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 a 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 for 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 are 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 True 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.

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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!!

 

 

Looking Back Looking Forward…..

 

Some I read, some I didn’t ………….

This time last year in my “looking back looking forward ” post I highlighted nine titles which I would be looking out for during the year.  I thought I’d take a look back at these.  In 2017 I managed to read four of the ten titles I’d focused on then, how did I do last year.  Just as a reminder here are the titles and how I’ve got on.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Came out in February.  After mentioning this here I seemed to forget all about it.  Didn’t read it and it hasn’t even really been on my radar.

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Read it, loved it.  Was number 3 on my Books Of The Year list.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins) Read it in September.  Based on interviews with the last known slave in 1927, Hurston’s non-fiction work remained unpublished to this year.  I said “This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought-provoking and always relevant read.”  My four star review can be read here.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje – Didn’t read it and I do think I have missed out because it appeared regularly on “Best Of The Year” lists.  I did highlight it again recently in my “What I Should Have Read” post and I will get round to it sometime.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh – Didn’t read this when it arrived in July but did read her earlier novella “McGlue” which was published in the UK following the success of her “Eileen”.  I said of that “I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should.”  Therefore, I did not rush to seek her latest title out.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – I said “Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.”  Unfortunately I did not read any.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – I also didn’t read as much children’s fiction as I had anticipated .  Due out in paperback in March so perhaps I will get around to it then.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – This one I have scheduled as I have borrowed it in e-book form from the library.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – I forgot I had this on this list.  I’ve toyed with the idea of reading it a few times when I’ve encountered it but haven’t done so yet.  Once again I am sure I will.  Got slightly mixed reviews (and I was a little disappointed I couldn’t buy into the hype of “The Essex Serpent”) but readers seem to think it is certainly worth giving a go.

 

Some potential highlights from 2019

Well that’s my excuses for these books done.  Reading takes a different direction than planned and that is what is exciting.  20 of the books I read this year were as part of the Sandown Library Reading Challenge which I was certainly thrilled to take part in as it introduced me to authors such as Susan Hill, Elizabeth Taylor and, especially, my book of the Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” which I would never have got round to reading.

On so onto the forthcoming titles that have piqued my fancy for this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – just published in last couple of days.  This non-fiction work examines a 1986 fire at the New York Public Library and becomes a love letter to libraries and how essential and relevant they are to modern societies.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Due Jan 24th- From one of my favourite publishers, a translation from the Italian of a best-selling novel set in the mafia run slums of Palermo

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – Due Jan 24th – A memoir with Epping Forest at its centre which according to Olivia Laing is “electrifying on sex and nature, religion and love.”  There’s quite a buzz about this book

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – Due in Feb – How do you follow a Booker Prize winning novel about an attempted assassination of Bob Marley?  I know, begin a fantasy trilogy set in mythical Africa.  There are “Game Of Thrones” comparisons being bandied about and I’m not a huge lover of fantasy novels but this seems such a brave (and potentially foolhardy) move that I’m certainly going to be looking out for it

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – Due in Feb – Books in translation seem to well in my end of year Top 10.  This one is translated from Russian and is apparently a stunning debut set in a Siberian camp in 1930.  A tale of survival and conquering terrible conditions can be a life-affirming read.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – Due in March – I really liked this author’s “Tatty” published back in 2004 and this new title set in Cape Cod in 1950 looks stylish and highly promising .  We are promised a novel which takes in loneliness, regret and the myth of the American Dream

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – Due in March- An anthology which takes in different types of writing from 200 women writers of African descent.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Due in April- This is a big buzz debut which sounds right up my street.  A nineteenth century tale with a good feel of the Gothic about a Jamaican slave girl ending up at the Old Bailey in London.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) -Due in  June – A new Jackson Brodie novel after a nine year wait.  Hopefully I can read those I still have outstanding before June.  I’ve been promising myself this for some time and I have most of them on my shelves so maybe this new arrival will be the impetus I need.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Due in August.  In his first publication since the five star rated, Top 3 Book Of The Year “The Underground Railroad” we are promised a tale of a 1960’s set novel of two black boys sent to a reform school, based on a hideous real-life institution which operated in Florida for over a century.

