My 19 best books of 2019

I’m stuffed on turkey, sleepy after all the excitement of Christmas and ready to try and snooze and eat my way into oblivion over the next couple of weeks of holidays; so of course my thoughts turn to lying under a duvet with books and what to read next. Before I jump into my TBR pile for 2020 though I’m doing the obligatory, ultra-cool, totally-not-overdone round up of my reading year.

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The cart of joy!

This is not a round up of best books which have been published this year; although some of them have been. I can’t even dream of writing that post because I haven’t managed to read everything that’s been published this year (I’m such a slacker.)

Instead this is a list of the best books I’ve read. Some of them are years old and I’m waaay late to the party. Some of them were released this year and as my first flush of enthusiasm fades I may scale back my gushiness. But all of them I’ve raved about to people, bought as presents for people, foisted them on people even as they insist they’re not looking for anything to read (annoying I know. It’s a flaw, but a useful one as a book blogger!) and generally not shut up about. I really would recommend you track these down and give them a shot.

Unlike my usual monthly round ups I’ve not listed these in order of preference but instead tried to group them as genre, and I’ve not critiqued them (you can look back at round-ups if you really want to, but they’re all five stars, high four stars at a stretch). My last caveat is that these are the absolute tops of what I’ve read but I’ve read loads and loads of other excellent stuff, I just couldn’t include it all.

What have been your books of the year? Have you read any of these and did you like them?

Non-Fiction

When they call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele, Angela Y.Davis

The tale of the birth of a movement, When They Call You a Terrorist details the horrifying and very personal account of what led Khan-Cullors to help found the Black Lives Matter movement. From the start it makes it clear why the movement was, and is, so vital and essential for Black People around the world as they campaign to be able to feel safe in their day to day lives. For those of us who have the privilege of not facing this level of aggression and oppression in the smallest of our interactions, and who can call for help without fear of repercussions, this is truly eye opening and terrifying. But shows how that fear was utilised by a group of women who believe a better future for them and their families is possible.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

20190411_085121.jpgStepping inside a library for the first time in years, Orlean’s interest was peaked and she began an investigation into the inner life of the Los Angeles Public Library which had suffered a catastrophic fire. Part history lesson, part sociology study, it’s hard to describe how compelling a tale this is. If you thought librarians were society’s heroes before this will just solidify that opinion. And it’ll remind you of the full extent to which a library is a vital part of every community.

Young Adult Fiction

The Burning by Laura Bates

Absolutely everyone who is and ever was and has anything to do with teenagers must read this, a novel which brings the realities and dangers of life growing up with social media into sharp relief. Anna and her mother have escaped from a past to a new school, new job and a new life in rural Scotland. But as Anna tries to rebuild her life and her trust in people, her past is looking to track her down. All the while she is undertaking a project on a young girl, Maggie, who used to live in her house a few hundred years previously and was burned as a witch. The similarities between Maggie and Anna’s persecutions are horribly real, all that’s changed is the methods with which they are enacted.

Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers20190521_183953 (1)

Sonny and Daughter are two 15 year old boys trying to survive in their fourth year when their one and only favourite teacher vanishes mysteriously. Of course they can’t let this lie, how will they possibly pass National 5 maths without Miss Baird to help them out? So off the boys set to find out where she is and when she’s coming back. What they discover is a web of gossip, intrigue and murder that they were entirely unprepared for, but handle with wit and a twinkle in their eye. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long long time and really will have you laughing from page 1, but it’s also full of heart and warmth and kindness.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Star is a teenager from a mostly black neighbourhood who goes to a mostly white private school. As such she feels she is having to live two different lives and regularly switch between two different versions of herself in order to fit in to both her worlds. She begins to question this when for the second time in her life she sees a close friend shot and killed in front of her. This time by the Police. While trying to process her trauma she gets caught up in both the activism from her home town and the subtle and not so subtle racism from her school life, all while trying to come to terms with the duality of her existence. It’s a harrowing read about experiences that far too many children are having to traverse.

