The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

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The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

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 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.

Little – Edward Carey (2018)

 

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I think I have my ear fairly close to the ground when it comes to new books but I must admit that this one passed me by completely until researching my “Looking Around” post at the beginning of the year and finding Bookish Beck having it at number 3 on her Books Of The Year list.  Her enthusiasm piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.

 Edward Carey has written a marvellously entertaining original fictionalised take on the life of the diminutive Marie Grosholtz, nicknamed “Little” who would achieve huge and long-lasting recognition following her marriage to a M. Tussaud.

 The tale begins in eighteenth century Switzerland when the orphaned child works for Dr Curtius, a wax-worker involved in medical models.  The two relocate to Paris and together with a tailor’s widow and her son move into an old building formerly used to house and exhibit monkeys.  This is the story of how the business repeatedly flourished and faded amongst the extraordinary backdrop of the French Revolution.  I waited until finishing the book before checking autobiographical details and much of the basis of Carey’s fiction is there.  It does seem that anyone who lived through and emerged from this time in French history would have a sensational story to tell and Marie is certainly no exception.

 Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.  Through this narrative a rich cast of characters is created and anyone looking for an original, gutsy historical novel will find this a delight.  Her account is punctuated throughout by pencil drawings which give the novel an added quirkiness and depth.

 I very much hope that this will be one of those books whose reputation will spread by word of mouth.  It  currently has a 93% 5 star rating on Amazon with just two detractors opting for four stars.  I fully expect to be mentioning it again in my end of year Top 10.

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Little was published in 2018.  I read the Gallic Books paperback edition. 

100 Essential Books – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

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This is sublime.  A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem.  You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  

 In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of an unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends.  The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery.  They turned against him and he never got over it.

 I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.   Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!

 Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal.  Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal.  His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered.  The women themselves would mean more to the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.

 In the supporting cast is everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones.  I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre.  We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54.  Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In Cold Blood”.  The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.

 But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success.  Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.

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Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018.  The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.

Oct 19 Update:  Read about Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott at the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival here.

Lethal White- Robert Galbraith (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Why exactly do people read the crime novels J K Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith? Is it for the intelligently crafted plot and the satisfaction of the tying up of the interweaving threads of a detective novel? I suspect not, they are read more for the dynamics between the two main characters, private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott both here on their fourth outing.

If this is the case then this lengthy work will delight as there is more relationship than crime plot going on here. I was very happy that it picks up where “Career Of Evil” (2015) left off, at the wedding of Robin and her disappointing fiancé Matthew. Cormoran had stumbled into the wedding proceedings leaving the “will she/won’t she?” aspect very much in the air last time round and here in a Prologue the story we all wanted to read about is resumed. I’m not plot spoiling by saying the wedding goes ahead but given the circumstances the marriage might not last that long. I applaud JK Rowling for beginning the novel at this point.

Following this Prologue we fast forward a year and Strike’s agency is doing well after its high profile cases featured in the previous novels and some of the work is having to be shared out to sub-contractors.  Robin and Cormoran get involved in a blackmail scenario involving a government minister with Robin going undercover at the Palace Of Westminster.  Strike is perturbed by a distressed visitor to his office with a tale from the past which may be linked to the blackmail attempt. The plot simmers along nicely and I do think the balance between a character led narrative and any actual action works well and would please more of her readers than it would disappoint. It’s a long time before an actual corpse makes an appearance and the whole thing is a lot less gruesome and more understated than in the last two novels. I can appreciate this balance as for me the more plot-driven second novel “The Silkworm” (2015) is the weakest of the four and both through her writing and the TV adaptations the two main characters are so strong that I found myself really relishing the scenes when they are together.

This book achieved somewhat mixed views on publication mainly concerning its length. I actually found that there was enough to keep me from grumbling about its number of pages. It could have been tightened a little but that is the case for most books which come in at over 600 pages in a hardback edition. On reflection, I feel I should have cared more about the “whodunnit” aspect of the novel, this is crime fiction after all, which is why this is not quite up to “Career Of Evil” standards but it is a close run thing as we are provided with another highly enjoyable read. “Career Of Evil” was more effective in ramping up the tension. I feel also that Strike’s London has come across stronger in previous novels but this doorstep of a read certainly shouldn’t put people off this series of novels and those that have read the four will be eagerly anticipating the fifth- myself included.

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Lethal White was published in hardback by Sphere in September 2018. The paperback edition is out this week on 18th April.

