A(nother) Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

I finished this book a little while ago and it’s been hanging around the edges of my mind ever since. Maybe, partly because Jacob Rees-Mogg was waxing lyrical about the Boer War the other day on Question Time

You Will Be Safe Hereby Damian Barr is a novel set in South Africa. It starts – after a brief prologue – at the turn of the twentieth century following Sarah van der Waat’s diary entries from her time in a concentration camp. 

While very well written, it seems to bear little relation to the character of Willem, a young boy who appears in the prologue based in 2010.

As part one gives way to part two, we jumped forward to 1976, and we meet a new character, a young woman named Rayna. Again, very well written, very engaging, but her story of her family life and her marriage has seemingly no connection with Willem. 

I was enjoying it, but there was a niggling voice at the back of my head that was asking ‘where is this going?’ – which actually made the read more enjoyable. 

I read hundreds of books and with most of them I have a fair idea of where it is going, I’m pretty good at spotting twists, but this is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. 

And that’s because this isn’t a book about Willem, or Sarah or Rayna. This is a book about war and nationalism. 

The effects of the Boer War – fondly looked back on by the likes of Rees-Mogg as the last gentleman’s war – had and continue to have a lasting impact on South Africa. 

There’s a quote on the back of the copy I read from Diana Athill that says‘You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in’, while another, from Alex Preston reads ‘A book that will change the way you see the world’.

I highlight these two particular quotes because they manage to sum up exactly how I feel, in perhaps a more eloquent way than I ever could. I knew nothing about the Boer war – apart from Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army who claimed that ‘they do not like it up ‘em, sir’.

I didn’t know a huge amount about South Africa. I didn’t realise it was the British who basically invented concentration camps – perhaps not the gas chambers of Hitler’s war – but the British army was responsible for a huge amount of deaths in that country.

I’m angry that I didn’t know about this. It’s because history is written by the victors and the Empire as it was saw it a great victory. It’s not, it’s a shameful period of our country’s history and should be recognised as such. It should be taught in schools, alongside both World Wars. We should grow up knowing that we’re not always the heroes. 

I did know that. Of course I knew that. But this is perhaps the first time I truly know what that means. 

One last word before I go, and it’s another quote from the back cover – this time, from Patrick Gale: ‘Astonishing’. 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr will by published by Bloomsbury on the 4thApril.

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.

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…

A(nother) Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I’m now into my fifth year of blogging my book reviews and while I always thought the biggest problem with it would be trying to avoid giving too many spoilers I have now discovered a new problem.

 

I’ve spent much of the last few years banging on about three different books all of which have been my go-to titles whenever anyone asks for a reading recommendation – A Little Life, Tin Man and Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter.

 

Since I first fell in love with A Place Called Winter back at the beginning of 2015 I’ve become a bit of a champion of Gale’s work, both his books and his recent television series (2017’s Man in an Orange Shirt). I even highlighted his new novel as one of my books to look out for in 2018.

 

So, when special advance copies of Take Nothing with You started to head out into the world, I crossed all my fingers and auctioned off my first-born (pity that devil who’ll never receive their purchase) hoping to get a copy.

 

And I received a copy, and it was beautiful and I was very, very excited.

 

Then I realised my problem.

 

Whenever anyone has a big success be it with a book, or film, or album there is a pressure on the artist to produce something equally as good, but not the same, the next time around.

 

The anxiety that brings must be crippling, sending your book out into the world waiting for the reaction like a small dog patiently waiting for their owner to return home.

 

I had a taste – only a very small taste – of that, when I settled down to read Take Nothing With You. What if I didn’t like it? What if I was the one that had to kick the puppy?

 

With some trepidation, I opened the pages and started to read. After about ten pages, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good. Not just good. It was as good as A Place Called Winter – if not better.

 

So now, I’m stuck with my original problem. How do I sell it to you all without spoiling it? How do I talk about all the things I want to talk about without ruining it for everyone? The answer is to keep it brief.

