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…!

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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

A(nother) Review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

You know what it’s like, you wait three years for a new John Boyne novel, and then suddenly it’s an annual event.

I was still recommending and thinking about The Heart’s Invisible Furies when a copy of his 2018 offering – A Ladder to The Sky – fell onto my desk. I wasn’t expecting it – after such an excellent piece like Furies, I thought we’d have to wait a couple of years before the next one.

A Ladder to The Sky is a novel about never-ending ambition. The type of ambition that makes you keep on going, setting a new goal every time you reach your previous. Where does it stop… and how much are you willing to do to get there?

At first, I noticed the similarities to The Heart’s Invisible Furies – A Ladder to the Sky at first seems to be a story about an older gay man retelling the story of his life, similar to the way we explored Cyril Avery’s life, however it soon becomes apparent that this is a tale not about the storyteller, but about the listener, Maurice Swift.

The way that Erich Ackermann talks about the young man, it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. And that’s exactly what Ackermann does.

A Ladder to the Sky is a slow exploration into Maurice Swift’s character. It starts off told from afar, each viewpoint getting closer and closer to the truth of who Swift really is.

Boyne’s writing is so clever, he makes us fall in love with Swift, and so quickly, then starts to peel away his layers like an onion. Each of those layers reveals a reason not to love Swift, and all the way through, no matter what terrible thing we learn, it’s difficult not to still harbour a fondness, a certain admiration for Swift.

Even at his most terrible, I found it hard not admire his determination, his self-belief.

I wrote down a few of my favourite lines, either brilliantly written or a nice observation:

Just because one is homosexual does not mean one is lonely.

 

What is loneliness other than the lack of love?

 

Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up

 

Perhaps the person I admire most here, though, is John Boyne himself. He takes a complex life, explores it over many years, interacts with many characters and still manages to tie up all the loose strands – if not into a perfectly, resolved bow, then into a close knot.

A brilliant novel from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite novelists.

A Ladder to the Sky is published by Doubleday and is available now

A(nother) Review: If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman

I would imagine that being Hannah Beckerman is hard.

That’s not meant as a personal slight at all, I’ve met her a couple of times and let me assure you she’s lovely.

She has a ridiculously enviable job – she’s a freelance journalist and gets paid to review books for papers. When you see things like “Astounding – The Times” that’s usually a quote from Hannah.

She’s been judges on book prizes and chairs lots of panel discussions – as well as one on one Author interviews.

On top of all this she gets to go to cocktail parties and hang around with the likes of me.

As well as all these amazing jobs, which seem to largely be composed of reading books and telling people whether she liked them or not, Hannah is an author, her second novel is published next year.

And that’s the rub.

We all have insecurities. We all believe any criticisms levelled at us 100% and disregard any compliments, anyway.

Now imagine getting nice things said about your book by an author whose book you’re about to review. Are they genuinely saying nice things because they’re true, or because they want a nice review.

And what if someone says nice things, but you hated their book?

Anyone who follows books on twitter will have seen a lot of love for Beckerman’s new novel If Only I Could Tell You and maybe you’re also wondering if it’s genuine praise or if there are ulterior motives.

Fortunately, I don’t have a book waiting to be reviewed or an author to be interviewed so you can trust me for an objective review.

The truth is, the reviews you’ve already seen are right, it really is as good as everyone says.

If Only I Could Tell You is about two sisters, estranged from each other for decades. We meet them when they both have teenage daughters of their own, while their Mum is secretly battling a terminal illness.

Audrey wants to reconcile her two daughters but an untold secret from the past is threatening to keep them apart.

Thanks to ALL her other jobs, Beckerman knows good characters, good plots and good storytelling and that is evident in this, her second novel.

The reader is kept in suspense throughout, never completely sure of what is the truth and what is the misconceptions of a young girl. And that’s what keeps you turning the page, all the way to the end.

You want these women to sort themselves out, you’re almost shouting at the book telling them to stop being stupid and just blooming well talk to each other. We all know people like that in real life so it really works.

In summary;

Hannah = lovely

If Only I Could Tell You = brilliant

Everyone = completely correct to heap praise on it

If Only I Could Tell You will be published by Orion on 21st February 2019

A(nother) Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Two weeks ago, I moaned about the lack of diversity in commercial fiction, then a week ago I read The Madonna of Bolton– a funny, but emotional tale of growing up Northern. I mean, gay.

 

On the flip side of the diversity coin, this week I’m talking about Queenieby Candice Carty-Williams.

 

At the beginning of the novel we find our eponymous hero suffering from a miscarriage and a break-up – no, not a break-up, just a break.