The Quaker – Liam McIlvanney (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the more intriguing turn-ups in literary awards in 2018 came via the McIlvanney Prize given each year to the best Scottish Crime novel. In 2016 this award was renamed in honour of the writer known as “The Godfather Of Tartan Noir”, William McIlvanney who died in 2015. The previous winners since the rebranding had been Chris Brookmyre and Denise Mina and in 2018 the Prize went to Liam McIlvanney, William’s son for “The Quaker”.

There’s certainly no nepotism at work here as this is a very strong slab of crime fiction which fulfils the criteria perfectly and beat off the other shortlisted new titles by previous winners Brookmyre and Charles Cumming together with Lin Anderson.

This is Liam McIlvanney’s sixth publication which includes three fiction (a two parts of the way through trilogy begun in 2009) and three non-fiction works, two of these in conjunction with Ray Ryan. This novel is, hopefully the first in a new series, set in late 1960s Glasgow featuring DI Duncan McCormack, a member of the Flying Squad team who is seconded to an ongoing murder investigation to produce a report as to why a triple killer known as “The Quaker” has remained undetected. His interest in the case turns into a personal obsession whilst those above him want the investigation scaled down.

I like the feel of the period, clearly illustrated as a time when “the polis” operated with different standards. McCormack is a closeted gay officer at a time when homosexuality in Scotland still equalled a prison sentence and career ruin and this adds a fascinating dimension which stands this character out from the norm of crime fiction detectives.

The victims are also allowed to express their viewpoint in first person narrative sections, another thing which here is done well and adds to rather than impedes the flow of the piece.

I found this very readable and highly entertaining. I very much liked McCormack who is an outsider here in more than one sense and I would be very keen to read more novels featuring him.

McIlvanney currently works and lives in New Zealand but has convincingly conveyed the feel of Sixties Glasgow. There’s political incorrectness a-plenty with the nickname of a killer known to make biblical references a case in point. The novel was actually loosely based upon a real like killing spree by an individual known as Bible John, an undetected serial killer from the same time and location. Those who like their crime gripping and hovering around the edge of darkness should seek this out. I have limited experience of Scottish crime but this has certainly whetted my appetite to read more.
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The Quaker was published in hardback in June 2018 and in paperback by Harper Collins in Feb 2019. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (2018)

 

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Kate Atkinson’s previous two novels have been outstanding achievements based around the time of World War II.  The first, “Life After Life” played with structure in a way in which I (and many others including awards committees) found glorious and the second “A God In Ruins” had a more traditional narrative using characters from its predecessor.  Here, the author has kept pretty much within the same time-frame but produced a stand-alone novel.

 We meet main character Juliet Armstrong in two concurrent narratives ten years apart.  In 1940, as a young typist she is recruited to work for MI5 to produce transcripts of conversations between German sympathisers and in 1950 she finds she hasn’t fully escaped her wartime past whilst working for the BBC as a producer of Schools Radio programmes.  Atkinson gets the feel of London in both the war and post-war years perfectly, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is her third consecutive novel set in a period she must have certainly immersed herself in over the last few years.

 Juliet is involved in spying so the elements of who is finding out about who and who can be trusted provides a mystery element to the story which drives both narratives.  As always, characterisation is very strong and is written with the confidence, authority and playfulness that I have come to expect from this author.

It is a strong novel but I don’t think there is quite enough in the plot for me to consider it an excellent one, so no unprecedented three five stars in a row for Kate Atkinson.  I do very much like the juxtaposition of the war-time MI5 and post-war BBC and both work convincingly within the plot.  It does provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the secret service during the war, here involved in tasks which seem mundane but which can suddenly turn to the life-threatening and chilling and it is great to have Juliet’s back-room girl’s valuable contribution to all this given some limelight.

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Transcription was published by Penguin in September 2018.  The paperback version is due in  March 2019

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
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The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the featured titles in my “What I Should Have Read In 2018” post which I’ve now put  right by making it my first read of 2019.  This attracted much publicity through its long-listing for the Man Booker Prize in a rare nod towards commercial crime fiction and recently took home the Crime/Thriller Book Of The Year at the National Book Awards.  The buzz around the title made it too good to miss, with expectations that this is going to be a top-notch title.

I have read Belinda Bauer before, her debut “Blacklands” was a very dark novel which certainly impressed me but I haven’t got around to reading any of her six publications between that and this.

I did have those high expectations which for me, is not always a good thing, as they tend to make me more disappointed with a book which doesn’t fully hit home than I would otherwise be.  The title refers to instant decision-making, also not always a good thing and which can have long-lasting repercussions.

A pregnant woman whose car has broken down on the motorway leaves her three young children in a car on the hard shoulder to seek a phone and is never seen alive again.  The plot focuses on this disappearance and her teenage son’s attempts to come to terms with her fate over the next few years.  His is the most vibrant characterisation in the novel as he attempts to hold the family together, tries to solve his mother’s case and becomes notorious around the Tiverton area where they live for his own crime sprees. 