Toffee by Sarah Crossman

Toffee is the intergenerational tale of a friendship between a runaway who is emotionally lost; Allison and a woman with dementia; Marla. They are two lost souls who find a home in each other. After Allison is mistaken by Marla as Toffee, she decides to take advantage of that in order to get a warm bed and maybe survive another night. What develops is a friendship that allows Allison to begin to heal and Marla to regain some of the dignity and passion that have been stripped from her. Toffee is written in beautiful lyrical verse and yet contains miles of emotion and some of the best of humanity.

Historical Fiction

The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes

The Giver of Stars will either be heartwarming or Twee depending on your viewpoint. It follows the story of 5 women who establish and run a horseback library based in remote hills of Kentucky. As well as showing the different acts of heroism stemming from the librarians, it shows them as they navigate their way through small-town politics and dead marriages to find true friendship in each other. It was a real passion project for Moyes based on a photo of the real-life horseback library and I adored it.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing.jpgTwo half sisters who have never met, Effia and Esi, end up leading very different lives, with Effia marrying James Collings the British Governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle and Esi being taken prisoner in the dungeons of the same castle. What follows is an epic sprawling inter-generational tale following the two family lines as the face racism, prejudice and superstition at home and abroad. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the family. It’s heartbreaking and harrowing and captivating and utterly unputdownable.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Bridie Devine is a Victorian era detective, interested in figuring out how things work and helping people that most would overlook. Having risen from an Irish Street rat to a doctor’s apprentice and now an independent woman who advocates for the less privileged, Bridie’s reputation is still recovering from her last case. Which is why a Baron with something…fishy to hide feels confident that she’ll keep his case confidential. So Bridie and her 7 foot tall ferocious maid, Cora get drafted in to find Christabel Berwick; a missing child that no one was supposed to know even existed, and who has a little air of Kirstin Dunst’s “butter wouldn’t melt/oh so vicious” character from Interview with a Vampire about her. Oh and Bridie absolutely doesn’t believe in anything inexplainable or supernatural. She DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in ghosts, and definitely isn’t developing feelings for the really handsome half dressed spectre from her past who just so happens to be following her everywhere.
What Jess Kidd has produced here is a book full of warmth, heart and genuinely hilarious quirks.

Fantasy

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

800 pages of queens and prophecies and dragons, and secret agents, and love. I have heard many many people say that the size of the book intimidated them, but the story flows so naturally, the characters are so compelling and the adventure so careering that you will never notice the length of this book, and will likely grieve when it does end. It’s phenomenal and does so without having to lean on gratuitous violence or misogyny. Ead and Sabran’s blossoming relationship is one for the ages.

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Mia was born into a highborn family, with a life of wealth and privilege and a warm and loving family. However her father attempts a failed rebellion, he is summarily executed and her family imprisoned. With the help of her rage and a shadowy familiar named Mr Kindly Mia manages to escape and finds herself seeking out The Red Church, in order to graduate as an elite assassin called a Blade and exact her revenge on those that destroyed her family.

From page one this is engrossing, and brutal and unforgiving and utterly addictive.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Upon returning home for a funeral, the narrator starts to remember strange events which occurred 40 years earlier, including a malevolent spirit and the mysterious girl next door who offers to help him bind it. It’s impossible to describe what follows without giving too much away but it’s haunting and universally awestriking. And weird. But beautiful. This is the book that has ignited m love for Gaiman’s writing.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Vasya is the youngest daughter of a rural Russian Boyar named Pyotr, thought both cursed and gifted. Her birth led to her beloved mother’s death but she also wieldsthe-bear-and-the-nightingale.jpg extraordinary powers inherited from her maternal grandmother – including the ability to speak to spirits and creatures of folklore. Unfortuantely her stepmother (who shares her gift but believes she sees demons) condemns Vasya as a witch and shuns her and the culture that the creatures of folklore come from. Vasya’s gifts soon draw the attention of greater and more powerful spirits.

It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale based in Russian folklore and exploring Vasya’s journey to discover and accept herself.

