My Top 10 Books of 2016

 

About this time last year I revealed my Top 10 books of the year (check what they were here). I enjoyed doing it so much, that I’m going to do it again this year. One little rule – I’m excluding all the Harry Potters because otherwise my Top four would be dominated by him,.

 

Like many TV clip shows at the end of the year, you’ll have seen most of this before, but there is also some brand new content to keep you interested – as well as the drama of a countdown.

 

We’ll start – as is often traditional in Top Ten countdowns – at Number Ten…

 

  1. This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

 

A story about the construction then the subsequent demolition of the relationship between Daniel and Claudette. We witness all the moments around the big arguments and the big decisions, and the characters are richer for it. The ending seems inevitable, but it makes it even more satisfying when we get there.

 

  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley

 

A deeply mysterious book, one that describes the cold, wet countryside of England so well, that I feel cold even thinking about it now. What’s it about? It’s hard to describe. A pilgrimage of sorts to the eponymous Loney, an attempt to cure the protagonist’s brother. But it has an ending that stays with you.

 

  1. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

 

A retelling – or in my case, just the telling – of the story of Lizzie Borden. A brilliant piece of writing that presents the facts of the case, plus some suppositions to help the reader come to their own conclusion to what happened on that August day. Fascinating and creepy in equal measure. Definitely one to keep on the bookcase for a re-read.

 

  1. Seven Ways We Lie – Riley Redgate

 

A bit of a guilty pleasure, and am a bit surprised to see it so high up my list for 2016. It’s a fluffy and throwaway story about an American high school and a rumour that rockets around its corridors. I found it very funny, and a great bit of escapism from some of the heavier fare I usually read.

 

  1. Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon

 

One of two non-fiction books on the list…  It’s a book about mental illness, specifically Bryony Gordon’s, but also about YOURS because it’s hard to read about Bryony’s experiences without comparing and contrasting with your own. Some bits make you feel better, some bits make you feel worse, but you’ll come out of this book knowing yourself a bit more (gosh, that sounds American). If you read this and don’t recognise yourself in any of it, then you’re lucky – but hopefully, you’ll understand the rest of us a little bit more.

 

  1. And I Darken – Kiersten White

The tale of Lady Dracul, a take on Vlad the Impaler. A Game of Thrones style epic that pulls you into the politics of a country a million miles and a million years away from where you are. I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series.

 

  1. The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

 

A tough one – because this is real life. My biggest problem when it comes to Non-Fiction, I either don’t care because there’s no sensible narrative (spoiler, there is no sensible narrative in real life) or I care too much because ‘this really happened, damn it!’. This definitely falls into the latter – with the tragic story of a girl growing up coping with the result of a tragic accident involving her brother.

 

  1. The Stranger In My Home – Adele Parks

 

The only title on my list this year that I haven’t done a full review for, so here’s a mini one, right here.

 

I read this back in August, and the main reason for not writing a review is that I didn’t know what to say that I’ve not said about Adele before. This is her first contemporary novel since The State We’re In, which is one of my all-time favourites (And FYI, I’m still waiting for a movie adaptation?), and it tells of a couple who learn that their only daughter may in fact not be theirs.

 

Is everything as it seems? Tense in places, it builds to a wholly surprising but satisfying ending. This is my favourite thing about Adele’s writing. You’re sure you know where it’s going, yet you know there must be something else to it, and there is always something else to it, but until it happens you have absolutely no clue what it is. The clever bit, though, is that it makes perfect sense.

 

This is Adele’s take on the domestic noir genre that The Girl on the Train spawned, but there is more weight to this, more investment in the characters and much less reliant on a cheap twist. Currently only available in e-book, it’ll be released as a real book in January

 

  1. Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

 

A book that starts off as normal as any other, but soon descends into gothic horror. It blends the contemporary world with the ritualistic world of the past and slowly builds it from a calm acceptance to a complete breakdown of civilisation that leaves both hero and anti-hero in a state of shock.

 

  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

 

I called this way back at the beginning of the year. The sheer poetry of the writing alone was enough to make me fall in love with it, but the characters and plot drag you along with it. There’s no more that can be said that I haven’t already said. Just go and read it.

 

 

 

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Muse by Jessie Burton

When I spoke about Hex last week, I commented about how unique plots come along so rarely. It took a familiar plot of small town paranoia and hung it on the creepiest witch I’ve come across in fiction, forming a plot that will stay with me for a long time.

 

With Muse we get something similar. It takes a plot that’s almost soap-opera in it’s familial twists and hangs it on something completely unexpected – the provenance of a painting. Unexpected for two reasons.

 

  • Who would have thought you could make a book about the journey of a painting through the twentieth century interesting
  • Who would have thought you could do it twice?

 

The story of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch relied on the journey of a painting outlining somebody’s life, and Muse does the same thing.

 

It’s not a bad thing, it just struck me as odd.

 

The details of this particular plot are simple, proving that you don’t have to have a complicated plot to have a good book.

 

A few chance encounters lead to Odelle meeting a man who becomes quite infatuated with her. He tracks her down to working for an art dealer, and so takes along a painting that belonged to his recently deceased mother.

 

It turns out to be painted by Isaac Robles, a Spanish artist who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s.

 

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Isaac’s history and how the painting came to be in the possession of Lawrie Scott.

