“There’s Only Two David Beckhams” by John O’Farrell (2015)

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“Back when I was at school, the careers advisor asked me if I had any private hopes or dreams.”

My interest in sport is negligible. I’ve nothing against games, and even the Olympics is quite fun, but organised sport where billions upon billions of pounds are funnelled in to a handful of people running up and down a field – no chance. Football is that for me. I don’t understand the appeal. I don’t get the hours of coverage we need to explain why it matters that a ball did or didn’t go into a net. I don’t understand how teams can buy players like some kind of modern slave trade. I don’t get the appeal of a reheated meat pie and standing out in the drizzle, and I pray that if I ever have children, they don’t show any interest in the game. And yet, here I am, finishing up a book about football and admitting that it was all kinds of enjoyable.

Alfie Baker is a sports journalist who is the polar opposite of me in that he lives and breathes the beautiful game. We join him in 2022 at the Qatar World Cup, where against all expectations, England have made it into the final with a team that seems truly unbeatable. Alfie, however, has become convinced that there is more to this team than means the eye. Certain there is a scandalous secret behind the new line up, he finds himself threatened by higher powers in the government to shut down the investigation, but when the likes of Greg Dyke and Tony Blair start getting in touch, he realises that he really has uncovered something big. Perhaps it’s not just a coincidence that that midfielder performs just like David Beckham, and that defender uses the same techniques as Bobby Moore…

After years of wondering who the best English team would be, they’re finally here, but now Alfie is faced with a choice. All his life he’s wanted to see England win the World Cup – and they’re in the final against Germany, no less – but if he reveals the truth, it could see his dreams dashed. Will he choose love or duty? All’s fair in love, war and football.

From early on, you know exactly where it’s going, but you don’t mind. I’ve read John O’Farrell before and he’s effortlessly funny, no more so than here. I can’t pretend to understand every reference, and some of the prolonged scenes where there’s actually football being played and described in the painful detail that I can’t begin to be interested in are a bit much, but generally, this is a total riot, and not in the bad football hooligan way. The characters are daft, and the story weaves in real people with hilarious results. Packed with one-liners and full of silly ideas, it’s one of those books that I would press into many hands.

Some of the daftest stuff comes from the gap between the book’s publication (2015) and the current year (2020). O’Farrell has had to create the events of the 2018 World Cup, the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, and several other football championships to boot. (Question: why are there so bloody many?) He couldn’t have foreseen last year’s news that Russia wouldn’t be allowed to attend the 2022 World Cup, for one, but he does get a laugh from suggesting that the Vatican City finally field a team for the first time – only to beat England in their first outing.

It’s hugely satirical, pretty predictable, but too funny to dislike. It’s a love letter to a world that I will never be a part of, and there’s a lot in here about fairness, passion and patriotism, although the good kind. As Alfie himself says, “Patriotism is simple; you can be proud of anything and anywhere – just don’t ever use it to denigrate anyone else.” At the end of the day, that’s the best performance we can hope for.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Ink” by Alice Broadway (2017)

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“I was older than all my friends when I got my first tattoo.”

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t think I’ll ever get one. I’ve nothing against them, and obviously I’ve no problem with other people having them, but I don’t think I could commit to having something to permanent on my skin. I’d want to change it after a while. If I had to, however, I know exactly what I would have. Ink takes place in a world where tattoos take on a whole new meaning.

Leora Flint lives in Saintstone, a town where everyone’s deeds are tattooed onto their skin. A dot on the hand for every year you’ve lived, your achievements on your right arm and your failures on the left, a family tree on your back showing where you’ve come from. There are no secrets in Saintstone, and everyone can read exactly who you are and what you’ve done with your life. Not long before graduating school and beginning her new career, Leora’s father dies and his skin is bound into a book so that future generations can read about him and have him never be forgotten.

