A(nother) Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

I finished this book a little while ago and it’s been hanging around the edges of my mind ever since. Maybe, partly because Jacob Rees-Mogg was waxing lyrical about the Boer War the other day on Question Time

You Will Be Safe Hereby Damian Barr is a novel set in South Africa. It starts – after a brief prologue – at the turn of the twentieth century following Sarah van der Waat’s diary entries from her time in a concentration camp. 

While very well written, it seems to bear little relation to the character of Willem, a young boy who appears in the prologue based in 2010.

As part one gives way to part two, we jumped forward to 1976, and we meet a new character, a young woman named Rayna. Again, very well written, very engaging, but her story of her family life and her marriage has seemingly no connection with Willem. 

I was enjoying it, but there was a niggling voice at the back of my head that was asking ‘where is this going?’ – which actually made the read more enjoyable. 

I read hundreds of books and with most of them I have a fair idea of where it is going, I’m pretty good at spotting twists, but this is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. 

And that’s because this isn’t a book about Willem, or Sarah or Rayna. This is a book about war and nationalism. 

The effects of the Boer War – fondly looked back on by the likes of Rees-Mogg as the last gentleman’s war – had and continue to have a lasting impact on South Africa. 

There’s a quote on the back of the copy I read from Diana Athill that says‘You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in’, while another, from Alex Preston reads ‘A book that will change the way you see the world’.

I highlight these two particular quotes because they manage to sum up exactly how I feel, in perhaps a more eloquent way than I ever could. I knew nothing about the Boer war – apart from Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army who claimed that ‘they do not like it up ‘em, sir’.

I didn’t know a huge amount about South Africa. I didn’t realise it was the British who basically invented concentration camps – perhaps not the gas chambers of Hitler’s war – but the British army was responsible for a huge amount of deaths in that country.

I’m angry that I didn’t know about this. It’s because history is written by the victors and the Empire as it was saw it a great victory. It’s not, it’s a shameful period of our country’s history and should be recognised as such. It should be taught in schools, alongside both World Wars. We should grow up knowing that we’re not always the heroes. 

I did know that. Of course I knew that. But this is perhaps the first time I truly know what that means. 

One last word before I go, and it’s another quote from the back cover – this time, from Patrick Gale: ‘Astonishing’. 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr will by published by Bloomsbury on the 4thApril.

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A Keeper by Graham Norton


A couple of years ago when Graham Norton published his first novel HoldingI rushed out to read it. Norton is one of my favourite broadcasters and never fails to make me laugh, but if I was expecting one of his famous opening monologues in book form, I was disappointed.

Norton managed to do what so few celebrities do, he created such a strong voice for his characters that it instantly took the celebrity shine off the book – to leave you in no doubt, that’s a good thing.

My verdict at the time – this man can write, but there was something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As debut novels went, it was a very solid start, but it was his next book I would be keenly watching.

That (difficult?) second novel came out a few months ago, and while I didn’t quite rush as quickly as I did the first time, I kept my eyes keenly on a copy, ready to insert into my reading schedule. 

A Keeper is about Elizabeth Keane who travels from New York to her childhood home in Ireland in order to pack up her mother’s house after her death. While there she must face an estranged family and confront secrets her mother had kept hidden for years.

Once again Norton manages to avoid writing what most would expect of him (when are we going to get a super-camp love story?) – but hidden letters and family secrets are like catnip to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

The pace has picked up since his first novel, but the writing is just as good, with a plot that just begs you to keep reading and do it quickly, please. 

Loved this! When book three comes out, it will go straight to the top of my to-read list! 

8/10

A Keeper is available now from Hodder & Stoughton

A(nother) Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

January turned into a pretty crazy month for me. I left my job of sixteen years with nowhere to go and then had a short case of man-flu towards the end of the month.

There are bigger stories behind both of these things, but you don’t care about them. All you need to know is I’m using them as my excuse as to why I haven’t written any blog posts so far this year.

I have still been reading during this time though, and the first book I read this year was Normal People by Sally Rooney.

You’ll almost have certainly seen this book around – it was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the Costa, and declared Book of the Year by Waterstones. It’s been hard to miss, but maybe like me, you’ve gone several months having seen its distinctive cover without knowing exactly what’s underneath?

