Top 10 Books of 2019

Leave a comment

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!

Top 10 Books of 2018

Leave a comment

Every year, you think the world can’t get any weirder, and then it does. 2018 was disastrous in many ways, but thankfully there is always fiction to provide you with a safe space. My 2018 was one of mixed emotions, but was redeemed by reaching the crowdfunding target on my second novel, The Third Wheel, getting to hold it in my hands, attending the wedding of one of my best friends and being asked to be a “bridesmate” for my oldest friend this coming year, and, of course, books. I also finally got Netflix this year, which took up an inordinate amount of reading time, but I still managed to hit ninety-one books.

Truth be told, I reached the end of the year struggling with how to write this post. As it got down to it, I remembered reading a good number of books I enjoyed, but very few that stood out as great books. As I went back through the list, though, I found several that really did outshine the rest, and I present them to you now. These are the ten books I read in 2018 that I would most recommend to anyone looking for a new book.

(As a side note, if you purchase any of the books here via the links I provide, I get a little bit of money, so thanks in advance!)

1. The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe by Douglas Adams

Arthur Dent is one of only two humans left in the universe. Along with a collection of assorted aliens and a depressed robot, he is now hurtling through space with no home planet to return to, and being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. As the plot pinballs through the universe, but one question remains pivotal for every character involved: “Where are we going for lunch?” There’s only one answer, though. Milliway’s – the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Really, I’d pick the whole series – or at least the first four books – but Restaurant, for whatever reason, has the most emotional pull for me. Daft, witty and somehow still emotional, Adams changed the rules when he wrote these books, proving that with an entire universe of improbability to play with, writers didn’t have to stick to rigid rules regarding how aliens and planets behave. Inventions such as the Babel Fish and the answer to life, the universe and everything being 42 are now iconic in pop culture, and quite rightly so. I can only dream of being this creative.

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

2. Not Working by Lisa Owens

Claire Flannery has quit the job she hated, but hasn’t yet figured out exactly what it is she wants to do instead. Her mental health deteriorates as she struggles through job applications and the judgement of friends and family, not helped by the fact she made an inappropriate joke at her grandfather’s funeral and now her mother isn’t talking to her. Claire needs to find some answers to the questions everyone is asking her about her future, but sometimes they come along just as you stop looking.

Having spent an enormous amount of time over the last two years out of work, this book hit home in various ways. While funny, it’s also terribly poignant, dealing with love, loss, a feeling of worthlessness and how no one seems to really understand the emotional and mental impact of unemployment in a capitalist society unless they’re undergoing it themselves. I don’t wish it on anyone, but this book was a brilliant analysis of the topic, with an enormous number of quotable lines and a true sense of reality. I adored it because it made me feel less alone.

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

3. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Tom Barren lives in the 2016 that we’ve all dreamed out. With flying cars, food pills, teleportation, total equality, and limitless energy, Earth is a utopian paradise where everybody has enough and comfort and happiness comes as standard. Tom’s father, Victor, is a scientist who is on the brink of inventing time travel, with plans to send someone back through time to the most important moment in history, when Lionel Goettreider turned on his perpetual motion machine which sent humanity into its perfect future. But when Tom goes back by mistake, he accidentally changes history and returns to a broken, backwards world he doesn’t recognise: ours.

This was one of the first books I read in 2018, and I knew from then it would appear here, regardless of what else I read. Mastai has created a fascinating twist on the alternate universe and dystopia theme by having our world be the bad timeline, rather than create something new. It’s funny, engaging and packed with outlandish science that somehow all still seems real and just out of our grasp. To be honest with you, it’s a strong contender for book of the decade, and is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve ever read.

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

4. A Short History Of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth

From the moment our ancestors came out of the trees, and perhaps even before, humans have loved a drink. It defines us as a species as much as our reliance on technology, desire for exploration, and need for telling stories. From the first farmers to the speakeasies of Prohibition, Mark Forsyth explores the entire of human history through our drinking habits, exploring not just what we were drinking, but why we drank, who with, and what for. How well did the plan for Australia to be an entirely dry culture go? And why was ale once drunk through a straw? All this and more will be covered.

One of two non-fiction books entering the top ten this year, this might seem a surprise candidate, but I haven’t had this much fun reading a non-fiction book in a long time. Hugely entertaining, Forsyth balances the fascinating history of alcohol with whimsy and great laughs. I’ve been repeating several of the facts ever since, including the facts that civilisation almost certainly began because of beer, and that in London for a short time, gin was served out of stuffed cats. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out more.

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

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In the near future, fertile women are lesser citizens, sent to live with married couples for the express purpose of having children, with no say over whether or not they want to. Trapped in her life of servitude, Offred remembers the time before the government instigated this way of living, and she isn’t yet ready to give up her dreams. As it stands, the only way of getting anything resembling a better life is to get pregnant, and her whole life rests in the hands of two men who could make or break her future with one word.

Of course this makes it on to the list. I’m still appalled it took me so long to read it, but I think 2018 was actually the year it needed to be read most. There is so much to learn from this novel that shows how the world can change in unfathomable and unthinkable ways if certain ideas and figures aren’t opposed. The characters are fascinating, the world interesting, and the writing, as always with Atwood, beautifully charged with emotion. I’m intrigued by the promise of a sequel, too, and wonder where the story will lead next.

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

6. Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

The nameless narrator recalls a project from elementary school where he and his classmates released some balloons into the world with their names on them, in hopes that they get responses from people elsewhere in the city, or perhaps further afield. At first, nothing returns for him, but eventually he begins receiving blurry photographs. First one, then another, and then so many arrive that he stops opening them. It’s only sometime later when he takes a look again that he notices something the photos have in common … he’s in all of them.

Horror isn’t something I read a huge amount of, but there was something so compelling about this novel. I had doubts at first, but it turned into one that my mind has kept returning to since, which I take as a good sign. Just eerie enough to catch you off guard, the book is worth a read for anyone who likes being creeped out. I suppose it’s more of a thriller really, and it definitely makes good on that promise. A truly haunting, terrifying, uncomfortable read.

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

7. Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

On an alternate Earth, the planet is still in the grip of an Ice Age, and humanity has had to evolve to hibernate, with the vast majority of the population spending the coldest months in a state of induced sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit among the Winter Consuls, the select group of protectors who remain awake all Winter to ensure that nothing bad happens to the sleepers. Rumours are abound of a viral dream, and Charlie finds himself up to his neck in trouble after he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in an area of Wales that he won’t be able to leave until the thaw. It’s time to learn what it really takes to survive the Winter…

Straight up confession – this isn’t my favourite Fforde book by any means, but it’s still a Fforde book and that immediately puts it on a higher level than almost everything else published in 2018. After a long absence, it’s refreshing to have him back and still on good form, creating his fifth fictional world that is entirely realised with an enormous scope. Although a standalone novel, I would happily return to this world, just to spend more time with Fforde’s talents for wordplay, comedy and pathos. Truly the greatest writer working today.

