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…!

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 Other Woman by Sandie Jones

We’re on our penultimate book of the Thumping Good Read Award shortlist and we’re onto one of my favourites (Yes, ok I’ve said that before, but to be fair, they wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t enjoy them!).

 

Before we get into The Other Woman – that didn’t come out quite the way I intended, but I’ll leave it there – I should let you know that there is only a day and a half left to vote for your favourite.

 

Head over to the WHSmith blog where you can find out more about the seven shortlisted titles – including the only one I’ve not featured yet One Of Us Is Lying (it’s another one of my favourites!). You have until the end of Friday 6thJuly to vote for your favourite and help decide who will win the £10,000 prize.

 

But back toThe Other Woman– what’s it about? It’s not about a mistress as you might initially think. Instead, it’s about a mother-in-law. Pammie.

 

Pammie.

 

You can just tell by that name that she’s going to be difficult, and boy does she cause trouble.

 

It’s been a couple of month since I read The Other Woman and I can still remember her name. I read a lot of books, all of them with a lot of characters and a lot of names. The plots stay with me – for better or for worse – but you can tell when a character is well-written, because they linger in your mind for ages.

 

The other way you can tell a character is well described is when you talk about the book with someone else, and you both say the character reminded you of the same person. In this instance @LucyHine and I both said Pammie was Bridget Jones’ mother.

 

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This might be all you need to know about her… but I’m going to tell you more. At least about the book.

 

Emily meets Adam and they instantly fall head over heels with each other. Things are going really well right up to the moment Adam takes her to meet his mother. This is where things start to take a turn.

 

Adam and Emily argue on the way to see Pammie, their first proper argument, but this is overshadowed by Pammie’s reaction to Emily. In public, she’s all smiles, but in private, she undermines Emily, starts playing games.

 

Emily starts to wonder if she’s imagining things, but it soon becomes clear that Pammie has taken a dislike to Emily, and is intent on doing anything to split her and Adam up. Not that Adam can see this.

 

The whole book is like a car crash, you can’t help but watch it, though you know how badly things are going to turn out.

 

The decline of Adam and Emily’s relationship is gradual, as an outsider, we can see it happening, in the same way that we sometimes look at our friends relationships and can see that it’s not working. But when you’re Emily, when you’re in the middle of the relationship, you just can’t see it.

 

The Other Woman is a compelling slice of relationship drama with an antagonist that is so vivid and ever-present that it’s hard to shake her months later. The only problem is that the character development of Pammie comes at the detriment to some of the other characters.

 

An example: Emily has a best friend whose sole function in this story is to be Emily’s friend, he has no life of his own, at least one that’s not explored – the few times we meet him, he’s a mouthpiece to Emily’s issues, we learn nothing about him – barring a few identifying clichés – and we skim over the conversation that’s not about Emily.

 

Generally, that’s ok, secondary characters are secondary for a reason, but the problem here is that because the story is told from Emily’s point of view, it colours her character and she comes across as self-centred and a little vacuous, which in turn hinders the amount of sympathy we’re being asked to direct to her.

 

But it’s a little gripe and is made up for entirely by a memorable villain and a brilliant, unexpected ending. This book ain’t going where you think it’s going.

 

The Other Woman is published by Pan and is available now as part of the Thumping Good Read award in WHSmith stores.