Saintstone, however, has a new mayor, and he’s got some radical ideas, beginning with wanting everyone to register exactly what tattoos they have and what they mean, and bringing back the idea of marking criminals “forgotten”. Anyone tattooed with a crow will have their skin book burnt and it will be illegal to talk about them after they’ve gone. When Leora sees a man get marked with the crow for stealing someone else’s skin, it brings back a memory of her childhood that she’d blocked out. She remembers her father having that very same tattoo, hidden on his scalp under his hair. Leora realises that her father should be forgotten, and she’s determined to make sure his book comes home with her. As she delves into the family history, however, she soon discovers that the world is far more complicated than she imagined, and sometimes fairy tales are truer than the population believes.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had assumed that it was a world where tattoos made it impossible to have secrets because they appeared on your skin by magic, but nope, it’s a very mundane practice done by people called inkers. Every tattoo has a meaning, and the way this is all set out is very cool. Everyone has a family tree on their back, but if someone’s name has been replaced by a tattoo of a cuckoo, it means they’ve been forgotten. Fallen, dead leaves at the tree’s roots represent miscarriages or children who died in infancy. Every single symbol is layered with meaning, and while there are official marks, there is plenty of freedom for people to use the remaining space to decorate their bodies as they see fit. Everyone does, and it is considered weird and antisocial to keep your skin clear. The fear of the “blanks” – those people who choose not to tattoo themselves – are seen as untrustworthy with something to hide. It’s just an example of fantastic racism, but it works very well.

My main complaint is a lack of pacing in places. Occasionally weeks or months pass with little development in characterisation when there really feels like there should be some more exploration of people’s feelings, motives and interactions. Leora is also quite a flat character in places, having no personal tattoos but an innate ability to read and ink others like she was born to do it. The other characters are often more interesting, including Obel who trains her, Mel the town’s storyteller who has the people’s history inked on her skin, and even Leora’s parents.

It’s a thought-provoking book with some interesting concepts. I’m sure I’ll carry on with the series at some point.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Carry On, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1925)

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“Now, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand?”

Literature is full of iconic pairings. Benedick and Beatrice, Elizabeth and Darcy, Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Thursday and Landen – all of them at their best when with one another. Jeeves and Wooster, however, are a cut above the others, having a symbiotic relationship that is for all time. It’s not a romance, and it’s not even really a friendship – this is a relationship drawn on professional lines – yet they stand together with loyalty and respect nonetheless.

Here are ten early stories about one of fiction’s greatest pairings, starting with the moment Jeeves walks into Bertie’s life and cures his hangover with a drink of his own invention. From that moment on, Bertie cannot live without Jeeves. Throughout these stories, Bertie finds himself in many a pickle, as do many of his friends including Sippy, Bingo, Bicky and Corky, and with little intellect of their own, they must routinely ask Jeeves for help. Jeeves, to his credit, always knows what to do and can always solve the problem thanks to his intelligence, wisdom, and a huge number of contacts with whom he is always in communication with. There are, as ever, a huge collection of overbearing aunts and dangerous misunderstandings in here too, and we even get to see Bertie out of his native England, with some the stories taking place in New York and one in Paris.

The collection also contains “Bertie Changes His Mind”, the only time that Jeeves himself narrates the story. It’s really funny to see things from the other side, as we get to see Jeeves as not just being an almost supernaturally good valet, but actually being incredibly manipulative, if always for a good cause. He does seem to genuinely like Bertie, and his actions are always for his own good, whether that be discouraging him from taking in children to liven up the house, or getting rid of his purple socks.

As ever, the stories are charmingly hilarious and while Bertie would probably begin to grate after a while if I knew him in real life, on the page he’s a delight. Completely able to accept that he’s a bit of a “chump” and lacking in imagination and brain power, he knows that he wouldn’t be able to cope without Jeeves. In one story, he finds himself without him for a while and realises that some men don’t have a “gentleman’s gentleman”. He genuinely can’t see how they could manage.

Jeeves and Wooster are a dynamite pairing, and each would be lost without the other. I’m still fairly new to the series and am enjoying dipping in to the back catalogue, but they are books to be enjoyed sparingly like a good glass of port at the end of the day, not knocked back like cheap vodka shots. Wodehouse is one of the few writers that can make me genuinely laugh out loud, and it’s always a delight to spend some time in the company of his characters.

Blissfully silly stuff.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas” by Adam Kay (2019)

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“Christmas is the pine-scented, tinsel-strewn timeout where, like it or not, everything just … stops.”