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

8. Scythe by Neal Shusterman

A few centuries down the line, humanity has cured death. To keep populations in check, there is now a group of people called scythes whose job it is to kill (“glean”) people, in whatever manner they see fit. Citra and Rowan have just been taken from their families to begin training as the next generation of scythes, but both are appalled by the concept of killing, despite knowing that it must happen. Never before has a scythe taken on two apprentices, however, and at the first conclave of the year, a decision is reached – whichever of the two does best in their final exams when the year is out will win the scythe’s robe and ring – and have to glean the other…

It’s not often a YA novel makes it way onto a list of my favourite books of the year, as I tire with a lot of them quickly, but there was something remarkable about Scythe. I haven’t really stopped thinking of it since and have already bought the sequel. Shusterman builds a rich world here and it’s one that I’m happy to spend time in. There are some particularly shocking moments in it, but they somehow work and the whole thing feels effortless in its appeal in a way I’ve not encountered since the Chaos Walking series. This should really be better known than it is.

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

9. The Third Wheel by Michael J. Ritchie

Dexter is a twenty-something teacher struggling with growing up. All of his friends have now coupled off while Dexter remains alone, with the world pestering him constantly with its obsession with finding “the one”, as well as an onslaught of double dates and wedding invitations. After a drunken encounter with an ex-girlfriend, his and everyone else’s world is turned upside down when aliens invade and decimate the population. Suddenly the problems of romance don’t seem to matter so much…

Don’t begrudge me putting my own novel on the list. I’m never going to claim it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I’m proud of it and the feedback I’ve had – from both friends and strangers – so far has been brilliant, so I think it’s a good call. As with my first book, I’ve tried to lace both very silly comedy with very dark tragedy, and I think it works well, producing a novel that is something different. I’ve tired of media reproducing the same thing over and over again, so I was determined here to break the rules and give the world something a little unique, with a focus on friendships rather than romantic relationships. Time will tell if I’ve been successful.

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

10. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

In this collection of essays, Olivia Laing explores the lives and works of several famous artists and how loneliness played a key role in their creativity. We get to meet Andy Warhol, who struggled with other people; Edward Hopper who immortalised loneliness in his painting Nighthawks, and Henry Darger who was only discovered to be an artistic genius after his death. Laing also introduces her own personal experiences of dealing with loneliness in a big city.

Emotionally charged and packed with wise words about loneliness, pain, privacy, acceptance and art, it is an important and beautiful book that explores many topics that society doesn’t like to talk about. I seem constantly attracted to books about loneliness, and this is the epitome of the theme, again very quotable and full of nuggets of wisdom to take with you. The stories, too, are fascinating and shine a light on people I didn’t know all that much about. Everyone should read this, particularly any creative types who think they’re alone in their struggles.

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

And there you have it. Now, on with 2019 reading! My second novel is out officially this year, I’m beginning my re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue (it’s sad to not see her on this list), and there are hundreds of more books yet to explore. I can’t wait to get stuck in!

Top 10 Books of 2017

1 Comment

So, that was 2017. What a mess, both globally and personally. The world seems to be falling apart at the seams with increasing speed. 2016 had set the bar so low it was impossible to think that things could get any worse, but Christ did 2017 deliver. But I’m not going to focus on the negatives. There were some good things too.

There was an impressive solar eclipse over the USA, the Doctor regenerated into a woman for the first time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle shone as they announced their engagement, Blue Planet II stunned us all with its visuals, there was an awkwardly hilarious cock-up at the Oscars, people refused to sit in silence and took to the streets to make their voices heard, Australia legalised same-sex marriage, Alabama elected a Democrat, and honeybee populations increased. As for me personally? Edinburgh welcomed me back with open arms once more during one of my lowest ebbs, Unbound took a chance on me and gave me a platform to crowdfund my second novel, I finished reading Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and visited her grave to say thank you.

And, of course, there were still books. I achieved a personal best this year, making my way through one hundred books, but now leaving me with a lot of bigger novels and hefty hardbacks for this year. Nonetheless, there were some crackers, so here are my ten favourite books from the last twelve months – in no particular order.

(As a side note, if you purchase any of the books here via the links I provide, I get a little bit of money, so thanks in advance!)

1. Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Poirot is taking a well-earned holiday at a hotel off the Devon coast, but as ever, murder is never far behind him. Arlena Marshall, a famous and beautiful actress is making heads turn all over the island, but within a matter of days she’s found dead on the beach, strangled. The killer must be among the hotel’s guests, but it seems that almost everyone has a motive. The vicar believes that Arlena is evil; Arlena’s step-daughter Linda has no love for her husband’s new wife; or did her husband finally have enough of her and her flirtatious ways? Fortunately, Poirot is on hand to try and solve the case.

While it doesn’t seem to have the same level of fame as Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, this really is one of Christie’s best. With all the typical elements – dead body, furious relatives, isolated location, sunny weather – it marks her out as being one of the greatest plot-smiths ever, a fact we all know by now anyway. The solution is neat and there are so many red herrings in here that you could open a fishmongers. It’s a real classic of the genre, and from Christie herself.

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

2. The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radley family seem to be perfectly normal. Sure, they’re a little quirky, but there’s nothing wrong with slapping on thick sun tan lotion every time you step out of the house or being allergic to garlic. One night, teenage Clara is attacked by an unwanted pursuer and hits back, leading to a grisly death. She and her brother Rowan then discover the family secret – they’re vampires. The transition to this new reality begins smoothly, but when their uncle Will turns up, things begin to fall apart. After all, you have to invite a vampire into your home, but once you do so, it’s very difficult to get them to leave again.

While most everyone else spent the year discussing Haig’s How to Stop Time, which I did also enjoy very much, I found myself much preferring this one. The macabre humour is brilliant and while vampires are occasionally seen as overplayed now, he handles them with joy here and fits them into the modern world seamlessly. As with all the best books, it’s about the truth of being human, which is often shown very well through those that aren’t. Despite the gore, it’s very sweet.

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

3. The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

David Smith was once the most admired sculptor in America. He was a young talent who could do no wrong; that is, until his creativity dried up. Now stagnating and unable to produce anything, he is desperate. So desperate that he makes a deal with Death – David can now sculpt any material with just his hands, but he will die in 200 days. To make matters more complicated, he’s just fallen in love…

I’m not the biggest reader of graphic novels, but there was something about this one that blew me away. The plot of a creative person struggling with creation is something I can totally get on board with – I have written painfully little in the last year – and the artwork is simply stunning. I would go so far as to say that it couldn’t have worked as a straight novel; seeing is everything with this one. A brilliant tale of obsession, carelessness and art.

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

4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I try and only have books that were new to me in the top 10, but I usually fail. This year I failed twice because I dipped back into two of my favourite novels of all time. Never Let Me Go takes us to a boarding school with a curious curriculum and a set of students who seem to have very little idea about what awaits them in the real world. As we follow Kathy and her discovery of what purpose she and her classmates including Tommy and Ruth have been born to do, we find ourselves in a twisted version of Britain where humanity took a very dark turn.

It had to be on this list, really, because it is one of my favourite books of all time. An insidiously terrifying novel that begins as something quite innocent and quaint but soon devolves into something truly horrific. Nonetheless, like The Radleys, it is once again about being human, but this time with a focus on creativity, the nature of the soul and rights of an individual. So many questions remain unanswered that you’ll wish there was more of it, but it’s actually perfect as it is. A true modern classic.

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

5. Wonder by R. J. Palacio

August Pullman has Treacher Collins syndrome, which gives him an appearance considered unusual by most people. He prefers to hide away under his astronaut helmet and has so far been home-schooled to protect him from bullies. His parents decide that he should go to middle school, but once there it seems that no one can look past his face, and children’s honesty is not always well received.