 

Queenie is a black woman trying to find her way in life, trying to navigate her way through a quarter-life breakdown (my words). She faces all the challenges that Bridget Jones would face, but there are added complications because of her race.

 

Before I delve much further into the book itself, let’s talk about the commercial side of things. This book isn’t different because it features a black woman as the main character, there are lots of books out there like that, but the difference is this has the potential to become a commercial hit.

 

Like The Madonna of Bolton last week, this isn’t mold-breaking or genre-defining but there is here the possibility to have a commercial success of a book featuring a black woman in its lead, something a little bit different to the books that dominate the bestseller lists at the moment.

 

Some people will tell you that some of the sex is too graphic, that some of the Black Lives Matter stuff is too preachy, but I’ve read other books with white leads where the sex is just as graphic (though perhaps a bit more vanilla) and the characters much more militant about their ‘cause’.

 

Queenie’s thoughts on race don’t feel like a cause, they feel like the world-weary thoughts of someone who’s had to put up with these comments all her life.

 

I consider myself quite ‘woke’ – but there are things in this novel which made me realise that there are times when I might be saying the wrong things, even if they are good-intentioned.

 

Let’s forget race, commerciality, and what I learned – the question’s got to be… Is Queenie a good book?

 

Yes!

 

It’s funny, it has a plot, and a cast of characters all of whom are believable. There are times when Queenie’s mental health experiences hit home – consider this a trigger warning – but the book doesn’t go necessarily where you think it’s going to go.

 

Queenie the character is fascinating but actually somewhat unlikable, that doesn’t matter though, because Queenie the book is a great read and deserves to be a huge hit when it’s published next year.

 

Yeah, that’s right, I’ve been banging on about a book that’s not published for another seven months but that’s ok, it gives us all the chance to make sure that everyone is lining up ready to read it when it does come out.

 

Queenie is published on 21stMarch 2019 by Trapeze

A(nother) Review: The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

Last week, I got up on my little soapbox and had a rant about diversity in commercial fiction, so this week I decided to try and remedy the situation by picking up a VERY GAY book – one which struggled to get published, a victim of the type of behaviour I detailed at the end of the last blog post, people saying ‘It’s just not commercial enough.’

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain was published following a campaign through Unbound – a publisher where each book is crowdfunded. If enough people want to read it, the book will be published.

 

Any book that gets published through Unbound HAS to be commercial, because it starts off life by making money from people before the book is even available.

 

Cain’s novel was Unbound’s fasted crowdfunded novel ever – proving that an audience existed.

 

The Madonna of Bolton tells the life of Charlie Matthews, from young boy to adulthood. It’s a story about a gay boy from Bolton who struggles not really with his sexuality, but with other people’s acceptance of it. His family and schoolfriends, particularly.

 

Like most gay men, Charlie projects a lot of his insecurities onto those around him and sees slights and takes offence when there is none to be taken. He’s very real.

 

The book is quite white and doesn’t feature sexualities other than gay men. White gay men are perhaps a minority that have experienced the most progress over the last few years, the most representation in media, even if it is cliched at times. At least it’s there. It’s a step along a long path.

 

So, why am I celebrating this? What makes this any different to The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne or the upcoming Patrick Gale Take Nothing With You?

 

All three of those novels tell the story of young, white men and their struggles growing up gay. The difference between them and Cain’s is the tone.

 

I loved all three of those books (particularly Gale’s) – but they all take themselves quite seriously. There is humour in them, of course, but they tend to dwell on the more serious elements of their stories.

 

The Madonna of Bolton is funny. Throughout. Intentionally. I lost count of the amount of times I laughed while reading it. Cain certainly has a gift for slipping a gag into the story, a skill which more accomplished writers struggle with.

 

It helps his characters, both our lead Charlie and his surrounding friends seem more real. Look around at your friends, your colleagues. They’re not all wringing their hands constantly, worrying about the bad things that are happening  to them. Even at their lowest, they’re cracking jokes, enjoying themselves, even if it is just a façade they’re putting on.

 

That’s not to say Cain avoids the serious bits of life. The book builds to several dramatic moments and a few personal epiphanies from Charlie which may well bring a tear to your eye. He definitely evolves over the course of the book, and he takes the reader with him. We want him to succeed in life, we want him to have a happy ending.

 

If this was a story about a woman, written by a woman, there’d be no question of this of having ever ended up on Unbound. Traditional publishers would have snapped it up and it would be all over every retailer, in all the supermarkets.

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain, published by Unbound is available now.