A(nother) Review: The Six Loves of Billy Binns

I’d seen a lot of good things about The Six Loves of Billy Binns but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about – it just felt like it was going to be one of those books that I’d enjoy.

Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a little summary of what it’s about so you can decide for yourselves if you’ll enjoy it (you will).

Billy Binns is 117 years old, he’s the oldest man in Europe and the longest-serving resident of his care home, having been there for over thirty years.

He’s your typical, sweet old man, but – as you’d imagine for someone approaching his thirteenth decade – he’s pretty frail and his memory is failing him.

He decides to write down his own potted history, exploring the relationships he experienced in his life so that he can share them with his son Archie, the next time he comes to visit.

The book flips back and forth between Billy as an old man and Billy’s younger life – a method that works well to put you in Billy’s fragmented memories. He starts off as young a boy, innocent but curious and then begins to grow up into a man who makes mistakes – some quite big ones, some perhaps unforgivable.

In a way, the book makes me think of a cross between Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Anne Griffin’s recent When All is Said.Both concern older people approaching the end of their lives, reflecting on their past.

The difference between them is I a hundred per cent believe their account of things, even Cannon’s Florence who is suffering from dementia… but there’s something about Billy where even at the end of the book, I’m not sure we completely know the truth.

That’s because we see everything from his point of view, we don’t see anybody else’s version of events and there’s enough vagueness in Billy’s to make you realise it’s only an interpretation not necessarily an accurate count.

What this novel does succeed in doing is making the reader think about the nature of aging and how easily their interpretation can be dismissed. There is one thing about his past that is contradicted by a staff-member at the care home and from then on, I immediately began to doubt everything he was telling me.

The lasting thought though is how he has spent thirty plus years in a care home. We all like to think that when our time comes, if we have to spend any of it in a home, that it will be brief, but to spend a third of your life in one is a scary thought. 

Sometimes the only thing scarier than dying is living forever.

The Six Loves of Billy Binns is available now from Tinder Press

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 – Big Books of 2018?

A few weeks ago, I talked about my favourite books of 2017… but we’re two days shy of 2018, so now, so I’m calling time on looking back and I’m looking forward instead.

 

November and December are always a funny time for me, I never get to read as much as I’d like partly because I’m so busy at work, partly because I’ve spent most of the year reading and need a break.

 

The last ten weeks or so as well, I’ve been crazily busy writing as well so books have definitely taken a break. But not any more, I’m back with a vengeance, a pile of books that reach almost to the moon and back and five books that I’m particularly looking forward to in 2018.

 

Here they are, in release date order…

 

  1. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – published 11th January 2018

 

This first one’s a bit of a cheat, because I’ve already read it, but I loved it. You can read my full spoiler-free review by clicking the link above if you fancy a bit of a digression, but in short, this book isn’t about Elsie, it’s about Florence. She’s in a care home when we meet her, struggling with her memory – the kind of unreliable narrator who believes everything they say.

 

When a man from her past turns up in the care home, she and best friend Elsie start investigating a long forgotten crime. How much of what happens is true? How much of it is simply misremembered?

 

This, Cannon’s second book, a follow-up (but not a sequel) to 2016’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a lovely exploration of old-age and friendship. I can’t wait for it to be released into the wild and for everyone else to read it, too!

 

  1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – published 8th February 2018

 

Sometimes as a bookseller you get a good feeling about a book before you’ve even read it. Since I first saw this one pop up on Twitter, I wanted a copy.

 

Aidan is stuck in a time-loop, repeating the same day, over and over again, inhabiting the body of a different person each time. The day ends with the death of Evelyn Hardcastle each time, and the only way for Aidan to break out is to identify the killer.

 

I already have a copy, ready and waiting to be read, and it will be one of my first of the new year.

 

  1. The Last Romeo by Justin Myers – published 31st May 2018

 

Justin Myers came out of his alter ego’s shadow earlier this year to reveal he was publishing his first book. Writing as The Guyliner for many years now, his was one of the most famous eyes on social media. His writing veers between insightful to the downright hilarious while sometimes skimming across being a little bit shady.

 

The Last Romeo will follow an online journalist who starts a blog reviewing each and every date he goes on as he tries to find love. If this sounds familiar, it may be because The Guyliner started out in much the same way – though now he just settles for writing the often hilarious weekly reviews of the Guardian’s Blind Dates column.

 

If The Last Romeo is only a tenth as funny and well written as those blogs we’re definitely in for a treat.

