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 Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

Last week, I got up on my little soapbox and had a rant about diversity in commercial fiction, so this week I decided to try and remedy the situation by picking up a VERY GAY book – one which struggled to get published, a victim of the type of behaviour I detailed at the end of the last blog post, people saying ‘It’s just not commercial enough.’

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain was published following a campaign through Unbound – a publisher where each book is crowdfunded. If enough people want to read it, the book will be published.

 

Any book that gets published through Unbound HAS to be commercial, because it starts off life by making money from people before the book is even available.

 

Cain’s novel was Unbound’s fasted crowdfunded novel ever – proving that an audience existed.

 

The Madonna of Bolton tells the life of Charlie Matthews, from young boy to adulthood. It’s a story about a gay boy from Bolton who struggles not really with his sexuality, but with other people’s acceptance of it. His family and schoolfriends, particularly.

 

Like most gay men, Charlie projects a lot of his insecurities onto those around him and sees slights and takes offence when there is none to be taken. He’s very real.

 

The book is quite white and doesn’t feature sexualities other than gay men. White gay men are perhaps a minority that have experienced the most progress over the last few years, the most representation in media, even if it is cliched at times. At least it’s there. It’s a step along a long path.

 

So, why am I celebrating this? What makes this any different to The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne or the upcoming Patrick Gale Take Nothing With You?

 

All three of those novels tell the story of young, white men and their struggles growing up gay. The difference between them and Cain’s is the tone.

 

I loved all three of those books (particularly Gale’s) – but they all take themselves quite seriously. There is humour in them, of course, but they tend to dwell on the more serious elements of their stories.

 

The Madonna of Bolton is funny. Throughout. Intentionally. I lost count of the amount of times I laughed while reading it. Cain certainly has a gift for slipping a gag into the story, a skill which more accomplished writers struggle with.

 

It helps his characters, both our lead Charlie and his surrounding friends seem more real. Look around at your friends, your colleagues. They’re not all wringing their hands constantly, worrying about the bad things that are happening  to them. Even at their lowest, they’re cracking jokes, enjoying themselves, even if it is just a façade they’re putting on.

 

That’s not to say Cain avoids the serious bits of life. The book builds to several dramatic moments and a few personal epiphanies from Charlie which may well bring a tear to your eye. He definitely evolves over the course of the book, and he takes the reader with him. We want him to succeed in life, we want him to have a happy ending.

 

If this was a story about a woman, written by a woman, there’d be no question of this of having ever ended up on Unbound. Traditional publishers would have snapped it up and it would be all over every retailer, in all the supermarkets.

 

The Madonna of Boltonby Matt Cain, published by Unbound is available now.

A(nother) Rambling: Majority Report

I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.

 

For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.

 

My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers.  There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.

 

The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.

 

Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.

 

For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.

 

In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand.  The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.

 

The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.

 

ONE.

 

Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.

 

Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written.  It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.

 

If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.

 

Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.

 

Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?

 

Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.

 

With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?

 

Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?

 

As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.

 

Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.

 

Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.

 

We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.

 

From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.

 

It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.

 

I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…

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…

A Twitter poll BUT for books? Why not?

It’s that time of the year again where I’m so busy I don’t get a chance to read. It’s a come a bit earlier this year – so in a desperate bid for some content, I thought about what I might be able to cobble together in less than an hour…

 

So, here it is!

 

Taking inspiration from Richard Osman’s ‘World Cup of…’ series of Twitter polls (and now a book!) – here’s a tournament especially for book lovers – to find Twitter’s Best Book of 2017.

 

The Rules? There are always rules!

 

  • Unlike Fight Club… everyone talks about Book Club – share your votes and tell us all why!
  • The 32 titles in contention have all been published in either paperback or hardback since 26th December 2017 and have had some sort of impact on the literary landscape this year.
  • They’ve all been picked by me (with a couple of suggestions from others) – they’re either my favourite books of the last year – or particularly notable titles. If you think I’ve missed something… hey, run your own poll.

