Monthly Archives: December 2017
Another year has gone by in the world of books and so as we get closer to saying goodbye to 2017 it is time to reveal my own books for the year. As always these are books I have read either been sent kindly by publishers or bought by myself. They are in no order so there is no number one, just my selection of fifteen of the books that have made my bookish year.
The selection was not easy as there was so many that could have easily made the final fifteen. Those just outside honestly were just as good. There was through the year many great highlights involving books a number of writers I had the chance to interview and also meet in person.
So here in a little detail in the fifteen Books of the Year for 2017.
Rachel Rhys – A Dangerous Crossing (Doubleday – March 2017)
September 1939 and Europe is heading into World War Two and Lily Shepherd boards a cruise liner for a new life away from the war in Australia. For Lily she now enters a new world of endless cocktail parties and elegant new people to meet. But things do not go as smoothly as she hopes. When you are aboard ship there is nowhere to go as secrets begin to come to fore. Six weeks later the ship docks in Australia, the world has entered a dark phase as war has started and a young lady disembarks from the ship in handcuffs. What could have possible gone wrong?
Rachel Rhys is the pen name for bestselling author Tammy Cohen. I have to say I loved A Dangerous Crossing. It just reminded me of the old murder mysteries of years gone by. It has everything. Politics, glamour the sexual tension at time crackled and not forgetting of course murder on the high sea. This is a sumptuous read. Thrilling and compelling.
The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig (Little,Brown – June 2017)
Quentin and Lottie cannot afford a divorce, their hopes and dreams as well as their jobs have gone thanks to the recession and now they find they cannot afford to live in London any longer and have to downsize. So they and their three children now head to a remote part of Devon. Lottie is not happy at the thought of sharing a home with the husband she wants to divorce yet Quentin who has had a string of affairs cannot fathom why she is so unhappy. There are secrets connected to the house and this may have something to do with why the rent is so low. This is a modern day black comedy based on lives as we know it today a real state of the nation. Amanda Craig is a great storyteller.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury – March 2017)
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2017, this is a book that really has divided reader’s opinions. I really enjoyed reading and yet others I have spoken to could not really accept the way the story is told. President Lincoln’s son Willie is gravely ill and at the same time the American Civil War is raging all around. In just a matter of a few days Willie has died and Lincoln is devastated and cannot come to terms with his loss. Lincoln returns to the cemetery a number of times to cradle his dead son. This is a story told over one single night and I can only describe this as one of the most extraordinary novels I have read.
Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech (Orenda Books – September 2017)
What can I possibly say that I have not said before about Louise Beech, one of my favourite writers. Louise can put together a storyline that just simply takes my breath away. Maria in the Moon was one of the first books to make the list. When I wrote my review I said that I had great hopes that this would be Louise’s breakout novel that would finally get her the recognition she deserves. I stand by this as I write this piece just a few days away from the end of the year. Karen the founder of Orenda Books has found a real gem in Louise Beech.
This story follows Catherine Hope. She suffers from Insomnia and she has a memory yet struggles to remember anything. Dark and poignant this is a story of many things including memory, it is what happens to us when we can no longer hide. A story that is at times painful yet moving. One book not to be missed.
