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!

 

 

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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

There are stories that we all know, they’re woven into the fabric of our society so much that we can all recite a version of them at the drop of hat. Stories like Cinderella, Aladdin and Harry Potter.

 

(Ok, maybe just me on that last one)

 

Then there are stories that we all think we know, the kind that would have us smiling confidently if they were the beginning of a question on a pub quiz, but would then leave us completely flummoxed by the end.

 

Robin Hood for example, we all know what happens there right. Robin Hood lives in Sherwood Forest, and he takes money from the rich and gives to the poor and Tony Robinson runs about sporting a rather dodgy goatee. There’s a love interest as well – Maid Marian – and she… well something happens to her probably. Kidnapped or locked up.

 

Alan Rickman turns up as well at some point… and where exactly does the cartoon fox come into it?

 

If you’d asked me a week ago if I knew the story of Robin Hood, I would have sworn blind that I did, but now that I think about it, I actually can’t quite pinpoint all of the plot details.

 

Why am I talking about him? Only because I’ve just finished reading another book about a familiar figure whose story I thought I knew and I was fishing around for a comparable figure.

When I saw the rhyming couplet on the back of the proof copy of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, I immediately gave a knowing nod:

 

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks

 

When saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one

 

 

I thought I knew the story of Lizzie Borden. A little girl (probably blonde with pigtails and pink dungarees) who went crazy with an axe and killed her family in some remote house in America. No one knew if she had actually done it, or was the sole survivor of the massacre.

 

Like I say, I thought I knew the story, but when I heard about Schmidt’s novel I realised I wasn’t all that certain.

 

I had, as it turns out, slightly misunderstood the story. I definitely would have lost points on that pub quiz.

 

Lizzie Borden was no young girl, she was in fact, thirty two.

Nor was she the sole survivor of a massacre – it was just (!) the double murder of her father and step-mother.

 

So, what is the story? I’m not sure I’m going to tell you. Either you know it already, in which case my explanation will be pointless, or you don’t, in which case reading the book will be all the more rewarding.

 

Schmidt clearly knows the story, both the elements that are known and those which are not. She uses a narrative split four ways between Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and – as far as I can tell – the thoroughly fictitious Benjamin, a low-life thug-for-rent.

 

The fact that Andrew and Abby Borden are killed on the morning of the 4th August 1892 is no secret, and Schmidt uses that to her advantage, allowing her characters to split the storytelling – Lizzie and Emma’s viewpoints starting moments after the death of their parents, and Bridget and Benjamin’s viewpoints starting the day prior.

 

Straight away Lizzie is a thoroughly unreliable narrator and Schmidt’s writing is clever enough that even through her own internal monologue she never reveals whether she ‘done it’ or not.

 

Benjamin is a clever invention from Schmidt to help tie up some of the unanswered questions from the events of those two days (my ‘research’ on Wikipedia tells me at least) and Bridget is built up well to the point that you could believe she many have been the culprit.

 

It is Emma, Lizzie’s elder sister, however that is perhaps the most interesting figure. A sad figure whose life seems to have been wasted in service of her younger, spoilt sister. She almost certainly didn’t do it – unless a convoluted theory involving a well-timed thirty mile round trip has any legs – and has the hints of a happy ending.

 

That is until you read on Wiki that she actually died just a week after Lizzie – a fact that makes her life seem even more melancholic, tied so closely as it was through her younger years to Lizzie’s.

 

Nobody knows who killed the Borden’s – so how does Schmidt end the story?

 

The truth is – SPOILER ALERT – she doesn’t solve the mystery, but she gives the reader enough information and supposition to make their own mind up.

 

See What I Have Done is a masterpiece in storytelling, planting the reader as the ultimate (and literal) fly on the wall of a house that is beset with unpleasantness, both before and after the murders.

 

The incidents of those few days seen through the eyes of all four characters could seem repetitive, but Schmidt cleverly avoids that by allowing the readers to embody the characters and witnessing the events as if for the first time.

