Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

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The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)

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Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)

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Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.

 

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

100 Essential Books – Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (2016)

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With its references to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” from a Financial Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition I knew that this would be a must-read for me.  It is also an apt and deserved comparison.

And like McEwan and Waters I am happy to welcome Cleave as an author of one of my 100 Essential Books – such is the quality of this novel.  His fourth book but the first I have read and for once I am pleased about this because I can tell this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way with “Incendiary”, (Winner of a Somerset Maugham award for writers under 35 in 2006), the 2008 Costa Award shortlisted “The Other Hand” and “Gold” (2013).

Also like McEwan and Waters Cleave has re-created the war years perhaps more evocatively than most of the countless writers who were writing when that period was not so distant.  Perhaps we need that distance and the stories of our parents and grandparents need to become assimilated into what we perceive life in those years to have been like.  Cleave loosely based his novel on a series of letters between his grandparents.

The novel spans from September 1939-June 1942 and has a refreshingly simple month by month chronological structure.  It is centred on wartime London and Malta where a blockade is starving the serving officers and civilians.  Mary North signs up for War Office work and finds herself being sent to teach in a Primary School where preparations for evacuation are under way.  She soon discovers that not all children are welcomed by host families and within her now empty school and with the support of her school official boyfriend, Tom, begins to work with the children unwanted by the countryside.

Tom’s work means that initially he is too valuable to be called up but flatmate Alastair joins up, taking a jar of jam Tom made to be eaten together at the end of the war and soon finds himself an officer in Malta, struggling to survive.

What Cleave gets across very well is the thin line between life and death for this generation.  Catastrophe can descend very quickly and the characters have to adapt their lives to this.  They fall in love quickly, have to endure long absences and periods of not knowing whether loved ones are dead or alive.  This all seems alien to our generation but there are still many people with us who lived through these times and Cleve’s novel has further deepened my appreciation of these people.  Also very effectively conveyed are the attitudes of a class-driven society suspicious of other races.  The treatment of black American schoolboy Zachary is shocking both in terms of action and language used.  Cleave confronts these issues which can make for some disturbing moments.

The novel is well-written and totally involving.  I found myself purposely slowing down my reading of it because I wanted to savour just what was going on (causing a bit of a backlog of books to be read to build up) but  I don’t regret a single moment spent in the time of Chris Cleave’s characters.

This is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.  Seek it out!

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published in April 2016 by Sceptre and as a paperback from January 2017.

100 Essential Books-Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016)

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In one (hyphenated) word I’ll sum up this debut novel – heart-warming.  Now this is not an easy accolade to achieve, especially from a cold, cynical, middle-aged man like myself.  Get this slighty wrong and the end result can be mawkish, sentimental, whimsical- all things which do not grab me as a reader.  Emma Claire Sweeney has got this just right and the result is a first-class novel that is a joy to read.

Main character Maeve Maloney is approaching 8o having lived most of her life in a Morecambe Guest House, inherited from her parents.  In recent years it has become a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Maeve has very much given her whole adult life to Sea View Lodge (as a former guest house owner I can appreciate how necessary this total devotion is to make your place successful) but this hides a great sadness from her past.

The story alternates between the present with Maeve as honorary grandmother to two of her staff members with Downs Syndrome who have fallen in love. This opens a whole can of worms for families, social workers etc and running alongside this is  a narrative strand from the mid 1950’s when her family’s life was centred on the care of her severely disabled twin sister at a time when institutionalisation was the recommended option.  Maeve’s life pretty much grinds to a halt in her mid 20’s when a chain of events sees her planned future pulled away from her.  The past and present combine when old friend Vince seeks  her out.

This book is rich in detail and characterisation and the past and present switch without much sign-posting and with very little of the jarring this technique can engender.  There’s also official correspondence and snatches of twin sister’s Edie’s sayings and phrases.  I know how readers can complain when time-frames switch around yet this has been done so intelligently and so well that it is a smooth, highly-involving read throughout.  It does show how the attitudes towards disability have improved in the last sixty or so years yet acknowledges the tremendous uphill challenges still faced.  First and foremost this is a tale about love and friendship, of making the best of what you’ve got and how regretting the past can stop you moving on.  It’s a bittersweet lesson as Maeve learns to cope with past incidents that have set the pattern of her life.

