Sunday, 17 December 2017

My Top 25 Books of 2017

I took a long time choosing my favourite 25 out of the just over 100 books I have read this year (not all reviewed on this blog).  Please click the title of the book for my review, which contains Amazon and Goodreads links.  The ratings given to my chosen books range from 4.5* to my rarely given 5 GOLD stars; all come highly recommended.   One writer shows up twice, another four times.

Historical Fiction: 10
General contemporary/psychological drama: 6
Thriller: 4
Travel/Memoir/0ther non-fiction: 4
Zombie Apocalypse: 1

Numbers 25-11 are in no particular order.....

Everlasting by Jo Carroll 
Travel Memoir ~ Malawi

A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow
Early 20th century family drama

Twisted Memories by Kate L Mary
Zombie Apocalypse

Victims by Joel Hames

The Most Dangerous Enemy by Gemma Lawrence 
Book 3 of the Elizabeth of England Chronicles, about Elizabeth 1

Lad by Andrew Webber
Lad Lit

The North Water by Ian McGuire
19th century thriller

Fully Loaded by Blake Crouch
Short stories, mostly crime/thriller

Lion by Saroo Brierley
Memoir, family adventure/drama

Gone: Catastrophe in Paradise by O J Modjeska 
True life 1970s air disaster account

The Heart of the Conqueror by Gemma Lawrence 
Saxon/Norman historical fiction

The King's Mother by Judith Arnopp
Book 3 of The Beaufort Chronicles, about Margaret Beaufort

Faring to France on a Shoe by Val Poore
Travel Memoir

Whispers in the Alders by H A Callum
Coming of Age Drama 

A Tincture of Secrets and Lies by William Savage
18th Century Murder Mystery

 ~ The Top Ten Countdown ~

Shining brightly at Number Ten...

A Shiny Coin for Carol Prentice by Mark Barry
Contemporary revenge drama

Psychologically fascinating at Number Nine:

The Unravelling of Brendan Meeks by Brian Cohn
Contemporary psychological drama

Pleasing enough to reach Number Eight:

Pleasing Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift
Based on fact, 17th century drama/mystery.

A modest, unassuming Number Seven:

The Beaufort Woman by Judith Arnopp
Book 2 of The Beaufort Chronicles, about Margaret Beaufort 

Silently cycling along to Number Six:

The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat
Dark 1970s Australian family drama.

First of my Top Five books of 2017 ~ at Number Five:

Strands of My Winding Cloth by Gemma Lawrence
Book 4 of the Elizabeth of England Chronicles, about Elizabeth I.

An outstanding debut at Number Four:

The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J Gyle by J D Dixon
Dark drama about a homeless man in Scotland.

Bronze medal: a wonderfully wicked Number Three

Wonders & Wickedness by Carol Hedges
Victorian Murder Mystery

A thrilling silver medallist at Number Two:

Jonah by Carl Rackman
WW2 Naval Thriller

And.... my Number One book of 2017....

Above All Others by Gemma Lawrence
Book 3 of The Lady Anne series, about Anne Boleyn

Thank you, wonderful authors, for many happy hours of reading ~ putting this list together was hard, as there were some I wanted to include that didn't quite make the final cut.  All my reviews have 'labels' at the end, showing author, genre, star rating, etc, and these can be clicked on to find other, similar books.  I hope you will give some of my Top 25 a try.  And if you like them, don't forget to stick a few words on Amazon to say so!

Saturday, 16 December 2017

THE KING'S MOTHER by Judith Arnopp @JudithArnopp

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  I'd read the first two parts in this trilogy, and had been looking forward to the last, to the extent that I'd made a note on my calendar of its release date.

Review: The Beaufort Woman with a link to the review for The Beaufort Bride.

Genre: Historical fiction.

'All England for her death had cause of weeping'

Margaret Beaufort is one of my favourite women of history.  Being known not for her beauty or charm but for her piety and single-minded dedication to the fortunes of her son, Henry VII, she is often overlooked as an historical heroine.  I give a round of applause to this exploration of her character in Judith Arnopp's trilogy.

