My Top 10 Books of 2017

It has become tradition at this time of year – well, I did it last year, and I’m doing it again this – for me to tell you my top 10 favourite books of the year.

 

There are literally hundreds of books published every week, and that’s just those from James Patterson, so the thirty or so books I’ve ready this year don’t even cut a small dent in that pile.

 

I like to think that I have some expertise at picking out good books, the cream of that large crop, so this stuff here really should be the creamiest cream at the top of the croppiest crop. I’ve possibly let that analogy run away with me.

 

In November, I ran a tournament on Twitter to find the best book of 2017 – Now, Twitter wouldn’t let me vote in my own poll, so this is where I get my say.

 

Matt Haig won with How to Stop Time while Adam Kay came second with This is Going to Hurt – will they appear in my Top 10 (Spoiler: They do) and if so, where will they appear?

 

There’s only one way to find out.

 

=10. Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – Frank Cottrell Boyce

 

Each time I read a book, I record a score out of ten across various categories – at the end of the year, I sort that list and present it in reverse order here. The list is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

 

Sputnik – a book for kids – is a slightly surprising entry to the list, but the truth is, this story is a fun romp (I got to use the word “romp” in my original review and dammit, I’m using it again now), it’s a little cartoonish in place, but it tells a nice tale with more than a hint of pathos.

 

=10. Animal – Sara Pascoe

 

Coming in in joint tenth position, and therefore making this year’s list a Top 11, is Sara Pascoe with her autobiography of what it means to be a woman. Not only did I learn more about the female body than I ever cared to, but her powerful chapter on consent takes on a new relevance following recent news stories…

 

9. Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

 

Who knew the man could write as well as everything else he can do? This anthology of short stories from THE Tom Hanks is a great collection of tales all loosely connected by, of all things, typewriters. Crossing genres and time periods, these are nice bursts of fiction for everyone.

 

8. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

 

I read this one late last December, and it immediately jumped to the top of my ‘one to watch’ list for 2017, staying there for some time. Schmidt takes the familiar – or indeed, not so familiar – tale of Lizzie Borden and transplants the reader right into that creep house in Massachusetts. The writing is so vivid, so visceral you can actually feel the thickness of the air as you read. Definitely one of the best books of recent times.

 

=5. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

 

This one stays with you. And not just me – it made it to the semi finals of the twitter tournament. The character of Eleanor Oliphant is bizarre, unique. She stands out for being a one-off, but in a way, she is so easily identifiable. We are all outsiders looking to connect, but Eleanor’s tale quickly veers from quirky to tragic, and takes the unsuspecting reader along with it.

 

Despite that, I will remember this book mostly because every time I try to write about it, every autocorrect known to man wants to call it Eleanor Elephant.

 

=5. This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay

 

The second of three books in joint fifth position is the runner up of our twitter vote. This often hilarious insight into the life of a junior doctor gives the reader a fresh perspective of a job coloured by what we see on the news and on Holby City. Like many of the other books on the list, the serious turn at the end packs a real punch.

 

There’s also a fucking fuckload of swearing in it.

 

=5. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

 

One of the books I’ve not stopped banging on about this year, and the winner of our twitter poll makes it to (joint) fifth in my personal top 10. I said during the poll that I couldn’t pick between this and Adam Kay, so I’m mildly amused to discover I scored them exactly the same.

 

How To Stop Time takes a corker of a concept – a man who ages at a much slower rate than the rest of us – he’s four hundred, looks forty – and runs with it, using the man’s condition as a metaphor for depression.

 

He also calls the American President a motherfucker.

 

4. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst

 

So what on earth could beat Matt Haig? I’m a sucker for a gay love saga and Alan Hollinghurst doesn’t disappoint with his latest. The opening half of the book, exploring the viewpoints of Freddie Green and a young Johnny Sparsholt are worth the entrance fee alone. The ending doesn’t quite hold up compared to the first half, but that’s a little like saying Romeo and Juliet isn’t as good as Macbeth.

 

3. The One – John Marrs

 

Proving that it’s not all about the heavy literary scene, this thriller from John Marrs was a bit of a surprise to me at the beginning of the year. I like a thriller as much as the next person, but they can be a little throwaway at times. Not this one. A unique concept linking five separate stories that forces us to question the true nature of love.

 

2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

 

Similar in a way to the Alan Hollinghurst, Boyne charts the history of gay rights through Ireland through the history of one man. By investing in the one character, though, it just heightens the emotional impact, and the ending hits just the right note, managing to bring a year or to the eye.

 

 

 

So the winner.

 

 

If you’ve been paying attention throughout this year, this will come as no surprise to you.