 

The list in full (in alphabetical order)

 

  1. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  3. Origin by Dan Brown
  4. What Happened by Hilary Clinton
  5. The Party by Elizabeth Day
  6. The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
  7. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
  8. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
  9. Creakers by Tom Fletcher
  10. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  11. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  12. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
  13. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
  14. The Dry by Jane Harper
  15. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
  16. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
  17. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  18. Need You Dead by Peter James
  19. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
  20. Sirens by Joseph Knox
  21. A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre
  22. Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
  23. The One by John Marrs
  24. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
  25. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
  26. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  27. The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
  29. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  30. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
  31. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
  32. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

Voting in the first round starts today (now!) over on my Twitter (@alexjcall) – get voting! The top two from each round will go through to the quarter finals!

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Way back, in the mists of time, at least as far back as 2004, I started working in a bookstore.

 

Me back then very different to me now. I was taking the path of least resistance. I could have ended up working anywhere, but as chance would have it… there were books.

 

I’d always liked reading, and I’d always wanted to write, but I didn’t love them then. They weren’t my passion.

 

There were a handful of books that put me on the path to where I am now, one of which was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was one of the first ‘adult’ books I’d ever read. There was swearing and drugs and – gosh – even gay sex!

 

It was a coming of age novel, both for the characters and for me, so going back this year to read my first Hollinghurst since that day (for some reason The Stranger’s Child) completely passed me by) was very nostalgic.

 

While The Line of Beauty was very much a piece about being gay in the 80’s, The Sparsholt Affair is similar to John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisibile Furies as it explores the changing face of what it means to be gay across the years, starting during the second world war.

 

The book is rich with characters and we follow many of them from youth right through to death. The book is primarily told from the point of view of Johnny – although there are often guest POV’s – notably that of Freddie Green who carries the narrative throughout the 1940 section, a time when Johnny isn’t alive.

 

It all begins when Freddie and his friend Evert Dax spot the mysterious and beautiful David Sparsholt, a newcomer to Oxford in 1940 and a character that links all the others together, although we as a reader never seem to spend much time with him.

 

There are four distinct sections of this book – two of them work incredibly well, while the others are great pieces of writing, but don’t quite match up to the beginning of the book.

 

The first section is a powerful and erotic exploration of infatuation, and Hollinghurst’s writing is so vivid that I actually came away a little bit in love with David Sparsholt.

 

Fast forward a few years and our second section explores the life of the adolescent Johnny, a fourteen year old who is discovering his sexuality. The writing is equally engaging and will resonate with any gay man who was once fourteen years old.

 

As Johnny gets older, I started to become less affected with the book, the characters – so many characters – started to become less like real people and more like characters from a novel. Perhaps that was because he started to live a life that I couldn’t as easily identify with.

 

However, in his years as a younger man we watch him deal with his own infatuation, a nice juxtaposition to the 1940 section. Johnny is able to be more open, but he is seemingly much less successful. This is underscored by the object of his affections being in a relationship with the much older Evert Dax, the focal point of the 1940 years.

 

In Johnny’s later life, things seemed a little less tight, a bit meandering, but again, that may have been intentional as Johnny’s life seems to be headed in the same meandering direction.

 

The ending is… an ending. I’m not sure you could say it was a happy ending, or even a sad ending, but it’s definitely a nice point to end the novel.

 

I’m not sure what it says though. Was this a story about David Sparsholt? If so, making him absent for large swathes of the book seems a mistake. His arrival back on the scene in later years seems to promise answers and actually got me quite emotional at times, but because we don’t see things through his point of view, we don’t actually witness what was – to me – one of the more crucial scenes of the book.

 

The ending as it is, makes us reflect on the life of David Sparsholt, how things have changed and how they could have been so different… but again, it’s slightly undersold by his lack of presence in later pages.

 

The David Sparsholt we see at the end of the book is a completely different man to the one I became infatuated with in 1940 to the point it’s hard for me to connect the two men.

 

I loved this book, and I’m only being so critical because it was so nearly perfect, it was just lacking a little something extra towards the end.

 

However, I’d buy a thousand copies of this just to read the first half over and over again.

 

The Sparsholt Affair is published by Picador and is available now.

A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.

 

Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.

 

I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

 

I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.

 

I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.

 

In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.

 

After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

 

And I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.

 

Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.

 

To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.

 

It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.

 

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.

 

Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?

 

Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.

 

(SPOILER: I did neither)

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