Here’s a book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2022” list. Its focus is 1970’s pop music. Looking back from our 21st Century position when we think of the 1970’s we probably give greater importance to punk, glam rock and disco which certainly made a lasting impression in terms of visual style but did not last that long as a market force. The music with the most longevity throughout the decade can be classed as singalong pop.
Will Hodgkinson studies an era where the first number one of 1971 was Clive Dunn’s “Grandad” and rounding things off so helpfully 10 years later was St. Winifred’s School Choir and “There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma”. So did nothing change during the 1970s? Still celebrating grandparents! Why did singalong pop exert such mass appeal for the whole of the decade. The author explores this and basically it is because Britain was so grim during this time that we needed pop music to lift the spirits!
Perhaps the inspiration for much of this came from an American song from the late 1960s, “Sugar Sugar”. This was marketed as being by a cartoon group, recorded by anonymous session singers and was disposable bubblegum music at its finest and importantly, was a massive worldwide hit. For a time, the song became more important than the artists. The UK responded to this by session musicians recording singles and then considering the formation of a group to perform afterwards – take a bow Edison Lighthouse, Brotherhood Of Man, Bay City Rollers, the whole range of singles put out by Jonathan King, or 10CC in embryonic form. One session singer Tony Burrows famously appeared in three (some say four) different acts on the same episode of “Top Of The Pops”.
And then came glam- stomping, singalong music geared towards and enjoyed by a younger audience- led by Marc Bolan, whose innovative influence on British pop has now been somewhat lost followed swiftly by Slade, Wizzard, Suzi Quatro, Mud, Sweet et al, with an even younger audience being feted by Messrs Osmond, Cassidy and Jackson. Will Hodgkinson explores and analyses all this with interviews, contemporary views and what was going on at the time. A sudden powercut plunging British homes into darkness could be enlivened by a family singsong of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.”
This is a phenomenon mainly but not exclusively British and also had something to do with huge audiences for TV light entertainment shows, TV advertising jingles and theme tunes and pop music as a regular feature of children’s TV but mainly a country that ricocheted between Heath, Wilson and then Callaghan as Prime Ministers in a time of strikes, inflation, high unemployment needed something to feel cheered up by.
Given all that can we expect a New Seekers, Boney M, Tony Orlando and Dawn revival in 2023?!! Just nobody mention Gary Glitter….
In Perfect Harmony was published by Nine Eight Books in 2022.
Janice Hallett’s sparkling debut “The Appeal” ended up at number 4 in my current Books Of The Year. I rarely go so overboard for a crime novel but I so loved its quirkiness, its characterisation and its misdirections which had me making the wrong assumptions all over the place within a work which felt both fresh and classic. At the time I did wonder if the author would be able to achieve this again with a second novel which had a similar unusual narrative style. “The Twyford Code” featured potential secret messages from an Enid Blytonesque writer which gave it great heart and although I felt it lacked a little bit in readability compared to the previous work, the cleverness of misdirections led to a highly satisfactory reading experience and a four star rating. But would she pull it off a third time? I really hoped so.
“The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” consists of research material for a true crime novel which is located in a safe. The author Amanda Bailey was commissioned to write a new slant on a case of eighteen years previous of a cult ritual suicide/murder which almost led to a baby being sacrificed. At the same time her one-time colleague and rival Oliver Menzies is commissioned to explore the same case for another publishing company. Here we get their e-mails, research, found materials including associated fiction and transcripts of interviews around the case. This is darker territory than the previous novels and I do like dark but I became less convinced as the book progressed that the theme suited this format as well as in the previous books.
The first half I was loving but then it felt like it was getting bogged down with too much material and I could feel my enthusiasm waning and the author’s extrication from this did not feel as impressive as it was in “The Twyford Code”. I wasn’t surprised to read that one of the acknowledged inspirations was Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” a true account of how an American true crime writer became obsessed with her work and there were references to other UK crimes and real life figures which I actually felt a little unsettling on this occasion.
There is still humour and great relish in the writing but this is undeniably darker and I must admit to missing the effervescent feeling I got from “The Appeal”.
Janice Hallett is a clever crime writer and has been a real find for me and does deserve Richard Osman comparable sales with her cunning quirky take on British crime, but didn’t quite hit home with this book in the way I was hoping she would. I’d be interested to see if she deviates from her format with her next book, I must admit to being a little nervous here about diminishing returns.
