Archive for the ‘Books of the Month’ Category

A few years back when I had a whole lot more time on my hands I used to compile a chart of the best short fiction I’d read during the year (as a reviewer, fellow writer, and avid reader). I kept this going for five years consecutively (you can read about all of them in this blog right here). But two young kids put paid to any ideas I’d do very much reading at all, and I thought ‘The Andy’s’ might have ended back in December 2013, when I published my last Top 20.

But all that changed as 2016 rolled into 2017 and I made a new year’s resolution (which wasn’t, as it possibly should have been, to drink less booze). I decided that by hook or by crook I’d read more this year.

Amazingly, I’ve followed through on this resolution throughout the year (whereas if I’d have said that about the booze I’d have fallen off the wagon halfway through the first week of January). And I’ve kept going and kept going…

NEW FOR 2017

This year’s chart is a little different from my previous charts. Back before kids I wanted to really talk up the short story. I had an ulterior motive for this: I wrote a lot of short stories myself and I wanted to see them, and their authors, getting a a little bit more credit than they usually did. But I’m not reviewing any more (yet), nor am I publishing as many short fictions as I used to and as such I don’t feel like I have my finger on the pulse of the short story scene. Therefore in 2017 I decided to concentrate on novels.

This year I’ve a grand total of 75 novels. Long and short. From all kinds of genres. Most of these books have been released in 2016 and 17, but there are some classics I’ve always wanted to read in there too… And here’s where it gets all kinds of anal – I’ve even put together this graph which shows my readingest months (December’s a bit light as you can see, but we’re not yet all the way through the month, are we?)

Graph

Anyway – (drumroll) – this is my TOP TWENTY:

  1. The Circle by Dave Eggers
  2. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
  3. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay
  4. The Three by Sarah Lotz
  5. The Long Home by William Gay
  6. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
  7. I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork
  8. The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory
  9. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  10. Nod by Adrian Barnes
  11. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
  12. Moonglow by Michael Chabon
  13. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  14. Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
  15. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen & Owen King
  16. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  17. Thin Air by Michelle Paver
  18. The Girls by Emma Cline
  19. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  20. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Honourable mentions to the other books I read this year: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist; Universal Harvester by John Darnielle; The Troop by Nick Cutter; The North Water by Ian McGuire; Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons; Bonfire by Krysten Ritter; Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre; Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto; Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri; The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena; The Fireman by Joe Hill; Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith; Ice Lake by John A Lenahan; Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal; Day Four by Sarah Lotz; My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni; Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton; The Wonder by Emma Donoghue; Stickleback by Mark Connors; The River at Night by Erica Ferencik; The Fourth Monkey by J.D. Barker; The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee; Black Water by Louise Doughty; Absolute Friends by John le Carre; Winter Moon by Dean Koontz; How to Stop Time by Matt Haig; The Searcher by Chris Morgan Jones; The Small Hand by Susan Hill; The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh; A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin; Into the Water by Paula Hawkins; Give me the Child by Mel McGrath; Night School by Lee Child; Stone Cold by David Baldacci; Zodiac by Sam Wilson; Baby Doll by Hollie Overton; The Murder Road by Stephen Booth; Shadowfires by Dean Koontz; Under the Knife by Tess Gerritsen; Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey; Find Her by Lisa Gardner; The Collector by Fiona Cummins; The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer; Pendulum by Adam Hamdy; The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz; Run by Mandasue Heller; Others by James Herbert; Under a Watchful Eye by Adam Nevill; Relics by Tim Lebbon; Crisis by Frank Gardner; The Breakdown by B A Paris; Strangers by David Moody; An Honest Deceit by Guy Mankowski.

 

 

 

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418rFzSU92L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_My April book of the month is the dark, muscular Kidney Punch by first-time author Andy Jacobi. The book was winner of the White House Press First Novel awards and it is an utterly original work. At times painfully moving, at times exhilarating, the prose is tightly wrought, the characters well drawn, and the fight scenes are breathtaking.

You can purchase Kidney Punch here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kidney-Punch-Andy-Jacobi-ebook/dp/B00JQ5RPEE/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397720995&sr=1-1&keywords=kidney+punch

Here’s the synopsis:

“Shane Jackett is a fighter, born and bred.
He’s had to fight for everything, all his life.
It is all he knows how to do.

But when his family is threatened to be torn apart for a second time, Shane faces a terrible choice.

Unflinching in its honesty, and often brutal in its outlook, ‘Kidney Punch’ is the story of Shane’s coming to terms with his own masculinity in a world where there are a severe lack of adequate role models.