Above all, this is a novel about not taking things at face value, and kindness. Peppered with acts of kindness and with more nice characters than nasty on the whole, the book shines. I began reading it with my usual trepidation when faced with a child narrator, and while August’s voice – and those of others who share their point of view – feels a little too adult, he’s a charming and lovable boy, and you can’t help by feel affection for him. I can almost objectively state that this is a Good Book, as my mother read it and loved it too, and she doesn’t read anything. Another heartwarming tale about humanity being, usually, a force for good.

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

6. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

Sneaking into the top ten as the last book I finished in 2017 is the memoirs of doctor-turned-comedy-writer Adam Kay. This novel features excepts from his diaries during the six years he spent working for the NHS. They are in turn hilarious and heart-breaking. Kay is able to perfectly balance the nonsensical questions and demands of his former patients with genuine pathos and sympathy for their problems.

It’s definitely not a book you want to read while you’re eating dinner, and many of the stories will probably never leave you (for better or for worse) but there are few more honest looks at the men and women in white coats who we too often take for granted. Kay doesn’t shy away from the truths of long hours, personal sacrifices and bodily fluids and the book is laced through with laughs, although he definitely knows when to be serious. A joyous, and very important, read.

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

7. Here, The World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward

Medusa is known by many of us as the mythological embodiment of a bad hair day. Athena cursed her and replaced her golden locks with live snakes, as well as ensuring that anyone she looked at would immediately turn to stone. Perseus is the hero who has been tasked with going to meet her and entice her from her cave, but Medusa is lonely, not stupid, and she’s not so keen on the idea. The two get to know each other, and we learn what really happened to Medusa.

It’s just over eighty pages long, but contains so much intrigue, originality and, above all, passion. Hayward is wonderful at describing the unusual, as Medusa rarely describes anything she can see given that she lives in a dark cave, so much of her story is told based around what she can hear. It’s a skill to turn a monster into a sympathetic character, but Hayward does it. I fortunately know her a little, so know how much she loves her subject, and this is immediately obvious from this novella. An intriguing way to spend an afternoon.

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

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The second reread on my top ten is this Mitch Albom novel. It opens with the death of fairground maintenance worker, Eddie. He arrives in the afterlife to find how things work here. Everyone who dies meets five people in heaven who will explain their lives to them. They may know them, they may not, but they all had an important impact on the deceased’s life. Eddie begins an adventure, as he learns the true meaning behind his life and the impact he had on others in turn.

Albom is a beautiful writer and this book had stuck with me for years, reemerging just when I needed it as all good books do. Economical and easy to read, the story is haunting and while tragic in places, it’s also a tale of hope, love and how no one is insignificant. I love the concept of us all being connected to one another, and it’s played out magically here. It’ll break your heart, but you’ll find you don’t mind.

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

9. Dead Writers in Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

Sticking with the theme of afterlives, Foster James has woken up in a rehab clinic with no memory of how he got there. Assuming he’s been thrown in by another ex-wife or ex-friend, he gets on with it but when he’s punched by Ernest Hemingway during a group therapy session, he realises that it might not be as simple as that. Now confined to a rehab centre filled with some of the most messed up figures in literature including Dorothy Parker and William Burroughs, he must make the best of it. When the writers all discover that animosity between the two head doctors may threaten the existence of the centre, however, they put their egos aside to help solve the issue.

A hilarious take on the classical canon, with excerpts from the recovery diaries of some of history’s drunkest as they struggle on in this new world. It’s a really sharp and smart novel that’s endlessly quotable and knows what it’s doing. OK, the ending is a little shaky, but there are some great twists and the characters are superb. If nothing else, you’ll come out the other side knowing a good deal more about these figures who were all somewhat larger than life.

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

10. Curtain by Agatha Christie

Yes, fine, I know two Christie novels is probably excessive, but I couldn’t make up my mind between the two, and anyway, it’s my list.

Curtain is the final Poirot novel. Christie takes her hero back to Styles, the country house that was the setting for his first adventure, but he is old, ill, and loyal friend Hastings isn’t sure if he’s not losing control of his little grey cells when he becomes convinced that someone in the house is a murderer. For Poirot, this is the culmination of his career, if only he can get Hastings to see what he can see before it’s too late…

Making full use of her passion for psychology, Christie weaves another one of her genius tales here, bringing the saga to a pleasing, if tragic, end. It is one of her best, no question, but it’s definitely the one that has to be saved for last, and I was pleased I had. The friendship between Poirot and Hastings is a delight, although it’s clear they’ve not seen one another for a long time, and the final solution is inspired. Once again, Christie proves that no one does it better, or probably ever will.

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

2018 is already promising to be a somewhat better year, at least personally, with some really fun, amazing events to come, even if one of those is a major milestone birthday I’m quietly dreading. Hopefully my second book will reach funding this year too, and will begin to find its way to a bookshelf near you. As for my reading list? It’s as long as ever. There’s no new Christie mysteries this year, of course, but I’m planning a return journey through the oeuvre of Douglas Adams and Roald Dahl among a whole host of new titles. Let’s hope for a little more joy and peace this year – I wish you all a happy, happy twelve months.

Once more from the top…

Top 10 Books of 2016

Leave a comment

So, what can one say about 2016 that hasn’t already been said? A year that became almost farcical in its unrelenting mission to annoy, upside and divide everyone. The news seems to have been full of stories of war, abuse and struggle, often with minorities dying at the hands of people who think they know better and seek to waste their time hating rather than loving. America elected a supposedly unelectable man to the most powerful office in the world, Britain apparently decided it was somehow better off out of the European Union, and both are being used as examples of how insidious racism is in our world today.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover the enormous list of great people who died this year. Among others who have departed the planet, often far too soon, there was David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Frank Kelly, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood (I’ll never be over that one), Prince, Muhammad Ali, Caroline Aherne, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Jimmy Perry, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs, Liz Smith, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Stars winked out on an almost daily basis this year, and at times it became tough to find a glimmer of joy in this sea of troubles.

Fortunately, there are still books. At any moment you can pick up a book and escape into a world unlike our own. I managed that ninety-one times this year, and here ten books that stood out for me in particular over the last year.

1. Animal by Sara Pascoeanimal

This is one of those books that feels like a Very Important Book, with capital letters and everything. Since it was feverishly recommended to me by two friends, I have passed it on with a similar ferocity to others. Sara Pascoe tells here the story of the female body, discussing how the body works, how the mind works, as well as discussing the importance of consent, particularly when it comes to sex.

With great humour, and deeply moving anecdotes from her own life, Pascoe constructs one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I learnt so much from this book, and from what I gathered, so did everyone else I know who read it. I cannot begin to explain how truly remarkable this book is, and how I can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get round to doing this. Pascoe is a hilarious comedian and her style and voice is unique. If you read nothing else on this list, read this. Even better, listen to the audiobook, narrated by Pascoe herself, and revel in her warmth and charm.

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

circle2. The Circle by Dave Eggers

The best dystopian novels are those that really exaggerate the world we’re currently living in, and thus showing you that we’re all sleepwalking into a dystopia anyway. In The Circle, social networks are everything. Mae Holland is a recent graduate who is now working for The Circle, the biggest network of them all. Soon she is sucked into a world where everything about you is known, and privacy is considered shameful and suspicious.