 

 

 

1. Tin Man – Sarah Winman

 

Heartbreaking. Joyous. Triumphant. An exploration of life and love and grief. This book has become part of me since I read it in one sitting earlier this year. I still occasionally hug my copy of it, just to make myself feel better.

 

If you haven’t read it… well, I shan’t talk to you until you do.

 

 

 

All of these books are available now – and I’ve managed to cross quite a broad list this year. Christmas is coming – so consider this your wish list – or a gift guide for the literary lover in your life.

 

I’ll be back at the end of December with a short round-up of the books I’m most excited about for 2018…

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A Twitter poll BUT for books? Why not?

It’s that time of the year again where I’m so busy I don’t get a chance to read. It’s a come a bit earlier this year – so in a desperate bid for some content, I thought about what I might be able to cobble together in less than an hour…

 

So, here it is!

 

Taking inspiration from Richard Osman’s ‘World Cup of…’ series of Twitter polls (and now a book!) – here’s a tournament especially for book lovers – to find Twitter’s Best Book of 2017.

 

The Rules? There are always rules!

 

  • Unlike Fight Club… everyone talks about Book Club – share your votes and tell us all why!
  • The 32 titles in contention have all been published in either paperback or hardback since 26th December 2017 and have had some sort of impact on the literary landscape this year.
  • They’ve all been picked by me (with a couple of suggestions from others) – they’re either my favourite books of the last year – or particularly notable titles. If you think I’ve missed something… hey, run your own poll.

 

The list in full (in alphabetical order)

 

  1. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  3. Origin by Dan Brown
  4. What Happened by Hilary Clinton
  5. The Party by Elizabeth Day
  6. The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
  7. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
  8. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
  9. Creakers by Tom Fletcher
  10. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  11. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  12. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
  13. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
  14. The Dry by Jane Harper
  15. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
  16. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
  17. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  18. Need You Dead by Peter James
  19. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
  20. Sirens by Joseph Knox
  21. A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre
  22. Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
  23. The One by John Marrs
  24. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
  25. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
  26. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  27. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
  29. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  30. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
  31. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
  32. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

Voting in the first round starts today (now!) over on my Twitter (@alexjcall) – get voting! The top two from each round will go through to the quarter finals!

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Way back, in the mists of time, at least as far back as 2004, I started working in a bookstore.

 

Me back then very different to me now. I was taking the path of least resistance. I could have ended up working anywhere, but as chance would have it… there were books.

 

I’d always liked reading, and I’d always wanted to write, but I didn’t love them then. They weren’t my passion.

 

There were a handful of books that put me on the path to where I am now, one of which was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was one of the first ‘adult’ books I’d ever read. There was swearing and drugs and – gosh – even gay sex!

 

It was a coming of age novel, both for the characters and for me, so going back this year to read my first Hollinghurst since that day (for some reason The Stranger’s Child) completely passed me by) was very nostalgic.

 

While The Line of Beauty was very much a piece about being gay in the 80’s, The Sparsholt Affair is similar to John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisibile Furies as it explores the changing face of what it means to be gay across the years, starting during the second world war.

 

The book is rich with characters and we follow many of them from youth right through to death. The book is primarily told from the point of view of Johnny – although there are often guest POV’s – notably that of Freddie Green who carries the narrative throughout the 1940 section, a time when Johnny isn’t alive.

 

It all begins when Freddie and his friend Evert Dax spot the mysterious and beautiful David Sparsholt, a newcomer to Oxford in 1940 and a character that links all the others together, although we as a reader never seem to spend much time with him.

 

There are four distinct sections of this book – two of them work incredibly well, while the others are great pieces of writing, but don’t quite match up to the beginning of the book.

 

The first section is a powerful and erotic exploration of infatuation, and Hollinghurst’s writing is so vivid that I actually came away a little bit in love with David Sparsholt.

 

Fast forward a few years and our second section explores the life of the adolescent Johnny, a fourteen year old who is discovering his sexuality. The writing is equally engaging and will resonate with any gay man who was once fourteen years old.

 

As Johnny gets older, I started to become less affected with the book, the characters – so many characters – started to become less like real people and more like characters from a novel. Perhaps that was because he started to live a life that I couldn’t as easily identify with.

 

However, in his years as a younger man we watch him deal with his own infatuation, a nice juxtaposition to the 1940 section. Johnny is able to be more open, but he is seemingly much less successful. This is underscored by the object of his affections being in a relationship with the much older Evert Dax, the focal point of the 1940 years.

 

In Johnny’s later life, things seemed a little less tight, a bit meandering, but again, that may have been intentional as Johnny’s life seems to be headed in the same meandering direction.