It’s a story about men escaping from responsibility, through drinking, fighting, running away.

It’s about trying to do the right thing when things get so bad it is not even clear what the right thing is.

This is the first novel by North-West England-based author, ANDY JACOBI, and it is already garnering high-praise from critics.”

And here’s Andy Jacobi’s author bio:

“Literary life began at 40 for Andy Jacobi. They say everyone has a book in them, but until Andy had reached middle-age that was where he believed that book would be forced to remain.

A keen MMA fighter, and exponent of the martial arts, Andy had always thought his creativity resided in more physical pursuits. But then, injury forced him to retire from the fighting scene. And suddenly Andy itched to do something else… to write…

Andy served his writing apprenticeship at the Ravenscar Mount Writing School, where he penned a number of short fictions, some of which were published. Having graduated, he began work on his magnum opus, Kidney Punch.

The novel would eventually win White House Press’s inaugural First Novel Award.

Andy is now working on his second novel, provisionally entitled Dustbustin’.”

You can purchase Kidney Punch here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kidney-Punch-Andy-Jacobi-ebook/dp/B00JQ5RPEE/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397720995&sr=1-1&keywords=kidney+punch

police screenprintMy October Book of the Month is Police by Jo Nesbo. I’ve reviewed it for the New York Journal of Books here: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/police-harry-hole-novel

And here’s a brief excerpt:

“. . . the series’ crowning glory, its pinnacle achievement.”

Unless the author is highly original, unless the characters are interesting and engaging, unless the stories immediately hook the reader by the time a series of novels reaches its tenth installment it might have begun to seem stale. Formulaic. Samey.

By the same token, if the author is at the top of his or her game, if the characters still have the capacity to intrigue and confound expectation, if the stories don’t just hook the reader but club them on the head until they sit up and take notice, by the time a series of novels reaches its tenth installment, it might truly fly.

Police by Jo Nesbo is a case in point. This is the tenth in Nesbo’s Scandinavian noir crime fiction series featuring the inimitable detective Harry Hole. In the previous novels, Mr. Nesbo has already built one hell of a foundation and here he provides the series’ crowning glory, its pinnacle achievement.

This is, quite simply, a must-read book.

Rounding off my Books of the Month for September, I’m delighted to feature the gripping, and controversial Cartwheel, by Jennifer duBois. I’ve reviewed the novel for the New York Journal of Books here: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/cartwheel-novel

And here’s an excerpt from the review:

“. . . an astonishing, breathtaking, and harrowing read.”

It’s all about momentum with Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois.

The novel quickly hooks the reader into the narrative and then continues to hold our attention as we roll with it, as though on a downhill slope, heading inevitably, inexorably, toward its devastating conclusion. Cartwheel inspires a cartwheel of changing emotions in the reader as it introduces us to morally complex characters in terrifying situations that are often completely out of their control. It leaves our heads spinning.

Cartwheel tells the story of Lily Hayes, an American foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires. Lily is arrested by the Argentine police, accused of the murder of her fellow exchange student—and roommate—Katy. The narrative is prefaced with an admission: “Although the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, this is entirely a work of fiction.”

duBois Screenshot

My second Book of the Month is Julian Barnes startling and incredibly moving book, Levels of Life. You can read my full review of the text here, on the New York Journal of Books website: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/levels-life

And here’s a brief excerpt:

“Levels of Life is heartfelt and raw . . . angry . . . witty . . . always memorable.”

“You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.”

Levels of Life is a poignant, extended metaphor of a “story,” by the “uxorious” Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.

Set in three, distinct acts, which at first seem wholly separate—the first act is a historical piece regarding the “balloonatics,” “the new Argonauts,” who engaged in hot air ballooning in 19th century Europe; the second homes in on a (doomed) romance between one of the principal “balloonatics” and the actress Sarah Bernardt; and the third is a moving elegy to Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008—but which together eventually come to form a “nice pattern” of a narrative.

Read more of my reviews for the New York Journal of Books here: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/j-kirby

Screenshot Barnes Review

 

Jane Cover‘Jane (The Warriors of Love)’ by P.F. Jeffery

 Product Details

  • Paperback: 436 pages
  • Publisher: Chomu Press; 3rd edition (15 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907681221
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907681226

Link to purchase on Amazon – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-The-Warriors-Love-Jeffery/dp/1907681221

The Review

It had been on life-support for some time. Comatose. A little over a week ago, they turned the machine off. It flat-lined. There wasn’t so much a death’s rattle as a gentle passing over into that good night.