This book is horrifying above anything else, but powerfully written. The perceived struggle of the characters to become popular and influential on social media feels like an exaggerated version of what we have now, but sometimes the exaggeration doesn’t feel too strong, given how some people already behave. The company seems to be modelled on a combination of Facebook and Google, but somehow even more powerful and insidious. This is the sort of book that sticks with you for a long time, and makes you think twice about what you’re putting online.

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

rook3. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

A woman has just woken up in the body of Myfanwy Thomas. She has no idea why she woke up in the middle of a park, wearing latex gloves and surrounded by dead bodies. Whoever this first body was, it turns out she worked for the Checquy, a secret organisation that protects Britain from supernatural threats. Everyone in the company’s employ has some kind of superpower, and as Myfanwy grows accustomed to her new body and role, she finds herself in the midst of a conspiracy that stretches back centuries.

This is urban fantasy at its finest, silliest and yet most believable. Sharp prose from O’Malley provides us with a world that I found myself longing to be a part of, despite the danger. The superpowers are particularly unique. Myfanwy is able to control other people’s bodies when she touches them, and her colleague Gestalt is a hive mind who has four physical bodies. It’s a great addition to the genre, and I intend to get around to the sequel this year.

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

shades4. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

If I’m being honest, I could probably fill this top ten entirely with Jasper Fforde’s work, but that seems a bit daft, so instead I’ve chosen the one that, if you’ve read nothing of his, you should start with, as it’s not (yet) part of a series so can be dashed off quicker. This book takes place in an undisclosed time in the future of Britain where humans can only see one colour each, and your position in the social order is dictated by what you can see, with purples at the top and greys at the bottom.

When Eddie Russett, Red, is sent to the outer fringes to the village of East Carmine as punishment, he meets Jane, a Grey with a pretty nose, who begins to show him that his world view has been heavily limited all this time. This is a world where colour is  a commodity, history is being erased, and there are massive killer swans roaming the countryside. Best described as “1984 if written by Douglas Adams”, the book is wise and thoughtful, but above all hilariously funny and sharp, and Eddie and Jane are two of the greatest characters in fiction.

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

quick curtain5. Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

The weather was great, the summer was full of promise, and I’d stumbled upon another of the British Library’s crime classics. In Quick Curtain, during the opening night of a long-awaited new musical, the lead actor is shot dead live on stage. Inspector Wilson and his journalist son Derek spring into action to work out whether this was an accident or if there is something more sinister going on. The intrepid duo, with the aid of the cast and crew of the musical, set about uncovering more and more secrets the deeper they dig.

One of the funniest books I read all year, and perhaps ever, it’s full of self-important actors, bickering detectives, gossipy busybodies and more jokes and quips that you can throw a stick at. Despite being written in 1934, it feels surprisingly modern and shows that there are always more tricks crime writers have up their sleeves than you could even imagine.

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

nod-book6. Nod by Adrian Barnes

In one of the most terrifying books I read this year (and this is a year in which I also read Psycho), we meet Paul and his girlfriend Tanya. One night, Tanya doesn’t sleep, and goes into work to find that most everyone else didn’t sleep either. Scientists are at a loss to explain what’s happened, and understand it even less when the next night, once again, all but about one in ten thousand people didn’t manage to sleep. On the third day, society collapses.

Despite the horror and creepiness of the story, it is absolutely beautiful. Barnes writes like his words are being woven into a patchwork quilt, and there isn’t a dropped stitch or lose thread in it. There are many reflections on what it is to be human, an emphasis on our physical bodies and how there isn’t much more to us than that, and of course what happens to a world where everything is upside down and one of the fundamentals we’ve always taken for granted has been taken away. The images are vivid and the tension and terror are palpably real.

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

reasons7. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This feels like another Very Important Book, like Animal. This is the account of Matt Haig’s battle with mental illness and serves as both a memoir and self-help book for those dealing with depression. While perhaps not the cheeriest book on this list, it’s nonetheless very beautiful, wise and hopeful. After the year we’ve had, it feels necessary to turn our attention to a book that tells us that despite all the terrible things that happen, they are temporary and that there are plenty of other things to live for.

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

good-omens8. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

Where does one begin when trying to describe the plot of Good Omens? Do you start with the angel and demon who have inexplicably become friends over millennia and are now tasked with bringing the Antichrist to Earth? Do you begin with Anathema Device, the professional descendant and witch, who knows that the end time is near? How about with Newt, one of Britain’s last witch hunters? Maybe you have to start with the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse who are gathering for the first time in centuries…

Hilariously funny on every page, this book is everything I wish I could write. Gaiman and Pratchett are both incredibly talented in their own ways, but together they become unstoppable. Great and important themes of good and evil are tied together with complete whimsy and truly hysterical dialogue. The characters are all wonderfully real, despite their fantastical bases, and there can be few raptures that are more pleasant and charming as this. A modern classic, and well deserved of being considered so.

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

after-the-funeral9. After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

It wouldn’t be my list without including an Agatha Christie on here, and while I read some belters this year, I’ve gone for After the Funeral as the best, as it contains all the true hallmarks of a Christie novel. There’s an old house with a loyal butler, a sprawling, dysfunctional family, a dead earl, and a killer with a singularly unique motive. After Richard Abernethie’s funeral, the family gather to hear about the will, and his younger sister Cora notes, “It’s all been rather hushed up, but he was murdered wasn’t he?” The next day, she is dead.

With more red herrings than a sunburnt stargazy pie, Poirot begins to unravel the mystery and, as usual, it turns out that everyone in the family has a secret, some more pressing than others, but there can only be one solution. If you’re smart, you’ll get it, but don’t worry if you don’t. I’ve read nearly seventy Christie books and still have correctly solved less than five. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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

the long way10. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The science fiction is probably the last place you expect to find a book all about the importance of family, and yet here it is. Set on a hyperspace tunnelling ship out in deep space, we meet a cast of humans, aliens and AIs and get to know them and the way they work. Every member of the crew has a story and deals with relationships in their own ways, be they tactile reptiles, falling in love with the AI, in a symbiotic relationship with a virus, or the last of their species.

It’s an eye-opening book, and one that reminds us not to judge others by our sense of “normal”. The universe is a vast place and we shouldn’t be too surprised by what we find out there. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, but also funny, sharp and hugely readable. Yes, Chambers plays with language and science, but it all feels incredibly thought out and none of it is excess, frivolous fluff.

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

And there you have it. Another year over, another stack of books read, another tapestry of memories to add to our history. It’s been a challenging year, as I’ve already discussed, but I still have hope. Hope is perhaps the most important human emotion – a sense that we shouldn’t give up. We must fight on, fight louder and fight better. There is hope for humanity, and maybe this year is just an unfortunate blip.

Although I’m no expert on life, nor can provide much in the way of advice, I think perhaps we should turn to the heroes we lost this year and look at the example they set. Carrie Fisher was warm and brave. Victoria Wood was clever and determined. Terry Wogan was benevolent and charming. Ronnie Corbett was tireless and hilarious. George Michael was charitable and unashamed. Gene Wilder was mad and kind. Almost everyone who died this year had by all accounts been “the nicest person who ever lived”. If we are truly going to honour those we’ve lost this year, we could do worse than being more like them.