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne and Connell – two teenagers who go to the same school in the west of Ireland, but have nothing really else in common and nothing to do with each other. Their lives start to become entwined, though, when Connell’s mother starts to clean for Marianne’s.

An attraction is formed and we become voyeurs to their relationship over the years, watching how they drift toward and away from each other as their circumstances change, drawing ever closer to what we assume is the natural conclusion.

Your next question, as is my duty to answer, is how good a book is it? There’s certainly been a lot of hype about it and it is well written, but the characters left me a bit lacking. I didn’t connect with either Marianne or Connell in a particularly strong way.

I didn’t dislike them, but to be ambivalent about the two lead characters when the lens is so tightly drawn around them is a problem.

Perhaps I was expecting too much after all the critical acclaim, or perhaps, as they title alludes they were supposed to be this normal.

It’s still very well written and an enjoyable read, I just didn’t quite get into it as much as other readers did.

7/10

Normal People is available now from Faber & Faber

5 Big Books for 2019

I love reading – I am what they call a voracious reader, typically reading thirty-plus books a year. I think I would have read more had it not been for the typical end-of-year malaise.

 

There’s about 2-3 months where I traditionally don’t read very much at all. But then comes the countdown to the end of the year where everyone starts talking about their favourite books.

 

(Shameless plug: In case you missed it, did mine here)

 

Seeing everyone talk so passionately about books, talking about my own favourite books always starts to reignite my own passion. And then I think about all the brilliant books still to come next year.

 

One of the best things about working in the publishing industry is that I get my grubby paws on all the best books a little bit early. I’ve spoken about some of them already, but here are five books to look out for in 2019 – some of them I’ve read, some of them I haven’t:

 

Starting – in alphabetical order – with:

 

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson – published in June by Doubleday

 

You might remember that last January I chose Atkinson’s Transcription as one of my ones to look out for in 2018. It received much critical acclaim when it was published, and while I enjoyed it, there was something missing. The writing was there, the research was clearly there, but for the most part I didn’t connect with it in the same way I have with previous Atkinson novels.

 

However, 2019 brings not just a new Kate Atkinson – but a new Jackson Brodie novel. I love these books, but we haven’t seen a new one since 2010. These are crime novels that I wish I could write. They are more character-led than the traditional police procedural, but that’s not to say they’re gentle.

 

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – published in in April by Trapeze

 

This is an incredible novel – It’s funny, but feels heartbreakingly real. Queenie is a young black woman trying to navigate her way through a mini-crisis of self. Who is she? Where does she belong in this world? Does she even like herself?

 

In short, she’s suffering from all the things we all suffer from, but for me it was the insights into her views on race that really made this book for me. It’s not the big moments, but the small ones, ones where I’m offended on her behalf but Queenie simply shrugs them off as normal.

 

It helped me see our society in a new way, and helped make Queenie feel so vivid and real that I was rooting for her all the way through.

 

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides – published in February by Orion

 

Completely different to the first two selections, this sees Theo Faber trying to treat a patient who hasn’t spoken a word since she shot her husband dead. This is a fast-moving thriller that kept me guessing all the way to the end.

 

It’s due to be turned into a movie, which intrigues me as I’m not sure how they’ll do it, but I can’t say any more. This is a tired old cliché that nobody in books uses any more… but it could be the next Gone Girl

 

Daisy Jones and The Six by Tyler Jenkins Reid – published in March by Hutchinson

 

This book is brilliant. It’s the transcript of a documentary that explores the rise, peak and subsequent fall of rock band The Six. They’re a fictional band but you could be forgiven for googling them to double check. It all feels so real.

 

Its structure is unusual, but it’s so effective and easy to get into that I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing a lot more stories told in this way. There has got to be a film of this one and I can’t wait to hear the music that comes from it.

 

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce – published in February by Wildfire

 

LOVED this. For me, this felt like the perfect balance of psychological and legal thriller. Alison is a QC on her first case, a murder case where – typically – all is not necessarily as it seems.

 

However, the case merely serves as a backdrop to Alison’s crumbling relationship with her husband and an illicit, destructive affair with a colleague. I know I’ve just said this about Daisy, but this could become one of my favourite books of 2019.

