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: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

You know what it’s like, you wait three years for a new John Boyne novel, and then suddenly it’s an annual event.

I was still recommending and thinking about The Heart’s Invisible Furies when a copy of his 2018 offering – A Ladder to The Sky – fell onto my desk. I wasn’t expecting it – after such an excellent piece like Furies, I thought we’d have to wait a couple of years before the next one.

A Ladder to The Sky is a novel about never-ending ambition. The type of ambition that makes you keep on going, setting a new goal every time you reach your previous. Where does it stop… and how much are you willing to do to get there?

At first, I noticed the similarities to The Heart’s Invisible Furies – A Ladder to the Sky at first seems to be a story about an older gay man retelling the story of his life, similar to the way we explored Cyril Avery’s life, however it soon becomes apparent that this is a tale not about the storyteller, but about the listener, Maurice Swift.

The way that Erich Ackermann talks about the young man, it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. And that’s exactly what Ackermann does.

A Ladder to the Sky is a slow exploration into Maurice Swift’s character. It starts off told from afar, each viewpoint getting closer and closer to the truth of who Swift really is.

Boyne’s writing is so clever, he makes us fall in love with Swift, and so quickly, then starts to peel away his layers like an onion. Each of those layers reveals a reason not to love Swift, and all the way through, no matter what terrible thing we learn, it’s difficult not to still harbour a fondness, a certain admiration for Swift.

Even at his most terrible, I found it hard not admire his determination, his self-belief.

I wrote down a few of my favourite lines, either brilliantly written or a nice observation:

Just because one is homosexual does not mean one is lonely.

 

What is loneliness other than the lack of love?

 

Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up

 

Perhaps the person I admire most here, though, is John Boyne himself. He takes a complex life, explores it over many years, interacts with many characters and still manages to tie up all the loose strands – if not into a perfectly, resolved bow, then into a close knot.

A brilliant novel from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite novelists.

A Ladder to the Sky is published by Doubleday and is available now

A(nother) Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

             One of the problems of being vocal about having a favourite book is that often people give you books that ‘you’ll love – it’s just like A Little Life’.

 

Here’s the thing, if I wanted to read a book just like A Little Life, I’d just read A Little Life – anything else runs the risk of just being a pale imitation.

 

So when two people suggested I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne for that very reason, I was pretty skeptical. When the person who I share my love of A Little Life told me it was nothing like it, my skepticism turned to indifference and the book was placed onto the windowsill of perpetuity. So-called because once a book ends up on there, it can take some time before I take it off – if I ever do.

 

However, I did promise to read it while on a break from work, and in truth, it was the perfect time. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is quite a tome at over six hundred pages long, so with a fortnight of downtime looming, I thought I had just the right opportunity.

 

As it was, I didn’t need a fortnight.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies tells the story of Cyril Avery from just before birth, right through to his seventieth year in 2015.

 

Cyril is the result of an affair between Catherine and an older man, a scandal in her hometown of Goleen. The parish priests of Ireland in 1945 didn’t look too kindly on children born out of wedlock and Catherine was banished from her village.

 

In Dublin, Catherine gives up her child and gains a job at the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. Cyril is given to an odd couple – the Avery’s – who seem to have only wanted a child in the same way that a person might want an ornament for their shelf.

 

We check in with Cyril every seven years of his life, and each part seems to be a self contained story – this is similar to how A Little Life is constructed, which, at times feels like lots of small stories sewn together.

 

However in most other elements, it is quite different. A Little Life was timeless, no doubt a modern day story, but with no elements that could specifically date it. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is quite pointedly set at a specific time and place in history.

 

As well as being the story of Cyril Avery, it is the story of the progression of gay rights in Ireland, of how far things have changed over the course of seventy years, while A Little Life is a story about the relationships between men both physical and emotional, it doesn’t necessarily dwell on the sexuality of the main characters.

 

For these differences, it actually doesn’t feel right to compare the two books. So, for now, I’ll stop.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an engrossing story, which somewhat relies on coincidence and happenstance to make it’s point. This, when combined with the seven-yearly structure, does give the reader a slight detachment.

 

It is hard to inhabit a character’s mind-set when some of the more dramatic moments of his life happen at the end of a chapter, before a leap forward in time of seven years. The emotions that Cyril must have felt, the grief, are not delved into in any great focus, instead we are exploring the next part of his life.

 

This is ok. The reason I’m dwelling on it, is that It kind of works without the need to dive into those feelings. The ending is pretty emotional, it elicits a tear or two without being too sentimental.

 

I said it’s hard to inhabit his mind-set, but Boyne achieves the emotional connection with the character without exploring those feelings, because we know without having to read it, exactly how Cyril would react. I can’t help but wonder how deep that connection would be if we had lingered a little on some of those big moments.

 

The last thing to say about this book is the humour. It could have been po-faced. It covers topics such as abuse, rape, prostitution, murder, homophobia, abandonment… It could have been so miserable, however there are some truly funny bits in it. Sustained laugh out loud moments, that make you realise just how un-funny books be.

 

So, here’s the thing. Why have people been comparing this to A Little Life if they’re so different? Well, maybe they’re not that different after all.

 

While covering different themes – and doing them in different ways – there is a connection between them. They’re not identical, but they are, I guess, cousins. They sit well together, and anyone has enjoyed the former, will definitely enjoy the latter.

 

Book of the year? Maybe. Probably. I’m going to stop commenting on that, because I’m starting to look stupid.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday and is available now