House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018)

 

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Recently I was asked to help out with reviewing books looking towards a longlist for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards which has a category which focuses on fiction which has a sense of place.  My job was to read three books, of which this is the third to be reviewed on here.  (Reviews for both “The Water Thief” and “Smoke And Ashes” can be found by clicking the links.  All three were books I was unlikely to have encountered otherwise and I think I have saved the best until last.

When teenager Bukhosi vanishes following a rally of the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement his friend Zamani strives to infiltrate his way into his family aiming to replace him in his parents’ affections by finding out all he can about their “hi-story”. This spans back half a century into the history of Zimbabwe, from the latter days of colonial Rhodesia and Civil War through genocide and atrocities carried out in the name of the new regime. Zimani is a unreliable narrator, planning and manipulating for his own ends hidden in his own hi-story which is linked with his friend’s family. He gleefully exploits weaknesses in his quest to find some form of revenge whilst being inextricably pulled into what he sees as this new family grouping.

This is an extraordinary debut novel from an author who grew up in Zimbabwe. I had a very sketchy knowledge of her homeland before reading this and the complexities which lay behind this African country but her handling of the location has certainly enriched my understanding. And this has been achieved totally through story as the author weaves the events in the lives of Bukhosi’s parents with Zimani’s in a narrative steeped in the development of this nation both before and after independence. Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power. The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius. It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.

True, sometimes I lacked the cultural understanding to pick up on all of the references and there was the odd part where I wasn’t totally sure what was going on but Tshuma was soon able to pull me back in through her use of language. There’s also a liberal smattering of African terms which most will be unfamiliar with but once again I do not feel that this matters. For me this is the sign of the intelligence of the author not wanting to dumb down any of what would seem alien to much of her readership but demonstrating the ability to keep them totally on board.  Because of this I think this is not only a book which reads well but also has the potential to impress more on re-reading.  I am certainly keeping hold of my copy.

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The House Of Stone was published in hardback by Atlantic in June 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and for the publisher for the review copy.   An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge Website.  The Shortlist for the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Awards will be announced in January 2019.

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100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

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Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

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A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

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American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s.  His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it.  Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension.  My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.

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 He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett  this seemed like a must for me to read.  It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome.  It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now.  But does this book actually deliver this?

 It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough.  I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely  have given the judges something to think about. 

My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry.  Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader?  Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.  They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness.  Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels).  Would it be full of in-jokes?

 Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work.  The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.

 Greer’s writing is infused with humour.  There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well.  I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal.  There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.

 I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards.  It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore.  For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.

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 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018

The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018)

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The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction.  I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books.  Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.

 Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.

 Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title.  I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.

 It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her.  Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell.  Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship.  This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.

 This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read.  What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third.  I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.

 This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.  It is an extremely impressive debut.

fivestarsThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018

The Hoarder – Jess Kidd (2018)

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Jess Kidd’s 2016 debut “Himself” attracted a lot of attention and was shortlisted for awards.  I was of the opinion that it introduced us to an impressive new voice and I was delighted to interview her and have my review published alongside the interview in NB magazine Issue #90 when “Himself” was one of the featured titles.  I thought the book fizzled with life, with its setting of an Irish village in the mid-1970s where the author introduced us to memorable characters in a mystery tale which seamlessly took in elements of magic and the supernatural.

 With “The Hoarder” she has largely done it again and produced her second strong read.  This time we are in present day West London where main character Maud Drennan has started work as an agency care-worker for Cathal Flood, a difficult elderly man and the hoarder of the title.  It’s not just him thwarting Maud’s plans to put things in order as the supernatural draws the care-worker into a mystery involving a disappearance and a possible murder hidden deep within the secrets of the house.

 As in “Himself” main character Maud is able to see ghosts but here they are a host of Saints who act as her spirit guides and I must admit that this aspect does not work as well for me as it did last time round.  In “Himself” main character Mahoney was also aided and abetted by an unlikely side-kick, the wig-wearing Mrs Causley who memorably sees herself as “Miss Marple.  With balls”.  In this novel this role is taken by another unlikely candidate the wig-wearing, agoraphobic, transsexual Renata, who for me did not sparkle quite as much as her predecessor (but who could also fit Mrs Causley’s description!)