I think it’s going to be good year….Happy reading!

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2018 – Part 2: The Top 5

I am continuing my countdown of my favourite books I read in 2018.

5. House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018) Read and reviewed in November

tshumaAnother title (like Claire Hajaj’s #8 rated novel) that I would never have come across if it were not for the good folks at nb magazine who sent me a copy to help out with the longlisting for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards.  The shortlist is due to be announced this month and this is one title that certainly should be up for serious consideration as for me it was the best debut novel I read and narrowly misses out on being my favourite novel published in 2018.  Zimbabwe born Tshuma is a real storyteller and here tells the history of the last fifty years of her homeland using an unreliable narrator who plots his way through and manipulates the other characters.  I said of it “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.”  This is unlikely to be as easy to find as some of the works on this list but is definitely worth seeking out.

4. Ladder To The Sky – John Boyne (Doubleday 2018) – Read in June, reviewed in July

boyneladder A great year for books with ladders in the titles (cf: Anne Tyler’s # 6 rated book).  Irish author John Boyne reached the top of my personal book ladder last time round with his outstanding “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this, his latest, is almost as good.  Novels about writers tend to not be as good as they think they are but this look at the publishing industry with its emphasis on the creative process and the ownership of ideas is extremely strong.  I said “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.”  For the second year running John Boyne has produced the best novel of the year published in the year I read it.

3. Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)- Read and reviewed in March

bookwormMy favourite non-fiction read of the year.  I’d highlighted this as one I really wanted to discover before publication and I was certainly not in anyway disappointed.  In fact, I enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated.  Lucy Mangan explores the reading material of her childhood in a superb “book about books”.  I said of it; “Thank you Lucy Mangan.  This book has brought me so much pleasure.  I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops.”  I don’t think there can be much higher praise!  I have recommended this book so many times this year and will continue to do so.

2. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (Definition 2006) – Read in September, reviewed in October

pyjamasI actually had this sat on my bookshelves for quite a few years unread.  I’d seen the film but I was so enthralled by Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” that I had to explore a bit of his back catalogue and read this, his most famous work.  He really is a great find for me as an author and got very close to doing the unprecedented and being named the author of the Book Of The Year for a second year running.  In fact, everything I had read by this writer has been a five star read with his 2015 children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain“, pretty much a companion piece to this just missing out on the Top 10 this year because of the number of outstanding books I’ve read (the other non-Top 10 5 star read was Kate Atkinson’s “A God In Ruins“).  Bruno is relocated with his family away from the grandparents he loved to a house in the grounds of a place he believes is called “Out-with” peopled by men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  Painfully sad and extremely powerful and an essential read, even if you have seen the film.

And the reviewsrevues book of the year for 2018 goes to:

1.The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (Penguin 1845) – Read and reviewed in December

dumasI’m sure that this is just coincidence but for the second year running the Book Of The Year has been the very last book I’ve read.  I don’t think this is because I forget the books I’ve read earlier in the year because I do carefully go through everything, it may be because I’m keen to fit in a book which has the potential to be a big-hitter before the new year dawns and this was certainly a big-hitter in every sense of the word.  It took me a month to get through the 1200+ pages but it was certainly time well spent as it introduced me to a classic novel dominated by a fascinating character which will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Brought to life in a vibrant translation by Robin Buss and recommended to me by my friend Louise, whose mission is to get everyone to reading this book.  I certainly now think she has a point.

I’ve never read Dumas before and I’m certainly looking forward to reading more and he is a deserved addition to my awards list.  Dumas becomes my first French author to join my ultimate favourites and the fourth translated work.  It is the best nineteenth century novel I have read since I read “Jane Eyre” in 2000.  Here is my Hall of Fame for the past 11 years:

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

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

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2019!

The rest of my Top 10 for this year can be found in my earlier post here

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “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.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018