The King's Mother covers the period of her life when her beloved Henry had become king, and travels through the triumphs, the threats to the security of the new Tudor reign, the births of her grandchildren, and the deaths.  All the deaths.  It's always a challenge to write a historical novel from this time from the point of view of a woman, because the reader does not get to see the battles and other decisive moments that fill the history books; mostly, women were excluded from these.  But Ms Arnopp works around this masterfully, and I was engrossed in this book all the way through, completely absorbed in Margaret's life.

There are some lovely passages; as she gets older, she reflects on her life.  On her marriage to Henry Stafford: ' the time I had not known I was happy.  Perhaps happiness is a feeling that can only be enjoyed in retrospect'

Also: 'As I grow older I realise our lives are nothing but a collection of memories, flawed recollections of a time and place that will never come again.  Once life is extinguished ... we become nothing more than an imperfect jumble of half-recollected stories in the minds of our children'.

I enjoyed how fact was so seamlessly merged with the author's imagination; especially entertaining were the prophetic scenes featuring Henry VIII as a child. From a midwife, when he is less than one hour old: '..with a temper like that, if he is not given what he wants, he will stop at nothing until he gets it'.  And, later, Henry himself saying that he wanted to be a king not like his father, but like his grandfather; of course, he would come to make the lusty, ebullient Edward IV look positively abstemious.  I also liked Margaret's mention of a certain adventurer called Mr Cabot who had gone in search of new lands and had no idea of what awaited him...!

Played by Amanda Hale in BBC's The White Queen

For all Margaret's good intentions, Ms Arnopp shows us well how far removed the aristocracy and nobility were from the common man, and how Henry VII gained a reputation for miserliness, with his insistence on heavy taxes that meant extreme poverty for some.  Margaret says: 'The people grumble against us.  I fail to understand why they cannot see it is for the good of England.'  Yet Arnopp shows Margaret as an extraordinarily strong but modest and contemplative woman who acknowledges her own faults, and, in later life, gives much to one of her favourite causes: education.

There are a few punctuation and editing errors that were a mild irritation (including my pet 'grrrr': the use of the word 'I', as in 'Henry and I', in instances when it should be 'Henry and me'), but I am sure they would not bother many readers as they did me, and I still have no hesitation in giving this book 5 stars, which I give neither lightly nor frequently. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend the whole trilogy most highly.

Margaret's tomb in the Henry VII Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey

Monday, 11 December 2017

CHERGUI'S CHILD by Jane Riddell

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Family/relationship drama, with themes of extramarial affairs, pregnancy, death, eating disorder.

Chergui's Child is the story of Olivia, whose aunt has just died; to her surprise, she is left a large amount of money in the will.  Olivia is a troubled woman; her relationship with her mother is difficult, to put it mildly, and she has an eating disorder.  Early in the book, she receives a letter that reveals a startling revelation; this sends her on a life-changing journey.

The novel alternates between her present dilemmas, which include her mother contesting the money left by the aunt, and the past, when she was a medical student having an affair with her tutor, Richie, whose wife had her own problems.  I'm a fan of this structure, and in this case the slow building up of the past-that-led-to-the-present made it much more interesting than just a straight story.

Olivia travels to France and to Gibraltar as more revelations provide missing pieces in her life's jigsaw.  Generally, the family dynamics of all characters involved are well drawn.  I did think that, generally, there was too much domestic/conversational minutiae that was not needed for the plot, and slowed it down.  Some of the characters came alive to me (Martin, Richie, Dorothy and Roz), some didn't; alas, for me, Olivia fell in the latter group.  The only emotion I felt towards her was slight irritation at her naïveté; she didn't understand that age-old cliché and truth of the mistress of a married man: that once you become problematic or needy you no longer supply the romantic fantasy, and are, thus, dispensible.  Mostly, I felt no connection with her.