The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels was published by Viper Books on 19th January 2023. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
This is the first of the titles I highlighted in my “Looking Forward” post. Over three novels Robert Bryndza has established a very impressive crime series featuring Private Detective Kate Marshall and her assistant Tristan. Kate has moved on from her horrific back-story which featured in the first book “Nine Elms” and has settled to sleuthing in Devon whilst running a campsite she inherited in order to stay financially solvent.
After three books all of which felt quite different in tone to one another and which certainly displayed the author’s skills at crime writing he can’t be blamed for taking his foot off the gas a little with this 4th in the series and producing a solid, satisfactory work which is not as quite an exceptional read as the first three but would definitely be a fan-pleaser.
As in “Darkness Falls” the case here involves a long-time missing person. Here it is a three year old boy who has been missing ten years by the time Kate and Tristan get the case from a grandmother desperate for closure. The plot is not as rich nor as intense as in the other novels and the twists did not surprise me as much, in fact, unusually for me, I had things sorted fairly early on. What still works well, and why this book was no way a disappointment to me is the relationship between Kate and Tristan. Here Kate shows vulnerability with a near-fatal accident early on which switches the dynamic slightly between the two. Aside from the case I just enjoy these lead characters and I’m sure there’s a lot more mileage in their detective work.
Devil’s Way was published on 12th January 2023 by Raven Street Publishing. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
For my last retrospective post I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.
I follow around 70 blog sites and one trend I am seeing is that fewer and fewer bloggers seem to want to do this kind of end-of-year retrospective. Personally, I love it and think it’s important to look back before cracking on with the new year. So, I am very thankful to those who have reflected and singled out their best reads, despite reluctance to put them into any order.
I would like to think I could find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but for the second year running I have not been successful in discovering this. (No “Young Mungo”? I’m staggered!). In fact, many of the authors I was expecting to see were absent from other lists. I couldn’t find mentions of these notables who put book out this year- Monica Ali, Hannah Kent, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Donal Ryan, Jess Kidd, amazed to see no mentions of Joanna Quinn, whose debut novel “The Whalebone Theatre” felt such a great crowd-pleaser.
Obviously, with so many books being published each year and bloggers having their own likes, contacts with publishers, different methods of getting the books they reviewed there are just too many great reads out there to provide much overlap. However, there were three books which I did see cropping up.
One was from an author I did have in my Top 10, so we will start with her, Janice Hallett. I really loved “The Appeal” but realise I was a bit late out of the blocks with this one and it was her 2022 publication “The Twyford Code” which was getting the nods (although Andrea at Andrea Is Reading did give “The Appeal” an honourable mention.) Jen at Books on 7.47 did well to sum up the appeal of this author and her “devilishly clever plot that won me over. A murder mystery that never stops throwing curve balls while giving nostalgic nods throughout.” Fi at Fi’s Bibliofiles says of it; “It manages to hide so many clues in plain sight and is incredibly subtle in its complexity.” I think both these very well encompass Janice Hallett and I feel that what this author does to her readers is actually quite difficult to put into words. Like me, Books On 7.47 has the new novel “The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” on her must read for 2023 list and Fi already had it as one of her favourite books she read in 2022, saving her review until the publication date in January.
Another title which impressed was the winner of the Novel Of The Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards “Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy which conquered over one of my Top 10 Books and previous winner of this award Donal Ryan. Cathy at 746 Books describes it as being about “a woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion with an older man.” Karen at Booker Talk describes this debut as “an intense, engrossing tale of how small acts of kindness assume great political significance and put lives at risk.” The third of these titles which kept popping up I had never heard of. Australian blogger Kim at Reading Matters singled out “Limberlost” by Robbie Arnott as a tale of “kindness loss, love and family”. Set in rural Tasmania in World War II, Cathy at 746 Books felt the need to give it a special mention even though she had not finished it at time of writing. In what seems like an excellent recommendation she said “In a week where I have a lot to do all I wanted to do is read “Limberlost.” That’s good enough for me to put this book on my Want To Read list. Cathy cannily has three lists of end of year recommendations, one from her To Be Read Pile, one of Irish authors and one of new reads. Within her new reads picks there is one that I highlighted in my Books I Should Have Read in 2022 post, The Booker shortlisted “The Trees” By Percival Everett, which she feels should have won the Prize as well as “Trust” by Hernan Diaz which was the book that topped the number of US recommendations in Literary Hub’s round up of end of year lists alongside “Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin which was a favourite of Andrea Is Reading. (Andrea also singles out “Happy Go Lucky” by David Sedaris which has a sublimely creepy cover and reminds me yet again that this year should be the year I really crack on with this author’s work.)
