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!

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Do you have a book case? Most people do in some form or another.

 

And I’m assuming because you are reading a blog about a book, then you do too. (Unless I’ve tricked you into coming to this website by adding in some random tags like ‘Beyonce’ or ‘Zoella’) Whether you have one book or a hundred, or twenty thousand (Jacqueline Wilson claimed this last week), you’ll have somewhere in your home that is the home for books.

 

But how many of you us ever re-read a book? I’ve got around 200 books on my bookshelf. All of them there for different reasons, they’re either signed books, or someone special gave them to me, or they remind me of a friend.

 

Or they’re just a very special book.

 

The truth is, apart from the Harry Potters last year, I don’t re-read any of them –  which kind of makes you ask… why do we keep them?

 

Maybe it’s the memories the bring back when we look at them on the shelf. Maybe it’s to show off to our friends… or maybe we know one day we’ll need them again.

 

I was recently in the mood for a book I could trust. I’d just finished Little Deaths which… I didn’t love. I found it hard going. It took me two weeks, when most books take me on average around five days.

 

In the middle, I read Tinman by Sarah Winman which I loved. So, I was left in a position where I was going to find it hard to find a book to match up to the one I’d just read and loved, but I needed to find that I knew I would enjoy more than the other one I’d just read.

 

So I turned to my book shelf for a book I could trust. And that’s where I found The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, a book that I hadn’t read in over twelve years.

 

For those hat don’t know, the plot concerns Henry DeTamble who first meet his wife, Clare, when he is 29 in the library he works in. She first meets him when he travels back in time and lands in the field outside her family home.

 

Henry is a time traveler, not through choice, but through a random genetic defect. He can’t control it, nor does he know the cause. Largely, he travels back to places along his own timeline.

 

This is the story of the Doctor and River Song long before Steven Moffatt came along, and told in a much simpler way. The trick, is not to follow the time traveler, but to follow time itself.

 

Niffenegger tells us the story of Henry and Clare in a largely chronological way, often this means that the Henry we see is both older and younger than the previous and subsequent versions of Henry that we’ll see.

 

At it’s heart, this is a love story, an exploration of fate versus free will. Like all good books, it explores that one emotion that binds us all. The one that defines all of our lives. Love.

 

And it’s just so effortlessly perfect, and simple, and sad and happy, and everything all at once. There are sometimes, just one too many peripheral characters to keep up with, but this is an inevitability when you’re exploring the whole lives of two people.

 

Re-reading The Time Traveler’s Wife was like a warm hug, like seeing an old friend. It sounds cheesy, but these are clichés because they happen.

 

If you’ve never read The Time Traveler’s Wife then it would always have been at the top of my recommendation list, so go read it now.

 

If you have read it before, maybe it’s a trip back in time (geddit?) and read it again? Alternatively, give your bookcase purpose again, visit it and pick up another book that you love, one that you trust, but haven’t read in years and rediscover the reason why you decided to keep it hanging around in the first place.

A(nother) Review: Tinman by Sarah Winman

Sometimes we need healing.

 

We talk about the healing of physical injuries, of taking time to rest up, to avoid possible infection.

 

I sit here, a rainy Wednesday night, a glass of red wine held in a hand that sports a magnificent red welt and an ever shrinking scab. The result of careless handling of a pan of hot water a week ago.

 

It sploshed. I swore.

 

In the week since, it has drawn concern, it has stopped more than one meeting at work as the injury becomes clear. It is obvious. And so is the advice dispensed from every would-be doctor.

 

We don’t talk about the healing of the soul, of the mind. Not really.

 

I only mention this, because today, I needed healing.

 

Not the scald on my hand, which will heal without my intervention. It may scar. It may not. To me, it’s sort of irrelevant. It’s skin. It’s part of me, but it’s not me.

 

Right now, I am emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted. It is my fault. I’ve not been looking after myself – I’m not only burning the candle at both ends, but I’m burning it in the middle as well.

 

I’ve been pushed and pushed myself too far, both in work and socially. All of this, for little old introverted me, is too much. The fear of letting anyone down, of making anyone’s life harder has all but crippled me.

 

So, today, through the post at work, I receive a copy of Tinman by Sarah Winman. I’m excited. I’ve been dying to read it since learning of it’s existence back in early January. Five weeks or so ago, but it feels like an age.