 

Perhaps the most imposing character throughout the entire book is that of the Borden house. Schmidt’s description of it is so vivid that it feels instantly familiar and suffocating.

 

See What I Have Done is an intriguing, claustrophobic novel that instantly made me itch to know more about these gruesome murders. It is clearly a subject that Schmidt knows a lot about, but she manages to avoid the pitfalls of showing off, and instead presents a fantastic take on a tale we all thought we knew.

 

See What I Have Done is published in Hardback on 4th May 2017

 

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

I did something I don’t normally do with books. I folded down a corner of a page because I wanted to come back to something.

 

“Nurse Margaret had not heard what I was really saying, which is what kindness there is in the things our mothers do.”

 

Our main character Etta thought this at the age of eleven, back in 1941.

 

I had intended to come back to it for this blog to talk about how some of the language of the book doesn’t match the age of the character.

 

I can well believe that an old lady, someone born in 1930 would speak like that at the age of 80, but I find it hard to believe that such an eloquence of language exists in an eleven year old, no matter what year they were born.

 

However towards the end of the book, we learn that the story is being written by Etta as a slightly older character, one who has been through more than you imagine at the beginning of the book. Coming back to this sentence, once I’d finished the book, the choice of language makes more sense.

 

The language is not distracting at all, and this was my only real quibble with the book. It was a nicely written tale of a group of schoolgirls at a boarding school in China during World War 2.

 

The girls grow up like any normal girls, forming groups, shunning outcasts, measuring breasts. I imagine that last bit is normal, I wouldn’t know, and frankly, I don’t really want to know.

 

Their lives change dramatically when they end up in a Prisoner of War camp, but this occurs nearly two thirds of the way through the book, and from there we race through from age eleven up to the age of fifteen when Etta is on her way back to England, to a home she has never known before.

 

It’s enjoyable and inoffensive, but there wasn’t anything in this that particularly stood out to me. But I can imagine to some, people with similar backgrounds, young women, there is much about this book that will resonate.

 

The novel’s sense of place could be stronger. Although not an alien world to Etta having spent her entire life in China, we are presented with a small boarding school nestled in the mountains. There is a sense of isolation, and nearly no sense of being in a stranger’s land. There is little interaction with the native Chinese.

 

I’m struggling to form my feelings on the book – it’s a solid story, and I don’t regret reading it, but perhaps the reason I’m struggling to reconcile my feelings, is that it didn’t really invoke any.

The Widow by Fiona Barton

“The ultimate psychological thriller.”

Ok.

 

“Shortlisted for Richard and Judy Search for a bestseller competition”

Interesting.

 

“If you liked the Girl on the Train, you’ll love The Widow.”

Oh.

 

Oh dear.

 

Before I started reading it, I wanted to like The Widow, there’s a little bit of a buzz about it in the industry, and I love it when a book becomes a huge success, but regular readers will know that likening something to The Girl on the Train is not going to massively enthuse me.

 

On a side note, it’s really irritating when people say things like “2016’s Girl on the Train”

 

For a start Girl on the Train was not 2015’s anything, it stood on it’s own merit.

 

Secondly, nobody remembers what 2014’s Gone Girl was (mostly because Gone Girl was still selling).

 

Thirdly, you’re only setting the readers up for disappointment. Either they hated Girl on the Train and so won’t buy this, or they loved it – and this doesn’t love up to it.

 

I was disappointed by Girl on The Train (she kept getting off the train, for one) and so with some trepidation I sat down to begin The Widow.

 

We’ll start with the positives… mostly because there are some.

 

It was a total page-turner which pushes the reader on, right to the end.

 

Kate, the reporter, is a very well drawn character and the scenes involving her and the photographer are the most realistic of the whole book. Not surprising considering the previous occupation of the author (clue: it rhymes with preporter).

 

Despite being set across several years, and jumping about in time in no discernible pattern, the book actually flows quite well. The time jumps are not jarring as they easily could have been – and often are in other books.