Be decent to each other, and I wish you all health, happiness and a hope for a brighter future in 2017. X

Top 10 Books of 2015

Leave a comment

Another year finished, another ninety-five books read, and another time to sit back and reflect. A lot happened this year, both in the wider world and for me personally, and it remains a year that I will look back on, despite the negatives, with a huge amount of fondness. But, of course, it is the books that I’m really interested in here.

Once more, the tournament bracket software was dusted off, but it was actually hardly used as the books that shone this year shone so bright that they dimmed the others around them. There have been some bad books this year, I can’t deny that, but these more than made up for them. And, really, I’ve cheated. There’s a lot more than ten here. But never mind, on with the discussion.

station1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This was one of the first books of the year, and definitely one of the best. We meet a troupe of travelling Shakespeare actors who are trudging across vast distances after the apocalypse to put on performances for the surviving townships. Jumping back and forth in time, taking in the points of view of several characters, the book reveals that a virulent flu strain has killed off the majority of the population, and the survivors are clinging to memories and objects from before the end.

It’s smart and has threads running through it that all tie up in the end and you come away with the feeling that whatever happens to the planet, humanity will find a way through and survive somehow. The title refers to a comic book that seems to be passed through the numerous characters in their quest for survival. At the time, I didn’t rate the book particularly highly, but it’s stuck with me all year, and for that reason alone it deserves a spot on this list.

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

Jurassicpark2. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Surely most everyone has seen the film version of Jurassic Park, but it seems that some of those people still didn’t realise that it was originally a book. In truth, the idea was so appealing to Steven Spielberg that he bought the rights to film it before the book had even been published. For the under-rock dwellers among you, this is the story of a futuristic theme park that has cloned dinosaurs and populated a small island with them with the intention letting people pay to come and see them. The events of the novel take place over a weekend when the eccentric billionaire in charge, John Hammond, calls in some experts in dinosaurs, chaos and law to convince them that everything is completely safe. Of course, it wouldn’t be an interesting book if everything worked out okay…

One might scoff at this and suggest that because you’ve seen the film, you don’t need to bother with the book, but you’re wrong. If anything, the book is even better. There are some narrative changes, a few extra characters and some classic lines that don’t exit here, but there are a whole host of scenes that viewers won’t have seen that give more life to the island. Sharply written and feeling believable at every turn, despite the pure fiction of the science involved, this is definitely a book to add to your “read” pile.

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

stationery3. Adventures In Stationery by James Ward

I know this one won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I’m sort of appalled in myself that it’s made the list, but this was, without question, one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. Unashamed in its love of the mundane, this book is the history of stationery, detailing how it all was invented, developed and the place it holds in our hearts, and desk drawers, now. Everything is here: pens, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, staplers, post-its, sticky tape, Tippex, and everything else in between.

A lot of people I know, if they’re at all romantic or maybe just a bit weird, have a favourite pen, or feel some kind of rush when they enter a stationery shop, and this book reinforces the fact that stationery is such a huge part of our lives, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. And it turns out that the paths it all took to reach us today are anything but dull.

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

cloudatlas4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I don’t have the space here to completely analyse this book again. Basically it’s about an American notary in 1850 visiting New Zealand and dealing with a stowaway, and it’s about a musician in 1930s Belgium who is writing letters to his lover back home, and it’s thriller about a woman who comes to learn some dark secrets about a nuclear power station and puts her life at risk, and it’s about a publisher who gets tricked by his brother into moving into an old people’s home, and it’s about a cloned human in future Korea who escapes her life as a fast food server, and it’s about a post-apocalyptic world where a primitive tribe meets a superior people with far more intellect and technology. And then it’s about all those things backwards again.

Basically trying to explain this novel is like trying to knit fog, but it has a place on this list simply because despite the denseness of that paragraph, it never felt particularly dense. It’s a joy to read, masterfully constructed with the six stories linking together without the characters really knowing that that’s the case. The stories are nested, and each character finds the story that comes before them during their own and … look, just trust me on this one. Read it, and then watch the film.

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

roger ackroyd5. The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Given how much of her work I read on a yearly basis – another eleven this year – it would be almost remiss of me to not include Agatha Christie on a top ten list. However, even if I didn’t read much, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has to make an appearance. One of her three crown jewels, this is the remarkably twisty tale in which poor Roger Ackroyd is found stabbed after a dinner party.

The prime suspect has vanished, but his lover has appeared to say that it definitely couldn’t have been him. Poirot, who has settled into the village to begin his retirement properly, is called upon to help solve the case and with the aid of Dr James Sheppard, the local GP, he must work out which of the locals did Ackroyd in. The solution, if you don’t know it already, will have you guessing right up until the reveal. This is the novel that catapulted Christie to her fame, and is a perfect example of her superhuman plotting abilities.

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

untitled6. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

In Only Ever Yours, we’re in an unspecified future where men rule absolutely and women are bred solely for the purpose of reproduction. Kept in schools where every surface is mirrored and their appearance is ranked daily against their classmates, the girls are taught to critique their fellows for putting on weight, how to behave in front of men, and above all they try not to learn anything too important, as men certainly won’t be interested in a woman who knows things!

It’s a horrific, terrifying look at a future that one hopes will never come to pass. It’s extreme, sure, but like all good dystopian fiction, it rings a little too close to home. There’s a lot going on here, even down to the subtle use of capitalisation and grammar to further show how little women are respected, and it’s a book that everyone, male or female, should read and with any luck it just might help make the world a more equal place.

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

lex7. Lexicon by Max Barry

Straddling several different points in time and location, Lexicon is set in a world where words have power. Get the right word or the right combination and you can hypnotise anyone and make them do your bidding. Emily Ruff is a girl who is taken off to a special school where this branch of persuasion is taught and honed in the young, and soon she becomes more powerful than she knows what to do with.

But in the town of Broken Hill in Australia there is a word that is too dangerous. It is a word that has the power to kill anyone who hears it, and it must be destroyed before it brings about the end of the human race.

The concept is so beautiful and the novel ties up themes of linguistics and psychology and asks the question of us – how much of what we do is really free will? It’s a fast-paced thriller that seems to be enjoying itself, and it’s definitely a great, creepy read.

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

gimson8. Gimson’s Kings And Queens by Andrew Gimson

A second non-fiction book to make the list isn’t about the history of hole punches, but instead the history of England and, latterly, Britain. This is a quick rundown of all the forty-odd monarchs who have sat on the throne of England since 1066. Gimson gives a brief biography of everyone from William I to Elizabeth II, detailing their successes and their failures, how popular they were, and what we can learn about them from surviving historical manuscripts.

Packed with trivia, it also allows one to learn far more about the less well remembered monarchs of the country, such as Stephen, Edward IV or Mary II. The writing is light, funny and engaging, and it’s all helped along by some excellent, and occasionally potentially offensive, caricatures. For anyone with even a passing interest in British history, this is definitely one to get hold of, if only so you can annoy your friends at parties by filling quiet moments with tidbits about the monarchy. This is why I’m not invited to parties anymore.

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

saga book9. Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

I only ever reviewed the first volume of the Saga stories, but I did read the first five over the course of the year, so really I’m counting five books in this one. Saga is a graphic novel that tells the tale of an intergalactic war between a planet and its moon. Everyone in the universe seems to now be involved in this war, and among it, two people from opposite factions, Alana and Marko, have not only fallen in love but given birth to a child. Now it seems that everyone is after them, and they must deal with endless trials and tribulations such as drug addictions, a mad robot prince, nosy journalists, dragons, brothel planets, reality television and war to give their child a happy life.