This is Going to Hurt was a proper game-changing book of the last decade. Adam Kay’s diaries of when he was a junior doctor in the underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated NHS made us all sit up and take notice of what we’d been taking for granted for too long. With humour and powerful emotion, he showed us what the realities of being a doctor were and the book, quite rightly, became a huge bestseller. Because of the popular demand, a sequel was inevitable, and this stocking-sized book details some extra bits of his diaries, this time focusing on the six Christmases he was working.

Using just as much humour, Kay regales us with further stories of his time on the ward, including the romantic turkey dinner in the staff room, making decorations out of medical equipment, why gaffer tape is not the best thing to embalm yourself with, how to behave when the Health Minister pays a visit, and what to get a colleague you hate when you draw them in the Secret Santa. It’s not all humour, though, as he also talks about the difficulty of talking about death, the emotional maelstrom caused by a miscarriage, and how the job surgically removes your social life.

There’s not much else I can say, really, just that you should read this. And you should read his other book too, if you’re one of the seven people who hasn’t. Heartbreaking, hilarious and honest in equal measure, it will open your eyes to the reality of working one of the most demanding (and rewarding) jobs in the world.

All hail our NHS – we’d never survive without it.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Tropic Of Serpents” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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“Not long before I embarked on my journey to Eriga, I girded my loins and set out for a destination I considered much more dangerous: Falchester.”

In 2015, I began reading about the adventures of Lady Trent – at the time Isabella Camherst. Living in an world that is not unlike our Victorian era, she is a scientist with a passion for studying dragons. Despite the reservations that her society has about women adventurers, she manages to forge her own path and come out from the shadow of her husband and the male scientists that surround her. At last, I return to her memoirs, beginning the new year inside the pages of the second volume, this time detailing her adventures through a jungle known as the Green Hell.

Since returning to Scirland, three years have passed and Isabella is becoming restless. Desperate for another adventure and not finding motherhood to her liking – it’s particularly tough given her son looks exactly like her deceased husband – she plans a quest to Eriga, war-torn continent where her people have economic interests in the iron mines. When those with more power than her declare she must leave sooner than expected, she heads off with Thomas Wilker, a companion from her previous journey who doesn’t necessarily approve of her methods, and Natalie Oscott, a young woman with an inventor’s mind who loathes society’s rules even more than Isabella does.

In the land of Eriga, things are more turbulent than perhaps the Scirlanders realised. With several cultures and countries clashing over territorial disputes and the Scirling government focusing instead on building dams and mining iron, Isabella and her team find themselves guests at the palace, where the society’s leader asks her to bring back some dragon eggs while she’s off studying them. The group move off into the swamps, with local guides to assist them, and in there they find out not only a good deal about the native dragons, but also the people who have very different customs to the ones they’re used to. As Isabella learns more about dragons and alternate ways of living, she learns even more about herself and what she’s truly capable of.

The Eriga of the novel is clearly meant to be based on Africa, with white colonialists turning up to do their business, often with scant appreciation for what the natives think or want with them. The illustrations within the book – purported to be by Isabella herself – highlight the “otherness” of these people to her, and she clearly comes from a country where black people have yet to make any mark. One photo shows tribesmen who seem to have a definite Zulu basis. The world building is interesting and Brennan has clearly put a lot of thought into these things, but one can get so bogged down in trying to remember which culture is battling which and what all the countries are called that it can slow down the narrative a little. As with last time, the most interesting bits are when she is dealing directly with dragons, and these passages are not as common as one may like.

Nonetheless, Isabella remains an interesting character. She is the epitome of those female Victorian explorers like Gertrude Bell who struck out into the wilderness to study the world, paying no heed to the blustering men they left behind. Natalie is fun, too, being someone who has absolutely no interest in marriage or society’s norms. Thomas Wilker, in contrast, makes for a great foil, and it is wonderful to see he and Isabella reach a certain understanding and come to like one another, rather than simply tolerate the others presence. Isabella is fearless, ambitious and formidable, and she makes a credible heroine. She is not someone I would like to be on the other end of an argument with.

The third book is already on my shelf, so I doubt I’ll leave it so long this time to get to it. The adventure will continue soon.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

Top 10 Books of 2019

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So that was 2019! As ever, the year was quite a rollercoaster, with the world seeming to melt down around us as the population became more and more divided. It wasn’t all bad, though. My first paperback, The Third Wheel, was released at the start of the year and while it hasn’t troubled any bestseller lists yet, it’s plodded along satisfactorily. I also finally got to visit Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time last year which was an incredible experience. I’m already planning to head back again this year, so see you there, maybe?