 

There are other positives, but they involve the resolution of the plot and so I’m not going to go into too much detail on those.

 

Onto the negatives, and in truth, it’s not negatives plural, there’s one thing wrong with this book.

 

The writing is lazy.

 

Jean and Glen, the couple at the heart of the story, are written as if they’re in their late fifties, sixties – but the writer for absolutely no reason has insisted on putting them in their thirties. Every time their young age is referenced, it shatters the illusion, the image that has formed in the mind.

 

The writing is spot on… for an older couple. And there is no benefit to pretending they’re young.

 

This is the biggest problem with the writing, but there are various other things that don’t quite work.

 

For example, our police officer gains a new colleague during the book named Zara, she is classed as thirty five, and then the writer suggests she is named such as her parents were probably fans of the Royal Family.

 

That’ll be Zara Phillips they’re referencing who isn’t even thirty five now, let alone in 2008 when that particular scene was set.

 

It took me ten seconds on the internet to work out the maths of that, but once again, it was a moment that took me out of the book, because it didn’t seem quite right.

 

And once again, there was no need for it. She could have just been called Zara with no further reference as to why and the book would have carried on fine.

 

There are lots of little things like this throughout and it’s so disappointing because this could have been a really good book.

 

Ultimately, it’s ok. It’s annoying when you read it, but you do want to read it, and you do want to find out what happened. It’s a great read for passing some time on a plane, or by a pool, and by that measure it will sell really well, but you probably won’t remember it a week later.

The Secrets We Keep by Jonathan Harvey

I don’t know what I was expecting from this book, I’d never read any of Harvey’s previous novels, but I knew the name.

For those that don’t, he is the man behind ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, ‘Beautiful Thing’ and ‘Beautiful People’ as well as having written over two hundred episodes of ITV soap ‘Coronation Street’.

I think it’s fair to say that his comedy in ‘Beautiful People’ and certainly in ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ was broad and far from subtle. Don’t get me wrong, I loved both, but it was these that I had in mind when I came to reading his latest novel.

I’d forgotten all about the touching, sensitive ‘Beautiful Thing’.

The Secrets We Keep, while very funny in places, was between Beautiful People and Beautiful Thing on the spectrum of Harvey’s writing,

Writing for television and plays is a very different thing than writing for novels, but why I was surprised that a professional writer should be able to write, I’ll never know.

He was, as I should have expected, very good.

The book is about a family who, five years on from the disappearance of their father/husband, move away from their family home to a new area. This drags everything up as their new neighbours recognise them as the minor celebrities they became during Danny’s initial disappearance.

They seem like a normal family. Exasperated mother, gay son in a relationship breaking down and a bratty teenage daughter who feels like the world is against her. Danny, the missing part of their lives, seems like a normal, suburban father, who, one day, just went missing near the cliffs at Beachy Head.

As the book progresses, we start to realise that Owen, Danny’s son, knows something more, while Cally, his daughter, is determined to flee home to become a model.

And then we learn about Danny, from his perspective. We hear his life story from the eighties, right up until he disappeared. The writing is realistic, totally believable, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine this man belonging in the family we’ve been getting to know.

Ultimately, that’s something that doesn’t ever feel a hundred per cent right. Once we know the truth behind his disappearance, the man he became doesn’t quite match up to the boy and young man he was.

Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps it’s a commentary on how life, how family changes us. Owen and Cally certainly change, with the latter being the most annoying character early on, but becoming one of the most sympathetic characters towards the end.

Cally is growing up, at the age of sixteen, she’s left it late, and what she’s growing up from is the most horrendous teenage girl you’ve ever come across, but she does start to evolve, even finally starting to bond with her mother.

The ending is an interesting choice and while I won’t spoil it here, I’m undecided whether I liked it or not. Things are left hanging, as if there’s a final chapter missing.

The Secrets We Keep is a brilliantly written novel, with many laugh out loud moments, but be prepared to suspend belief slightly for some soapy plot twists and coincidences.