 This time around, however, I did find the mystery element of the novel more satisfying yet I did miss that great sense of the outsider coming into a tight-knit community theme which worked so well in “Himself”.  I suppose there is a danger when an author’s second novel has a similar feel to the first that comparisons will be made.  There is no doubt that if you enjoyed the debut then you will get much out of this and if you enjoy this as the stand-alone novel it is then I urge you to seek out her first book where everything feels just a little fresher and where her imagination gleams just a little more brightly.

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The Hoarder was published in hardback by Canongate in February 2018

The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

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There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

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The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman (2007)

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The 2017 movie adaptation of this book starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer had a limited release in this country yet caused a considerable stir.  It appeared on many discerning end of year Best Movie lists and The Guardian had it at the very top as the Best Film of 2017.  Nominated for Golden Globes and also for four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Song and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.  This film was unfortunately deemed too uncommercial for my local Cine-Plex and so I will have to wait patiently for the DVD release scheduled for March.

The film version was written by James Ivory, who with Ismail Merchant has been responsible for some of my favourite films of all time (especially “Room With A View”) and is an adaptation of the 2007 debut novel by Egyptian born, US resident since the late 1960’s Andre Aciman.  After publishing a number of non-fiction works Aciman put this out as his first novel.  There have been three more since.  The book has been reprinted as a film tie-in and on a recent visit to Foyles’ main bookshop in London I saw they had it as their number one book.  To fill the gap until the DVD is released I wanted to know what the fuss is all about.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it doesn’t seem to be an obvious candidate for a movie.  Set mainly in one Italian summer in the mid 1980’s it is a quiet, introspective novel, the tale of a relationship and very little else.  Seventeen year old Elio’s Professor father invites a twenty-four year old American academic to spend the summer with them in order to finish his manuscript.  Elio comes from an intellectual family who seem to spark by having a studious house guest each year.  For Elio it just means giving up his bedroom until the sparks certainly start igniting when he meets Oliver.

Narrated by the younger man this is an undeniably intense examination of the minutiae of first love and lust with it building into obsession.  Elio narrates with such soul-bearing honesty that it’s almost like having an exposed nerve in a tooth to read it.  The introspection feels like writing from an earlier era, at times it even recalled Henry James, but unlike what I remember of James’ writing (it has been some time) the plot does move along, even if at the languid pace of an Italian summer.  I appreciate that this book is not going to appeal to everybody but I cannot recall reading a book where the relationship of one same-sex couple is exposed to such minute details.  The uncertainty, the shyness and the all-encompassing nature of this first love is conveyed quite brilliantly, and often very poetically.  When other characters are moved more central stage as they are in a section in Rome towards the end the power of the novel is almost instantly defused. 

At times I did feel like bashing the two main character’s heads together but I cannot deny the power of the writing.  I’m even more fascinated now to see the film version.

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I read the Atlantic paperback version of “Call Me By Your Name”  It was first published in 2007 in the US, 2008 in the UK.

Looking Back, Looking Forward…..

Well, that’s another year of reading and blogging behind us.  At the end of the year I’m always tempted to have a look back and see which of the 459 posts now on reviewsrevues.com have been attracting the most attention. It never fails to surprise me.  The counters were turned back to zero at the start of the year yet it does seem that those posts that got the highest traffic in 2017 were also those who attracted readers in 2016 – so indulge me in  a quick look back towards the most read posts before looking ahead to what 2018 might have in store.  Here are the category winners! (Click on the titles to find the full reviews)

Books – Recent PublicationsDon’t Wake Up – Liz Lawler (TwentySeven 2017)

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I posted this in June 2017.  I actually read it in instalments from Pigeonhole who send you a daily section to read before publication and this hospital-based thriller was the ideal book to read in this format .  If this book doesn’t grab you in the first few pages, it never will. A debut novel from an ex-nurse which might not be the best choice if you have an operation pending but certainly a lot of people were interested in reading about it.

Books – The Back CatalogueMotown – The History – Sharon Davis (Guinness Books 1988)

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First posted way back in November 2015, this is the real slow burner of the reviews.  I’ve had this book on my shelves for nearly thirty years so it’s good that my enthusiasm for it has been matched by people wanting to seek this review out.  A British journalist’s view of the incredible Motown story adds a fascinating perspective and there’s a rigorous obsession at work here in the author’s comprehensive discography of all releases of Singles and Albums which sorts out the output of  founder Berry Gordy’s different labels in the US as well as a list of all British releases to the mid 80’s.