 

We meet Eustace at a particular point in his life, he’s in his fifties, he’s fallen in love with a man he’s never met and has just been diagnosed with cancer. Part of his treatment involves taking a particularly radioactive drug which mean he must spend time in solitary confinement, away from everyone.

 

He will be so radioactive that he must take nothing with him that he would want to keep.

 

So, he goes in with just a cheap music player and a playlist of cello music from his best friend Naomi. He lies down, begins to listen, and then remembers – taking the reader with him – his childhood, growing up in Weston-Super-Mare.

 

And here is where the magic happens.

 

Such beautiful writing transports us into the head of that twelve-year-old boy as he deals with his own burgeoning sexuality, the breakdown of his parent’s marriage and an exploration of an unexpected new passion – the cello.

 

I could sing for hours about the poetry of the writing or the subtlety of the plot but it is in the richness of the characters that Gale really excels himself. Each character, no matter how minor, is vivid leaving the reader wanting more.

 

In most books the main characters are obvious, their depth making them stand out from all others, a clue to the reader as to which characters you should care about, which ones you should watch, and which ones you don’t need to remember the name of.

 

That’s not the case here. In the moments they appear all the characters are important, all of them real. None of us can know as we’re living our lives who will be important and who won’t be, and so to Eustace at the time he encounters them they are all important. The things he notices, the people he sees, all of it helps us as a reader inhabit his world.

 

I’ve never read a book before where the minor characters have intrigued me quite so much.

 

A Little Life was about Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude St Francis; The Time Traveler’s Wife was about Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare; Tin Man is the story of Annie and Michael and Ellis. All of these names are imprinted on me in a way that I can reel them off without having to look them up.

 

This book takes its place amongst all of those titles (equal on my spreadsheet – OF COURSE I have a spreadsheet – to The Time Traveler’s Wife) in my list of favourite books, and while Eustace’s name will come to me as readily as all those others, I think the names of Vernon and Carla Gold and Turlough and Jez won’t be far behind him.

 

They all have their own tales to tell, but this is Eustace’s and the whole experience felt as cathartic to me as it did for Eustace himself. Perhaps because – as many other readers will probably experience – so many of the moments in his earlier life are similar to mine. I won’t share with you what they were – they’re for my own private lead-lined box – but I will tell you… I never played the cello.

 

Take Nothing With You will be published by Tinder Press on 21st August 2018

A(nother) Rambling – Big Books of 2018?

A few weeks ago, I talked about my favourite books of 2017… but we’re two days shy of 2018, so now, so I’m calling time on looking back and I’m looking forward instead.

 

November and December are always a funny time for me, I never get to read as much as I’d like partly because I’m so busy at work, partly because I’ve spent most of the year reading and need a break.

 

The last ten weeks or so as well, I’ve been crazily busy writing as well so books have definitely taken a break. But not any more, I’m back with a vengeance, a pile of books that reach almost to the moon and back and five books that I’m particularly looking forward to in 2018.

 

Here they are, in release date order…

 

  1. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – published 11th January 2018

 

This first one’s a bit of a cheat, because I’ve already read it, but I loved it. You can read my full spoiler-free review by clicking the link above if you fancy a bit of a digression, but in short, this book isn’t about Elsie, it’s about Florence. She’s in a care home when we meet her, struggling with her memory – the kind of unreliable narrator who believes everything they say.

 

When a man from her past turns up in the care home, she and best friend Elsie start investigating a long forgotten crime. How much of what happens is true? How much of it is simply misremembered?

 

This, Cannon’s second book, a follow-up (but not a sequel) to 2016’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a lovely exploration of old-age and friendship. I can’t wait for it to be released into the wild and for everyone else to read it, too!

 

  1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – published 8th February 2018

 

Sometimes as a bookseller you get a good feeling about a book before you’ve even read it. Since I first saw this one pop up on Twitter, I wanted a copy.

 

Aidan is stuck in a time-loop, repeating the same day, over and over again, inhabiting the body of a different person each time. The day ends with the death of Evelyn Hardcastle each time, and the only way for Aidan to break out is to identify the killer.