Not only that, I also got to spend time with great friends – with two of them now having children of their own which means I can be a little bit childish again – explore parts of London I’d never touched, make a long overdue return to Legoland (because sometimes you don’t need children around to be childish) and generally just have a really fun time.

Above all, though, there are still books. While I read less this year than I have for a while, I still managed to find some cracking reads, and some particularly good non-fiction this year. This is evident by the fact that this year’s top ten list is a 50/50 split between fiction and reality. So, without further ado, here are the ten best books I read in 2019:

1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Aiden Bishop has woken up in a body that’s not his own, in a forest he doesn’t recognise, with no memory of how he got there. He makes his way back to the house, to find that the daughter of the host, Evelyn Hardcastle, has been murdered – as she has every day for many, many years. However, once all the drama is over, instead of a new day breaking, the same one starts again, but this time Aiden is in a different body while the same events play around him. Caught in a time loop, hopping between bodies, Aiden will only be free from this cycle when he manages to solve the murder. That is, if the footman doesn’t get him first…

Given I have read almost eight hundred books in the last decade, it is therefore quite a statement when I say that this was probably the best book I read all decade. A curious blend of Agatha Christie, Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, it is an absolute masterpiece and an incredible debut from a very talented mind. Turton’s grasp on the characters is phenomenal. The more bodies Aiden inhabits, the harder it becomes to remember who he is, and instead he finds himself dominated by the personalities and memories of his hosts, each one stronger than the last. Each character is fully realised and so vivid, as is Aiden’s reaction to each of them. On one day he’s inside an enormously fat man and is very aware of his own physical bulk and how the world views him. The day after, he finds himself back in a thin man and struggles to acclimatise to the sudden loss of weight. He often struggles with the morality of some of his hosts too, which is fun to see and handled so delicately that it all feels believable.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

2. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

3. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne live in the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. Marianne lives in a large house with her mother and brother, and Connell’s mother cleans for them. Despite this difference, the two begin a friendship of sorts, although Connell is so concerned that people at school will judge him for talking to weird friendless Marianne that he keeps everything about it a secret and doesn’t speak to her in public. When the relationship becomes sexual, the two find themselves incredibly compatible, but Connell’s pride threatens to ruin everything. Over the next five years, they continue to weave in and out of each other’s lives, learning more about themselves and each other.

I guess the biggest compliment I can pay the book is that I could have read another two hundred pages of it, at least. Perhaps after a while the idea would have grown stale, but when it finished I just wanted to know what happened next. That’s not to say that it ends badly, it doesn’t, and the ending emphasises the cyclical nature of life and in particular the relationship between Connell and Marianne.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

4. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

This fascinating book explores the history of the Detection Club, an exclusive London club for writers of crime fiction, and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to. As Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

5. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Starting from Chaos, Fry takes us on a journey from the first beings like Gaia, Ouranos and Nyx, through the reign of the titans, to the rise of Zeus and the Olympians and into the Silver Age where gods mingled with mortals and neither tended to come out of it well. We meet and learn the stories of everyone who matters including Hades (misunderstood Lord of the Underworld), Hera (the most jealous wife in history), Midas (the cursed king), Sisyphus (the twice-cheater of death), Arachne (who dared call herself the world’s greatest weaver) and Helios (the driver of the sun’s chariot).

Fry is one of those modern polymaths who can do absolutely anything he turns his attention to – except for, apparently, singing and dancing – and he clearly takes a lot of joy in retelling these tales, adding his own unique spirit to them. They don’t need much in the way of adaptation to be palatable for modern audiences, so he instead revels in adding inconsequential details and silly jokes, all of which are hugely appreciated.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

6. Question Time by Mark Mason

In his attempt to answer the question, “What makes the perfect quiz question?” Mark Mason sets off around the country, taking in the World Quizzing Championship, pub quiz machines, radio quizzes and speed quizzes to brush up on his trivia, learn why people love quizzing, and generally have a good time. It’s basically a tour of Britain disguised as a book of trivia – or maybe the other way around. Whatever the case, it’s an utter joy.