 

 

 

I’m excited for all of these, the ones I’ve read to see them land in everyone else’s hands, and the ones that I’m yet to read. Most of all, though, I’m excited to read all the books I don’t yet know about (I think I said this last year!).

 

Happy reading!

My Top 10 Books of 2018

It’s the traditional time of year where I don’t post any book reviews for a while, because I’ve burnt out any sort of analytical part of my brain and can only just about muster: Book Bad, Book Good, like some kind of semi-literate caveman.

 

Having said that, it’s also the time of the year where I sum up my favourite books of last twelve months…

 

So, here are my Top 10 of books published this year – starting of course, in reverse order:

 

  1. The Last Romeo by Justin Myers

 

The debut novel from lifestyle and dating blogger The Guyliner sees a funny dive into the lifestyle and dating exploits of his main character. What could be a fairly typical Bridget Jones style story is saved by Myers trademark acerbic wit and a gay lead which offers a fresh perspective on modern dating.

 

Those that have followed The Guyliner in the past will find no huge surprises here, but a solid debut means we can look forward to a slightly braver second novel due to debut… soon.

 

  1. The Labyrinth of Spirts by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

 

The closing novel in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series takes us back to the familiar world of Barcelona we first visited in The Shadow of the Wind. New and returning characters help bring memories flooding back from the series debut in 2004, but it doesn’t spoon feed the reader.

 

I found it hard going at first, struggling to get back into the world. Not a massive problem as each of the four books are essentially standalone stories, but the weight of the novel – both physically and in terms of expectation – do present an initial stumbling block. Once into it, though, it’s difficult to think of anything else.

 

  1. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

 

Flo is in her eighties, living in a care home and clearly suffering from dementia. We meet her on the floor of her apartment, where she has fallen, unable to get back up. We learn about her history, both recent, and long before when she was younger and start to uncover a surprising secret.

 

The three things about Elsie – Flo’s best friend – that are referenced in the title, are not hugely surprising, though that’s not the point of this book. Where its strength lies is in the exploration of both old age and dementia and the way we treat those who are suffering from it. Though clearly ill, not everything Florence should be disregarded…

 

  1. Vox by Christina Dalcher

 

In a scarily imaginable United States, just a few years from now, women are only allowed to speak one hundred words a day. This is controlled and enforced by bracelets which shock them with intensifying degrees for each word over quota.

 

It can be hard to set up the rules of a world like this, but it’s so easy to believe that is where we could end up, that Dalcher is able to submerge us in the concept – and the fight against it easily. It’s let down in its ending which feels like a deadline was approaching and time was running out, so loose ends were quickly tied up. It’ll make a wonderful, inevitable, TV series.

 

  1. The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

 

In late 2017 this book broke records, becoming the fastest crowd-funded novel ever. Unbound pulled out all the stops and published by July of this year. It follows the life of Charlie Matthews, a young boy who knows he’s different from others his age, but not sure of where he fits in in Bolton… until he discovers a young pop star by the name of Madonna.

 

Like The Last Romeo this is a fairly autobiographical novel in places, but as a slightly more warts-and-all view of what it means to be gay in modern Britain it succeeds in bringing the reader on-side with Charlie, even in his less likable moments. Both funny and moving, it deserves its place on this list, and at the forefront of pushing gay characters into the mainstream of British bookselling.

 

  1. Absolute Proof by Peter James

 

Peter is one of my favourite crime writers and if you haven’t read any of his Roy Grace series, then you ought to. Absolute Proof is a standalone novel and a thriller in the style of Dan Brown.

 

The absolute proof in question is proof of God’s existence. What would it take for you to believe? What would happen if someone believed they had it? James’ answer is that that person would probably be killed – and that’s the premise here. It feels more grounded in reality than Dan Brown novels, often leaving you to make your own mind up about anything that remains unexplained…

 

  1. The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

 

I wasn’t expecting to like this one. Most of Riley’s novels fall under ‘historical romance’ in terms of genre, a category I tend to steer clear of, but this novel has a near contemporary setting and is much more of a spy thriller than anything else.

 

Although, don’t expect Le Carre levels of espionage, in fact this is probably much closer to the BBC series Bodyguard than it is anything else. But a secret in the royal family, a family of famous actors and a pacey finale make this one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year.