 

I already have a copy, ready and waiting to be read, and it will be one of my first of the new year.

 

  1. The Last Romeo by Justin Myers – published 31st May 2018

 

Justin Myers came out of his alter ego’s shadow earlier this year to reveal he was publishing his first book. Writing as The Guyliner for many years now, his was one of the most famous eyes on social media. His writing veers between insightful to the downright hilarious while sometimes skimming across being a little bit shady.

 

The Last Romeo will follow an online journalist who starts a blog reviewing each and every date he goes on as he tries to find love. If this sounds familiar, it may be because The Guyliner started out in much the same way – though now he just settles for writing the often hilarious weekly reviews of the Guardian’s Blind Dates column.

 

If The Last Romeo is only a tenth as funny and well written as those blogs we’re definitely in for a treat.

 

  1. Studies for Resilience by Patrick Gale – published September 2018

 

Regular readers will know that when I read A Place Called Winter back in 2015, I fell a little bit in love with Patrick. This year’s critically acclaimed drama The Man In The Orange Shirt written by Gale was a bit of a fix for the lovers of his books, but we’re finally getting a full hit this Autumn with a new releases.

 

Not much is known about it at the moment – so I’ll just give you the official blurb:

 

1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.

When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection and humility are added to daily practice.

 

I can’t wait to read it!

 

  1. Transcription by Kate Atkinson – published September 2018

 

I’ve never really mentioned Kate Atkinson on this blog before, but years ago, I went through a spate of reading everything she’d ever written. Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories are both on my bookcase which holds only my most favourite reads.

 

Case Histories particularly is one of my favourites – that rare beast a crime novel that wasn’t afraid to slow the pace down and dive into its characters. Always an inspiration for me, the mere mention of her name is enough to make me excited for a new novel. Here’s the official synopsis:

 

Transcription is a bravura novel of extraordinary power and substance. Juliet Armstrong is recruited as a young woman by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service. In the aftermath of war she joins the BBC, where her life begins to unravel, and she finally has to come to terms with the consequences of idealism.

 

Of course, there are hundreds of books published each year and I didn’t even know that my favourite book of 2017 – Tin Man, seriously, if you’ve still not read it, please do – existed at this point last year, so what I’m really waiting for are ALL the books.

 

I can’t wait to stumble upon my next favourite read.

The One by John Marrs

It seems every January I read a book that I absolutely love and can’t put down.

 

Two years ago, I declared Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter my book of the year (regular readers will know it was just pipped to the post by A Little Life), and last year Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven retained the book of the year post right through to the end of the year.

 

The one for 2017 is The One by John Marrs, and while I’m stopping short of prematurely crowning it my book of the year, it is certainly a contender.

 

The One is set in a world where your soul mate can be determined through a DNA test. A company has discovered the gene and is charging people for the contact details of the loves of their lives – which is a wonderful business model.

 

The whole thing hinges on your partner having taken the test, however, and while some people get a result in a matter of days, others wait for weeks and months, even years.

 

We follow five very different people, all of whom have different reasons for taking the test.

 

Mandy is just getting over the break-up of her marriage; Christopher is a psychopath who took the test on a whim; Jade is a young girl looking for the love of her life; Nick is encouraged to take the test by his fiancée prior to their wedding; Ellie is a high powered businesswoman who seems to have no time for love in her life.

 

The book is constructed so that we get a small chapter (and I mean small, some are only two or three pages long) from each character’s view point, before moving on to the next. This makes it an incredibly easy read, because if you find any character dragging, it’s ok, because another one will be along soon.

 

Having said that, because of this it is a little difficult to invest in the characters. On consideration, however, the writer has done a good job of keeping erroneous detail out of those chapters. They’re packed full with detail and not a single word is wasted.

 

Each story is largely unrelated, although they do follow a similar theme, and brush up against each other occasionally. They all take very different paths and each one of them is quite believable, despite some moments that are a little larger than life.

 

I looked forward to reading this each time I picked it up, and I found myself staying up late on more than one occasion to just read a little bit more. Despite a few moments towards the end, it did lack a bit of emotional punch, although they were some truly gasp out loud moments.