It had such an impact that I even finally got around to hosting my first quiz night, and I’ve got four more lined up already. Books can really change every aspect of your life. Trivia is one of those things that unites people and everyone loves a good fact. This book is absolutely teeming with them and is a fun and funny exploration of the world of quizzing.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

7. The Iron Bird by Robert Woodshaw

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

8. Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of teenagers made up of Peter, Nate, Andy, Kerri and their dog Sean – stopped the Sleepy Lake monster, who turned out to be yet another greedy, desperate lowlife in a rubber mask who would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Thirteen years later, the young detectives have grown up but not forgotten their adventures. And the more they try not to think about them, they realise that maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The events can’t be explained away by a guy in a mask. Something weirder was going on, and it’s time to find out what…

Although already very funny despite the horror, the greatest stylistic device is that the book is very self-aware, pointing out its own construction and breaking the fourth wall so naturally that you completely buy into it. Cantero slips in stage directions, title cards, references to the very paragraphs and sentences he’s writing, and at one point even ends a chapter, only to have one of the characters refuse to let it end there and carrying on regardless. If you grew up on The Famous FiveScooby Doo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is the book for you.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

9. The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered. It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

10. The Binding by Bridget Collins

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory that someone wanted to forget. Emmett soon makes the shocking discovery that one of the books has his name on it…

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

And that’s 2019 – not only the end of the year, but the end of the decade. Let’s hope we’re all still here in a year’s time to see what new books have captured our imaginations.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Busy Body” by M. C. Beaton (2010)

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“Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.”

The rise in M. C. Beaton novels on the list this year is entirely down to my grandfather. Having discovered a few of her early ones on my shelf, he became obsessed and started buying up others he found and then passing them on to me when he’d finished. The Hamish Macbeth ones I’d got used to, so I decided to try an Agatha Raisin.

It’s Christmas in the little village of Carsely, but not everything is merry and bright thanks to health and safety inspector George Sunday. Zealous and tediously officious, he seems to have a grudge against everyone in the area having any fun. He bans the vicar from putting the tree on the church roof as ever, forbids the putting up of Christmas lights without a proper cherry picker, and even disallows people to put decorations up around their own homes.

A meeting is called to decide what to do about him, but it gets interrupted by George himself when he falls against the window, stabbed. Any number of people have a motive, but few seem to have had the opportunity. Agatha Raisin decides she must bring the killer to justice and give herself a PR boost. Elsewhere, one of the key witnesses thinks she’s remembered something fishy about the night Sunday died, but she too is killed before she has a chance to tell anyone. As the villagers turn on one another, Agatha must work out who hated Sunday most – and it’s a very long list.

These books have much the same flavour has the Hamish Macbeth ones, just moving the action from the Highlands to the Cotswolds and having the main character be a private detective instead of a policeman. One of the issues here is entirely on my side, in that I’ve thrown myself down in the middle of the series, and while the crimes appear to be independent, there is evidently a through-line with the secondary characters that I need to know about. Hell, one of them actually dies in this one, and I didn’t feel the emotional impact one presumably does if they’ve got to know the people.

As ever with Beaton though, and this is surprising given how prolific she is, there is an awful lot going on in this novel. The main murder gets overshadowed fairly quickly by another that (no real spoiler) turns out to be entirely unrelated. It’s like the novel got invaded by a second one and only when that’s been cleared up can we return to the main story line. The whole novel takes place over the course of a year which, in fairness, does add realism to the police work and doesn’t see everything wrapped up in a week (trials and DNA tests don’t work like that), but it means there is a lot of time to kill. During the time, Agatha has major surgery and develops swine flu, and neither of these seem to affect the story at all, instead being glossed over in a few short paragraphs. Heaven knows, there are stories to tell here. Agatha Christie one had Poirot solve a murder while he was in bed with a cold – surely giving Agatha Raisin one of these handicaps to battle against adds further jeopardy?

All in all, the titular mystery itself is good, but it feels like three novels’ worth of stuff trying to happen all at the same time and it ends up all being a bit cluttered. Sure, I’ll return, but I may have to head back into the series for some earlier stuff to work out a few of the motivations. Still a good example of what happens to people when they get a little bit of power or fame and it all goes to their head. People will stop at nothing to get the happiness they think they deserve.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

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