I like older titles being incorporated in the lists. The aforementioned Cathy reminded me of a book I really loved when I read it decades ago- William Trevor’s “Children Of Dynmouth” and I now want to re-read this as well as the copy of his short stories I have on my bookshelves. There’s also an acknowledgement of the greatness of Larry McMurty’s “Lonesome Dove” which is described as “violent, frightening, funny, heartbreaking and transcends the genre” and which if a certain someone is reading this who has recommended this book to me so many times will no doubt tell me “See, I told you it was good!”
Lynne at Fictionphile picks four titles which all seem highly readable to me – “The Keeper Of Stories”- Sally Pope, “Mrs England”- Stacey Halls, “A Quiet Life” – Ethan Joella and “The Winners” – Frederick Backman. Matthew at My Mashed Up Life goes for three – the critically acclaimed “Lessons In Chemistry” by Bonnie Garman (I knew I’d find this somewhere), French novel “Heatwave” by Victor Jestin (a tale of tormented adolescence and I do love these) and “How To Kill Your Family” by Bella Mackie, which I have sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read.
I do love it when people can pick their absolute favourite because their enthusiasm does make me want to read it, even if it wouldn’t normally be on my radar. Linda at Linda’s Book Bag plumps for “Echoes Of Love” by Jenny Ashcroft which she says “encompasses so many forms of love- and hatred- is authentic in time and place and has such relevance for what is happening in today’s world that I couldn’t fault it” and FictionFan’s Book Reviews ( a site which has given me so much pleasure since before I started reviewsrevues nearly 8 years ago) is so enthusiastic about sixteenth century Scottish set “Rose Nicolson” by Andrew Greig describing it as “one of the outstanding books of my long lifetime of reading” that I don’t know how anyone can avoid putting that onto a must-seek-out-list.
Anyway, I think that’s enough of looking back to 2022 and start to get on with the reading joys 2023 has in store. Just want to thank these other bloggers for keeping up the good work. Long may it continue!
This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2023. In 2021 I got round to reading eight out of the ten titles. Let’s see if I can top that in 2022 and whether they turned out to be the big-hitters of the year .
The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney(Harper Collins)
Read and rated it four stars in January. Second in the series which began with the Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker“. Time moved six years on from the previous book giving it a mid 70’s Glasgow setting and this was more quality writing. At over 500 pages it was quite a lengthy crime novel which allowed richness of detail in its depiction of two warring gangs, one Protestant, one Catholic. Good characterisation of a Serious Crime Squad, all of whom are outsiders which brought interesting dynamics into play.
Devotion – Hannah Kent(Picador)
Another four star read for me in January which was certainly on a par with her first two novels. I thought this very much a book of three parts with distinct tonal shifts between them. This turns into a nineteenth century love story which I described as “touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout.”
Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago)
I read this in February and this is a book which made it onto a number of “Best Of” round-ups. I rated it four stars. Her 5th novel, I thought characterisation was especially strong within the supporting cast with a delicious lightness of touch. I don’t think many readers would place this over Monica Ali’s 2004 “Brick Lane” but it provided a highly satisfactory reading experience.
Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins)
Debut thriller which livened up January for me when I read and rated it four stars. I said of it “It reads well, the Louisiana setting effectively makes its presence known and I am not surprised that options for a TV adaptation have reputedly been picked up.” It created enough impression on me to have made her next book one of my highlights for the coming year.
A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books)
A big-buzz debut which I read in February and ranked three stars which I found a little underwhelming. I think that might have been because the publishers were keen to compare this to the superbly written and crafted US TV series “The Wire”. The odd cartoonish violent scene jarred and I wasn’t convinced by the first person/third person narrative switches. It did feel fresh and vibrant but perhaps did not live up to the expectations I had for it when I highlighted it as a title I wanted to read last year
Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)
Haven’t read this yet, but I do have a copy sitting waiting on my Kindle. I’m not sure it made the impression so far some of his titles have on the book-publishing world, but I would imagine that the paperback which is published in February will be a strong seller.
Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books)
An American debut with a lot of pre-publication fanfare which did get me seeking it out in February but once again I think maybe I was taken in by the hype. I thought it had a brave narrative style, as it is a recounting of a tale told second hand. I said of it “I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can see also why it might leave some unconvinced. Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.” That will explain the three star rating then.
Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray)
A debut I read in March and a four star read. I said of the author; “There’s a voluptuousness to her words, a richness in description, an over-ripeness which beautifully conveys Memphis, Tennessee.” Tara M Stringfellow certainly left me wanting more with this strong contemporary saga.
Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador)
I was itching to read this book and when I finished it in April I was so taken aback that I loved it even more than the Booker Prize winning debut which was my 2021 Book Of The Year and by the end of 2022 I still hadn’t read anything to top it and so Douglas Stuart was the author of my favourite book for two years running. Don’t know why it wasn’t Booker shortlisted but The Guardian, Telegraph, Time Magazine showed much taste in having it on their end of year highlights list. Outstanding.
Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin)
This proved to be another four star debut and one which could also generate some very healthy sales when the paperback arrives in March. Set in 1840s London with Crillick’s Variety Theatre as a central location. It felt very commercial, an ideal reading group choice which would generate much discussion about the issues involved and appreciation for the author’s story-telling skills.
That’s 9 out of 10 of this read which is my best score ever. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication which I hope to be getting around to in 2023. I wonder, as last year, whether my ultimate Book Of The Year is lurking amongst these books.
Devil’s Way- Robert Bryndza (Raven Street Publishing) (Due out on 12th January)
Book number 4 in what has so far been a very strong crime series featuring Devon based Private Detective Kate Marshall. There has been a different feel to each book from the really quite harrowing series opener “Nine Elms” to the much gentler whodunnit feel of “Darkness Falls”. Who knows what direction Robert Bryndza will take with this but I am expecting high quality writing and further developments in the working relationship between his very effective lead characters – Kate and her younger gay male partner Tristan.
The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels – Janice Hallett (Viper Books) (due out on 19th January)
Third book for the author who made #4 in my current Books Of The Year list with her so impressive debut. Second novel not quite as good but did not disappoint so I’m fascinated to see where she goes with this. The Sunday Times described her as “The Queen Of Tricksy Crime” which seems appropriate for her cleverly structured misdirecting fiction. We’ve had e-mails and phone communications in the debut, audio files in “The Twyford Code”. Here it seems to be research for a true crime work found in a safe which forms the basis for the plot.
My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Vintage Books) (due out on 26th January)
The one Joseph O’Connor novel I have read 2019’s “Shadowplay” ended up at number 4 in that year’s Books Of The Year list. This is a historical thriller based on a true story and set in Nazi occupied Rome of 1943. Last time around I praised the quality of the writing. I said “O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time.” I will be looking forward to more of this.
All The Dangerous Things – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 2nd February)
I rated Stacy Willingham’s debut four stars and this is the second year in a row she has appeared in my anticipated list. The cover has me interested with its “What if the past is best left unburied” teaser. It’s been heralded a one-sitting read, but I actually can’t remember when I last did that. I will prefer to take my time to let what Karin Slaughter calls its “palpable tension” to really get its grip.
Hungry Ghosts- Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury Publishing) (due out on 16th February)
A debut with a big pre-publication buzz. The BBC news website described is as “One of the most talked about forthcoming books in literary circles.” Well, add me to that circle as I’m telling you about it here. Bernardine Evaristo has described it as “astonishing” and the late Hilary Mantel found it “deeply impressive” so I would imagine it has great depth. It is a saga of two families in 1940s Trinidad which promises violence, religion, family and class.
Fire Rush – Jacqueline Crooks (Vintage Books) (due out on 2nd March)
This is another debut novel from a young author, who, her publishers say, escaped involvement with a gang underworld through writing and music. Her short stories have received critical acclaim and here we have something which is being heralded as “about dub reggae, love, loss and freedom. Fire Rush is an electrifying state-of-the-nation novel and an unforgettable portrait of Black Womanhood.”
The Sun Walks Down -Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre) (Due out on 9th March)
Here’s an epic tale, this time, according to the publishers, featuring “unsettlement, history, myth, love and art.”. Set in the late nineteenth century Australian outback and featuring a child who goes missing. Anne Patchett has already described it as “marvellous”. I haven’t read this Australian author’s previous work which includes an award-winning novel and short-story collection. This seems a good place to start.
Death Under A Little Sky – Stig Abell (Harper Collins) (due out on 13th April)
Stig Abell has been editor of The Times Literary Supplement and managing editor of The Sun. He currently co- hosts the breakfast show on Times Radio. He has been a member of the Press Complaints Commission and has already written two fascinating sounding non-fiction works one of which examines “How Britain Really Works” and one a study on reading “Things I Learned On The 6.28”. What has been missing from his CV so far is fiction, and here he is with a debut crime novel – a British countryside set whodunnit. Expect high quality literary writing.
