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) Rambling – Absolute Proof by Peter James

Ok, first up… I’m in this book. Alex Call appears as a CSI some way into the book. His appearance is very brief, and thankfully he survives to live another day. He’s probably there because when Peter first told me about this book two or three years ago, I was sold immediately and have been waiting impatiently for it ever since.

 

Absolute Proof concerns Ross Hunter, a freelance investigative journalist based in Brighton – the city famously the home of James’ other creation Detective Roy Grace.

 

But this isn’t a crime novel – this is an all-out adventure in the vein of Dan Brown.

 

Ross Hunter is contacted by Harry Cook, an elderly gentleman who claims that with Hunter’s help he can prove the existence of God. This sets off a dangerous chain of events that sees Hunter risk everything to follow the lead on his biggest story ever.

 

While there are obvious similarities to Brown Absolute Proof feels much more grounded in real life. Those that have read the Roy Grace series will be familiar with the detail that James imbues into his books. The level of detail, both in terms of procedures and locations adds an extra layer of believability to the type of plot that can stretch credibility somewhat.

 

And while – for this non-believer – it does stretch credibility (they might as well be searching for absolute proof that I wrote Harry Potter – it’s a nice idea, it just didn’t happen) it takes what we do know, it takes facts about DNA, mixes it with myth and then adds a sprinkle of ‘what if’.

 

While I’m sure it won’t happen… the events of this novel could happen.

 

Crime fans used to James’ style will love this novel and people who have never read him before will find this the perfect gateway drug to his rich backlist.

 

For me, it’s one of my favourite books of this year.

 

Absolute Proof is available now from Macmillan

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!

 

 

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

The Torun Way book club is back.

For those of you that have been reading the blog for a while (anticipating that number to be somewhere between 0 and 0.5) you’ll know all about the Torun Way Book Club.

For those that don’t know what it is… take a wild guess.

It actually came back earlier in the summer when we read The Girl on the Train but I was going to read that anyway (and we all know how well that turned out).

This time Debs chose I Let You Go, a Richard and Judy summer pick, and also a title selected by the Loose Women.

If that doesn’t say quality, I don’t know what does.

Five-year-old Jacob is out walking with his mother when he breaks away from her and is hit by a car. He dies in her arms as the driver of the car speeds away.

The story then follows Jenna as she leaves Bristol to get away from the death of Jacob and DI Ray Stevens who is investigating the hit and run, attempting to track down the driver.

At first, the book felt odd to me. It flipped between Jenna mourning poor Jacob, trying to start a new life in a remote Welsh village and a police procedural miles away.

It felt like two different books, like last year’s Daughter by Jane Shemilt stitched together with a Peter James book. Both of them very good, but an odd combination.

I struggled with it at first. Jenna’s story seemed to be developing at some pace, meeting new people, then getting on with her life, while Stevens story in Bristol seemed to centre around the struggles of his marriage and his growing attraction to a colleague.

Then there is one of the best twists I’ve ever come across in a book. I didn’t see it coming at all.

There’s not much else I can say that doesn’t ruin the twist, so I do suggest you go and read the book, then come back to me.

There is another twist later on in the book that made me think “Oh, FFS.” – but then the twist is swiftly explained and the book is rescued.

The two parts of the story still remain separate, and I’m struggling to understand the point of delving into the police’s private lives for no other reason than padding the book out a little.

The first third of the book is definitely built around the twist, which is a shame. It would be nice to see that section become a bit more developed, because I can believe some people would have given up before the revelation.

Like I Let You Go, the return of The Torun Way Book Club got off to a shaky start, but is now back on track. It’s my turn to pick the next book. It’ll come as no surprise that I’ve picked A Little Life

A Question of Culture

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been asking the five prospective parliamentary candidates for Swindon a series of questions. One of the questions concerned the town’s cultural environment.

I’m a great fan of live shows, specifically theatre and musicals (gay cliché #1 P), but frustratingly for me, the best stuff is always on somewhere else. Swindon’s theatre – the Wyvern – is pretty small and it’s not a very attractive building.

Whenever I’ve been there over the years, the show’s haven’t been filled up, the small audience only half full (or half empty depending on your view), most recently a Joe McElderry concert (gay cliché #2 P) and the other a big band concert with my granddad.

I also saw the Avenue Q musical when it came to town a couple of years ago, although, this time the theatre was slightly fuller.

It seems that the people of Swindon don’t really go to the theatre, but is that because the residents of the town aren’t theatre folk, or is it because they just simply don’t think of the theatre as an option?

When big name comedians come to town, they’re announced months before, and the tickets sell out in a matter of minutes – most likely to the ‘Friends of the Wyvern’ who get advance notification of such things.

Swindon needs a bigger theatre for those events, but for most of the time, the theatre is too big.

Why am I rambling on about the Wyvern? Well, because I went there earlier this week to see the stage adaptation of the Peter James book Dead Simple starring Tina Hobley, Jamie Lomas and Gray O’Brien.

Also Rik Makarem whom I quite quickly fell in love with thanks to his tight fitting top (gay cliché #3 P)

I’ve read quite of a few of James’ books, including Dead Simple – the book opens with a character trapped in a coffin, a stag night prank that has gone wrong. The book is told from Inspector Roy Grace’s point of view, while the play focuses on the characters that are being investigated.

I could write for ages about the fascinating way this play was produced, how the adaption changes the presentation of the same story significantly, how the change of format gives a different insight into the characters.

I’m not going to talk much about the show itself – a) I don’t want to give any spoilers, but b) I’ve known Peter James for several years, and as a rule I avoid reviewing works by people I know well on the basis that I feel can’t always be honest – or come across as not sounding biased.

Needless to say, Dead Simple was highly enjoyable and Tina Hobley specifically gave a magnificent performance.

There have been quite a few posters for the show around the town, more so for this than any other play that has been performed at the theatre – knowing Peter James as I do, I suspect that this is largely down to him – and as a result, the audience was pretty full.

An actual play in Swindon, and people went to see it. Hopefully now, this means more plays will tour in Swindon, and perhaps that will mean more people of Swindon start going to the Wyvern, and start seeing the full raft of shows that are available.

Maybe then, we’ll start to see the audiences fill up a bit more. Maybe then we’ll see a regeneration of the theatre, and maybe then there’ll be more seats available when the big names come to town.

Maybe that will help improve Swindon’s reputation.

The question I asked the candidates was what they could do to help change the image of the town. Now that I think about it, the town like the theatre doesn’t need a massive cash injection, or to change it’s direction, it just needs to shout about itself a bit more.

It’s not difficult. In fact… it’s dead simple.