 

This is one of those books that I would recommend to almost anyone. People who don’t read very often will find it accessible, while voracious readers will be able to consume quickly, but find enough intrigue and thought provoking questions to help whet their appetite.

 

I’d love to explore some of the stories a bit deeper (particularly Nick and Christopher’s) – and can’t help but feel this would make a great television series – think Tuesday night anthology series like The Syndicate or similar and you’ll get the idea.

 

Is The One the one for 2017? I’d like a bit more of an emotional impact, so I’m going to hold off for not, but it is certainly one of the ones.

 

The One by John Marrs is published in May by Del Rey

The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger

The Mountain Can Wait.

 

In fact, it’s had to wait, because I’ve been a little busy and it’s been some time between finishing the book and writing this review, so in the words of Miranda, bear with.

 

The mountain in question is in Canada, which was a lovely start, following 2015’s A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was also set in Canada, although more than a hundred years previously.

 

It felt at the beginning that I was returning to a previous home, which is a credit to the writing (both Leipciger’s and Gale’s) – because either they’ve both managed to get Canada spot on, or they’ve both made up the same version.

 

Tom Berry is responsible for replanting trees on the mountain, reporting into a large corporation that is cutting them down elsewhere. He has raised his children alone, after his wife abandoned them when the children were young.

 

One day, on the cusp of adulthood, Tom’s son Curtis is driving home from a party when he hits a girl with his truck. A split second decision, one moment of poor judgement leads to Curtis speeding away from the scene of the crime.

 

Books like this make me stop and think about the name of the book. Why is it called that? What does the mountain represent? What is it waiting for?

 

The mountain in this book is the mountain on which Tom works. The phrase is used to describe Tom’s younger self, shrugging away his family life, wanting to get back to work, to get back to the mountain.

 

“He hadn’t learned yet that the mountain could wait.”

 

The mountain which literally lurks in the background of the entire novel will always be there. Tom can go away, do what he needs to do for his family, and then return to the mountain waiting for him.

 

But the mountain is more than that. It is the inevitability of inescapable events. The moment Curtis drove away from that girl on the mountain road, it was waiting to catch up with him. It is not something that he can escape from.

 

Both Tom and Curtis must come to terms with what has happened, and as they do we get to witness sweeping vistas of Canada that are so beautifully written, you almost wish the book will never end.

 

The scene where Tom lies in a canoe and floats out on a lake is a particular highlight, along with all the scenes involving Bobbie on the remote island where Curtis’s mother grew up.

 

Bobbie is easily the best character in this book – if this were a film, she’d be on screen for all of ten minutes, would be played by Meryl Streep and win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – and I wish we had more of her.

 

I’d also have loved for more exploration of the relationship between Tom and Curtis and how the absence of Curtis’ mother dominated their lives together but what we do have is a beautifully vivid setting and a very melancholic ending.

 

I’ve given The Mountain Can Wait 3.3 out of 5.

 

Next week, I’ll be reviewing Everyone Brave is Forgotten by Chris Cleave

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.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

“Winter is coming”

That’s what George R R Martin promised about a gazillion years ago. For those that are bored of waiting, winter’s here in Patrick Gale’s stunning new novel ‘A Place Called Winter’

Before anyone gets too excited The Game of Thrones series and Gale’s latest are about a million miles apart in terms of content, but I find inserting as many pop culture references into a blog post as possible (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) increases the potential reach of said blog post.

This book (and subsequently this blog post) deserves to reach as many potential readers as possible – so the bigger audience I can give it, the better. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell so many people it may break the Internet (thank you Kim Kardashian).

I’ll leave the references there (for now) and get on with telling you why you should read this book.

Now, don’t tell the others, but I do have a favourite book. I don’t actually name-check it much, although I have referenced it on this blog before, because it is inherently flawed.

Apart from being a wonderful and tragic love story that has moved me to tears before, there’s a large section of it that just doesn’t work. I couldn’t bear anyone telling me they didn’t like it.

