Book Chat: ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’m very much a plot driven reader. I read a lot of fantasy and crime/thrillers because what I want more than anything when I’m reading is a solid, driven, well-paced plot. Fewer things are more likely to have me putting a book hastily back on a bookshop shelf than phrases like “brilliant character study” or “wonderfully descriptive”. I obviously want my books to have well-developed characters and to include immersive descriptions, but I don’t want either to be all I’m going to get. I’m also by no means an art aficionado; I like an art gallery or museum as much as the next person but I would be the first to admit that it just isn’t something I know a lot about. I tell you all of this so that you’ll know that on paper, I should have hated The Swan Thieves. Slow, meandering and with so much detail about art.

I bought it at least nine years ago just as I was getting back into reading because I’d read and loved The Historian. My tastes changed all the time in that phase so I shelved it and ignored it for years. I was never quite disinterested enough to get rid of it but it also never pushed its way up my TBR. It might not have done now but for me randomly putting it on a shortlist of the titles I’d owned the longest for my husband to choose from, and him actually choosing it! Which would have been stupid because I actually really liked it.

Not a lot happens in The Swan Thieves. Early on, renowned artist Robert Oliver is put into the pyschiatric care of Dr Andrew Marlowe after attacking a painting in the New York National Gallery of Art with a knife. Robert refuses to speak so Dr Marlowe spends the rest of the novel trying to piece together his life using a pack of old letters that he finds amongst his possessions and interviews with his former partners. We get a few perspectives – Dr Marlowe’s, those of the women he meets as they recount the stories of their relationships with Robert, and the letters between two 19th century artists. There’s a sort-of mystery surrounding those artists but, for the most part, this is the story of Robert’s life and how that artist mystery affected him. For 600+ pages.

And yet the writing makes this seemingly undramatic plot something really amazing. Shortly after meeting Robert, Andrew visits the National Gallery of Art to look at the painting that Oliver tried to take a knife to. The description was so incredible that I googled the name of the painting and the artist so that I could see it. Neither exist. I swear, it seemed so real that I could clearly picture that painting. I still can. Kostova makes the art in her novel seem vital and interesting. She makes art itself seem vital and interesting. It was a stunning feat. Even the descriptions of characters painting was captivating, and even writing that I know that seems bonkers.

It took me two weeks to read the hefty novel, which would also usually frustrate me. With The Swan Thieves, though, I just settled into it. Reading it was…soothing somehow. I was totally wrapped up in all of the stories, especially the historical story told through the letters and, later on, its own chapters. Some of the historical characters were real, some weren’t. They all seemed pretty bloody real to me.

I gave this four stars in the end because there was something about Dr Marlowe’s story that just didn’t quite ring as true for me as the rest of the novel. We’re told repeatedly that he’s a brilliant psychiatrist and yet he spends barely any time with his patient (shouting at him fairly regularly when he does see him), choosing instead to drive around the US meeting with his former partners and researching a group of century-dead artists. I mean, clearly I understand why because that’s sort of the point of the book but it seemed like a bit of a weak link in the middle. It didn’t ruin the book for me but it did make some of the segues pretty rocky and knocked off that all important fifth star.

Overall: This isn’t a book for everybody. There’s a lot I’d usually grumble about – middle class characters with what really are inconsequential problems in the grand scheme of things that they whine about regularly, meandering musings on the nature and permanence of art, and an admittedly slightly clumsy romantic plot. And still I loved it. If you want something a little more quiet and ponderous with some fantastic writing, I’d genuinely recommend digging out this backlist title.


Date finished: 24 May 2020

Pictured edition published: by Sphere Books in 2010

Source: Bought

Just Start Typing

It’s been a long time since I blogged anything like even semi-regularly. I started this blog because I wanted somewhere that was less…rigid than my previous blog, less tied up in feeling like I had to always post about books, and if I did post about books, that I had to always post long reviews that I’d wrangled over for hours. And yet I’ve found myself in exactly the same pattern. Obviously with much more time at home of late,  I’ve thought about blogging. It seems stupid that with more time, I’m still stalled, but in my head I felt like there had to be a significant post to signal A Return. Some words worth being those that re-started (or, let’s be honest, started) this blog in my tiny corner of the Internet. Then the other day I got over myself. All I really had to do was start typing.

So that’s what I’m doing. Just typing for now. I’d like to catch up on the books I’ve been reading, the food I’ve been cooking , the places I’ve been (pre-lockdown, obviously). And there’s only one way to do that.