I was a little unsure about the feasibility of some elements: Olivia is told about her inheritance by her own solicitor two days later after her aunt dies, and the funeral is the next day.  In my experience, it takes a couple of days even for the death certificate to come through, funerals take far longer than that to arrange, and I would have thought that Olivia's solicitor would have had to wait for instruction from executors, etc.  Also, in the flashback chapters, a tragic death takes place in Morocco that is central to the plot, but, again, I was unconvinced by some practicalities, and also the subsequent reactions of the character involved.

I liked many parts of this novel, but on the whole, for me, it lacked a spark that would have made it memorable.  But the writing flows well, and I am sure readers who like easy-read, emotional family dramas would enjoy it.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

ON THE EDGE OF A RAINDROP by Sarah Brentyn @SarahBrentyn

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  I noticed it was on free promotion, via a tweet.

Genre: Flash and micro fiction, psychological

This collection of pieces was a good choice to read when I woke up today; just right for an hour in bed on Sunday morning.

From the blurb:

These are stories of lives on the edge.

A girl tortured by the world within her. A boy powerless to escape his home. A mother doomed to live with her greatest mistake. A man lost in a maze of grief.

Each raindrop provides a microscopic mirror of ourselves and those around us. But we can’t always trust what we see. The distorted images disorientate the mind, altering our view of reality.

(Please note: I had to change 'disorient' to 'disorientate', because I am English!)

I think I liked the first section, Mindscapes, the best; there are some beautiful and haunting snapshots of subjects' lives, perfectly written and evocative. The metaphors used are well chosen, without over-playing them.  All pieces are on the dark side, which I like. 

As with all collections I had my favourites, but I liked all of them.  Sometimes, I could see a whole life in a paragraph, so insightful and artfully captured are they. I think the collection would be enjoyed by anyone who likes to read poetry, or just admires the well drawn sentence.  It's the first I've read of Sarah Brentyn, and I'd most definitely recommend.  99p or available on Kindle Unlimited.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

THE CHRISTMAS GHOSTS by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book and why I chose it: I have read every single other book by Gemma Lawrence, and have recently rediscovered the appeal of short stories for when you don't have the headspace/time for starting a whole novel!

Genre: Christmas short stories.

This is a collection of five long short stories, all very different. My favourites are Hot Toddy, a beautiful story about a woman of nearly eighty who is visited by someone she loves very much, and the last one, The Christmas Ghosts itself, which is about a young woman who earns money by house-sitting for the wealthy, whilst trying to put together her first novel.  I liked this one because her life appealed to me; the solitude in the lovely house, the beautiful surroundings, the hours and hours of uninterrupted time to write.  I was amused by her rather childlike debut novelist fancies and fantasies, and nodded my head a few times about the difficulty she has in getting her friends and family to take what she is doing seriously.  Oh yes, and the Christmas ghosts themselves.  I can't tell you about them, because that would give away the story, but it's a lovely idea, and something I would adore; a view into the past.

I've only read historical fiction by this author, so it was interesting to see how she fared with contemporary stories, but I am happy to report that, yes, she can do this, too!  Another thing I liked about this collection was that it is not twee or 'heartwarming', as some Christmas stories can be; one of the ghosts is a mangled animal, and another wears a Nirvana hoodie. 😄

Monday, 27 November 2017

A SMALLER COUNTRY by Phillip Tennison

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse.  I downloaded it on Kindle Unlimited.

Genre: Post apocalyptic, Australia.

I fancied a nice end-of-world survival scenario to read, and this was the third I tried of those I've downloaded recently.   The others had the super-duper professional, currently apt covers for the genre, but what was inside didn't live up to them.  This one, with the quieter, more simple cover, kept me reading.

At first I thought it was a novel by someone who just wanted to write all he knows about guns.  There are a LOT of guns in this, and to be frank I skimmed much of the weapons detail because it doesn't interest me and wasn't always needed for the story.  The book starts when John Timms, ex-cop survivalist and hero of the story is some way into life post-virus.  I was disappointed that the whole build-up to the virus and what happened during was dealt with in a matter of two pages, and in the briefest newspaper-style reporting; I nearly abandoned at that point.  But I didn't, and started to realise that the matter-of-fact, spare style of writing suited the mood of the book.  People have lost everything, and are just trying to survive.  Sometimes terrible things happen, and they're numb to them.  