 

The ending is… an ending. I’m not sure you could say it was a happy ending, or even a sad ending, but it’s definitely a nice point to end the novel.

 

I’m not sure what it says though. Was this a story about David Sparsholt? If so, making him absent for large swathes of the book seems a mistake. His arrival back on the scene in later years seems to promise answers and actually got me quite emotional at times, but because we don’t see things through his point of view, we don’t actually witness what was – to me – one of the more crucial scenes of the book.

 

The ending as it is, makes us reflect on the life of David Sparsholt, how things have changed and how they could have been so different… but again, it’s slightly undersold by his lack of presence in later pages.

 

The David Sparsholt we see at the end of the book is a completely different man to the one I became infatuated with in 1940 to the point it’s hard for me to connect the two men.

 

I loved this book, and I’m only being so critical because it was so nearly perfect, it was just lacking a little something extra towards the end.

 

However, I’d buy a thousand copies of this just to read the first half over and over again.

 

The Sparsholt Affair is published by Picador and is available now.

A(nother) Review: The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

Let’s talk about chapters.

 

I know that’s not exactly the sexiest way to start a blog, but just be thankful I’m not spending a thousand words asking you to consider the oxford comma.

 

I’ve often wondered what the point of a chapter break is, and eventually I came to the conclusion that they’re almost exclusively used to help pace a novel.

 

Different books use them in differing lengths. Thrillers tend to use them every other page or so, which A) helps the more casual ready to pick them up and read one or two chapters in a sitting and B) psychologically helps invoke the feeling of a fast paced, page turning thrilling book.

 

The thriller in front of me on my desk is 522 pages long, a big chunky novel on first glance, but there are 127 chapters in it. With each chapter comes a page break typically between half a page and a full page long – that means there’s around a hundred pages worth of blank space in this particular book.

 

 The Feed by Nick Clark Window takes the opposite route and uses chapter breaks sparingly.

 

The story concerns Tom and Kate who start off the book in a world where everybody’s brain is connected to a feed – imagine twitter embedded into your mind – and one night, they daringly go off feed to have a romantic dinner where they actually talk to each other.

 

While off grid, the assassination of a major politician causes the government to shut down the feed for everyone, and massive panic ensues as a whole society is plunged cold turkey into a rehab they didn’t ask for.

 

The Feed doesn’t then quite go where you think it’s going to go, but it lets you glimpse a world that feels strangely familiar, a world where we are all addicted to social media, where our heads are always somewhere other than our bodies, where we take data in at a million miles an hour.

 

The desolate world that we arrive in following the removal of the feed feels like something straight out of The Walking Dead – a disparate group of survivors trying to build a new community only to run the risk that members of their new society might be taken over in their sleep by some other consciousness, one that arrives there through the now defunct feed.

 

The sparing use of chapter breaks frustrated me at first – I use them as natural stopping points, I can read sixty or so pages of text in a one hour sitting, but always like to stop at a natural resting point. With the first of only two chapter breaks coming in at page 114, I had to stop in the middle of the action on a few occasions.

 

On the other hand, the lack of breaks allowed me to live with these characters, take in their world at the same pace they were, which helped with the overall feel of the novel.

 

On reflection, there is just one moment where I would have liked a chapter break, a particularly dramatic moment which was slightly let down by not forcing the reader to take a breath and take it all in.

 

It made me think of the old omnibus episodes of EastEnders where the whole week was stitched together into one big episode. The mid-week cliffhangers always fell kind of flat, because they then rumbled on straight into the next scene.

 

The Feed is one of those rare things, in that while there are components that feel familiar, it is a wholly unique story that shows us a whole new world without getting too bogged down in extraneous detail. Nick Clark Windo is one to watch, and will be one of the more exciting debuts of 2018.

 

The Feed will be published by Headline in January 2018.

A(nother) Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

What makes a good book?

 

(Yes, that’s right, I’ve gone for a nice easy blog this week).

 

There’s literally (and literary) a whole industry out there full of self-proclaimed experts – of which I am one. The thing is, we’re all readers, and like every other reader out there we all like very different books.

 

So how do we spot a good book?

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is the tale of Turtle Alveston. She is fourteen years old and knows how to use every single gun on her wall. She lives alone with her abusive father in a small backwater town in America.

 

She is a unique child, almost feral in a way, and we spend a summer with her, the last summer of her childhood, getting to know her, as she learns there is more to life than shooting guns with her father and playing cribbage with her grandfather.

 

It has all the signs of a good book. It’s well written, the characters are rich and real, there is a distinct plot running through it with an ending that while satisfying doesn’t quite tie everything up in a neat fairy tale bow.

