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…

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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!

 

 

My Top 10 Books of 2016

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley

 

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

 

  1. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

 

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

 

  1. Seven Ways We Lie – Riley Redgate

 

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

 

  1. Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon

 

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

 

  1. And I Darken – Kiersten White

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

 

  1. The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

 

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

 

  1. The Stranger In My Home – Adele Parks

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

 

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

 

  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

 

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

 

 

 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

There are stories that we all know, they’re woven into the fabric of our society so much that we can all recite a version of them at the drop of hat. Stories like Cinderella, Aladdin and Harry Potter.

 

(Ok, maybe just me on that last one)

 

Then there are stories that we all think we know, the kind that would have us smiling confidently if they were the beginning of a question on a pub quiz, but would then leave us completely flummoxed by the end.

 

Robin Hood for example, we all know what happens there right. Robin Hood lives in Sherwood Forest, and he takes money from the rich and gives to the poor and Tony Robinson runs about sporting a rather dodgy goatee. There’s a love interest as well – Maid Marian – and she… well something happens to her probably. Kidnapped or locked up.

 

Alan Rickman turns up as well at some point… and where exactly does the cartoon fox come into it?

 

If you’d asked me a week ago if I knew the story of Robin Hood, I would have sworn blind that I did, but now that I think about it, I actually can’t quite pinpoint all of the plot details.

 

Why am I talking about him? Only because I’ve just finished reading another book about a familiar figure whose story I thought I knew and I was fishing around for a comparable figure.

When I saw the rhyming couplet on the back of the proof copy of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, I immediately gave a knowing nod:

 

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks

 

When saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one

 

 

I thought I knew the story of Lizzie Borden. A little girl (probably blonde with pigtails and pink dungarees) who went crazy with an axe and killed her family in some remote house in America. No one knew if she had actually done it, or was the sole survivor of the massacre.

 

Like I say, I thought I knew the story, but when I heard about Schmidt’s novel I realised I wasn’t all that certain.

 

I had, as it turns out, slightly misunderstood the story. I definitely would have lost points on that pub quiz.

 

Lizzie Borden was no young girl, she was in fact, thirty two.

Nor was she the sole survivor of a massacre – it was just (!) the double murder of her father and step-mother.

 

So, what is the story? I’m not sure I’m going to tell you. Either you know it already, in which case my explanation will be pointless, or you don’t, in which case reading the book will be all the more rewarding.

 

Schmidt clearly knows the story, both the elements that are known and those which are not. She uses a narrative split four ways between Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and – as far as I can tell – the thoroughly fictitious Benjamin, a low-life thug-for-rent.

 

The fact that Andrew and Abby Borden are killed on the morning of the 4th August 1892 is no secret, and Schmidt uses that to her advantage, allowing her characters to split the storytelling – Lizzie and Emma’s viewpoints starting moments after the death of their parents, and Bridget and Benjamin’s viewpoints starting the day prior.

 

Straight away Lizzie is a thoroughly unreliable narrator and Schmidt’s writing is clever enough that even through her own internal monologue she never reveals whether she ‘done it’ or not.

 

Benjamin is a clever invention from Schmidt to help tie up some of the unanswered questions from the events of those two days (my ‘research’ on Wikipedia tells me at least) and Bridget is built up well to the point that you could believe she many have been the culprit.

 

It is Emma, Lizzie’s elder sister, however that is perhaps the most interesting figure. A sad figure whose life seems to have been wasted in service of her younger, spoilt sister. She almost certainly didn’t do it – unless a convoluted theory involving a well-timed thirty mile round trip has any legs – and has the hints of a happy ending.

 

That is until you read on Wiki that she actually died just a week after Lizzie – a fact that makes her life seem even more melancholic, tied so closely as it was through her younger years to Lizzie’s.

 

Nobody knows who killed the Borden’s – so how does Schmidt end the story?

 

The truth is – SPOILER ALERT – she doesn’t solve the mystery, but she gives the reader enough information and supposition to make their own mind up.

 

See What I Have Done is a masterpiece in storytelling, planting the reader as the ultimate (and literal) fly on the wall of a house that is beset with unpleasantness, both before and after the murders.

 

The incidents of those few days seen through the eyes of all four characters could seem repetitive, but Schmidt cleverly avoids that by allowing the readers to embody the characters and witnessing the events as if for the first time.

 

Perhaps the most imposing character throughout the entire book is that of the Borden house. Schmidt’s description of it is so vivid that it feels instantly familiar and suffocating.

 

See What I Have Done is an intriguing, claustrophobic novel that instantly made me itch to know more about these gruesome murders. It is clearly a subject that Schmidt knows a lot about, but she manages to avoid the pitfalls of showing off, and instead presents a fantastic take on a tale we all thought we knew.

 

See What I Have Done is published in Hardback on 4th May 2017