Patriarchy was declared dead by the author Hanna Rosin. You can read all about it in a critical article (not an obituary) written by Lola Okolosie and published by The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/17/patriarchy-hanna-rosin

Taking this premise “thousands of years in the future”, P.F. Jeffrey’s Jane focuses on the continuing division between the sexes. By now it has become “entrenched, turning to warfare.”

Most of you will have heard of the famous feminist slogan – attributed to Gloria Steinem – suggesting that men are superfluous to women’s needs: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Perhaps you’ll know it from the Guinness advert from a few years back. In Jane, “The future is female. (…) Males have become unnecessary…”

“Many technologies are lost and much history forgotten, but gynogenesis (by which two women may have a child) is becoming the scientific foundation for the Empire of Her Majesty, Berenice I.”

Jane is, then, a true origin story. It is a narrative which explores the growth of matriarchal society. It is a work of towering imagination, staggering wit and vital energy. After a relatively slow start, the narrative positively crackles with energy, most of which seems to stem from the vitality of our narrator and protagonist, Jane Brewster.

Unfolding “amidst the haunted marshes of outlying Essex, the routine and romance of homes and offices in the Surrey heartland, and the crumbling feudal heritage of Lundin town, the action unfolds like the panorama from a stagecoach window”, Jane offers the reader more than a glimpse of Jeffery’s carefully constructed new world.

“Jane is a sixteen-year-old civil servant under Her Majesty. Sent to audit the spoils of battle, she falls for Captain Modesty Clay, precipitating a maelstrom of events that force her to grow up fast, and in which she catches the eye of the Empress herself.”

It is a coming of age tale, a tale of the journey from innocence to experience. Initially naïve, Jane’s intellect – both social and academic – grows the more she is exposed to the different strata of society in this new world. She is Jeffery’s version of Frodo and Sam, setting out into the unknown, eyes wide open. She is C3PO and R2D2 all rolled into one.

At first Jane is wide-eyed: “It was the first time I’d seen men girt for war. For a moment, the sight struck me as more unnatural than alarming, as though beasts should engage in human activity.” (Which subtly recalls Steinem’s fish and bicycle quote). Like many girls her age, she has been reared on “too many Jacqui Blood stories.” (For Jacqui Blood read  that other famous literary JB, James Bond)

But eventually her character undergoes change: “My journey, as explained in these pages, has taken me from homesick girlhood to becoming a young woman setting out on life’s greatest undertaking – although not doing so without trepidation.” (That origin story again).

Jeffery’s world-building is well done. The text is full of neat touches like the real/ imagined place names (Lundin etc.), the songs and the threatre, and the new names for days of the week, months: “Briday evening”, “Selday morning”, “the fifteenth of Swellbelly”. There is a real, believable empire, culture, literature, economy here. God – the traditional idea of Him at least – is dead. Now He is simply an “Old Time godling”.

Not only is God dead, but Jeffery also shows us women destroying the old signifiers of patriarchy in Lundin (including throwing rocks at portraits of men who formerly occupied positions of authority, one of whom, Cornelius Lock, seems to resemble Cromwell). This is the overthrow, the sacking, of previous ways of doing things, of running the world. Jeffery draws interesting parallels between women and slaves (both of whom were seen in patriarchal society as not much more than “semi-intelligent domestic animals”). This is some slave’s revolt.

This is a move towards a new world order. Towards “the essential matriarch code (…) emphasized modesty amongst other virtues.” Not everything is perfect. There remain stark class distinctions. But Jeffery shows us a more sensory/ sensual world. Each chapter begins with an appeal to all of our readerly senses: “Bright sunlight, warm on my bare arms, shone from a blue sky flecked with white wispy clouds. Geese, bustling through the marshes in huge numbers, filled the air with a honing cacophony. The taste of a typical camp breakfast lingered in my mouth – sausages, eggs and mushrooms. A plume of steam rose from the mug of sweetened rosehip tea, cradled in my hands. Its honeyed scent teased my nose.”

Jane is a very visceral read. It is subtitled ‘The Warriors of Love’ and there is a great deal of sex (and Games of Thronesian sexploitation) here which Jeffery doesn’t exactly shy away from (I’ll never look at a cream cake in the same way). Jeffery, in an authorial note which concludes the text writes: “There were certainly downsides to 1950s England, in which I grew up. That said, some of the significant improvements since then affect adults, rather than children – notably relaxations in censorship and in the control of sexual behaviour.”