As is usual in 'road trip' stories of this genre, John is trying to get to a place of perceived safety, and meets up with others; in this case, his early companions happen to be two very fit female soldiers; well, the author is male!  But, generally, it's not over-dramatised or Hollywoodised.  A lot of their troubles come from Indonesians, who have paid their life savings to sharks for a passage to Aus, having been told that it's safe there.  The factual detail about survival techniques is clearly well researched and was of interest to me, though I was a bit 'hmm' about where all the fuel came from.  The characters work; the author clearly has that thing-you-can't-learn, ie, being able to write three dimensional characters with very little description.  The one that kept me reading was Rosie, a big, tattooed, hooch-distilling farm guy who feels suited to the new world; he said he wasn't a very good farmer but made a great caveman, or words to that effect. 

The other downside to the book was the punctuation; whoever proofread it needs to learn about vocative commas, as they're aren't any ("What are you doing Abi?" "John can you chuck me a towel?" "I know what you mean Sam").  But it's pretty good.  If you like books of this genre in which the factual stuff seems real, and the characters don't act like King Ezekiel, pre-Saviours slaughter, you'll probably like it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

RIDING SHOTGUN and other American Cruelties by Andy Rausch

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member. 

Genre: crime, murder, dark humour

This is a collection of three novellas, and I enjoyed them all.  I really liked Andy Rausch's writing style, it's right up my street; very current, intelligently witty, sharp and observant.  

The first one is Easy-Peezy, set in 1920/30s America, about Emmet Dalton, a former bank robber of the late 19th century who has hung up his boots and holster, but longs to show young guns like John Dillinger how it's done.  He teams up with a couple of others from the same era and sets off for one last crime spree.  On its own, I'd have given this 4*.

The second, Riding Shotgun, is about a writer who find himself involved in a life of crime after his wife is killed.  I liked this one slightly less, as at times 'darkly humorous' crossed the border into 'just daft', although it was still well-written.  3*.  

The last story, $crilla, is easily the best, I loved it.  Almost totally dialogue, and hilarious, easily 5*.  Two unsuccessful gangsta rappers hatch a plot to extort money from their reluctant producer.  

The language, particularly in the last one, would not suit anyone who finds authentic street talk offensive; if you don't, and can appreciate how well-observed it is, you'll love it.  I felt the influence of certain TV shows and films, throughout, even in some specific lines, but I quite liked that about it.  It's a good collection, professionally presented, and worth getting for the last one alone.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

FOR THE LOVE OF A CHILD by Jenny Twist @JennyTwist1

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read quite a few of Jenny Twist's short stories and novellas before, and liked them.

Genre: Short stories, miscellaneous drama.

These five stories are grouped together under the loose theme of mother love, and they are all very different.  Two are flash fiction, one page long each, and I liked both of those.  The others are long-short stories.  The middle one is an amusing fantasy about the possible existence of fairyland (note for author: I liked the last paragraph very much).  The last is the best one, I think, a piece of romantic suspense with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War; I particularly liked the authenticity of the setting.  The first is about a 1960s mother and baby home, which I was slightly less keen on, as I kept expecting a dark twist that never came.  I am not, of course, criticising the author because she didn't write the story I wanted to read; this is just personal taste, and I am sure many would prefer the more promising outcome.

It's a nice collection for a couple of undemanding hours' reading.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

JONAH by Carl Rackman @CarlRackman

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  I read the author's debut novel, Irex, after chatting to him on Twitter, and thought it was very good indeed, hence the purchase of this one!

Genre: WW2 Naval Thriller 

This book is stunningly good.  I finished it in the early hours of this morning when my eyes were tired and I wanted to go to sleep, because I had to know what happened. 

The blurb (extract):

The North Atlantic, 1940. A British destroyer pounces on a seemingly abandoned U-boat, leading to a spine-chilling encounter.  Five years later, the US Navy destroyer Brownlee grimly prepares to battle a swarm of Japanese kamikazes at Okinawa.

