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 Labyrinth of Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A story has no beginning and no end, only points of entry.

 

That’s a notion that pops up a few times in The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and it’s one that Zafon himself illustrates a few times within the whole series – The Cemetery of Forgotten Books – that began with The Shadow of the Wind.

 

The plot of this pretty chunky tome (over eight hundred pages) concerns Alicia Gris, a cross between a vigilante, private investigator and assassin who is instructed to solve the disappearance of Minister Valls, a prominent member of the government who one day got into a car with his bodyguard and was not seen of again.

 

Alicia’s investigation takes her across the country to Barcelona where things start to become a little familiar – at least for people who have read previous books from Zafon.

 

There are four books in the series, the famous one that started it and became one of the bestselling books in the world, The Shadow of the Wind is the only one which I’ve read, and it was fifteen years ago. The amount of books I’ve read since then can only be described as being in the hundreds, if not into four digits, so my memory of Zafon’s Barcelona was sketchy at best.

 

Yet the characters, the city, the atmosphere that Zafon creates all feels familiar, comfortable. Hearing then names of characters like Julian Carax or the bookshop Sempere & Sons took me straight back to Shadow of the Wind.

 

I didn’t remember the plot, but that was ok. The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a standalone novel, made richer for having read one of the previous novels. I’ve not read Book 2 of 3 in the series, but this has made me want to go back and read them, even read The Shadow of the Wind again.

 

On its own, though, I struggled a bit to get into the plot of The Labyrinth of Spirits– the sheer weight of it is off-putting and the jumping around of characters at the beginning is a bit confusing – especially when you’re half remembering some of them from fifteen years ago – but I persisted and I’m glad I did.

 

Once I got into the plot, the story raced along to its conclusion. Or at least one of them.

 

Just as every story has multiple points of entry, it also multiple points of exit. The four novels in this series are all standalone stories, but they’re all part of one bigger story as well, as Zafon himself points out towards the end of the latest addition to the series.

 

Zafon has created a vivid world that has potential to be explored further, but until he does, I’m going to immerse myself back into his backlist.

 

The Labyrinth of the Spirits is published by W&N and is available now

A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.

 

Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.

 

I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

 

I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.

 

I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.

 

In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.

 

After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

 

And I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.

 

Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.

 

To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.

 

It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.

 

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.

 

Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?

 

Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.

 

(SPOILER: I did neither)