CD Reviews- Let’s Groove: The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (Columbia 1996)

Posted even earlier in October 2015, this review started off slowly but took off following the passing of EWF mastermind Maurice White in February 2016.  Since then it continues to be the most read of the CD reviews on the site.  Thing is, it’s not even my favourite Earth Wind & Fire album (that would be the 1977 studio album “All N’ All).  Proof that people are still looking to find their “Boogie Wonderland” !

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TV ReviewsThe Level (ITV 2016)

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And here we go again…..! I wrote about this at the start of October 2016 after watching the first episode of this six parter that really hooked me because of its casting and its Brighton location.  It felt like it arrived and disappeared on ITV without a great deal of fanfare but even though the counters went back to 0 on Jan 1st 2106 this is without doubt once again the most read review on here by some distance, as it has been from within a couple of months of it appearing on the site.  Perhaps it’s worth ITV contemplating another series, the interest in certainly there! Will it still be at the top at the end of 2018? Proof that we are not only using the internet to search for the very latest thing!

So looking forward….Yesterday The Guardian published it’s Literary Calendar as a taster for what we can expect book-wise in 2018.  I think it provides a good starting point for the year, obviously a bit sketchy as the year goes on, for the last couple of years I’ve been noting down what appeals.  I actually forgot all about last year’s list until recently and I noticed that out of the ten I’d highlighted as being books I wanted to look out for I had read four.  The titles that had piqued my interest and ended up being read were The Good People- Hannah Kent, White Tears – Hari Kunzru, Queer City – Peter Ackroyd and The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst.  In fact, what is interesting is that a couple of the titles predicted to be big hitters in 2017 came out without much fanfare.  I actually had to look on Amazon for a couple on my list to see if they had even been published.  Armistead Maupin had a memoir out in October which had completely passed me by and I had also missed completely satirist Armando Iannuci’s introduction to classical music “Hear Me Out”.  I was also miffed by publishers  turning me down for a preview copy of Sara Baume’s “A Line Made Walking”  on Netgalley as I felt I’d done a good job promoting her debut novel so consciously haven’t got round to reading that yet.  (Don’t cross me, ha ha!)

So from this year’s list here are nine titles that appeal.  I’ll see how many I’ll get round to during the year.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Due in February – A look back at an ill-fated relationship which according to the Guardian “darkens into the tragedy of a destroyed life.”

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Due in March

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins – Due in May) – Recently discovered non-fiction account of the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  I loved Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) , a novel which is still growing in reputation in the UK where it is emerging from the status of a lost classic.  Hurston died in 1960, hopefully the first publication of this work will put her further into the spotlight.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Cape) – Due in June – London after the Blitz tale of two abandoned children seems right up my street . Canadian writer  Ondaatje’s seventh adult novel.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh (Cape)- Enjoyed Moshfegh’s 2016 Man Booker shortlisted “Eileen” enough to look forward to this novel appearing in July.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – Due in August.  Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.  This collection reputedly focuses on what it is like to feel different as a child.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – Due in August.  Pick of the bunch of children fiction is set in 1945 and concerns a magical world entered through a library door.  Shades of a modern Narnia?

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – Due in September which will give me a chance to catch up with this author’s output since being so impressed with her 5 star rated Costa winning “Life After Life“.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – Due in October.  I was slightly guilty of putting too high expectations on the Waterstones Book Of The Year “Essex Serpent” and when it did not quite live up to the hype as far as I was concerned I felt more disappointed than I should otherwise have been.  So I won’t build this time-travelling gothic tale up too much in my mind so as to get the maximum enjoyment from it.

This is just a smattering of titles expected to appear in 2018.  The great thing about the publishing world is that no-one can be absolutely sure what is going to generate the most interest.  I mentioned the four titles on the Guardian list that I was really looking forward to this time last year and got around to reading and yet none of those four made it onto my End of Year list.  It’s that unpredictability that makes our book choices exciting! I wonder if we will be talking about any of these books in twelve months time.

 

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 Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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lauracarlin

“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. 

fivestars

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.