along with, filled in with rich characters. This was the last of my Christmas presents from D – I'll put the next one(s) in the series on this year's list.

23. Heartbreak Hotel, Deborah Moggach (Book club). Very much enjoyed this. A washed up old soak of an actor is left a Marches B&B in an admirer's will that he turns into a not very profitable business running courses for divorces. Plenty of farce, some loveable characters and just enough credibility to keep it together. Good fun.

24. The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Peter F Hamilton . The latest from PFH. We're back in the Commonwealth with walk on parts for Paula Mayo and co. Nigel Sheldon is around for a little more, but we spend most of our time in the Void, this time on a different planet to Edeard's. Nothing technological works but there's the telepathy and telekinesis to keep us busy. The opening chapters, outside the Void, set the scene and then we're in. We follow a bunch of young hotheads bent on revolution… but that's not quite what it seems. Always an immense pleasure to read Hamilton. Can't wait for the second instalment in the story.

25. Footsteps, Katharine McMahon (book club, Helen). Excellent final book club book of the year. It's set in Dunwich, which for some reason McMahon calls Westwich. I find this irritating since it is clearly just a way to make Dunwich more flexible as a location so she can add houses, shops and more – she could have done that without renaming it I think. Anyway… that's a minor irritation. The story evolves as modern day Helena looks into her maternal grandmother's family history in Dunwich – which we learn about first hand in a dual timeline approach that I always enjoy (as done by Kate Mosse for example). Lots of links to both Helena and her recently deceased husband's families, itinerant photographers and more. Oh and just to complete the Jane Eyre connections, there's something approximating a mad woman in the attic for good measure.

26. Mystery in White, J Jefferson Farjeon . Displayed on the counter at Waterstone's this was an impulse buy as the idea of a big house mystery at Christmas seemed like a good idea. And yes, it was OK. Not riveting, but OK. A collection of odd balls, an empty house full of food and wood for the fire, an unfeasibly large snowfall and so on. Probably make a good stage play I'd say.

27. Ultima, Stephen Baxter. The follow on to Proxima in which we jump from one version of history to another, all with different ascendant cultures and all space-faring due to the power of the kernels. This is classic Baxter with vast sweeps of time and space, heading, of course, towards the heat death of the universe.