Jeffery yearns for the 1950s in the text. “On balance, 1950s England was a good time and place to be a child. In fact, I feel sorry for twenty-first century children. Our parents sent us out to play, allowing us extraordinary freedom. And there were such places to play – wasteland of kinds one no longer sees. There were, of course, bomb sites – but I think that my favourite playground had been used, in some way, by the British military, and then abandoned.” The author’s future world looks a lot like a nostalgic older world. Technology, as we have seen – gynogenesis apart – has disappeared. It’s a back to basics world.

Jeffery’s created world then, is wildly different from ours. But there are interesting meeting points. Jeffery refers to a Credit Crunch, for example, and debt collection companies. Ultimately though, as is noted in the speech of one of the characters: “The world is a stranger and more complicated place than you imagine. And the human heart is about the strangest and most complicated place of all.”

And Jeffery is most powerful when writing about the human heart, through the protagonist Jane. I mentioned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland earlier. In Jeffery’s explanatory notes, the author admits this was a favourite book in childhood. “Writing this, I’m irresistibly reminded of the Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s answers:

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

Jeffery shows us a human heart which is changeable, which is fragile, which is sometimes false, but one which beats positive and true.

Though at times Jane was a difficult read, at its own heart this is a brilliantly original and bold text, which stands apart. Recalling, by turn, the postapocalyptic south England of Will Self’s Book of Dave, the ‘into the rabbit-hole fantasy of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the futuristic vision of Margaret Atwood, Jane is a book which provokes thought, inspires discussion, and most of all, deserves to be read.

My second book of the month for August is Significant Others by Marilyn Baron (who will be appearing on this blog in a guest-writer capacity soon). Below is my review of her fantastic new romance offering. Should the review prove persuasive, you can purchase a copy from here: http://www.amazon.com/Significant-Others-ebook/dp/B00E6EI9MC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377269914&sr=8-1&keywords=Significant+Others+Marilyn+Baron

Significant Others CoverSignificant Others, by Marilyn Baron

Marilyn Baron’s compelling new novel is a grandstanding celebration of love in all its forms. Here, there is enough love for everyone, no matter how old they are, no matter how much they’ve given up on discovering love, a special one, for themselves. The plotting is intricate, the characters are engaging, the dialogue sparkling and witty. Indeed, after completing the novel, my first impression was that the book had something of the Shakespearean romance about it. Here we have an old love lost and found; we have miraculous twists of fate; we have sinister forces trying to stop love – the Seniors Against Sin. We have confusion and mixed motivations – those carefully managed plot twists I mentioned above – but, as in the best Shakespearean romances, all is resolved at the end.

In essence, this is a love story saga which spans three generations of the same family. We meet the matriarch, Dee Dee Palladino, who, on the anniversary of her husband’s death discovers a ‘Jesus Tree’ (in the manner that some people see Moses in a slice of toast) in the bark of a tree in her retirement village in Florida. Honey, her “workaholic” daughter (though she won’t admit it) hears of Dee Dee’s discovery and travels out from Atlanta, worried her mom might be ‘losing it’. Honey’s marriage is on the rocks: she suspects her husband Marc of conducting a sordid affair with his temp, and indeed, discovers what she believes to be the photographic proof. Then, finally, there is Honey’s daughter, Hannah. Hannah is a 21-year-old student. She is in a relationship with a Mormon boy (though his Facebook relationship status doesn’t confirm this) with commitment issues.

The main players are ably supported by a colourful supporting cast including Dee Dee’s sister Helene; Dee Dee’s son (and Honey’s half-brother) Donny, a baseball star, and Daniel, a mysterious, tall, dark and handsome stranger whose presence snags with something in Dee Dee’s memory. Has she, perhaps, met Daniel before? Is he, maybe, some blast from the past who can help restore order to her life?

There are plenty of family problems to overcome within the narrative, not least of which is the fact that the family business – real estate – has been lined up to be sold. They are on a deadline. But Honey loves working for the real estate company. It is her life. Dee Dee, by contrast, wants to sell the company because she wants a life.

This is a subtly magnificent read. It is poignant at times – witness the war letters; funny – Honey’s sardonic wit allows the reader a unique perspective on events – I particularly enjoyed her discussions with her best friend Vicky, she of the nightmare boss who has her de-seeding grapes for her; discursive – it positions itself well to discuss issues such as work-life balance, for example; even postmodern at times – the story offers a twist on the fairy tale – at one point Honey rescues a frog from a swimming pool, and thinks about kissing it to awaken her handsome prince.

But the main idea it posits is the fact there is a significant other for all of us, no matter how old we are. As long as we give love a chance. As long as we don’t drown it – muffle it out with all the bleeps and ringtones of modern life (Baron is excellent on Honey’s addiction to her BlackBerry). As long as we are prepared to put ourselves on the line for it.