Larchfield by Polly Clark (riverrrun – March 2017)
How could I not include this gorgeous debut by Polly Clark. Simply wonderful. Larchfied follows two timelines. Current time when Dora moves to Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland. Dora is recently married and is expecting her first child. She is excited at the prospects that are ahead. But soon reality arrives and Dora is struggling to adapt. What she needs to something to help her escape the reality she is in. What transpires is that the poet Wystan H. Auden once lived at Helensburgh. At 24 Auden seemed to have made his name as his first collection of poetry was published and yet following a broken engagement he cannot cope and takes a teaching post at Larchfield boys school. A beautiful and haunting novel. Beautiful and deft a novel of great storytelling.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins – May 2017)
Eleanor Oliphant has life planned out. Every Friday after work she buys the same pizza and two bottles of vodka and then shuts the door of her home for the weekend and gets drunk. She sees no-one except her colleagues at work. She wears the same clothes to work and eats the same lunch every day. Nothing seems to be missing from her life and yet everything is missing. Sometimes we all build a wall around us to protect ourselves but what happens when you build a wall that no-one or nothing can get through. Isolation happens. Then one day a simple act of pure human kindness happens to shatter Eleanor’s precise life. A novel of loneliness and kindness. One of the truly great books of 2017 and shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award. I raved about this when I was sent a copy and I am just so pleased that it has got the recognition it really deserves and one of the biggest sellers of the year.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Corsair – October 2017)
I was very lucky to have met Jennifer Egan when I was at BBC Radio Four in November as she was talking about her Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach is about Anna Kerrigan and when she was young she remembers visiting with her father a man who was to be important for the family. Now years later the country has entered WWII and Anna is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard and is doing a job only previously held by a man. She is the first female diver. She is the breadwinner for the family since her father disappeared, she believes her father has been murdered and she wants to know how and why. Haunting and so beautifully written and constructed.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals – August 2017)
Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and was my tip to win it. Fiona Mozley’s outstanding debut novel Elmet is brutal and incredible. The bond between father and child. A family living on a knife edge of society and what happens when it tips over the edge. The family live in the woods after mother and father split. Dad did not want his children mixing with others. He built their home with his bare hands. Sometimes he would disappear and then he would return with eyes raging. But soon he would be at peace again but then peace would soon be shattered. When people are pushed to their limits sometimes they can be capable of anything. Gripping and a real slow burner of a book.
Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski – (Orenda Books – March 2017)
A thriller based around a series of podcasts. Brilliant idea and how this book really grabbed me. I could not put this down. Such a simple idea really works and resonated with me and I know it has for others. Matt Wesoloski in writing Six Stories has nailed it. Set over two time frames 1997 and 2017. In 1997 the body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found, they say it he died in an accident but some are not believing this story. Now in 2017 journalist Scott King who produces a series of podcasts about cases now decides this is a case worth investigating. Now some are nervous about his intentions. Just how did Scott Jeffries meet his death on Scarclaw Fell in 1997. Over the course of Six interviews on his podcasts Scott attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery. A chilling and gripping story. Orenda Books has another sensation to its ever growing band of writers.
A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall (Bloomsbury – June 2017)
My association with Kew Gardens goes back along way and the memories I carry will last a lifetime happy and also sad. Never did I think anyone would write a novel set to the backdrop of Kew Gardens. Along comes the debut novel A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall. Just one of THE best novels of 2017.
Jonah has been left alone and shattered by the death of his Audrey and wanders the grounds of Kew Gardens trying to make sense and also trying to put life into some sort of resemblance and make sense of it all. There is Chloe who finds peace is making Origami, there is Milly the child who loves to laugh and explore the gardens of Kew. This is a timeless piece of writing that made cry for the story for the memories and one that I will hold close for years to come. If you have not read A Thousand Paper Birds yet, I urge you to go buy a copy. It will stay with you long after you have finished reading.
American War by Oamar El Akkad (Picador – September 2017)
In September I was given the chance to interview Omar El Akkad about his novel American War during the Cheltenham Literature Festival just hours after arriving in the UK and we talked about his career as a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan and then how American War came about.
The Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074 this is when Sarat Chestnut is only Six-years-old. But this Civil War is not about race but fossil-fuels. America has ravaged by natural disasters and sea levels have rose to such an extent that parts of America are now under water. Drones fill the sky and the fight for survival is fraught with dangers every day. Sarat’s voice is one that is haunting as she is drawn into the resistance as she faces starvation and poverty and now is an instrument of war. This is a devastating post-apocalyptic novel that is both poignant and disturbing.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Alex Preston & Neil Gower (Corsair – July 2017)
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday – July 2017)
I have to admit to being a huge fan of Rachel Joyce. Rachel can tell a story like no-other. I have been lucky to have met Rachel on a number of occasions and each time I go away with a head full of stories and here with The Music Shop a book I just fell for. Beautifully written and lyrical in more than just one sense. We go back to 1988 and Frank is running his music shop. All vinyl not a CD in sight. Here he sells his music and that could be any genre and Frank knows his music. Then one day something happens to change he life. Ilse Brauchmann is that woman. She wants Frank to teach her all about music. Frank has a past that now threatens to open up, his past follows him. Not to be seen but always there. This is just the most beautiful of novels and told by the master storyteller Rachel Joyce. Just wonderful in every sense.
I AM I AM I AM – Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press – August 2017)
The second no-fiction book to make my fifteen books of the year. The highly acclaimed Maggie O’Farrell has a massive bestseller and for many the book of the year with I AM I AM I AM – Seventeen Brushes with Death. This is not a novel but her own near death experiences. This is her own life in her own words. One of the most extraordinary literary experiences. From Childhood with an illness she was not expected to survive to a terrifying encounter on a footpath. When I picked up my copy I knew this was a book that once started I was not going to put down. This will pull at your own heart. Truly breathtaking and brilliant.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman (Tinder Press – July 2017)
And so to my final choice and how could I not put Tin Man in my fifteen books of the year. Sarah Winman has written a book of outstanding beauty. It may be short at around 195 pages but what it packs into those pages in just so profound. It is tender and beautiful in every sense. A painting of fifteen sunflowers and then two boys who are inseparable. The boys grow to be men and a woman walks into their lives. Annie would be change everything. This is a tender novel that deals with love and loss and friendship. A truly outstanding novel that will break your heart and them put it back together.
My Literary Year
Just a few of the events I have attended this past year have been a major part of why I just love books and talking with writers.
In February I was invited along with many other book bloggers to the Headline Publishing Group Blogger Night 2017.
This was a peek at some of the great and up-coming novels being released. It was great to catch up with some of the authors and also some of the bloggers.
In August I was invited to Blenheim Palace for the Wainwright Book Prize 2017 which was part of Countryfile Live. I had the great pleasure of meeting all the writers who had been shortlisted for this important book prize that covers writing on natural history and the outside world. The winner for 2017 was John Lewis-Stempel with his book Where Poppies Blow which is about the Soldier of the first World War and his relationship with the plants and animals and birds around him even as battles were raging.
In October I attended the Salisbury Literary Festival and in front of a packed theatre to listen to a talk by Joanna Cannon as she spoke about her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and also a little glimpse of her second novel Three Things about Elsie which is released on 11th January 2018 also about how she became a writer. Finally after all this time I got to talk with Joanna after the event.
So there we have it. That is 2017 all wrapped up in one post. I hope you have enjoyed reading not just about my books of the year but also about my bookish year. I have met some of the most incredible people this year from authors to publishers and other book bloggers but this also goes for those I have met on social media. I would not be doing this without your support. I have some exciting plans for 2018 and along with this some incredible books already in for the coming months of the new year. Part of the real pleasure is the book banter we share on Twitter. Long may that continue.
Thank you for all your incredible support and Happy New Year.
House of Spines by Michael J. Malone
I raved about A Suitable Lie when it was released in September 2016 now Michael J. Malone returns with a terrific psychological thriller House of Spines. It is compelling and at the same time visceral. If you enjoy a thriller with a touch of the ghost story, then read on!
There have been many books through the course of this year that have kept me up into the small hours as I have been unable to put the book down. There is much to admire about how Malone goes about creating his storyline and the characters. With House of Spines you cannot pin down to any specific genre it crosses so many.
Hidden within this gripping storyline are a leading character who you could say is complex to say the least. There are deep hidden secrets from the past and there is something of a Gothic ghost story, so the reader has many elements in this book to keep them awake long into the night.