 

The question many people will be asking is “is it better than The Miniaturist?” – and I’m ashamed to have to admit, I have no idea. Yes, I am that one person who hasn’t yet read Jesse Burton’s 2014 hit.

 

But I can tell you if it’s a good book or not – and I loved it. The plot was great, simple, yet effective enough to not quite deliver what you were expecting.

 

It scores 3.5 out of 5 on my scale which is lower than I thought it would come out at.

 

It’s lowest score comes in the humour category. There is definitely a moment or two where it made me smile, but there isn’t a laugh out loud moment, and I can’t recall any particular moment.

 

Obviously not every book is a hysterical read from start to finish, but a high score in the ‘sad’ stakes usually balances those books out – this one didn’t really achieve that for me.

 

It didn’t particularly elicit any major emotions from me, it left me a little cold, and I think that’s because apart from Odelle, none of the characters particularly drew me in. There was something off about all of them that left me detached. Subsequently, I was rushing the larger parts of the book that didn’t feature Odelle.

 

Maybe the other characters were weaker, maybe Odelle was just so strong a character, but the combination of them, in retrospect, didn’t work for me.

 

Sometimes, that’s the problem with reading a book for review. You think too much into it.

 

3.5 out of 5 is a healthy score but Muse was a bit like a drunken night out. I enjoyed it while it was happening, but looking back on it, while I don’t regret it, I’m not exactly in a hurry to repeat it.

 

Still, this I think will be my benchmark book for this year. This is on the right side of a good book, and definitely one I would recommend, but it’s tipped over into that category by a strong plot, without it, this would be forgettable.

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton is published in Hardback in June 2016

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Sometimes you come across a story that’s so unique it sort of blows your mind a little. It’s not often it happens, though, because as we all know, there are only about seven basic plots – they’re all just re-told with different words, different names and different combinations.

 

Hex tells the story of Black Spring, a small town in North America haunted by a witch. Katherine van Wyler was killed by the residents of the town three hundred and fifty years previously… but came back.

 

Possessing unique powers that caused people to kill themselves, some residents stitched up her eyes and mouth, rendering her nearly harmless.

 

Yet still she wanders the streets of the town. The residents have become accustomed to her presence, and have mostly accepted her as part of their lives. Appearing in their dining rooms during dinner, they throw blankets over her and carry on with their meals.

 

There is one price they have to pay. Once the residents are in her grip they find themselves unable to leave Black Spring for any length of time. After some time, two or three weeks, they are irresistibly drawn to kill themselves.

 

The townsfolk must stay in Black Spring, but in order to protect anyone else from Katherine, they must protect her from the rest of the world.

 

The idea of a haunting is not new, but the idea of this town being so accustomed to her that she is almost like a pet was so intriguing. I can understand the sudden appearance of this woman in your house being so incredibly creepy, but I’m not sure I can understand ever getting used to it. It’s an unbelievable scenario, yet somehow Heuvelt makes it completely believable.

 

Obviously, things start to go wrong. A group of children are curious, they have phones, they make recordings, and it starts a chain of events that cannot be stopped.

 

Despite the obvious supernatural element, I’m not sure I would describe this book as horror. It’s tense and creepy, definitely, but it’s not initially gory.

 

This is a book about small town paranoia last seen (by me at least) in Stephen King’s Under the Dome – in that context, Hex is nothing new.

 

A small American town is cut off from the rest of the world – either physically or culturally – through some supernatural event, and their relationships become more and more strained, building to a dramatic climax.

 

The characters in Hex are real. The author has taken a real community and put something extraordinary in it. Too often, books like this are about the extraordinary, and the characters and society around it are moulded to fit it.

 

Katherine doesn’t fit in in Black Spring to the point that it becomes a fascinating point of contrast. We don’t ever see things from her point of view, but I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. This witch with stitched up eyes and lips felt real to me, entirely because the town felt real.

 

I was describing it to someone at work who said they didn’t read horror and I tried to explain why that didn’t matter. Katherine is the stimulus for the plot, the cause of tension between the characters, but the story isn’t actually about her.

 

It’s about mob mentality and the paranoia of human beings when things start to go wrong. A huge amount of Hex could be kept the same if Katherine the witch was substituted for Kevin the sex offender (not casting any aspersions on any Kevin’s out there). Who and what the antagonist is, doesn’t matter.

 

Except for the ending. Without giving too much away, it was a little confusing. Imagine a meteor hitting a shopping centre and trying to explain in ten pages or so everything that happened to every one of the thousands of people in the shopping centre.

 

The trouble is, I wanted to know what happened, but I also didn’t have a spare five months to read about it, and the writer knew that. So, it was condensed, and I felt in some cases it might have been worth not learning what happened to some characters in order to focus on some of the others.

 

Our main character, Steve Grant, didn’t witness everything that happened at the end, and despite the fact that the book moved viewpoints throughout, I would have preferred the end to stay with him. The emotional impact of the ending would have been far greater.

 

That’s not to say it wasn’t great, but I can’t really talk about it without spoiling it too much. Suffice to say that if and when the TV series currently being developed by Warner Brothers does go ahead, it will make an epic end of season cliffhanger.

 

A strangely believable setting with a strong cast of characters, this tale of small town paranoia is definitely worth a read when it gets released in hardback at the end of April.

 

It’s not revolutionary, but damn, I’m not sure I’ll ever get past that creepy witch.

 

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt scores an impressive 4.3 out of 5