It is a compelling read which I enjoyed immensely but I’m not sure how well it stands up to analysis as a crime novel.  A lot here hinges on coincidence (and I do acknowledge that a lot of real life crime is solved through coincidence) and some characters’ actions seem questionable, but then perhaps we’re back to that snap decision aspect again.

Given that the novel is about a horrific disappearance it is nowhere near as bleak as I was expecting.  Bauer’s writing style is lively and there is often humour and sharp observation which here works very well.

This book provided a very good start to my 2019 reading and hopefully this year I will be able to delve into Belinda Bauer’s novels I have missed out on.  She is a very good writer, confident in her genre but (and I think it’s down to those pesky expectations again) this didn’t quite blow me away in the way I was expecting it to.

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Snap was published in 2018 by Bantam

Looking Around………

 

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For the last of my 2018 retrospectives I thought I’d have a little look at what some of the other bookbloggers out there have been saying about their favourite reads of last year.  This exercise means that I have now added even more titles to my Reading Wishlist and it may just introduce you to some other bloggers that you might not know about (but don’t stop following me!)

With so many books out there it is perhaps not surprising that I haven’t found any books on my Top 10 that have featured in others listings.  Also, we are each using our own criteria for inclusion, some restrict themselves to books published in 2018 others, like myself, believe if they read it this year then it’s up for contention.  I did find, over at Random Book Reviews Web , Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” which I had at #6 in my 2017 list at number 7 in Lou’s, who runs this site, 2018 list.  She, like me gone for a classic as her top read by choosing Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.  I’m also intrigued by a book I have never heard of which she has her number 8, “The Star Machine” by Jeanine Basinger, which is a non-fiction expose of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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One book which does keep cropping up is “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton.  This week it scooped the Costa Prize for Best First Novel.  It appears on lists by amongst others The Owl On The Bookshelf and over at Secret Library where Nicki has adopted a self-interview approach to 2018 which enables her to celebrate books in categories and  we get mentions of this title for most original book together with the longest book (512 pages) she read and the best book read based solely on others’ recommendation.  This has been a real word of mouth hit and I did feature it on my “What I Should Have Read” Post.

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There were other titles praised that I had already felt I had missed out and had included in “What I Should Have Read”.  Fictionphile  has 25 picks of the year and these include one that I had read and enjoyed “The Visitors” by Catherine Burns and two I should have read “Snap” by Belinda Bauer and “The Chalk Man” by C J Tudor (both of these I’m putting right so look out for reviews for these two soon).  Inexhaustible Invitations has already read one of the books in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean and has made it his non-fiction pick of 2018.  This is an interesting list which has Capote’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as his classic choice and two titles sharing the fiction pick Edouard Louis’ “History Of Violence” (I read and enjoyed this author’s “The End Of Eddy” this year and another translated from the French title “Disoriental” by Negar Djavadi, which I had never heard of but I think I have been won over by (another one for the wishlist).

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Other books which I know I should check out include three of Books On The 7.47’s choices “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (winner of “Waterstones Book Of The Year”, “Tin Man” by Sarah Winman and the biggest book of the year “Eleanor Oliphant Is Competely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.  I have read and enjoyed Book On 7.47’s non-fiction choice “This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay.  Another that I have been after this year appears on The Owl On The Bookshelf’s list “The Corset” by Laura Purcell, but I have decided I need to read her previous publication first.  Cathy at 746books  has “The House Of Impossible Beauties” by Joseph Cassara on her list and I have nearly bought that book a number of times over 2018.  I know that I am going to love it and because I have to read things in chronological order it is probably going to be some time before I get round to Fiction Fan’s choice, the large tome that is C J Sansom’s “Tombland”, a book which I know a lot of people have enjoyed this year, his 7th in the Matthew Shardlake series.

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Although I’m not sure how I will get on with Aperture Reads #1 pick “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers I am prepared to give it a go but Liam who runs this site does have a title in his Top 5 which I am aware of and which has also interested me this year, although I have not read it and that is “The Bedlam Stacks” by Natasha Pulley.

That leaves me with one title which I saw on a couple of lists (including  The Owl On The Bookshelf ) which I had not even heard of but which sounds a very good match for me.  It was Bookish Beck who won me over with her description of the book she had at number 3 on her list “Little” by Edward Carey which she describes as a “macabre Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud”, I’m not sure how that passed me by in 2018 but I am adding it to my Wishlist.

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So that’s just a taster of what delighted some of us bookbloggers last year.  Now, let’s get on with 2019!!