The Binding by Bridget Collins

In a world where books are taboo as they are created by binding people’s undesired memories, which are then prayed on and traded by the elite, Emmett and his sister lead a sheltered life in a rural farm. Then one day Emmett is summoned to be a bookbinding apprentice – a profession and world he knows nothing about. Then one day he finds a book with his name on it.

This is a love story. One that is passionate and haunting and terrifying and where Emmett and Lucien have to fight prejudice and members of the powerful elite in order to find happiness.

Circe by Madeline Miller

20190110_152004The epitome of there are two sides to every story, Circe tells the story of a banished Goddess who was a side villain in the Odyssey, but from her point of view. Events play out just as they did in the Odyssey but from a very different perspective which follows Circe from her position at the bottom of the divine social ladder to her own ownership of herself as a person. A beautiful reimagining of a classic which makes it much more accessible and feminist for modern day audiences.

 

The “I don’t know what to call it” genre

I wanted you to know by Laura Pearson

If you want an uncontrollable tearjerker this is the one for you. Jess is a single mother who is at the end stages of terminal breast cancer, and her daughter, Edie is still a baby. So Jess sets about writing Edie a series of letters telling her how to love, how to forgive and how to move on. This is juxtaposed with Jess’s goodbyes to everyone around her. It is heartbreaking and powerful and cruel – the very nature of cancer. And completely unforgettable.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

A blackly comic look at the depths and limitations of family loyalty between two sisters in Lagos. Ayoola is charming, manipulative and deadly. Korede appears average by comparison but is fiercly protective and obsessively organised. As sisters they have a bond forged in the heat of an abusive childhood and they make a deadly efficient team, but what happens when they set their sights on the same man and can their relationship surivive?

Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s hard to define which genre Sal sits in; it could fit in so many. Sal and her sister have been living in an abusive home where their needs and welfare are neglected at best, and at worst…well: Sal is driven to plan an escape in order to preserve her sister. The story follows Sal and her sister as they find their feet, independence and general freedom in the Scottish wilderness, while also flashing back to the lives they escaped. Despite the circumstances it is hopeful and joyous in places and Sal is a compelling heroine who is determined to overcome the obstacles and lack of choice that were her lot in life.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

In 1917 Stella Marchem returns from nursing in the Great War, traumatised and having to come to terms with the horrific loss of her childhood sweetheart and fiancé. Steeped in a deep depression, Stella is given the mission of attending to her lonely and newly pregnant sister, Madeline, who currently lives with her mother-in-law and a handful of servants in an oppressive and chilling country manor. And so off she sets with her maid, Annie Burrows; a young girl who makes everyone around her nervous and who seems to on the knife edge of madness. But Madeline is facing more than simple loneliness; from running footsteps to sudden chills; misplaced items and sobbing in the night.
Is it hormonal hysteria, or is there something more sinister at work?

Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

Book Review

After spending a week of my life immersed in my new favourite novel I picked up Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers to review, stealing myself that it just wasn’t going to be as good but “I’d better give it a chance”. And something amazing happened; it completely blew me over and stormed into my heart.

Set in Battlefield High in Stirlingshire, Sonny and Me follows two teenage boys; Sonny and Billy Daughter, best friends just trying to make it through secondary school with their dignity intact, when Daughter’s favourite school teacher, Miss Baird, is summarily20190521_183953 (1) kicked out of school and his hopes of making it through his Maths National 5 are dashed. Being a good Scots lad, Daughter is not willing to let this stand and he and Billy set about sticking their noses in and trying to unravel the web of gossip and intrigue that permeates their school. Is Miss Baird a home-wrecking villain, or is something more sinister going on?

The description of Sonny and Me doesn’t begin to touch on the warmth and humour that characterise this book. Sonny and Daughter are so well drawn, so recognisable and relatable, that I would willingly read about them watching paint dry; because I guarantee that their take on it would make me laugh. From the first time Sonny opens his beautifully naive mouth on page 1 I was laughing. These are two young boys who may not always have everything sorted, but deal with unrequited love, coming out and criminals with the same compassion, twinkle of wit and groan inducing jokes. Who express their “wokeness” with moral integrity but also a strong sense of Scottish mischief. Who, if my sons grew to be anything like them, I would be intensely proud; even while pulling my hair out with stress and despair. They feel like a true and honest depiction of kind and full of trouble teenage boys.

