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…!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Writing is hard.

 

Even the writers who claim to just open a blank page and then start writing will begrudgingly agree with this.

 

There are writers who do tons and tons of research for months beforehand, while others go the opposite way and make up their own richly developed worlds where they get to decide the rules and history. There’s no research in that, but it’s just as hard – if not harder.

 

But it’s always been mystery writers who get my respect. Those who are able to write a compelling story around one simple question – whodunit?

 

As a – so far – unsuccessful writer, I know first hand how hard it is. I spent six years writing a novel, a murder mystery, carefully placing clues, highlighting them subtly to the reader but not drawing too much attention to them, drip feeding enough information that they could solve the problem, but not so much that it makes it easy.

 

I played around with my structure, my lead character couldn’t be everywhere at once, so things had to happen in certain orders. People had to let slip small pieces of information at opportune moments without it being too clichéd, too signposted.

 

I brought in flashbacks to help inform the reader, to keep it interesting, to give them the same information my lead was getting without pages and pages of exposition.

 

It was hard keeping every ball in the air and I STILL didn’t get published (apart from the pages on this very blog… what’s that you want a link? Oh, go on then, click here to start from the beginning). Imagine how hard a published writer would have had to work.

 

That – finally – brings me to this week’s book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

 

It is a typical Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery. Big old house in the country, a huge cast of characters. Deceit, betrayal, blackmail and of course, death.

 

How to solve the mystery, though? How to solve the problem of a character needing to be everywhere at once? How does one person do the job of a whole police force?

 

Here’s the clever bit – our main character, Aidan Bishop has woken up in the body of someone else, with no memory, either his or those of his host. He soon learns that upon falling asleep at the end of the day he will re-live the day again, this time in the body of someone else.

 

He will see the same day from eight different perspectives, and all he has to do to escape from this loop – he’s done the eight lives several times before – is solve the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle.

 

Think Quantum Leap meets Downton Abbey via Groundhog Day.

 

I love a murder mystery, and I cannot resist time travel, so this book had the perfect premise for me. I didn’t see the reveal coming, but in retrospect it all works which is one of the few things I ask for in a mystery.

 

On top of these elements, there was an interesting power struggle between Bishop, essentially a blank slate, and the pull of the personalities from his hosts. Each character he – and subsequently we – inhabited felt completely different, but familiar at the same time.

 

Lastly, the trap that some of these books fall into, perhaps one of the traps I fell into, is that of the cast of supporting characters. Too few and it’s obvious who-in-fact-dun-it, too many and it can overwhelm the reader.

 

Turton has a huge cast of characters, fifty plus have travelled to Blackheath for a party and that works in his favour. Our lead characters can claim not to know many of them, and therefore we get them drip-fed into our consciousness. On the flip side, enough of them are omnipresent to make it feel like we’re not completely detached from what has come before.

 

All in all – my favourite book of the year so far – and I’m incredibly jealous I didn’t have the idea.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books on 8th February

Underground by SL Grey

Murder mysteries are tricky things to write. I know this because the book I spent eight years writing that isn’t quite good enough to be published (not bitter) is a murder mystery.

The hardest thing about them, especially in a contemporary setting, is keeping all the characters in one place while you tell the story. If you’ve just murdered someone, the sensible thing would be to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible, not wait around to be interrogated by an amateur sleuth.

That’s why most murder mysteries – and the hugely successful Midsomer Murders – tend to take place in villages. There’s an unconscious understanding that most people who live in villages are usually reluctant to leave the boundaries.

(Before any village folk come at me wielding pitchforks, I’m aware that I’m making a massive generalisation – but it’s true. The smaller the bubble, the more likely the audience is going to buy that the murderer hasn’t scarpered.)

When Agatha Christie did it, she locked a bunch of strangers on a train. When I did it, I locked a family in a remote mansion during a storm at Christmas (there was no way they were getting out of that house).

S L Grey – actually the combination of two writers – does it by bunging a bunch of strangers in a missile silo.

The idea is they’re a group of paranoid Americans who have paid for a room in the silo to wait out the end of the world – when a (generic) virus breaks out in Asia, they all head to the silo.