Arthur And Teddy Are Coming Out – Ryan Love (HQ Books) (due out on 13th April)
The publishers are calling this the feel-good read of 2023 and by April we might all be needing some light relief. This is the tale of a 79 year old grandfather and his grandson who are simultaneously coming to terms with their sexuality. The cover claims “It’s never too late to be you”. This is another debut which is promising much from a Northern Ireland born writer who has worked in public relations in the music industry, is a former Showbiz editor for Digital Spy and an advocate for mental health.
The Making Of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – Tom Hanks (Penguin Random House) (due out on 9th May)
Yes, it’s that Tom Hanks and this is his first full-length novel and I’m not normally a sucker for Hollywood A-lister celebrity authors but this certainly sounds ambitious as it spans 80 years of American history and is about the production of a superhero movie. I’m getting John Irving/Michael Chabon vibes. This will get a lot of publicity and could very well be one of the big titles of the year.
This is the third novel from a British author I had not read before and what story-telling! I found this tale of a drowned girl who comes back to life in the 1880s and its setting of a stretch of the Thames between Cricklade and Oxford absolutely captivating. I said; “It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality. I was spellbound by this book.” Looking forward to reading more by this author in 2023.
I knew I had missed out on something good when I put this book in my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” post. I had felt it calling me from a table of new titles at Waterstones. I liked the look of this book, even though it’s not the kind of book I read regularly. At that time I decided not to merely judge it by its cover but when I saw it in the library in January this year I snapped it up. It’s clever, funny, and so well structured. In my review I said “If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.” Her follow-up “The Twyford Code” appeared this year and was good but did not blow me away like this did. Her new novel “The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” is out in January.
A re-read but I had left it probably over 40 years. The plot of this novel feels like it has been with me for the whole of my life, both from the book and film adaptations (apart from the ending which I always have trouble remembering). In sections this is the best book I have ever read in my life but then there are sections that fall flat making it an uneven gem, but it is still a gem. Perhaps it is a casualty of the way in which Dickens’ novels first appeared with a certain amount of padding mid-way through to keep the issues coming. I feel that it should be Dickens’ best work- but it isn’t, but it is up there amongst his very best. Pip, Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Magwitch – what characters!
Two books with the same title in my Top 10. What are the chances? Luckily, both have subtitles and this one explores “The Birth Of Pop” and it is my non-fiction pick for this year (I think I have to go back to 2010 and Vince Aletti’s “The Disco Files” to find a non-fiction work I have enjoyed as much). This is a real labour of love and involved so much research for music journalist, founding member of Saint Etienne and DJ Bob Stanley. Thousands of books have been published about the music industry post-Beatles (the author published a very thorough, critically acclaimed one “Yeah Yeah Yeah” himself about decade earlier – which I am currently reading) but this charts the development of popular music from its very origins to the point where Beatlemania came in. Pop music is seen as transient and temporary but these developments inform everything that has come afterwards and so is a very important, totally fascinating history. Beginning with Ragtime and Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” the first million selling sheet music from 1899 he explores the major musical shifts and the major players with insight, humour and with love. This book had me seeking out all sorts of artists on Spotify. I felt Bob really knew what he was writing about and was able to convey his views so well and this for me was a real treat. The Telegraph had this book at number 8 in their Books Of The Year list.
Well, this is unprecedented. I’ve never given my Book Of The Year to the same author before and here is Scottish writer Douglas Stuart doing it two years in a row with his first two novels. “Shuggie Bain” – a Booker Prizewinner (and this would be a serious contender for best ever Booker winner ever in my view) blew away all the competition for me last year and I do believe that “Young Mungo” is even better. It’s the best book I have read for 5 years. It wasn’t Booker shortlisted and it didn’t get as much critical approval because some saw it as more of the same, but I really don’t understand that this is a criticism. Some did get it- It is appearing in a healthy selection of Books Of The Year list – The Telegraph had it at number 34. Emily Temple at Literary Hub produces an Ultimate Best Books list which counts the number of times books make the end of year lists in American publications and this makes it onto six lists, which earns it an Ultimate nod (the highest 14 was achieved by two novels Hernan Diaz’s “Trust” and Gabrielle Zevin’s ubiquitous “Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow”). I said “I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.” I also felt “I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.” That for me represents an ultimate reading experience. Congratulations to Picador for publishing my ultimate favourite two years in a row. Over at Bookshop.org you can find Douglas Stuart’s list of the books which inspired him during the writing of this novel
So, Douglas Stuart makes it onto my Hall of Fame for the second time. Just for some context here are my other top titles going back to 2008
It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2022 but I think I should. Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists. Since publishing last year’s list I’ve got round to reading 30% of them, which is a lot lower than I would have expected. I do have 5 of them on my bookshelves or on my Kindle so hopefully I will get round to them in 2023. Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.