Around them the plot flows, always grounded in believability, even as it weaves its way through its mad cap revelations at the end (perhaps the one exception is the headmistress who feels a little pantomime villain in her boo-hiss evilness, but that is real nit picking.). Every step and choice the boys make is logical and relatable and often hilariously funny.

Maybe it’s because I spent four years in Stirling and so the geographical references made me feel like I’d come home, but Sonny and Me is so full of heart, humour and a rollicking good plot that reading it feels like hanging out with your best friends. This is a story targeted at young adults but endlessly enjoyable and highly recommended for everyone. Mature, thoughtful and genuinely laugh out loud funny.

A Titanic story for young readers

The Titanic Detective Agency – Book Review

Trembling with excitement, Bertha Watt sets out on the adventure of a lifetime: her and her mother leaving behind their old life in Aberdeen to meet up with her father in Oregon and start a new life full of promise and opportunity and, if she behaves herself, a 20190417_172015.jpgpony.

Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to emulate Holmes and Watson and set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. They quickly stumble across two intriguing mysteries, one involving treasure and another involving a mysterious family with a shady father. Along the way, Bertha befriends Johan, a 3rd class passenger with a desperate passion to reunite his family. But something even more ominous is lurking over the horizon: It’s April 1912 and Bertha, her family and her friends are sailing to America aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson is a tale of two halves. The first; a look at the innocent and nostalgic childhood from the early twentieth century – both that of the privileged, and the heavier responsibilities of those in poverty. The second half is wrought with tangible horror and heartbreak, as the ending that you almost forgot was looming comes to fruition.

Littleson has done her research, and although the narrative is fiction, all the characters are based on true-life passengers aboard the doomed Ocean liner with some of the more out there twists and turns being based on fact – truth is often stranger than fiction after all.

It’s a challenging introduction for its target audience of 8 to 11 year olds. One which focuses on the humanity involved in the maritime tragedy, but it’s all the more worthwhile for this focus, The Titanic Detective Agency doesn’t shy away from the horror and lasting impact the accident had on the few survivors.

It’s well written, engaging and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. More than that it brings a hundred and seven year old tragedy to life. And just look at that cover – it’s beautiful!

 

The God of All Small Boys – Author Interview

As the last stop for the Book Blog tour for The God of All Small Boys (review posted below) I have the immense privilege of being able to publish an interview with Joseph Lamb, the author.

I have interviewed authors before in a previous career as a journalist, and with some of them it’s like wringing blood from a stone. Not Joe. He was gracious, funny and provided more than I could have hoped for. So please find below what I think was a great interview – entirely due to him! And if you enjoy it, or the review has whetted your appetite, then you can get a copy of The God of All Small Boys at local bookshops or at Cranachan Publishing’s own website here.

https://spark.adobe.com/video/4c5FsjETiJbea/embed

Where did the inspiration for The God of All Small Boys come from?The book began life as a short story, which I wrote in the mid ‘80s, about a few slightly fictionalised events from my own childhood.
I’d always felt that it could stand being expanded into a full length novel, but, thanks to one thing and another, it wasn’t written until 2014 for the Dundee Great War Children’s Book Prize – for which it became one of only three shortlisted.For the extended novel, I suppose my inspiration was simply my own family. Many of my immediate family make an appearance in the book, and the characters of James Gunning and Christina ‘Teeny’ Robbins are named after my maternal Grandparents – who would have been around the same age in 1917.At the risk of sounding cheesy – it’s a bit of a love letter to my family.
What sort of research did you do for The God of all Small Boys?
A ton! 
As a professional actor (which I was for around 30 years) I wrote a lot of Historical Dramas which played all around the country. What I very quickly discovered was that, if you get something wrong – someone will notice. So, whenever I write anything at all, (even non-historical) there is usual some sort of research required.For The God of All Small Boys, being set just over 100 years ago, there was an awful lot of research to be done. Within Lochee (a part of Dundee where the bulk of the book is set) I spoke with The Headmistress and ex Headmaster of St Mary’s school, I also spoke with the resident priest in St Mary’s Church, as well as the Manager of the Lochee swimming baths. Some of the incidents in the book (False-Line payday!) are taken directly from somethings which happened to my grandmother! I had to research the make-up of the Camperdown Mill (of which the Chimney remains, and some of the buildings (now flats)), the cost of stamps, where trams ran to, the placements of rail and tram depots that don’t exist anymore, when gas lamps went out of fashion, what kind of cars existed in 1917 (and how much they cost)…