At no point is it sentimental, however.  It focuses on the small details of life that realistically searches for humour in difficult situations.  I actually really did not want to leave these people and their Morecambe home.  I believed in them totally (although the relentless grind of working in such an establishment, the cooking, cleaning and dealing with the public was a little glossed over perhaps).

The author’s inspiration for her book is her autistic sister. In an interview in newbooks magazine she states;

“I have chosen to celebrate the kind of families who fought – sometimes against the odds- to bring up their disabled and non-disabled children together – the kind of families who sought to care for each other with tenderness, humour and love.”

Goal achieved! I don’t know exactly what’s coming over me.  I’m notoriously stingy with my five star ratings.  I would expect to read only a couple of five star books a year but this is my third maximum award so far in 2017 and it’s still only February.  Testament to the number of great books out there.  I hope you seek this one out.

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Owl Song At Dawn was published in paperback by Legend in 2016.

100 Essential Reads – Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

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I’d always thought Jodi Picoult was not an author for me.  I’ve seen her books in shops and have shelved many a volume back onto the library shelves but I was never tempted by what I suspected to be her subject matter nor by the look of her books, which in this country are rather wispy covers geared very much to a female market  and with, I assumed a lot of misery contained within.

This novel, her 23rd looks very different.  The UK edition shows a strident black and white striped cover but I was still fairly resistant.  I saw the blurb which referred to it as a “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the 21st Century, this made me even more resistant.  I couldn’t see how my all time favourite could be compared to someone’s 23rd novel, surely by now that author would have developed a set formula for the fans and towards the best sellers list.  I was, admittedly, prejudiced towards this novel and given the theme this now seems rather pertinent.

I was still resisting as I read, initially lots of detail about childbirth and with a white supremacist as one of the narrators I felt initially like I might find this a little heavy-going.  But, oh my!  Picoult is a superb modern American storyteller on a par with Stephen King, who I would put forward as perhaps the greatest living American storyteller, even though there are a number of his books that I don’t like.  On the evidence of this book alone King may need to share his plinth with Picoult.

The tale is told by three narrators; Ruth, an experienced African-American nurse; Turk, a white supremacist who objects to Ruth being involved in his new-born baby’s care and Kennedy, a white female relatively inexperienced public defender who takes on the ensuing court case.  And plot-wise that is all you are going to get from me because I really want you to read this book.

At its heart is racism in all its aspects in modern-day America.  In many ways Picoult is putting her head above the parapet as a privileged white woman writing a book which broadly focuses on what it is to be African-American in the USA today.  It feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.

Picoult’s handling of the plot and her manipulation of us as readers of whatever skin colour and gender is sublime.  Characterisation is so strong and as the court case develops I found  I was holding my breath as I read.  The narrators show their flaws and cause us to make judgements which are then challenged.  Picoult’s 21st Century America seems more chilling than the America of Harper Lee but I could see the comparison clearly, which I did not think I would.  It does lack the roundness of the classic but there’s certainly the depth and could very well be a book still being read fifty years on.  I think that a lot of the appeal for us aficionados of “Mockingbird” is that we tended to read it at a formative time of our lives and it stays with us.   Maybe this is what should be happening to this novel, finding itself onto the school curriculum.

If there is a fault I thought that there was an attempt to give too neat a final ending but discovered on reading the author’s note that the particular event I am questioning is based on a true situation.  Truth is often said to be stranger than fiction so I’ve no problems with Jodi incorporating this into her novel.

I found it to be a gripping tale, a real thought-provoking eye opener and I’m sorry if I’ve been prejudiced in prejudging her books by their covers up until now.  I was right about one thing, she does like to pile misery onto her characters but here it is done powerfully and convincingly.  This is being called Jodi Picoult’s most important work and it has certainly changed things for me.

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“Small Great Things” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Jodi Picoult.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

Small Great Things was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in November 2016.

100 Essential Books- Exposure – Helen Dunmore (Windmill 2016)

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Helen Dunmore had me from the beginning of the first chapter;

What could be safer than a primary school in Muswell Hill?” questions mother of three Lily. Well, as an ex-headteacher of a primary school in Muswell Hill I could certainly send her quite a list but the author had certainly grabbed my attention early on with this, her fourteenth novel.

