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(nother) Review: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

 

After last week declaring that I didn’t read much Non Fiction, I went straight into reading another Non Fiction title. It’s not something I would have normally done, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back into a Fiction book, however, the subject of the book was irresistible, particularly after reading Sara Pascoe’s Animal.

 

Animal was part-memoir part text book about the female body and mind and society’s attitudes towards it.

 

How Not to Be A Boy to me felt like it might be the same from a male point of view, so jumping straight into it from Animal felt like the perfect thing to do.

 

Initially, I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment comes from my own expectations, promises that were made by neither the author or the publisher.

 

It is much more of a traditional memoir, an exploration of how Webb grew up feeling different to his father and brothers, and how he felt that meant he wouldn’t fall into the same traps as them.

 

Men don’t talk about their feelings. One of the many possible chapter headings that Webb could have used is the over-arching feeling to this book, and while this is not fictional, it’s been structured and written to make the reader realise that at a young age Webb realises all of these so-called rules are bullshit, but he ends up believing and attempting to adhere to them anyway.

 

The chapters are both funny and sad, often at both at the same time, and in fiction Webb would be an unreliable narrator – just when you’re starting to think he’s being a giant cock to everyone, he reveals something else that has been going on in the background that explains it all.

 

I was a little frustrated as we got towards the last chapter, Webb has talked about his relationships with women and his wife and daughters, but had barely touched upon his bisexuality, apart from a small fumble with a friend back in school.

 

Nor has he offered any potential solutions to this problem of fragile masculinity that he’s explored throughout the book.

 

But then in the last chapter, he talks about how he finally told his dad that he liked boys as well. He mentions boyfriends – that we as readers didn’t meet – and his brother already knows, we don’t find out how. For Webb, obviously, the most important factor of his bisexuality is his father’s reaction – and it’s an interesting one, not one that we would expect.

 

As for how we change these unspoken rules, Webb presents the solution in his parenting of his two young daughters. Change yourself, and instill different  attitudes in your children.

 

His family openly talks about ‘The Trick’ this idea that men have to be a certain way, and how both men and women are fooled into believing it. Feminism, he writes, is not about men vs women, it’s about men and women vs the trick.

 

It’s a brilliant ending to the book, one that neatly ties up the various hanging questions he has left dangling in previous chapters.

 

I went into the book expecting part-memoir, part lecture on masculinity, and was initially disappointed that it was more of a memoir than I was expecting. I leave it wanting more memoir.

 

The funny, and surprisingly touching How Not To be A Boy is published on 29th August 2017 by Canongate

A(nother) Review: Animal by Sara Pascoe

I don’t read non fiction very much, but when I’m travelling on a train, I’ve discovered it’s the best kind of read  – you can dip in and out of it at a moment’s notice and quickly pick up from where you left off as you jump on the tube.

 

The only trouble is I don’t travel alone on a train very often.

 

For the past four months I’ve been reading Animal by Sara Pascoe – which may seem like an odd choice for a gay man, seeing as it is, as subtitled An Autobiography of a Female Body.

 

Pascoe, however, has always made me laugh, so I thought I’d give this a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

The book is a semi-autobiographical exploration of what it means to be a woman in the twenty first century. It’s told through the guise of explaining how the female body works, but in reality, it is a story of how it got to where it is today, and how it works in a modern context.

 

It’s split into three sections: Love; Body; Consent

 

Love is perhaps the most interesting, exploring the concept of why women – and to a lesser extent men – fall in love with the people they do. It explores the evolutionary advantages of falling in love, and has a stab at explaining why we do it and other animals don’t.

 

Body, as you might guess deals with the parts of the body that are female specific, and the processes that occur in them. There’s a lot of talk of vaginas in it, which is an area I have very little experience with – nor do I want much experience with.

 

I don’t like thinking about other people’s bodies but Pascoe’s humour dealt with it in the right way, letting me learn about the whole topic without making me too uncomfortable. However, I think the only way I got through the page with the sketch of a vagina on it was the clear discomfort of the businessman who happened to be sitting next to me.

 

Consent was perhaps the most powerful and thought provoking section of the book. It investigates the laws around rape and considers the concept of consent, as well as the age of consent.

 

For instance, consider the following questions:

 

  • In the UK, a person who is fifteen years old and eleven months cannot consent to sex. A person who is two months older can. What happens in that two-month period to educate them? If there is no difference between them – at what point is a person physically and mentally able to consent to sex?

 

  • Person X wakes up next to Person Y who is still sleeping and proceeds to wake Person Y by initiating sex. Person Y is literally – as Pascoe says – shagged awake. At that point, Person Y joins in, passionate and enthusiastic. But Person X did not gain consent until the point at which Person Y was awake. Prior to that, was the act sexual assault? Can consent be given retrospectively? And does this precedence give Person X permission to try the same thing again the next morning?

 

This is all quite heavy stuff, but Sara Pascoe presents it all with a humour that makes it readable in a way that makes you not quite realise that it might be changing the way you think – not necessarily just about consent, but about all manner of things.

 

It would make a fascinating read for any person, I’m sure, but for men this provides an incredible insight into worlds we know nothing about.

 

Plus it’s funny.