Our leading character Ranald is a writer that has fallen on hard times and yet Ranald has inherited a house from his great uncle, but Ranald never even knew him. Ranald is a damaged character and I warmed to him despite everything that he was going through and with worse to come you just wanted him to come through in the end. There is some about the property that has the name of Newton Hall, something about this place both intrigued me and yet at the same time worried me. Every room would be filled with books. A writers dream you could say. Yet Newton Hall would have a deep impact on Ranald as there are dark and worrying secrets from the past lurking in the shadows and as Ranald is a fragile character I was becoming really worried for him. Old homes always contain the history of those that lived within, and for generations Newton Hall has been gathering the everything that was wrong for generations lies, secrets and hidden truths. Now for its new owner those secrets are going to pour out of the walls and how would Ranald cope with this. He is becoming more and more isolated and given his history of Mental Health issues Ranald become detached from the outside world and more locked into Newton Hall as he explores the many rooms in the mansion. You have this sense that something is always lurking just below the surface in this story just waiting to show itself. The question you are asking is how does it end for Ranald and his new house? Well that is something you will have to discover for yourselves. I am just going to leave it here.
Credit to Michael J. Malone for handling with such sensitivity the issues of Mental Health that are written into the storyline of the leading character in House of Spines and yet at the same time writing an incredible story that is just fantastic and gripping. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Thank you to Karen Sullivan for the review copy of House of Spines by Michael J. Malone.
House of Spines by Michael J. Malone is published by Orenda Books and was published on 15th September 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
The Deaths of December by Susi Holliday
What is the attraction of a Christmas crime novel that we all seem to enjoy reading? Those of us who enjoy a cracking crime read look forward to the festive period when we can relax with a killer of a crime novel. But Susi Holliday has taken this to a new level with a crime novel based around something a lot of homes will have on display at this time of year the traditional advent calendar. When I read the blurb for the storyline my thought was ‘why has no-one come up with this before’ and The Deaths of December really is the perfect Christmas crime read.
There has been a serial killer on the loose for twenty years and this killer has fallen under the radar. His methods do not follow a pattern which makes it difficult for this killer to be caught and at the same time this killer is clever with it. It is fast approaching Christmas and at the local police station a mysterious gift has arrived. At first no-one suspects and think it is a harmless gift. It is an advent calendar. But closer inspection suddenly gets everyone’s attention. Behind every window lies a shocking discovery. No festive cheer here these are photos of murder scenes and they are real taken at the time of the murder. So who is behind sending the advent calendar and what is their motive. More urgently is who are the victims. Some of the windows on the calendar have been left blank. This is now a real concern as this could mean the killer is not finished and wants to fully complete his own macabre advent calendar of murders.
We are now introduced to an exciting new detective partnership in DS Eddie Carmine and DC Becky Green to race against the clock before another window is filled with another murder. These two detectives clearly have a real chemistry and really do appeal to the reader. There are a number of intriguing characters that you are introduced to ‘The Photographer’ and ‘Carly’ so the story is more or less told by the leading characters. There is something about Carly that when you read this book you will find out for yourselves. Well done to Susi Holliday for creating such great characters and how she teases us with information through the book.
The is a totally compelling and gripping read. There are times when the action becomes rather tense and you just know the clock is ticking down and just when you think they are getting close the killer is getting closer. This is the perfect Christmas fireside read. Switch on the tree lights turn the phone off and get yourself a drink and settle down and enjoy this festive crime thriller. But lock the door! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Deaths of December by Susi Holliday is published by Mulholland Books and was published on 16th November 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Portrait of a Murderer – A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith
I have been a lover of Christmas Crime novels for many a year and was delighted when the British Library Publishing sent me a copy of Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith. This book marks the 50th in the series these really capture the crime writing of time gone by and with this current release in time for the festive period it is the perfect fireside read.
I have been lucky during a previous Christmas to take part in a murder mystery which took place at a country house during the Christmas holidays and in Portrait of a Murderer you really get the feel for this.