I’ve read one of these before, “House Of Orphans” (2006) which was set in early twentieth century Finland.  I thought it had a very good first half but it fell apart for me towards the end, providing an enjoyable reading experience but it was not a book I loved nor did it have me rushing to read more.  Dunmore’s reputation has continued to grow and for the last few years I have suspected that I’ve been missing out on a major talent.  There’s enough evidence with her latest to suggest that this is the case.  This was, for me, a considerably more impressive novel.

Set in an England in 1960 still paranoid over high-profile Cold War spy cases such as Burgess and Maclean the effects of this paranoia on a family is effectively conveyed.  Ex-Cambridge student Simon Callington is working for the Admiralty when one evening he receives a phonecall from a colleague who has been hospitalised after a drunken fall.  The colleague, Giles, with whom, we discover, Simon has a history, has taken home a secret file and he asks Simon to collect it and return to the office.  This begins a chain of events which makes for gripping reading.

With Giles in his hospital bed and the evidence building against Simon the focus shifts to Simon’s wife Lily who has to manage the day to day things, such as survival and bringing up the children in straitened circumstances and away from the prying of the press.  It’s very much a story about attempting to maintain a semblance of normality under extraordinary conditions.  Lily knows about reinvention, a German Jewish refugee who escaped to England with her mother as a child, she has hidden her German roots but these inevitably come back amongst the waves of suspicion against her and her family.

Plot-wise it is simple but it works so well because of its introspection which has the characters focusing on the smaller details while big things are happening and yet alongside that it works like a thriller with tension building up.  Despite the simplicity there is a richness and a depth that I loved. On more than a few occasions it reminded me of a more modern adult “Railway Children”.  If this was intentional it is a clever nod to the children’s classic with its echoes of train whistles and a family adapting to life without father.  Helen Dunmore is also an award-winning poet and her feel for language is present throughout.  I really enjoyed this and the race for my reviewsrevues best read of 2017 starts here.

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“Exposure” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Helen Dunmore.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

“Exposure” was published in paperback by Windmill Books in August 2016

100 Essential Reads – Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939)

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“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”

In just this sentence, one of the characters, the rather naive Indian “general” Dilip sums up Rumer Godden’s twentieth-century classic.  I was familiar with the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film starring Deborah Kerr, which I love, but have never got round to reading the novel- until now.

A murmur or flap (collective nouns- looked them up- both would be acceptable) of nuns arrive at a remote disused palace in Mopu, a trek away from Darjeeling.  Here in the mountains they intend to set up a school and a clinic in a location already abandoned by a group of monks who had stayed just five months.  The women have to deal with winning over the locals and developing their plans in an environment that dominates.  There’s something about this book and the same thing is also in the film which I just love and it’s to do with its almost hypnotic atmosphere.  The location gives a lushness and a sense of heightened emotions which borders upon the overwrought.  It should be a calm retreat for the Sisters but it is not.

Partly this is to do with the local agent, Mr Dean, who gets some of the nuns a-fluttering with his unconventional behaviour, partly to do with the local traditions and people and also other characters such as Ayah, the female caretaker; the flamboyant Dilip and the smouldering Kanchi who is being housed at the convent to stop her trying to seduce Mr Dean.

Whilst a holy man remains silent and serene in the grounds the nuns attempt to change old traditions, which they cannot comprehend, but their lives are equally bound by restrictive tradition and routine.  With so much turmoil stirring aournd it’s never going to end well.

The cover of this Virago paperback terms the book “a haunting classic” and there are comparisons to Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” and both seem fitting.

You can tell that this is written by someone who knew the India she fictionalised.  Godden grew up in Narayangay and spent many years in India.  Published on the eve of World War II it is both a tale of a lost world and an attempt to tame that world, something which would have resonated with its early readers.

From the Sister Superior, Clodagh, with her need to be in charge, from the endearing Sister Honey who throws herself (perhaps too much) into this new setting and to the neurotic, tense Sister Ruth these are vivid and memorable characterisations that will haunt me long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

I think I’m ready to watch the film again now……..

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Black Narcissus was first published in 1939.  I read the Virago paperback edition.