A Place Called Winter is the closest novel to my favourite book, both in terms of content and in degree of favourite-ness that I’ve ever read.

Harry – because all the best characters in fiction are called Harry, including Harry Potter and my own hero, Harry Hicks – is a well-off bachelor, living his life in the early 1900’s, and he’s quite happy, with no job to speak of, but nor does he have any particular commitments either.

When he helps his brother court his future wife, he meets a woman of his own and quickly marries and has a child. Scandal soon threatens to hit however, when his affair with another man is discovered.

In order to keep it quiet and protect his wife and daughter from the news, Harry signs over his entire wealth and boards a boat to start a new life in Canada.

That covers the first third of the book, but I don’t think ruins anything, because it’s the last two thirds that are really the meat of the story.

I won’t go into too much detail on the rest of the plot, because I think this is a book that definitely delivers on the beautiful writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice, however I do want to talk about the title: A Place Called Winter.

Knowing I was going to do a review of this book, I spent the first part of the book trying to work out what this place ‘Winter’ was, what it represented.

I felt a little foolish when I realised that Harry’s new homestead in Canada was called Winter, and I nearly disregarded my previous thoughts, but they came back to me the more I read.

Winter usually represents an ending, a dark cold place, where things can’t survive. And that’s where Harry was heading. He had a wonderful life, he had money, no particular worries and a wife and daughter who he loved – despite his burgeoning attraction to other men.

And then he was banished, sent away across to ocean, penniless and alone. Hopes for him were not high and it was likely that having never worked a day in his life, he wouldn’t survive out in the coldness of Canada.

Life in the small homestead of Winter compared to the beautiful ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ of Jermyn Street in the early twentieth century was hard.

But because life was hard, everyone was just there to survive. They pitched in and helped, but ultimately everyone let everyone else live the lives that they needed and wanted to live.

Compare that to the civilised world of London, and suddenly Winter doesn’t seem so cold and inhospitable anymore.

Harry accepted his sexuality fairly quickly for somebody who had never even considered it before, but part of me wonders if that’s because it wasn’t a thing to consider back then.

Homosexuality, for many people, simply didn’t exist. Whenever news of it did start to surface because of scandal or rumour, it was quickly hushed, as it was in Harry’s case.

So maybe when Harry met this man, the confusion that he had probably felt, but had never been able to put a name to, suddenly made sense, and everything felt right, so he just went with it.

When I was growing up, it was ok to be gay. Perfectly legal, but still a bit of a taboo. Nobody was gay in school, nor did I know any real-life gays until I started at college. I was fascinated by them, but I also knew hundreds of stories where things had gone wrong for gay men who had revealed themselves.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify what I was, because unlike Harry, I had been exposed to plenty of it over the years, but it did make it difficult for me, in a way that it wasn’t for Harry.

Ten years later, I think things are slightly easier. We’re further away from the Thatcher years, and it’s even more ok to be gay. In fact, it’s almost cool. Kids come out in school now, and maybe that’s because of gay men like me. I’m not saying I’m any particular trailblazer, but I am gay, I came out and nothing bad happened. The more stories we hear where things are ok, the more likely young men (and women) are going to be comfortable in telling the world who they really are.

The winter that existed in London for gay men a hundred years ago has thawed, and while not exactly easy, things are easier. But we mustn’t forget about people like Harry.

There’s an extra emotional punch in the story – Harry’s a real man. Or he was.

He’s the author’s great grandfather, and though the story has been fleshed out from the notes and letters that exist, the first third of it is real. Harry lost everything and had to move halfway across the world, because, well… we don’t really know why. Gale has embroidered the story and he imagines that it’s because Harry’s love wasn’t permitted in the society that he lived in. We won’t ever really know if that was the case, because the likelihood is if it was the case, it was hushed up and never spoken of again.

Losing your entire way of life, just because of who you love… That’s a very sobering thought.

A Place Called Winter is published by Tinder Press in Hardback and eBook in March 2015 – and in Paperback later in the year.