Too Much – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)
This is the second time comedian and TV presenter Tom has made this list. I did read his debut autobiography “No Shame” (2020) early on in 2021 which I described as “well-written, funny, significant”. This second work has his response to the death of his father as the central theme. Graham Norton’s three words to describe this are “Funny, candid and measured.” It’s a very British thing to process feelings about grief through humour and it is something which fascinates me. I look forward to seeing how Tom has achieved this.
A Tidy Ending – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)
When am I going to get round to reading this author? I don’t know how many times I have had “The Trouble With Goats And Sheep” recommended to me and I have had it on my shelves for years. I’m not sure I fancy “Three Things About Elsie” but this 2022 novel seems up my street and I have bought a Kindle copy. It’s described as “dark comedy” which is something I approve of. The Mail On Sunday said “Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read.” Whereas I rarely believe what The Mail On Sunday say I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because reviews are consistently good. It made the Times Thrillers Of The Year list. Right, next year is going to be the year I catch up with Joanna Cannon.
Without Warning And Only Sometimes – Kit De Waal (Tinder Press)
I haven’t read anything by Kit De Waal’s, although “My Name Is Leon” has been on my radar since publication and there is no reason why I would not get round to this, especially once I have read this memoir which made it to number 39 on the Telegraph Books Of The Year list. The only book in her house when growing up was a Bible, the possession of her Irish, Jehovah’s Witness mother. Of her childhood in 1960’s/70’s Birmingham, Kit has said; “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.” Cathy Rentzenbrink has said of it “I loved it and couldn’t put it down. Both joyous and heart-breaking, it captures an era and is also a beautiful tribute to sibling love, and a completely compelling story of how one girl became a reader.” This just sounds like the perfect memoir to me.
Exit Stage Left- Nick Duerden (Headline)
I’m fascinated by the subject of this non-fiction work. Fame in the entertainment business can be intense and also fleeting. This book looks at what happens when the adulation disappears. Nick Duerden interviews a whole range of artist across the music business in a book which featured on Sunday Times, Guardian & Telegraph best books of the year list and according to Surrey Life Magazine “… is a candid and at times, laugh-out-loud look at the curious afterlife of pop stars.”
The Trees – Percival Everett (Influx Press)
It was only a few years ago that I made a determined effort with the Booker Prize to read as many as the shortlisted titles as possible before the winner was announced. In order to fit them in I had to actually read from the longlist trying to make an educated guess as to what would stay in the running. This has dwindled over the last couple of years to just reading the winner. This year I didn’t even fancy that but this was the title from the shortlist which piqued my interest. I already have an unread Percival Everett title on my bookshelves “Erasure” from 2001 but this new title promises much. The Telegraph called it “grotesquely entertaining” and the NY Times applauded its combination of “unspeakable terror and knock out comedy”. It deals with racism and police violence and yet it is funny. I’m fascinated to see how the author pulls this off. I think it would be a powerful impressive read.
In Perfect Harmony – Will Hodgkinson (Nine Eight Books)
Another music-based non-fiction title this time examining how in the grimy industrial strife of the 1970s we became awash with sunshiny pop music. Punk, disco and reggae may have been more cool but it was this more mainstream music which dominated record sales and radio playlists. This promises to be both a social and popular cultural history which appeals in the same way that Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” did this year. It also made a number of best of lists in the British press. Suzi Quatro describes it as “A colourful picture of the entire 70s in Great Britain” which sounds right up my street.
Vladimir – Julia May Jonas (Picador)
This American debut fiction title made it to number 40 in the Telegraph Books Of The Year and caused quite a stir on publication. It’s a tale of obsession and has been talked about as “Lolita” in reverse as a female academic in her 50s falls for a young male novelist. The Boston Globe described it thus; “Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it. There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.” I think this is a book which sounds like it will cause a much greater impact in the UK when the paperback arrives (scheduled for Feb 2023). It sounds like a page-turning and head-turning debut.
Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra (John Murray)
This historical novel also attracted plaudits this year and was a Book Of The Year in both the Sunday Times and The Observer. It’s a tale of a woman who moves from Italy under Mussolini to Hollywood where she becomes an associate producer at a movie studio. The blurb describes it as “an epic story of love, deceit and reinvention”. Ann Patchett says it is “full of history, comedy and horror. It’s a great literary read.” Sounds good enough to me. I don’t know of American author Marra but he has been compared to literary greats such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kafka, which does seem a very broad comparison but suggests that there’s a bit of a genius at work.
The Guncle- Stephen Rowley (GP Putnam’s)
I’ve got a bit confused by this book as to its availability over the year. I just wasn’t seeing it around like I had expected to. It looks like it was published in the UK in April but I’m sure I knew about it long before then. I’m assuming that this was because it was a big American title which gained a lot of attention in the US in 2021, reaching the shortlist in the reader chosen Goodreads awards but took a while to appear over here. I think when I was looking for it only a US edition was available. It’s a feel-good, funny novel and we can all do with some of those this winter about a once-famous gay sitcom star having to take over the care of his niece and nephew (hence the title). Author Timothy Schaffert describes it as “Delightful, sharp, and very funny. The Guncle is the cocktail equivalent of the fourth sip of your martini while you sit poolside at sunset.” We might have to swap that for a cup of tea and sitting with a blanket over your knees deciding whether to put the heating on but I think you’ll get his point!
Portable Magic – Emma Smith (Penguin)
Subtitled “A History Of Books and their Readers” from the critical appreciation being heaped on this non-fiction work it looks like Emma Smith has done what she set out to do. Colin Burrow in The Guardian described it as “Thought-provoking …fizzing with jokes…Smith does it all with such a light touch you barely notice how much you’re learning.” Lynne Truss says “Emma Smith’s terrifically knowledgeable and thoughtful Portable Magic helps us understand every aspect of what our beloved books stand for. I for one am very grateful. What a delight this book is.” Books about books, I’m know I’m probably preaching to the converted if you are reading this but I’m sure you will agree with me that this is worth seeking out.
I really loved the first novel I read by British writer Hari Kunzru, the 2004 comic novel “Transmission” which when I discovered it 6 years later it ended up in my Top 3 of the year. Spurred on by this I’ve read another couple by him which didn’t quite make the same impact. By reading his 2017 record-buying obsessives themed “White Tears” I bypassed this earlier novel, which was his third, now 15 years old. Putting that right I have discovered his second five star work.
Thematically, it doesn’t sound that appealing to me which might have been why I didn’t seek it out at the time. I don’t read many serious, political novels and so any description of this tale of radical activists in the late 1960s/early 70s might very well have left me cold. But this is the man who made writing about a computer virus in “Transmission” laugh out loud funny so I was tempted to explore outside my usual comfort zone.
I’m so glad I did because away from the activism there is so much going on in terms of story-telling. It all feels authentic. It follows along a number of time-lines which are all equally involving and strong characterisation and a carefully structured plot just adds to the joys. This is a serious work and yet the writing is not without humour and empathy.
Mike Frame is approaching his 50th birthday when he bails out on his partner and step-daughter. We know that this is linked to an earlier chance meeting of a woman from his past in France. We begin to realise that he has had a secret life and that his name is not even Mike. When his secrets begin to unravel he has to take drastic action.
Within this first-person narrative he explores his past- of confrontations against the establishment, communes and squats and fighting for what you believe in and how easily idealism can become tainted so that the brave new world once thought possible goes increasingly out of reach.
As a child at the time “My Revolutions” is set I was aware slightly of some of the issues raised here but it would have been through the then media’s pre-occupation with “long-haired layabouts” and the fear of youth challenging established views. I found this filling in of many of the gaps in my knowledge of this time in British social history fascinating and well -told enough to keep me captivated. This is a book so rich in events and ideas, there’s enough here for a whole bookshelf of novels. I really wasn’t expecting to love it- but I did.
My Revolutions was published in 2007. I read a 2008 Penguin paperback edition.
One of the great finds for me this year is Janice Hallett. Expect “The Appeal” to feature in my Top 10 Books of the year. I was a little behind only getting to this 2021 publication in January this year when I was fulsome in my praise. I said, “If we are considering this debut in the “cosy crime” genre then this is the best “cosy crime” book I have ever read.” At the time this second novel was imminent and I did ponder “It will be interesting to see if she gets away with it twice or whether this book works so well as it is a fresh, original one-off.”