 

  1. Studies for Resilience by Patrick Gale – published September 2018

 

Regular readers will know that when I read A Place Called Winter back in 2015, I fell a little bit in love with Patrick. This year’s critically acclaimed drama The Man In The Orange Shirt written by Gale was a bit of a fix for the lovers of his books, but we’re finally getting a full hit this Autumn with a new releases.

 

Not much is known about it at the moment – so I’ll just give you the official blurb:

 

1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.

When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection and humility are added to daily practice.

 

I can’t wait to read it!

 

  1. Transcription by Kate Atkinson – published September 2018

 

I’ve never really mentioned Kate Atkinson on this blog before, but years ago, I went through a spate of reading everything she’d ever written. Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories are both on my bookcase which holds only my most favourite reads.

 

Case Histories particularly is one of my favourites – that rare beast a crime novel that wasn’t afraid to slow the pace down and dive into its characters. Always an inspiration for me, the mere mention of her name is enough to make me excited for a new novel. Here’s the official synopsis:

 

Transcription is a bravura novel of extraordinary power and substance. Juliet Armstrong is recruited as a young woman by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service. In the aftermath of war she joins the BBC, where her life begins to unravel, and she finally has to come to terms with the consequences of idealism.

 

Of course, there are hundreds of books published each year and I didn’t even know that my favourite book of 2017 – Tin Man, seriously, if you’ve still not read it, please do – existed at this point last year, so what I’m really waiting for are ALL the books.

 

I can’t wait to stumble upon my next favourite read.

A(nother) Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon #ThreeThings

I once had a conversation with someone who was absolutely furious when – in their view – someone on Twitter had spoiled a book for them, by revealing there was a twist. They hadn’t said what the twist was, just that a twist existed.

 

I’ve struggled with this concept ever since – I often expect there to be twists in most books I read – and finding out that one I was reading had one wouldn’t make me feel the book was spoilt. More of a teaser really.

 

Twists and turns are surely the components that drive the plot forward, something unexpected happening to keep the reader interested.

 

If I opened a book and it was utterly predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen, would I enjoy it still? Maybe – after all, I do enjoy re-reading some books…

 

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The reason I started talking about twists in the first place was because as something of a self-appointed expert of books, I can often see the twists coming.

 

The last time I was truly surprised by a twist was in I See You by Claire Mackintosh – I was so surprised, I had to put the book down for half an hour.

 

My difficulty is that I’m now not sure what is supposed to be a twist and what isn’t – and it is with all this preamble, that I finally come to this week’s book Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – author of the massive The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

 

Florence Claybourne has a flat in the grounds of the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly, and it is in this flat and this Home that the story is set. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend and as the title suggests, there are three things you need to know about her.

 

We don’t learn all three things at once, but we learn them as we go through the book, as Florence becomes spooked by the arrival of a new resident, a man who should be dead. A man who died over fifty years previously.

 

In Florence’s corner are Elsie and another resident, Jack, but working against Elsie is – seemingly – the man himself, and Florence’s own muddled memories.

 

I worked out the third thing about Elsie pretty early on. So early on, in fact, that I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be an obvious ‘twist’ or not. It made me constantly question myself as this ‘third thing’ became a bigger and bigger unspoken thing among all the characters. Perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps the twist was that this obvious thing was actually not as it seemed?

 

I decided to stop second guessing myself. And I’m so glad I did.

 

In this novel, Cannon deftly weaves together multiple strands and multiple layers of story to reach a climax that will leave even the most experienced reader surprised, even if only a little it. Even if you do predict the big twist about Elsie – if in fact there actually is one – there are so many more connections both subtle and obvious that you won’t see coming, that will keep you guessing right to the end.

 

Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel, exploring not just aging and dementia, but also the way our lives and our actions impact on others.

 

The obvious comparison is to Elizabeth is Missing, but Three Things About Elsie goes further than that. You feel you know Florence’s whole life, not just the diminished later stages of it. And ultimately, it becomes a story not amount dementia, but about the way we treat others around us. The aged, the bereaved and those passing acquaintances.

 

Events that are important to us, secrets we keep that become huge burdens, they’re nothing to other people. But some of our smallest interactions with someone can have a lasting effect that we may never truly understand.

 

So while I may not see it is important if I know about a twist in a book or not, there are clearly people out there who do care. So I’m not going to tell you any of the three things about Elsie, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

 

And you’ll be glad you did. In January 2018, when it’s published by Borough Press.