 

Winman herself told me of the premise, and I wanted it there and then. Opening that package today, I realised it was exactly what I needed. A treat. Something I had been looking forward to. I could sit with this book, something I knew I would enjoy and just shut out my world, my life, and take refuge in someone else’s a for a short while.

 

Taking some time for me. That sounds quite trite, quite… 90’s American self-help (“remember, you’re you”), but sometimes we need that.

 

Tinman is the story of love. Of first love, and loss. The story of Michael, Annie and Ellis. It is the story of healing.

 

At a little under two hundred pages, it is but a snapshot into their lives. We stand on their doormat and glimpse in at their home, we don’t see everything, but gosh does that glimpse make us feel we know them.

 

By page thirty four, I was Instagramming a line from the book (the modern equivalent of underlining, of highlighting):

 

He staggered up and felt so much space around him he almost choked

 

By page forty eight, I was on the edge of tears. In fact, Winman took me to the emotional edge, and left me there for the rest of the book.

 

That’s a hell of a talent to have you feeling those things by that point. Most books haven’t even got started by then. For comparison’s sake, at page forty eight Arthur Dent has only just made it into space (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Harry Potter has only just learnt he is a wizard (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). The latter, a famous plot point in a short book, that somehow manages to pack a lot in.

 

And there’s Sarah Winman, making me cry. Like I’ve known these characters for years. I don’t want to say too much… In short, early on, Annie sends Ellis off to find ‘him’.

 

You think you know who ‘him’ is, but then things start to become unclear. Maybe it’s Michael, maybe it’s someone else. I’m left with a feeling that it might be his own self that Ellis is looking for.

 

Tinman is simply a beautiful book, writing that draws you in. Short elegant sentences that are more than the sum of their parts.

 

I want company, I don’t want company.

 

It is desperately sad, each of the three characters representing a different kind of heartache. You wish things were different, you’re sort of glad they’re not…

 

Sometimes we all need healing. My hand. Ellis’ heart. Your stress.

 

That might take the form of a bandage for your hand, closure for your broken heart, or something to help you switch off and mentally de-clutter.

 

For the first two, I can’t really help, but for the latter, for those time when you just need to switch off and delve into something ‘other’, escape your own life and lose yourself in someone else’s. Sometimes all you need is a good book.

 

And this – pardon my French – is a fucking good book.

 

Although, you may have to wait… Tinman by Sarah Winman is published on the 27th July 2017 by Tinder Press.

 

If you’re nice, or if you need healing, I might lend you a copy.

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

Anyone that read Sarah Winman’s brilliant debut novel When God Was a Rabbit was probably eagerly awaiting the follow-up A Year of Marvellous Ways.

 

I really loved When God Was a Rabbit and yet Marvellous Ways sat on the windowsill in my bedroom for the better part of a year.

 

What was I waiting for? I’m not sure. Something stopped me from picking it up.

 

I think, because of how much I enjoyed her first book, I was wary that I wouldn’t enjoy Winman’s second.

 

I was right to be wary. The two books are quite different, apart from the wonderful writing. I think, just because you might have liked Rabbit, it doesn’t mean you will like Marvellous Ways.

 

Marvellous Ways is more ethereal, there’s an almost supernatural quality to it, which was there in a small way in Rabbit, but manifests itself more here. There are more unexplained happenings, everything is a little more subtle.

 

The two main characters Marvellous Ways and Francis Drake (really) are well drawn – some of the surrounding characters less so – although I think that’s intentional, like a director focusing on the middle of the screen, the rest of the world happening in the blurred edges.

 

It’s a little jarring towards the end of the novel when Drake’s young age of twenty seven is mentioned, he comes across as much older, although again, probably intentional. This is a man, after all, who has come back from a difficult war.

 

Be it fate or accident, Drake stumbles upon Marvellous Ways, and he stays with her. She counsels him, and at the same time he resolves things for her.

 

In the last days of old age Marvellous Ways possesses a presence that draws the reader in, wanting to learn about her past. Drake, searching for the beginning of a new life, teases the potential of the future.

 

I walked away from the book knowing I enjoyed it, knowing that these two characters were better for having known each other, utterly believing that they existed… but not entirely sure that I’m a hundred per cent clear on what happened.

 

Perhaps it’s one I’ll need to re-read someday.

 

A Year of Marvellous Ways scores 3.4 out of 5. It suffers slightly in comparison to When God Was a Rabbit – but still a very good book.