Here’s a thing…
At one point in the book, it is mentioned that a soldier called William Hill was killed on June 12th. This was included as, when looking at the casualties in Dundee for WWI, I found the grave of that very soldier. It struck at me, because June 12th is my birthday. I felt it fitting to commemorate him in the story.

But, one thing that I would urge anyone looking to write historical literature – don’t put all of your faith in one source. Literally, right up to the very last fine-tooth edit, I had a particular type of match box mentioned (and really nicely illustrated by my daughter , Charlotte). But, (and I don’t know why I did this), I decided to check this matchbox again, and found more sources stating it was not in use until 1930… so I had to change the type of box and Charlotte, thankfully, was able to illustrate the new one – unfortunately, we both think that type of box is not nearly as interesting to look at than the one I first had.

In the book, James and his friends have to face a great deal of tragedy, loss and trauma, how important is it to include these themes in children’s fiction?

I felt that, in a book about WWI, it would be remiss of me not to include the harsh realities of war, as seen from the children’s point of view. (And the difference in reaction from those who did not have a parent off fighting in it.) I also think that it is something of a dis-service to avoid such topics as, sadly, these things still happen. Even in some of the classics these themes are found: Gandalf falling to the Balrog, Aslan sacrificed by Jadis, Fred Weasley, Severus Snape, A great many rabbits in Watership Down. Charlotte, scuttling into the shadows across her web…
Realistic fiction should never be afraid to touch on these subjects, as children will always know when they are being ‘spoken down’ to.

James and his friends live a childhood that very few children will be able to recognise these days, with freedom and independence, but they pay a steep price. Do you think children you don’t experience this kind of childhood are missing out or are they better off now?

I honestly feel that there is something missing from childhood these days. And the perceived lack of independence, unfortunately, has not shown any sign of ending such tragedies. There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that social media is (ironically) responsible for this, and that children don’t need a physical hang out to call their own to be with their friends, as they can have exactly that in a gaming chat room, or whats app group, or any number of others. But, to me, nothing has ever bettered lying on a patch of wild grass, in the blazing sun, and reading a pile of comics with my pals. Yes, we did a number of stupid things, but they were experiences to treasure. I worry that children are losing those opportunities.

If you could predict where the children end up after the book finishes, where do you see them?

Ah well…
The sad truth is that they would probably both eventually have been conscripted into the army during the 2nd World War, as they would only be in their early 30’s. Ever since I wrote the first draft of The God of All Small Boys, a kind of sequel has been buzzing around my head, but I always see it as being set a good 10 years on (around 1927), but I haven’t developed anything on it. What I will say is, James does go to WWII, becomes an officer, takes a bullet in the nose (sideways on) and marries Teeny. Billy becomes a policeman – and might not actually have to go to WW2 because of that.
I suppose, if TGoASB does well enough to warrant it, (and Cranachan are interested) I could always flip the scenario and have Billy coming to live with James for a while! J I feel that one would be more of a romp, however!

What drew you to Cranachan Books as a publishing house and how have you found the experience of working with a smaller publisher?