The series is worth it for the artwork alone, which is beautiful and brings every single character, no matter how small, to life. Even the minor characters feel notable here. Fortunately, as well as being gorgeous to look at, it’s also a wonderful read; heart-wrenching, clever, hilarious and tragic all at the same time, proving for anyone who didn’t believe it, that graphic novels aren’t a lesser form of storytelling at all.

You can read my full review of the first installment here, or buy the first collection here.

from BBS upload10. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Long-time readers will know that I re-read the Harry Potter series this year and, well, it would be shameful of me to not include it on the top ten list. To be fair, I’ve chosen just one of the books, probably my favourite one at the moment, but really I would happily have shoved all seven of them into this list. So this is a cheat, because this is one book for the price of seven. But in this fourth installment of the series, Harry gets entered into a dangerous competition called the Triwizard Tournament and must spend the year contending with dragons, mermaids and burgeoning hormones before facing down something far more deadly before the year is out…

Anyone who wants to read it has now read it, and the vast majority of them have fallen in love with the series as much as I have. I can’t explain the magic that Rowling has woven into the story, but there’s definitely something going on here that makes this series so incredible. I’ve never seen a franchise like it, and I probably never will again. 2016 also will once again be a huge year for Potter fans, with the release of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I’m oddly ambivalent about) and the film version of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (which I’m very excited about). The magic will never die.

You can read my full review here, or buy the series here. (Although that feels like the most redundant hyperlink in history.)

So with 2015 done and dusted and the world still clinging on to sanity by its fingernails, I find myself ready to face another year, perhaps one with many changes in my life, we’ll see. Bookwise, I’ve got plenty more to read. I still haven’t finished The Hunger Games series, but at least I’m further with it than ever before, and there’s a small pile of Christie’s still to get through. But I will also this year return to my favourite author, Jasper Fforde, the greatest living writer in my opinion, who I’ve not read since 2012, so expect some massive fanboying as I tackle all of his series’ over the coming year.

As usual, the only thing left to say is that I hope you all have a wonderful 2016 and it provides you with all that you wish. And, of course, may you find a book or two this year that you want to keep with you forever. That’s what I intend to do.

Top 10 Books of 2014

Leave a comment

So, with 2014 almost consigned to the history books, it’s that time again where everyone looks back over what happened in the last twelve months. We can’t pretend as a whole that it was a busy year, but all that matters to me is simply what books I’ll take from it and into the future. So, here I am, reading old reviews and dusting off my tournament bracket software to work out which ten books were the best of 2014. Some got cut from the list quite quickly, and shockingly there are no Agatha Christie books listed this year, which isn’t because I read bad ones, but because I read too many other interesting books and she probably doesn’t need the publicity.

So here we are, in no particular order, my ten favourite books from the last year.

spoiled1. Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

I discovered Simon Rich a few years ago and have since adored everything he’s done. This collection of short stories deals with those who are spoiled and, in particular, the “gimme gimme gimme” attitude of the Millennials. They include a tale told from the point of view of a hamster, a fictionalised version of Rich meeting his great-great-grandfather, a girl taking a year out to study on Saturn and some ghosts who haven’t understood that they’re dead.

They’re smart little stories, all quite quick but without a word wasted. At only thirty years old, Rich is an insane talent and is definitely one to watch. If you find anything by him, you’ve struck gold, but Spoiled Brats might be his best work yet.

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

TheSilkworm2. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are back and I couldn’t be happier. Even though everyone knows that Galbraith is none other than J K Rowling herself, this only adds to the joy. So different are these books from Harry Potter that they almost deserve another name, as it seems unfair to acknowledge that one woman can be so damn talented and spread her literary wings so wide.

In the first story, the world of fashion and fame came under the spotlight, but this time round there’s been a murder in the world of publishing, when eccentric author Owen Quine is found trussed up and dead in the exact same manner as a character in his latest book. All of his friends and family fall under suspicion when it turns out that the book contains gross caricatures of everyone he knows, meaning that everyone has a good motive for killing him.

The characters are so much fun and are definitely people I’d want to spend time with. As far as I know, there are plans to continue the series and I hope these come to fruition. Let’s just hope as well that next time we get to see even more of Robin, and Strike can get a bit of happiness.

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

gospel-of-loki[1]3. The Gospel Of Loki by Joanne M Harris

I love Greek and Egyptian mythology, but my knowledge of the Norse myths was strongly lacking. However, that was corrected with The Gospel of Loki, which takes those myths and retells them from the point of view of the trickster god himself. Having little prior knowledge, I don’t know how much Loki has twisted, but given what I know about other mythologies, I’d imagine that this is pretty spot on to the originals – the more wicked gods are usually treated less kindly, so this redresses the balance and shows what “really” happened.

Each chapter tells a different myth, and while there is an overall story, the chapters read like short stories in themselves, although it’s probably best to read them all to get the full picture. It’s smart, funny and just a bit mad, like all the best books should be.

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

a void4. A Void by Georges Perec

I haven’t chosen this one for the plot as much as for the construction. Originally written in French, this novel has been written without a single use of the letter ‘E’, and yet still tells a compelling and interesting story. Anton Vowl is a curious insomniac who starts noticing that something is missing in his life, and yet when he goes to explore it, he himself goes missing. His friends come together to rummage through his belongings and tell each other stories to work out where Vowl has gone and what it is that he thought was missing.

Writing a novel without the use of the most common letter seems insane, but it’s done here and done brilliantly. You get caught up in the story and forget that there aren’t any E’s, although when you suddenly realise again (usually due to some kind of flowery wordplay trickery), it just makes it even more astounding. The novel even inspired me to write my whole review in the same manner, although I’ve obviously not done that here again. Once is enough.

Frankly, while the story is good, it wouldn’t be in my top ten if not for the gimmick, but I like a good gimmick, so I’m happy to say it was one of the smartest books I read this year.

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

atomic cover5. The Atomic Blood-Stained Bus by Michael J Ritchie

I think I can be excused for putting my own book on this list, although it’s going to come across as arrogant however I attempt to justify it, so I won’t bother trying. If you haven’t already read it (and shame on you, after all I’ve done for you!), this is the story of insane cannibal Garfield, bored journalist Gwen and ex-god Algernon and their separate quests for happiness and meaning, helped and hindered by the last three witches of Britain. When Gwen’s interest in missing persons causes her to go looking for a man called David, she finds herself on the trail of Garfield’s transport, the titular bus, which could potentially spell misery for everyone involved.

Ever since I was young, I wanted to get published, and this year I did it. It has been so thrilling to see my book for sale, and to hear from other people who have read it and enjoyed it. While my friends naturally probably feel obliged to tell me they like it, I’ve also had people I don’t know reporting back to me, so that’s really nice. It’s said to be original and funny, somewhat Douglas-Adams-y but I’ll absolutely leave those sorts of descriptions up to other people. But, if you like that sort of thing, you might like this. Buy it, celebrate with me, give me money, and later when I’m super famous, you can say that you were one of the first ones to read it.

