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