 

  1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

 

I called this back at the beginning of the year as having book of the year potential. It hasn’t quite made the top of my list but it’s still a brilliant book that I would recommend to anyone – particularly fans of murder mysteries with a twist.

 

At the time of first reading, I likened it to Agatha Christie crossed with Quantum Leap with a sprinkling of Groundhog Day. If that isn’t enough to sell it to you, I don’t know what will.

 

  1. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

 

You wait ages for a John Boyne novel and then two come along at once. Sort of. Just a year after The Heart’s Invisible Furies comes this novel. An at times heart-breaking look at ambition, and how far people are willing to go, I love everything about this book.

 

Maurice Swift is an extraordinary creation and within pages Boyne is able to make you fall in love with him. Like Cyril Avery before him, it’s hard to get Swift out of your head once you’ve met him. He’s so vivid and real, that it would be easy to believe this was a biography, not a work of fiction.

 

  1. Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

 

*Heart-eyes-emoji*

 

Oh, Eustace.

 

This is a beautiful coming of age novel that I fell in love with almost immediately. Eustace is in many ways VERY different to me, but so much of growing up is universal that I was still able to identify with him.

 

The bits I found most effective were the moments where he is lost in playing the cello. Unsurprisingly, music doesn’t work all that well in books, but Gale’s writing is almost a symphony itself, and I could feel what Eustace felt when he was playing as if I was there in the room myself.

 

You can read my full review by clicking the link above… or why not just treat yourself for Christmas and go out and buy a copy…!

A(nother) Rambling – Absolute Proof by Peter James

Ok, first up… I’m in this book. Alex Call appears as a CSI some way into the book. His appearance is very brief, and thankfully he survives to live another day. He’s probably there because when Peter first told me about this book two or three years ago, I was sold immediately and have been waiting impatiently for it ever since.

 

Absolute Proof concerns Ross Hunter, a freelance investigative journalist based in Brighton – the city famously the home of James’ other creation Detective Roy Grace.

 

But this isn’t a crime novel – this is an all-out adventure in the vein of Dan Brown.

 

Ross Hunter is contacted by Harry Cook, an elderly gentleman who claims that with Hunter’s help he can prove the existence of God. This sets off a dangerous chain of events that sees Hunter risk everything to follow the lead on his biggest story ever.

 

While there are obvious similarities to Brown Absolute Proof feels much more grounded in real life. Those that have read the Roy Grace series will be familiar with the detail that James imbues into his books. The level of detail, both in terms of procedures and locations adds an extra layer of believability to the type of plot that can stretch credibility somewhat.

 

And while – for this non-believer – it does stretch credibility (they might as well be searching for absolute proof that I wrote Harry Potter – it’s a nice idea, it just didn’t happen) it takes what we do know, it takes facts about DNA, mixes it with myth and then adds a sprinkle of ‘what if’.

 

While I’m sure it won’t happen… the events of this novel could happen.

 

Crime fans used to James’ style will love this novel and people who have never read him before will find this the perfect gateway drug to his rich backlist.

 

For me, it’s one of my favourite books of this year.

 

Absolute Proof is available now from Macmillan

A(nother) Review: The Labyrinth of Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A story has no beginning and no end, only points of entry.

 

That’s a notion that pops up a few times in The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and it’s one that Zafon himself illustrates a few times within the whole series – The Cemetery of Forgotten Books – that began with The Shadow of the Wind.

 

The plot of this pretty chunky tome (over eight hundred pages) concerns Alicia Gris, a cross between a vigilante, private investigator and assassin who is instructed to solve the disappearance of Minister Valls, a prominent member of the government who one day got into a car with his bodyguard and was not seen of again.

 

Alicia’s investigation takes her across the country to Barcelona where things start to become a little familiar – at least for people who have read previous books from Zafon.

 

There are four books in the series, the famous one that started it and became one of the bestselling books in the world, The Shadow of the Wind is the only one which I’ve read, and it was fifteen years ago. The amount of books I’ve read since then can only be described as being in the hundreds, if not into four digits, so my memory of Zafon’s Barcelona was sketchy at best.

 

Yet the characters, the city, the atmosphere that Zafon creates all feels familiar, comfortable. Hearing then names of characters like Julian Carax or the bookshop Sempere & Sons took me straight back to Shadow of the Wind.

