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: 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.

My Top 10 Books of 2015

For December, I’m taking a break from reviewing books. I’ve not stopped reading them, but in recent weeks, I’ve felt myself being a touch too critical of perfectly good books.

 

With that in mind, I’ve decided to follow the tradition that every other media outlet follows in December. Regurgitating old opinion, dusting off old content, covering it in a sprinkle of glitter and presenting it as a ‘Review of the Year’

 

Here are my Top 10 books of 2015 – there’s even some new content in here not previously on my blog!

 

  1. The One In a Million Boy by Monica Wood

 

This charming tale hasn’t been published yet, but the hardback is coming in April 2016, and it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for. My review when I first read it back in October comes across more critical than it should – but only because of the impossibly high standards I expect of books that are sent to me from the delightful @PublicityBooks at Headline publishing. More about her later.

 

  1. Losing It by Helen Lederer

 

I have a rule about the reviews I put on my blog. To avoid being accused of any kind of bias, if I’ve socially spent time with, or am in regular contact with an author then I don’t review their books. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read them.

 

This novel from funny-woman Helen Lederer about a middle-aged writer whose life seems to have stalled, while the lives of those around her flourish is the only book this year to make me snort with laughter on the underground, so earns it’s place on this list.

 

  1. Nothing But Trouble by Matt Cain

 

Another title – and the last – on the countdown that didn’t get a review of it’s own on the blog this year, but this look at the glamorous behind the scenes goings-on of popstar Lola Grant is funny and sexy as well as being so well-written, that I was shouting at the character’s as they made some dubious decisions. There was a strong anti-drugs streak through it and the main character as well, which is not the obvious route to go with a book like this.

 

  1. The Secrets We Keep by Jonathan Harvey

 

This is another one that I feel looking back I was too harsh on in my review. The acid tongue of Lynda La Hughes mixed with the plot twists of Coronation Street, what’s not to love? A pacy plot mixed with characters you actually care about makes up for the ever so slightly frustrating ending.

 

  1. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

 

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but this book made me feel as if I had. You can feel the humidity coming off the page and it’s that sense of place that really helps this coming-of-age story succeed.

 

  1. the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

 

This science fiction novel is like somebody decided to make a list of all the things needed to make a successful mix of Douglas Adams, Red Dwarf and Star Trek – but it works. A compelling cast of characters means not only do I want another book, but I want a TV series. The upcoming Star Trek television revival, would do well to have a look at the rough nature of life in space represented here.

 

  1. Moving by Jenny Eclair

 

I liked this more than I ever thought I would, and it’s only as I write this and consider the upcoming books in the list, that I realise it’s because it’s the story of someone’s life. There’s something incredibly voyeuristic to think that come the end of the book, only one person knows the truth about everything, and that’s us, the reader. What makes this book even better is that despite Eclair’s unique personality, she manages to reign it in, giving the character’s their own distinctive voices.

 

  1. I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh

 

I nearly gave up on this book, despite it being well written, it seemed to be meandering early on. Then there’s a development that I wasn’t expecting and it shoots the book off into a completely different direction. Well worth a read.

 

  1. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

 

I read this almost a year ago now, a copy of the book sent to me by @PublicityBooks – and I didn’t regret it. Harry Cane (not the footballer currently playing for Tottenham Hotspur) is a Victorian gent whose life is changed when he discovers the pleasures that other Victorian gents have to offer.

 

Like Moving, you’re fully invested in the characters, and like My Sunshine Away has a wonderful sense of place. An amazing book with a great cast of characters, this will be appearing in a lot of people’s best books of 2015 – not least the Costa Book prize who have shortlisted it in Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 2nd January.

 

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 

There’s really not much more I can say about this book and I don’t think it will have come as any surprise to anyone that I’ve placed this at the top of the list. I’ll be re-reading it again soon, but the biggest pleasure I’ve gained from this book, is the sense of community it has engendered with other people who have read this book.

 

There’s a knowing look, a smile and a sympathetic pat on the back.

 

I always considered myself to be dead on the inside, but A Little Life had be sobbing like a child. If you don’t even squeeze out one tear while reading the ending of this, then you truly are emotionally dead.