It is Christmas 1931 and like every Christmas the Gray family gather to celebrate at the home of their father Adrian Gray a rather unlikeable fellow, mind you his offspring are not that pleasant either. At the start we get to meet each of the family in turn in all their glory (said rather loosely). So now we have the full family tree and all their personalities. While I was reading this introduction to the family I had in my mind Cluedo, yes we have all played this over Christmas and some of us still do. But here Adrian Gray will meet his death at the hands of one of his own Children. It is an instantaneous murder and unplanned. But who did and what was the reason. Each of his children have their own agenda and would like to get their hands on his money. Adrian seems to have been at loggerheads with each of his children and it seems they attend Christmas at his country home through gritted teeth.
The reasons why several of the family would wish him harm are many and all have money at the heart of this. Whether it is because one is being blackmailed or through bad business dealings and then there is one who just wants to grab his father’s cash and leave his wife and children and all his responsibilities and fee to Paris and start a new life.
So now it begins and pretty soon an arrest is made and all the evidence looks damming for the accused and the gallows now look a dead cert. But hang on there not all is as it seems and one family member sees a flaw in the evidence and the real murderer may escape justice and an innocent person my hang in their place.
This is such an accomplished crime novel and a compelling read of a dysfunctional family at war with their father. This is an ideal Christmas read as there is more to this story than just a murder mystery. How Meredith managed to create each of the characters in their own unique way and bring them to life. Christmas is a time for family to get together but for some there are dark feelings lurking at the back of their minds and Meredith has brought this together brilliantly. If you are being forced to attend a family Christmas when you would rather not, then get a copy of this book and settle down with a glass and the tin of chocolates and enjoy Portrait of a Murderer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith is published by British Library Publishing and was published on 25th September 2017 and is available through The British Library and Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Just recently I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Egan at BBC Radio 4 as part of Bookclub. The programme was about her Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. Now Jennifer Egan returns with her first historical novel Manhattan Beach (Corsair) a beautifully written and constructed novel set with a backdrop of the Great Depression and then World War Two.
The story starts at around the time of the Great Depression and an Irish family and Anna Kerrigan is very close to her father Eddie, times are hard and now Anna accompanies her father and visits the local mobster Dexter. Fast forward and it is now the time of the Second World War and Anna is now 19-years-old and working as the only woman diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard where she is assisting in the building of the Battleship Missouri. But there is more to this powerful novel than you think. Her father disappeared six years earlier and now Anna is just discovering what really lay behind her father’s sudden and unexplained disappearance all she recalls is her father leaving the apartment as he usually did that day but never to return. You can clearly see that is haunting Anna and she wants to know what happened to her beloved father.
For Anna realisation is that she now has to support her mother and her disabled sister Lydia, now her life is not as she planned or hoped for. Rarely visiting anyone or even venturing too far. She just wants to know what happened to her father. To get to the truth sometimes you have to carry out an act of desperation and later revulsion at what you have done in the hope of getting to the truth. She meets Dexter at a night club. He has no idea who she is. Anna will do anything for the truth.
Egan clearly has put in an enormous amount of time in research of this period of the 19th Century and it shows in what is an absorbing and compelling read and a handsomely constructed A novel that is not to be taken lightly, Egan has taken her time in writing Manhattan Beach and the quality of her writing is flawless. An outstanding read. Different it may be from A Visit from the Goon Squad but a success it is. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Thank you Corsair for the review copy of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is published by Corsair and was published on 3rd October 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Islander – A Journey Around Our Archipelago by Patrick Barkham
How many times have you heard the expression ‘We are an island race’ This is of course true but how many of you actually know how many islands there are around Britain? The answer is a staggering 6,289 but not all are inhabited. For the nature writer Patrick Barkham who has been shortlisted for his books The Butterfly Isles and Badgerlands returns with Islander-A Journey Around our Archipelago were he island hops to discover how life really is and the natural history of the Islands that make up our wonderful country.