 

It’s an odd journey that Turtle goes on – at one point she manages to get herself stranded on an island at high tide and must survive there. It all becomes a bit Huckleberry Finn, which the characters themselves acknowledge.

 

The book is quite episodic in some respects, meaning it is easy to dip in and out of – which is a bit of a relief, since at times the themes it explores are pretty challenging.

 

So far, so good, it’s got all the signs of a good book, and if you were to ask me if it reminded me of any other books, I’d say yes. It made me think of Sal – a book published next year, which I really enjoyed – and it made me think of A Little Lifewhich most of you will know is my absolute favouritest book ever.

 

So it must be a good book then?

 

I can only answer yes.

 

But did I enjoy it?

 

I can only answer no.

 

For me, there was something missing from the book which stopped me from engaging with it properly. Looking back on it now, and when telling people about it, it’s tricky for me to put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy it.

 

I feel like I did enjoy it, I can find no reason why I didn’t, but when I was reading it, I was wishing it would end, that I could read something else. Something better.

 

And it’s not to do with the subject matter. Many other books that I love – particularly A Little Life – could be described as unrelentingly grim, but in those books I experienced emotions. I was moved.

 

With My Absolute Darling, I didn’t feel any of that. On paper, it ticks all the boxes, but in practice, it just didn’t connect.

 

And that’s the thing we’re all trying capture and stuff into a bottle. That something extra. The special combination of the right book and the right reader.

 

That little bit of magic can take even the worst of books and make it into an excellent book, but the best of books without that little bit of extra magic? It will never be better than good.

 

 

A(nother) Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon #ThreeThings

I once had a conversation with someone who was absolutely furious when – in their view – someone on Twitter had spoiled a book for them, by revealing there was a twist. They hadn’t said what the twist was, just that a twist existed.

 

I’ve struggled with this concept ever since – I often expect there to be twists in most books I read – and finding out that one I was reading had one wouldn’t make me feel the book was spoilt. More of a teaser really.

 

Twists and turns are surely the components that drive the plot forward, something unexpected happening to keep the reader interested.

 

If I opened a book and it was utterly predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen, would I enjoy it still? Maybe – after all, I do enjoy re-reading some books…

 

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The reason I started talking about twists in the first place was because as something of a self-appointed expert of books, I can often see the twists coming.

 

The last time I was truly surprised by a twist was in I See You by Claire Mackintosh – I was so surprised, I had to put the book down for half an hour.

 

My difficulty is that I’m now not sure what is supposed to be a twist and what isn’t – and it is with all this preamble, that I finally come to this week’s book Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – author of the massive The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

 

Florence Claybourne has a flat in the grounds of the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly, and it is in this flat and this Home that the story is set. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend and as the title suggests, there are three things you need to know about her.

 

We don’t learn all three things at once, but we learn them as we go through the book, as Florence becomes spooked by the arrival of a new resident, a man who should be dead. A man who died over fifty years previously.

 

In Florence’s corner are Elsie and another resident, Jack, but working against Elsie is – seemingly – the man himself, and Florence’s own muddled memories.

 

I worked out the third thing about Elsie pretty early on. So early on, in fact, that I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be an obvious ‘twist’ or not. It made me constantly question myself as this ‘third thing’ became a bigger and bigger unspoken thing among all the characters. Perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps the twist was that this obvious thing was actually not as it seemed?

 

I decided to stop second guessing myself. And I’m so glad I did.

 

In this novel, Cannon deftly weaves together multiple strands and multiple layers of story to reach a climax that will leave even the most experienced reader surprised, even if only a little it. Even if you do predict the big twist about Elsie – if in fact there actually is one – there are so many more connections both subtle and obvious that you won’t see coming, that will keep you guessing right to the end.

 

Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel, exploring not just aging and dementia, but also the way our lives and our actions impact on others.

 

The obvious comparison is to Elizabeth is Missing, but Three Things About Elsie goes further than that. You feel you know Florence’s whole life, not just the diminished later stages of it. And ultimately, it becomes a story not amount dementia, but about the way we treat others around us. The aged, the bereaved and those passing acquaintances.

 

Events that are important to us, secrets we keep that become huge burdens, they’re nothing to other people. But some of our smallest interactions with someone can have a lasting effect that we may never truly understand.

 

So while I may not see it is important if I know about a twist in a book or not, there are clearly people out there who do care. So I’m not going to tell you any of the three things about Elsie, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

 

And you’ll be glad you did. In January 2018, when it’s published by Borough Press.