Once they’re all down there, there’s a death, obviously – and many arguments about who it might have been. Then there are more deaths, before near-on hysteria just before…

Well, I shan’t ruin it for anyone who does want to read it, but… this book is not what I was expecting at all. Because it was based in a silo, and with the virus happening outside, I thought we’d get something like Hugh Howey’s Wool – a more dystopian feel to the whole thing.

What we get, however is a silo that may as well be an apartment complex with a locked door and a virus that is dismissed fairly early on. The focus of the book is on the characters and the mystery. Which would be fine, except none of the characters are particularly likeable or intriguing, and the ones that are, are sidelined for the noisy rednecks.

Which leaves us with the mystery – I did keep reading on to find out what was happening, so the book succeeded in that respect, however the actual resolution is not very well executed. The answer to who/what caused the initial death is pretty much a cop-out and the reader finds out in what amounts to a footnote.

Plus, the end turns things on their head so that two of the survivors who are about the only ones you’re rooting for, actually turn out to be just as bad as all the others.

The only real mystery left unresolved is how it took TWO people to write this book.

(And yes, I did put myself on a par with Agatha Christie – I’m a literary genius. Deal with it.)

Waiting For Doggo

Waiting For Doggo

By Mark Mills

We have a bit of a game in our office. We try and find the most ridiculous X meets Y descriptors for new books.

Publishers will often try to sell a book into us by telling us it’s the next Gone Girl (which was the next Before I Go To Sleep, by the way) – or the next Fifty Shades. If there’s no obvious comparison they’ll tell us it’s the prodigal child of two other blockbusters.

 

Maeve Binchy meets Dan Brown

Harry Potter meets Queer as Folk

Game of Thrones meets Bridget Jones (Bridget Thrones, anyone?)

 

Ok – so, we’ve never actually had any of those (as far as I know!) but these are the kinds of descriptors we get. It’s sort of ridiculous, for example Gone Girl was bigger, better and completely different to BIGTS, but sort of understandable. I’ve used it myself (Memories of a Murder is Agatha Christie meets LOST, in case you were wondering) – it’s a really quick and simple way of explaining what you’re going to get.

Last week I received a proof copy of the new Mark Mills – Waiting for Doggo. Frankly, I was sold on the title alone – but the inside blurb describes it as appealing to ‘readers of Marley and Me and One Day and fans of It’s A Wonderful Life’

I’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life (shock!), I adored One Day, and I’ve never been that enticed by Marley & Me, so I had no idea what to expect when I opened this book.

First of all, it’s nothing like One Day, it has nowhere near the same emotional punch – but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good.

It’s a short book, but it’s almost perfectly constructed. It tells the tale of Dan who’s girlfriend of several years one day, just leaves him, leaving only a letter behind. She takes everything that they bought together over the years, including a wooden salad bowl. The only thing she’s left behind is the most recent addition to their family, an ugly, rescue dog temporarily named Doggo.

Doggo and Dan do not get on, but somehow they start to form a bond as Dan starts his new job at an advertising agency. Amazingly, Doggo is the most well-drawn character in the book, despite actually not getting a huge amount of ‘page-time’ (like screen time, but on paper).

That’s not a put down on the other characters, I actually think the reason the books is because he’s not a character, he’s a real person who springs forth right at the beginning of the book – everyone else – including Doggo – are the characters we see develop through his eyes, some of the minor ones not that well defined, to be honest.

The similarities between Doggo and Dan are not subtle, but they’re not clichéd, it’s this link between them, along with a great sense of humour (the Hatchback of Notre Dame particularly made me chuckle) makes for a great book.

There is a small emotional punch – naturally at the conclusion of Doggo’s arc – which almost elicits a tear or two, but at a mere 208 pages, the book can’t afford to dabble in sentimentality and so avoids dragging it out too long.

Waiting for Doggo is it’s own book – it deserves to stand alone on it’s own merit, so whether you’re a fan of Marley and Me, Game of Thrones or midgets wrestling in jelly (that last one’s not a book, I hope) – give it a go, at most you’ll lose an hour or two of your life, but the chances are you’ll find a little gem.

For me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

If you can get hold of a proof copy, then do it – otherwise you’ll have to wait until it’s officially published in November of this year.