I have been lucky enough to island hop around our coastline while studying wildlife but here in this outstanding book Patrick Barkham visits some islands we may never get the chance to visit, such as South Ronaldsay, Eigg, St. Kilda, and also Rathlin among others. Along the way he talks about the ecology of the islands and culture as well as meeting the wildlife of the islands.
Anyone who has watch Whisky Galore will know the story was written by Sir Compton Mackenzie who loved islands so much he actually liked buying islands as well this may account for his love of isolation. Along the way Barkham meets the people of the islands who live and work on the islands. Some of the islands he visits can be described as remote. It can be a hard life and the weather extreme and some of the islands can easily be cut off for days or weeks at a time. Then of course there is the uniqueness of each of the islands and also the geo politics. The people work the land but they also have to run the islands as well.
Some of my favourite islands are those on the West Coast of Scotland and also the Scilly Islands. Life can be extreme to say the least but time spent on these islands changes you as a person. What really stands out for me is Barkham’s writing on natural history aspects of the islands and how species have developed away from the mainland.
I am keeping my fingers crossed that Patrick Barkham will make the longlist for the 2018 Wainwright Prize with this wonderful account of just a few of our islands dotted around Britain’s coastline.
Thank you Lamorna Elmer and Granta Books for the review copy of Islander by Patrick Barkham
Islander – A Journey Around Our Archipelago by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta Books and was published on 5th October 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson
The Dark Iceland Series of crime novels is one of the best series I have enjoyed. Now the master of Icelandic Crime Noir returns for the fifth instalment with Whiteout. I have praised the writing of Ragnar Jónasson in my previous reviews and now I am just word blind except to say if you have not yet read any of the series then you must have been locked in a freezer because Whiteout is just chilling to the bone. This is pure classic crime fiction.
Do not worry if you have not read any of the previous four in the series as they can be read as standalone books. But if you want to binge read over the festive period then I cannot recommend highly enough the writing of Jónasson, he manages to reach out to the reader in a way that I have not discovered in any other series of books.
Ari Thór is looking forward to spending Christmas with his pregnant girlfriend Kristin, but then the body of a young woman has been found at the foot of cliffs near a desolate village. Ari has been called in to assist with the case. Was this a case of suicide or something more sinister.
This is winter on Iceland so it bleak and the conditions are harsh and unforgiving. But This is an unexplained death and it needs to be investigated. Do not expect a thunderous pace to Whiteout as Jónasson has crafted this to be an old school detective novel and there is real pleasure to be had in reading, prepare for a few false leads along the way. Then it becomes apparent that this woman died in exactly the same place as her mother and sister. What made these three women from the same family take their own lives here. Or did they.
The desolation and isolation of this part of Iceland become apparent and add to this just who does Ari Thór trust in this case? So what are the characters involved hiding. You just know there are secrets being hidden away. Christmas is fast approaching and this a sad case and they want answers quickly and a resolution to the case. There is something about the village and its inhabitants, creepy and odd spring to mind yet they intrigued me. This is a book that will bring the reader in and hold them until you have reached the very final sentence. This is what makes this such a great read. Delivers on every level.
This is a crime novel par excellence it needs to be savoured like fine wine such is the brilliant writing of Ragnar Jónasson. This is a book that heralds winter reading a real fireside treat. Get comfortable with your favourite drink and prepare for a classic. Yes, I am an unashamed fan of Ragnar Jónasson’s writing and already looking forward to seeing what comes next. Whiteout is one of the best crime books of 2017. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Thank you to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the advanced review copy of Whiteout and to Anne Cater for arranging the blog tour.
Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson is published by and was published on 3rd August 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
BOOK GIVEAWAY PRIZE DRAW.
Today I am offering one lucky reader the chance to win a copy of Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson. Just head over to my Twitter page @thelastword1962 and follow and Retweet the pinned tweet that has my review of Whiteout. The draw will close at 7pm 1st December. Normal T&Cs apply.
How to follow the Whiteout Blog Tour.