Mitch “Lucky” Kirkham, a young gunner on the Brownlee, wakes up miraculously unscathed after his crewmates are killed in a fearsome kamikaze strike.

Bullied and resented amid accusations of cowardice and worse, Mitch re-boards his patched-up ship for the long voyage back to San Francisco. All he wants is to go home.

But far out in the boundless emptiness of the Pacific, a strange madness begins to seize the sailors on the Brownlee. Terror, hysteria and suicide torment the men amid sightings of ghosts and a terrifying monster that stalks the ship by night.

Jonah ticks every single box.  It's exceptionally well written, interspersed with tales from members of the crew from before the war, relevant to the plot (love little flashbacks like this!).  It's meticulously researched, completely convincing, but Rackman hasn't fallen into the amateur's trap of explaining naval terms to the layman; it is assumed that the reader will gather what they mean, sooner or later, and I did.  There's a glossary at the back, if you need it.

The story is utterly gripping and unpredictable, the sense of menace builds up at just the right pace, and even by the last chapter I had no idea of the outcome (and, indeed, thought it would go another way).  The characterisation is well defined, the dialogue spot on, and it's edited, proofread and formatted to the best of traditional publishing standards.

It's really, really, really good.  You should download it.  Immediately.  Definitely one of the best five books I've read this year.  

Friday, 10 November 2017

ALL THE TOMORROWS by Nillu Nasser @nillunasser

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member. 

Genre: Romantic suspense, family drama.

Set in Bombay, the novel starts when Jaya, one year into an arranged marriage, discovers that her idealist, undemonstrative husband, Akash, has a lover.  Criticised by her parents and feeling uncared for, her torment results in a truly shocking action, so stomach-turning I wondered if I could actually carry on reading the book.  Brave of the writer to include it, and that I reacted so strongly shows that it was well-written; I did continue, anyway.

Akash is knocked sideways by Jaya's extreme reaction, and his life takes a swift, sharp turn downwards.  In short, this novel is about a falling apart and slow coming together... several of them.

The first twenty per cent is about Jaya and Akash's younger years and the immediate fall-out of 'the event', after which we are moved swiftly on by being told that 'the years sped by', and suddenly it's twenty years later, when we find out how the characters' lives have fared in the interim, and what happens when they collide once more.

Nillu Nasser is a talented writer, without a doubt.  One of the reasons I chose this is because I like to read about other cultures, and this book taught me stuff I didn't know, so that's a tick from me.  Her storytelling ability held my interest, which is good for another big shiny red tick.  On occasion the dialogue felt a little stilted, or a teensy bit Hollywood, and she fell into the debut novelist trap of using dialogue to impart information to the reader rather than keeping it realistic, but I'll cut her some slack with this; it was not constant, and, as I said, it's a debut novel, and a good one (nb, this is not her first published work, but her first published novel).  Her characterisation was good; Jaya, her sister Ruhi, and their mother, were real, as were Akash, his friend, Tariq, and his lover, Soraya; Ms Nasser writes them all in clear definition, and even the secondary characters were completely convincing ~ another big tick!

I was, however, less sure about the pacing and structure.  With the younger lives of Akash and Jaya taking up only around the first fifth of the book, I was given little time to care that much about what happened to them before suddenly they were older, and little had gone on in the intervening twenty years except more of the same.  How much more effective it would have been to have cut the line about speeding years, and have a couple of interim chapters showing their lives after five, ten or fifteen years, too.  Akash tells Soraya all he has suffered in those years, but I wanted to see it, not just read it in a spoken report.  I loathe clichés, not least of all book reviewing ones, and you can't play out every scene or the book would be a thousand pages long, but in this case I needed to be shown, not told.  For me (and a review is only ever a personal opinion), a slow build up could have turned this 4* book into a 5* one. 

As the rest of the story unravels, Ms Nasser continues to write with authenticity, care and sensitivity, and I'd say that if you like emotional family dramas, you'll love this.