Since The God of All Small Boys was shortlisted I took a leap of faith and decided that maybe I could find someone interested in publishing it. What I was determined was, if possible, that the publisher should be based in Scotland. (I’m a very proud Scot!) I actually became aware of Cranachan through a tiny article about independent Scottish publishers. I went to their website to find it ‘under construction’ and so kept an eye on it every day until it was open for business. I wrote to them immediately and the rest, as they say, is history!

Here’s the thing about Cranachan. There’s a little hashtag that you might see every now and again of #ClanCranachan. Now, for most other, big-name publishers, that might be a frivolous little phrase, but, with Cranachan, it’s a truism. The amount of support from the authors, given to the other authors, is staggering. On a personal level, it wasn’t until I worked with Anne Glennie that I realised some dreadful habits I had developed in my own writing and I can’t thank her enough for her belief and trust in both my story and my development to bring TGoASB to life.

As anyone who is looking to be published should know, you don’t go into this game for fame and fortune. And I doubt that a ‘larger’ company would have given the time Anne did. It has coloured my way of writing, and (being ridiculously loyal!) I would rather see my work put out by Cranachan than anyone else… I just hope I can repeat the process with some of the other manuscripts I am developing. (Obviously, without quite so much direct input being required!) 

Are you able to tell me anything about what your next writing project will be, or what you would like it to be?

Well, as The God of All Small Boys was written in 2014, I’ve had a lot of time to develop and draft out a few ideas. I have around five or six full manuscripts – two of which I am going through again using what I learned during my time editing TGoASB with Anne. Another which is slightly more YA in theme (Vikings!) and a Sci-Fi/Spy comic trilogy which isn’t really in any way historical, but I’m hoping Cranachan will maybe look to be publishing some lighter titles in the future! I am also putting some ideas together for… something I can’t really talk about! 

Where was your favourite den as a child?

Exactly where it was in The God of All Small Boys!

Who are your writing influences?

Without doubt, Ray Bradbury. But unless you are Ray Bradbury, I don’t think many companies would publish anything written in his style these days. (Which I see as a sad indictment.) He had a fluidity of prose which could read like poetry at times. (I strongly recommend The Halloween Tree to anyone. I literally read this every year at Halloween.) Others who I think may have influenced my style would be Isaac Asimov, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis and, to a certain extent, Stephen King. (And a touch of Ed McBain). Read them ALL!

What is your writing process like?

Because, like most writers, I also have a job, it can be a very slow process. I also have two young boys in the household (Murray and Finlay) who are always needing taxied to football or swimming etc, etc – so my time to write is quite limited. But insofar as the process itself is concerned I usually have some sort of vision of what the ‘end’ looks like. Then I wonder how it might all have started, and then I fill in the space in between! I can knock out a 1st draft quite quickly. (And if I have one piece of advice to give to any aspiring writer it is this… Just WRITE!) I don’t worry about mistakes or word count until I have the full story out, because it is too easy to bog yourself down worrying about craft and losing focus on the story. 
Get the story down first, and then fix it. (Because you can’t fix a story you haven’t written!)

What was the first thing you remember writing? Were you pleased with it?

I always wrote daft little stories when I was young, but when I was around 14 (1977) heavily influenced by Star Wars, I wrote a small novella called “Rebellion” – populated by some of my friends, including dear ol’ John McLintock who appears in everything I’ve ever written.. and (spoilers!) dies in most of them! It was set in my own school and was very sci-fi. I remember the story, but unfortunately the book which I created has gone missing through the years. What’s worse was… I re-wrote it… and that went missing too!

Did I like it? Yes… I do have a very soft spot for it. Maybe I should revisit it again?

If you were to recommend one book to someone, what would it be?

The God of All Small Boys by Joseph Lamb  (ahem…)
It has to be Alice in Wonderland, closely followed by the Narnia Chronicles, closely followed by The Halloween Tree.
These books have been with me all my life, and I’m not a bit sorry for that.
(BUT, if you can find copies of the ‘Nigel Molesworth’ books by Geoffrey Willans and  Ronald Searle, get them!)

(I know, I know, that’s more than one… but that’s a total Sophie’s Choice question!!)