I decided, seeing this is now out in paperback that it was time to find out. The bulk of the book is transcripts from audio tapes recorded by Steve Smith, an ex-prisoner whose literary skills demand this type of communication. It is intended as a record for his probation officer and involves a teacher who inspired Steve as a youngster, Miss Isles, or missiles as the not always reliable transcript puts it, and her disappearance from his school. Not long before Steve had found a copy of an Enid Blytonesque book by once popular author Edith Twyford on a bus and he, his teacher and school friends are drawn into a mystery of whether Twyford used her books to communicate in code. A mystery which Steve aims to solve 40 years later.
That’s enough about plot but once again this is so tightly structured which is disguised by her gimmicky-appearing layouts. Flicking through the book, as with “The Appeal” it looks like a quick read but it’s not because this reader in particular got really into it, looking back, referring to other places in the book, with plot and structure both much denser than they originally appear. I think with this, compared to the debut, the readability is a little more compromised. In “The Appeal” we were drip-fed more clues which kept the interest up alongside its excellent characterisation. Here, all the clues the reader might need are there but you might have to wait for them. There was the odd moment when the image of Dusty Bin from the nonsensical 1970s game show “3-2-1” sprung into my mind (if you were around at the time you will see what I am getting at with references to clues within clues and misdirection which was the show’s ultimately very frustrating gimmick). Also, it might seem that a glib statement of “Dan Brown meets Enid Blyton” might initially seem fitting but does a disservice to the sheer skill of this story-teller.
I think a copy of “The Appeal” and this would make an ideal Christmas gift for crime/mystery fans as the puzzling, enigmatic style would be superb for the armchair detective in that period between Christmas and New Year. It would also look very stylish (I love the UK cover art of both books). It is like umpteen games of Cluedo, murder mysteries, classy seasonal TV crime adaptations and Christmas Cracker puzzles all rolled into literary joy. Third book from Janice Hallett “The Case Of The Alperton Angels” is out in January and I can’t wait.
The Twyford Code was published by Viper in 2022. The paperback edition is now available.
It’s been a good few years since I’ve read any Dickens novels (15 to be exact when I stumbled through “The Mystery Of Edwin Drood”) but I was certainly keen to do so after reading Peter Ackroyd’s majestic biography earlier this year. I hadn’t read “Great Expectations” since I was at college and rediscovering this now has put Dickens back up into my Top 3 most-read authors (ironically leap-frogging over his biographer Peter Ackroyd).
I have had a copy of this on my shelves for decades. When I was 18 an Aunt bought me the introductory offer for a Charles Dickens book club from Heron Books. I bought a few more myself over the next few months but became miffed that some of the bigger books were printed in two volumes and thus cost twice as much and so cancelled my subscription. My aunt had thought it sensible that I should buy books that would last rather than paperbacks and she was right as my one chunky volume of “Great Expectations” has certainly lasted.
Once again my feelings about this, Dickens’ 13th and penultimate finished novel have been confirmed. In the first part, really up until Pip goes to London, we not only have Dickens’ best writing and story-telling but one of the greatest opening sections of any novel ever. (Ditto the 1946 film version which scared the living daylights out of me as child and may be one of the reasons why my response feels so entrenched). The encounter on the marshes, the Christmas meal, the capture, Miss Havisham and Estella are all exceptional moments. When Pip moves to London with his Great Expectations intact (or when John Mills becomes Pip in the film) the disappointment begins to creep in. His relationship with the Pocket family, Wemmick and his aged parent, Drummle and Startop would probably involve me more in other of Dickens’ novels but here it feels like he is treading water, in reality, keeping the monthly editions churning. Admittedly, as the plot thickens when Pip is faced with the truth about his fortunes things certainly pick up if not quite to the level of the sheer magnificence of the opening.
This does, however, taken as a whole, remain one of Dickens’ greatest works and deserves a lofty place in the canon of English Literature. It is one of the great first-person narratives. There is the controversy of the three endings which Dickens wrote, which I can vaguely recall but always find myself having to look up the information about that because I can’t seem to retain how they are different (although I do know how this aspect influenced John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”). The version I read favoured the third ending, although this is apparently not always the case in the published editions available. I think, being of a cynical nature, I might have approved of the less happy ending which Wilkie Collins persuaded Dickens to revise- I’m not sure Estella could ever be trusted.
First published in 1861. “Great Expectations” is available in many versions in all formats.