You can read my full non-review here, or download a copy of the book here.

jpod6. jPod by Douglas Coupland

If you’ve been reading all year, then you know that I’ve been re-reading and reviewing all of Douglas Coupland’s books. Well, I’m not quite done either – there are just four more to go – but I had to put one of his books on here and it was a tough decision, but I’ve gone for jPod, although assume that Girlfriend in a Coma or Microserfs were just as welcome at this spot.

Set in a video game design company in the mid-noughties, this book follows the story of Ethan Jarlewski, his family and co-workers as they struggle to keep sane in a world that’s going mad. At work, they sabotage their own game by inserting gory easter eggs, and waste time writing love letters to Ronald McDonald or auctioning themselves on eBay, and at home, Ethan must deal with an affably sinister Chinese gangster and the fact that his mother has just accidentally killed a man.

Coupland is always so on the ball that it’s spooky. He captures the minutia of whatever moment he’s writing about and makes it so relatable it’s almost creepy. He is great with words and seems to love post-modernism – he’s not afraid to mess around with format and style, and it makes him terribly refreshing.

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

Monsters of Men7. Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness

The first in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, featured in my top ten last year, and the third in the trilogy is back here again. I’d add the central novel too, but that’s overkill. In the final installment of the Chaos Walking series, Todd and Viola find that everything is at stake and they might have accidentally found themselves on opposite sides of the battle. With time rapidly running out and new arrivals landing to find the mayhem in progress, they have to do what they can to save as many people as possible.

The series is brilliantly written, very fast-paced and structured so that just when you think none of it can get any worse, it does. Like most YA fantasy fiction, it deals with morality and the endless shades of grey that replace the black-and-white/good-and-evil that many people still believe exists. I’m not a big fan of YA usually, but this series is something pretty magical.

You can read my full review here, or buy the trilogy here.

look whos back8. Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

While this story is good, this book is only really on this list for the sheer cheek of it. Vermes caused a huge stir in his native Germany when he released this book, and it’s not difficult to see why: this is the story of Hitler’s second rise to power.

Taking place in modern Germany, Hitler awakens to find that Eva and the Nazis are gone and the world is very different to the one he left. He doesn’t understand why no one is saluting him or treating him with the respect he is used to, eventually discovering that he has somehow time travelled to the future. When some TV executives think he’s a brilliant inpersonator who just won’t drop his act for even a second, Hitler gets a shot on a chat show. And from there, history begins to repeat itself.

What’s particularly shocking about this book is simply that Hitler is shown as a human rather than a monster. Hitler remains in our minds, and in reality, one of the most twisted people in history, but here he is almost sympathetic. It’s a dazzling piece of fiction and one that only serves to highlight that some things never change, that people will always love a good orator, and that we should all be grateful that Hitler didn’t have Internet access first time round…

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

humans9. The Humans by Matt Haig

A lot of books, films and TV shows seem to deal with humans travelling to alien planets to explore, but the only time you ever see it the other way around (generally) is when aliens have come to invade us. In this book, a single alien is sent down to stop humans from finding out about a particularly complex mathematical problem that they aren’t ready for, only to find humans stranger than anything he’s ever encountered.

It’s a great twist to see how the things we think of as normal – marriage, orgasms, coffee, peanut butter – are deemed strange and freaky to someone from another planet and society. It’s also deeply moving as the alien begins to love our ways, yet all the while pointing out how ridiculous we are, and the terrible things we had to do as a species to achieve civilisation. Nonetheless, it’s a book of great hope and optimism and if you didn’t love the human race before, you probably will when you’ve read this.

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

martian10. The Martian by Andy Weir

And now we come to the tenth book and, if I’m honest, probably the best book I read all year, which came as a surprise to even myself but my memories and my tournament brackets never lie. This is the story of Mark Watney who, after being accidentally abandoned by his crewmates, becomes the only person on Mars. Trapped and with no way of communicating with Earth, he must now try to survive until the next mission arrives – in four years time.

I have rarely seen such a good and seamless blend of comedy and hard science fiction as this. Weir is a talent who clearly does his research and enjoys it. There are a lot of passages of very heavy science, most of which I only had the most basic understanding of, but it’s still a quick read that doesn’t disappoint. Mark is a brilliant protagonist and his struggle is one that most of us can never comprehend. It’s a brilliant and somewhat terrifying look at the realities of space travel, and I loved it.

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

2015 promises a new wave of literary love for me, as I continue my way through Christie’s backlog (just twenty-five to go) and finish up my Douglas Coupland re-reads. I was planning to read The Hunger Games last year but that never happened, so it’s now lined up for study this year, and I’m also going to re-read Harry Potter again for the first time in ages. Meanwhile, there remain a whole stack of books on my shelves to explore, and with any luck, news of my second novel will also be available some time over the coming year. Speaking of, I’m going to end this now and get on with finishing the thing.

All that remains for me to say is happy new year to all my readers and may 2015 be exciting, prosperous and everything you wish for.

Top 10 Books of 2013

Leave a comment

So 2013 is over now and consigned to the section of the library labelled “History”. It’s been an interesting year for me – the usual ups and downs that everyone must endure, but on the whole definitely a good year. 2014 has now begun and there is a small mountain of literature for me to once again get through. However, before I get on with reviewing the next batch, I thought I’d take this moment to look back through my ten favourite books from the previous year. I’ve been fortunate enough to read very few bad books in the last year, so whittling this down to ten was difficult and involved much soul-searching, re-reading of earlier reviews and some free tournament bracket software I downloaded.

So here we are, in no particular order, my ten favourite books from the last year.

the raw shark texts1. The Raw Shark Texts by Stephen Hall

Sometimes titles just don’t make any sense when you first look at them, and maybe that puts you off, but if you saw this title on the shelf and thought that it probably wasn’t a book for you, then you thought wrong. The title may sound nonsensical (although, in fairness, that’s then typical of the whole book) but it’s definitely worth exploring.

Eric Sanderson wakes up and has no idea where he is, when he is or, more importantly, who he is. With just a journal of which he apparently author, and instructions to report to a certain Dr Randle, he must begin to reconstruct what is going on. Randle reveals that this is not the first time this has happened. What follows is an adventure through imagination and reality, with conceptual creatures with very real appetites, a cynical cat and a tunnel made entirely of paper.

It’s a brilliant, mental romp that seems like it shouldn’t make any sense but is hung together with perfect logic and amazing comedic wonder. And besides, any book where a shark made entirely of text is the main villain is worth reading, isn’t it?

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

The Islanders2. The Islanders by Christopher Priest

Despite not owning a passport and not moving very much in the last twelve months, I managed to visit Germany, America, the Netherlands, Egypt, Canada, Switzerland, Greece, Italy and outer space, but the strangest place I went all year was to the Dream Archipelago, a series of islands that stretch the entire length of the planet. In this strange book – not quite a novel, not quite a series of short stories – you are taken on a journey to some of the many islands that make up the archipelago.

I read the stories in order, but I don’t think there’s anything to say you have to. Characters pop up again and again on the different islands, sometimes giving conflicting histories. Some of the islands are home to lethal creatures, some are art installations, and some have a particularly famous resident. Like the islands, the chapters are all different too. Some are a series of letters between inhabitants, some are scientific papers, and some just read like they’ve been written by a tourist board to get people to come along and see the sights for themselves. It’s a weird book, but a clever one.

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

dinner3. The Dinner by Herman Koch

I did my best to go a little bit more international with my authors and not just my settings this year, which provided me with authors from Germany, France and the Netherlands. I’m very pleased that I did because no less than three translated books have ended up on my “best of” list. This is the first.