 

I didn’t remember the plot, but that was ok. The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a standalone novel, made richer for having read one of the previous novels. I’ve not read Book 2 of 3 in the series, but this has made me want to go back and read them, even read The Shadow of the Wind again.

 

On its own, though, I struggled a bit to get into the plot of The Labyrinth of Spirits– the sheer weight of it is off-putting and the jumping around of characters at the beginning is a bit confusing – especially when you’re half remembering some of them from fifteen years ago – but I persisted and I’m glad I did.

 

Once I got into the plot, the story raced along to its conclusion. Or at least one of them.

 

Just as every story has multiple points of entry, it also multiple points of exit. The four novels in this series are all standalone stories, but they’re all part of one bigger story as well, as Zafon himself points out towards the end of the latest addition to the series.

 

Zafon has created a vivid world that has potential to be explored further, but until he does, I’m going to immerse myself back into his backlist.

 

The Labyrinth of the Spirits is published by W&N and is available now

A(nother) Review – The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

This might seem a bit of a departure for me, but The Love Letter is a novel I really enjoyed earlier this year, and now as I write the review I googled it to remind myself of some of the finer points.

 

In doing so, I discovered the story behind The Love Letter – originally published as Seeing Double back in 2000 it seems the publisher at the time lost faith in the book and pulled all of the publicity and marketing for it, leading to disappointing sales for the author.

 

The reason for it? Riley has created a fictional version of the Royal Family, in which a journalist stumbles upon a secret that could tear the monarchy apart.

 

It all begins when our journalist – Joanna Haslam – is forced to cover the funeral of a famous actor. Tucked in at the back of the church she befriends an old lady who has snuck into the ceremony.

 

From this moment on Joanna is on a path that will take her into a dangerous world where some parts of the establishment will do anything to keep the secret from coming out.

 

This book wasn’t what I expected it to be at all when I picked it up. I’d never read a Lucinda Riley novel before, but I had pigeon-holed her in my head into writing sentimental love stories and family sagas.

 

That’s a fairly reasonable judgement to make, even the publishers themselves make it – if you take a look at the category on Amazon, it places it in both historical romance and sagas. But this book is much more than that.

 

I found it much more like a thriller with one of those endings that left you flicking through the pages breathless as you barrel towards the ending. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and was good enough to make me consider picking up more by Riley.

 

The Love Letter is available now from Pan

A(nother) Review: Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Alison Wood is a QC and has just been handed her first murder. Her career is taking off, but her family life seems to be falling apart. Her daughter seems to prefer her husband – a therapist who works from home – and he seems to be growing distant from her.

 

Not that the latter seems to bother Alison too much, she’s having an affair with Patrick – the solicitor who sent the murder case her way. To muddy the waters a little further, Alison seems to be developing a problem with alcohol.

 

Blood Orange at first glance seems to be like any other psychological thriller, but for me the legal case rooted it back into the more traditional thriller genre. For much of the first half of the book, the two plots are given equal billing and as a result, it’s tough to know where this book is going to go.

 

I like that. I like books that surprise me. Especially when they’re the ones that promise to surprise you. You go into this genre expecting twists, and there’s such a proliferation of these books out there now, that once you’ve read a few, you can see the surprises coming.

 

Not so with Blood Orange. Its balance between traditional thriller and psychological thriller adds an unpredictability that keeps you turning the page all the way throughout.

 

Perhaps not quite as unpredictable, is that that yet again, I’ve reviewed a book that’s not out yet. Blood Orange is due to be published in Hardback in February 2019 – so you’ll have to wait a little while for it – but hey, it gives you something to look forward to after Christmas, hey?

 

And it’s worth the wait – this could well be the sleeper hit of 2019.

 

Blood Orange is published by Wildfire early next year

A(nother) Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Welcome to the USA!

 

Gentlemen, through the door on your left, please. Ladies, please wait here to get your bracelet fitted. Best to say goodbye now.

 

Vox shows us a scarily similar world to ours, but one where women are restricted to just a hundred words a day. Far-fetched? Possibly. But Dalcher shows us what could happen when good people do nothing.

 

The writing pulls you in straight away and makes you think about where this world is heading. Not here. Surely not here. But where?

 

A book you can’t and won’t put down.

 

Vox is available now from Harlequin