A(nother) Book Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

In between getting to read books that are coming out next year and trying to keep up with the incredible books that suddenly just appear on the shelves with no prior warning, sometimes I can miss a few hidden gems.

 

If I’m lucky, some of them will find their way back to me.

 

Occasionally, it’s just a passing conversation, but when someone goes to the effort of placing a copy on your desk – and another person tells you how good said book is – it feels like the great librarian in the sky is telling you to read it.

 

This is what happened with Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

First published in 2013, it shows us the lives of four men who grew up together in a small town in Wisconsin. We are first introduced to Hank – sometimes Henry – who introduces the reader to Lee, his childhood best friend who is now rock superstar Corvus.

 

Over the course of three weddings – Kip’s, Lee’s and Ronny’s – we learn how the four lives interact with each other over the various years.

 

There are obvious parallels for me to draw at this point between Shotgun Lovesongs and A Little Life.

 

They both concern themselves with the relationships between four male friends over a long period of their lives, but the trauma that we live through in A Little Life is a million miles away from the lives we observe in Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

Aside from four male leads, and the overall theme of love between male friends, the two are quite different.

 

A Little Life pulls you into the characters lives but the setting and even the time period of the story is unimportant, neglected even. That works for that book, though, because you are there with the characters. You are the fifth friend in the friendship group.

 

With Shotgun Lovesongs you are very aware of both the time and the place. It’s a neat trick for a writer to pull off when they can make you feel the temperature of a location in just a few sentences.

 

Nickolas Butler performs this trick with ease and it’s this sense of atmosphere that pulls you into the world of this small town America. The characters themselves are less well-drawn than those in Yanagihara’s opus, but the novel still works well.

 

Like A Little Life the main narrative is dominated by one particular relationship, however the conflict between the Lee and Henry is never fully resolved to this reader’s satisfaction.

 

Comparisons to A Little Life are difficult not to make – despite Shotgun Lovesongs being published first and any book would suffer for it, however this stands up admirably.

 

I just sort of wish I’d read it first – I think I would have enjoyed it even more than I did.

A(nother) Review: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

It’s lunchtime on a Sunday as I write this. That is where this blog post begins.

 

Except for you, it’s at least 2pm on Thursday, likely later than that, so maybe that’s where this blog post begins?

 

Or perhaps it started when a colleague – let’s call her Ginger Spice (again) – handed me a copy of The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich. Or when she first told me how great it was…

 

I could go on. And that’s the point.

 

The Fact of a Body is the true story of Marzano-Lesnevich’s mission to understand why Ricky Langley’s case struck a chord with her to the point that she couldn’t not investigate it.

 

Langley has been tried and convicted of killing six year old Jeremy Guillory and Marzano-Lesnevich first comes across him, when interning for a legal firm specializing in death-row appeals, she sees a video of Langley’s confession.

 

For her, that is where her story begins, but as she says herself, it also started elsewhere, some many years ago. Something that Marzano-Lesnevichrefers to herself in the introduction to the book, when she talks about an American legal case – Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad Co. The Palsgraf case is used to illustrate proximate cause.

 

Proximate cause refers to the start of a chain of events – which as we begin to discover, can sometimes be traced further and further back. The question becomes… when do you start that chain of events.

 

At first, I was expecting a legal investigation into Langley’s case, something along the lines of the podcast Serial, so I was slightly surprised when Marzano-Lesnevich started talking about her own childhood.

 

As we move through the book though, it becomes clear, this isn’t your typical straightforward exploration of a legal case. It’s a personal journey for the author, exploring what happened to her, at the same time, exploring why Langley did what he did.

 

I’m not sure what I think of this book. It’s page-turning, fascinating and structured in a way that more information is revealed as you go along – it’s never boring.

 

The Langley case is heartbreaking, and so thought provoking. The author does a good job of balancing both sides carefully. What Langley did to Jeremy is monstrous, but we learn more about Langley’s family history which in itself is inherently sad.

 

Where this doesn’t quite work for me is the author’s personal story. Horrible things occurred to her, but barring one or two times, I failed to connect to her emotionally.

 

The story was almost split three ways – Langley and his crime, young Alexandria and the crime that happened to her, and the older version of her who dominated much of the book. For me, it took too long for the relevance of all three parts to truly connect.

 

Having said that, I would definitely recommend this book – though it probably ought to come with a trigger warning.

 

This is the end of my review (Or is it?)

 

 

A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.

 

No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!

 

Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.

 

Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.

 

Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.

 

We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.

 

I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.

 

And then I read Sal.

 

Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.

 

Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.

 

This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.

 

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.

 

It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.

 

Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.

 

While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.

 

Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018

A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
(Me)
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.