The novel takes place over the course of a single dinner in an upmarket restaurant, the diners being two couples who have gathered to discuss their sons. The two men are brothers, one a very prominent politician, and their relationship is stretched to maximum over the course of the meal. While action occurs mostly in real time, there are numerous flashbacks that reveal details and explanations as to the events that led them here.

I said when I read it back in early February that it was the best book all year so far, and now this far ahead, with dozens more books since devoured, it remains one of the best books. Another superb book from the Netherlands is below.

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

cuckoo4. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Everyone, I think, felt a pang of sadness when J. K. Rowling’s secret was revealed to the world that she was the figure behind Robert Galbraith. However, she had the last laugh. The new book became a bestseller and the profits were enormous, and I believe they were all donated to charity. She also made the company that outed her as Galbraith donate a healthy sum as well.

In the vein of Holmes/Watson and Poirot/Hastings, here we meet Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, a crimesolving duo for the 21st century. He’s a difficult private eye with a difficult private life, and she’s a jobbing secretary, and together they look into the suspected murder of model Lula Landry, penetrating the sometimes seedy underbelly of London.

Unfair to compare it to Harry Potter, it merely shows that Rowling is a woman of undeniable, enviable talent who can turn herself to multiple genres and audiences and succeed every single time. The book shone like a diamond in the great heap of detective fiction that fills our bookstores. While it is a shame she was outed so soon, it was a relief as this was such a good book that everyone needed to have their attention drawn to it. Hopefully the series will continue this year, and I will be there to see it along.

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

soz5. Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar

Third book of the year, read way back in January and still resonating with me a whole year later. It’s the story of four friends who run a professional apology agency, swooping in when called to apologise to those unfairly dismissed or wrongly accused. However, one call leads them into a messy situation with a body nailed to a wall, demands to remove the body before someone finds it, and a dangerous situation on the edge of a frozen lake.

Completely original in style, switching naturally between first, second and third person, it pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the thrilling conclusion when the mysteries finally begin to make sense. It was the first German novel I think I’ve ever read, and while it was loaded with some of the usual cliches of thriller novels (as well as some deeply graphic imagery), it holds its own and that is why it finds itself on this list. Absolutely incredible, and not one tiny bit sorry to have read  it.

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

24 hour6. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Much less death and horror than some on this list, this novel is cheery, wonderful, a little bit magic and a must for anyone with a love of books. Struggling for work during the recession, Clay Jannon takes a job doing the night shift at the titular store, only to find that there aren’t many customers and the ones that do come in are a bit … off. And that’s to say nothing of Mr Penumbra himself.

Clay soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery when it turns out the patrons are part of a conspiracy and are trying to solve one of the oldest riddles in history by using the odd books in the store. But when Clay makes friends with a girl who works at Google, he makes use of their facilities and becomes one of the many seeking an answer, and he may have just struck gold.

A book most notable, actually, for its settings, be they bookstores, museums or office complexes, all of which are described in sumptuous beauty and make me want to visit them. It’s a wonderful book for any bibliophile and uses the ancient technology of printing presses and modern technology of Kindles in a seamless narrative that spans centuries and will last forever.

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

mocking7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Perhaps my aversion to classics (I still haven’t finished Jane Eyre) has caused me to miss out on a few things that I would actually like, but I did give up long enough this year to give what is often billed as the “most read book ever” a try. I was pleased I did. It’s a slowburner, one of those books that seems alright when you finish it, but as time goes on and you think about it more and more, it becomes ever more wonderful.

It’s the story of 1930s Alabama, and while the narrator Scout is an interesting figure, it is really her father Atticus who is the main character. This is his story. He must defend a black man in court who has been accused of raping a white woman. I was unimpressed with the book at first, but I do understand why it’s lasted, I enjoyed the characters and the situation is a fascinating one. There’s a reason it has lasted so long, why it ends up on so many “best of” lists and why it’s ended up on mine. It’s one of the few classics that I will point people to without hesitation. Read this book.

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

annefrank8. The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The second book from a Dutch writer is perhaps the most famous diary of all time (and the only non-fiction book to make it onto this list). Like most people, I knew a little about Anne Frank. I knew that she’d lived hidden away for years, that she’d eventually been discovered and died very young, but there was much I didn’t know. I’d guessed her personality entirely wrong, for a start. I didn’t realise quite what the family had had to go through, and how many of them there had been locked away in such a small space.

A book has never grabbed me so forcefully and stuck with me so vividly for so long afterwards. I cannot recommend this book enough, if only to make you realise so closely the atrocities that the Nazis were guilty of. If Frank had lived, who knows what she would have been capable of. And she was just one of many – how many greats did we lose in that ghastly war? It’s such a powerful book, written with hope and love by a girl who never gave up on her optimism, believing up until the very end that, all in all, humans were good, despite the suffering she had faced. We owe her father so much for letting the book be published. It is a very important book and one that everyone should read.

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

crooked house9. Crooked House by Agatha Christie

I couldn’t let the list be complete without putting Agatha Christie on here. I read fourteen of her books this year, but I think that Crooked House was my favourite. It’s typical of her style, featuring a large country mansion full to the brim with members of one family, in this case the Leonides, and their servants. They are a happy family until head of the household, Aristide, is murdered. The cause – a fatal injection. Everyone immediately blames his young widow, a woman fifty years his junior, but she has no motive. In fact, no one in the house seems to have been on bad terms with the deceased. It falls to Charles Hayward, fiance of the victim’s granddaughter to solve the mystery…

This was also a notable book for being the first Christie novel in which I had worked out the solution before it was revealed, something I’m still ridiculously happy about. It was one of Christie’s favourites too, and is one that probably upset die hard fans of crime fiction as it showed her throwing out the rule book once again and doing things that detective books aren’t supposed to do. If you’ve still never read a Christie, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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

knife10. The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

December is sometimes a difficult time to get a lot of reading done, due to the extensive drinking, celebrating and present-opening that has to happen. However, I am very pleased that I put the time aside to read this suggestion. It since turns out that I’m late to the party with this one and several of my friends have already been there, done that, and know how it ends.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in a town with no women, where all the men can hear one another’s thoughts. For company, he has an unwanted dog and two substitute fathers who, after Todd discovers a patch of total silence on the edge of town, have apparently been lying to him all these years. They already have bags packed for him and he must leave immediately before the Mayor catches him. Todd is thrust into the world and only told to head to the next town to warn them. But as far as he knew, there was no other town.

I have had many a complaint regardling young adult fiction over the years – I’m no fan of John Green or Stephanie Meyer. But sometimes you stumble across something so wonderfully written that you want to hold it up as a testament to the genre. Like Rowling, Handler and Dahl, Ness knows that children like to be scared and don’t like to be talked down to, and he manages to tell a wonderful story that grips you tight and makes you beg your friend to lend you the rest of the trilogy. They are, as we speak, sat on my bookshelf.

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

2014 will undoubtedly bring me many more literary surprises. I will finish up the Chaos Walking series, I have early plans to read The Hunger Games trilogy at some point, there are still thirty-seven Agatha Christie novels I haven’t read and, most excitingly of all, my debut novel is out this year!

So happy new year to all my readers and may your 2014 be wonderful, thrilling and everything you hope for.