I know that a lot of people have been struggling to read among all of the upheaval. Thankfully, that hasn’t been my experience! I’ve read a lot in the last couple of months. I was aiming to read a book a week in 2020 and if GoodReads is to be believed, I’m tracking at 5 books ahead of that. In part, that’s because I went on holiday for a week in early March (a lucky break just before lockdown) and read something bonkers like 7 books in 8 days. But otherwise, I’ve genuinely been excited about what I’m reading. I’m currently about 350 pages into the 600-something page tome that is The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. I’ve owned it for about 9 years without reading it. I’ve moved house with it at least twice. I started it, thinking I could always put it down if I didn’t like it and I’d at least have tried it. And I am loving it! It’s a character driven novel with loads of details about painting and art. All usually huge turn offs for me. And yet, I find myself totally hooked. Go figure. It was reading that, and being so surprised about it, that finally gave me a kick up the arse to blog again.

One thing I haven’t been doing so well at is stopping buying books. At the start of the year, I really wanted to read some of the books I’d owned for years and to get the number of books I owned but hadn’t read below 500 (I know). But recently buying books has been as much of a comfort as reading. And if it makes me happy for at least the 10 minutes that I’m scrabbling with packaging and holding those new books in my hands, I find it hard to feel bad about it. So I’m abandoning that as a goal for the year. Instead, I’d like just not to increase the number of books that I own that I haven’t read in 2020. Finishing 2020 neutral would be just fine by me.

I’ve been cooking plenty too and have a few recipes that I somehow want to share. I’m half-thinking of a food/book pairing type thing but I’m not sure yet. Either that or some of the recipe books getting us through lockdown. Something food related.

And I think I’ve gone on for long enough now! Really I just wanted to get something down. Write anything down!

See you all soon! 🙂

OWLs Readathon: April 2020

It’s time for Book Roast‘s annual OWLs Readathon! I won’t write about the crazy times we’re in other than to say, I hope that everybody and their families are safe. I’ve read very little over the past few weeks, not so much because I can’t concentrate (although that is in part true) but more because work has been absolutely mental since lockdown. The initial rush seems to have died down a little now and we have a long bank holiday weekend coming up in the UK in which I will not be taking my planned trip to Berlin and will instead be hunkering down to read. So let’s readathon!

I took part in the OWLs Readathon last year and it’s a truly incredible Harry Potter themed readathon. The detail is amazing, the materials are so lovely and the whole thing is just…well, magical. If you want to find the materials and the intro video, head HERE. In short, read books that fit the prompts and pass your OWLs, a la Harry Potter and his pals!

This year, I’ve decided to go for a career as a Ministry Worker, ideally in the Department of Magical Law and Enforcement, because I’m a loser and I’m a lawyer in real life and would quite like to be the magical equivalent!  To get there, I need to pass OWLs in: Charms; Defence Against the Dark Arts; History of Magic; Potions; and, Transfiguration!  All of which is to say my TBR for April now looks like this!

Charms: Lumos Maxima – a book with a white cover: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Yes, I do know I’m years behind! I have a fair amount of fantasy mixed in so I fancy something different mixed in.

Defence Against the Dark Arts: Grindylows – a book set at the sea/coast: Bone China by Laura Purcell. Man takes family to Cornwall for some restorative sea air, creepy happenings ensue.

History of Magic: Witch hunts – a book featuring witches/wizards: Witch Hat Atelier: Vol 1 by Kamome Shirahama. I’ve never read manga before but this looks super cute and, conveniently enough, is all about witches! Bonus points for giving me half a chance of reading all of these books in a month…

Potions: Shrinking solution – a book under 150 pages: A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli. At 138 pages, this novel of three German soldiers sent out into the night to track down a Jewish person sounds heartbreaking and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while.

Transfiguration: Animagus lecture – a book/series that includes shapeshifting: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger. I love Gail Carriger’s writing and I’ve had this series opener for years. I think (hope!) the series includes werewolves.

I’d also really like to get a certificate from the Defence of Fantastic Beasts seminar, for which I’d have to also pass an OWL in Care of Magical Creatures by reading a book with a creature with a beak on the cover. For that I’m going to read Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. I’ve technically read about 10% of it already but I’m ok with counting it given I have over 500 pages left! Be kind about my technical rule breaking 🙂

Drop me a link to your TBR if you’re taking part too!

Book Chat: ’55’ by James Delargy

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I was completely lured into 55 by the premise. On a hot afternoon in Willbrook, a small remote town in West Australia, an injured man stumbles into a police station and speaks with Sergeant Chandler Jenkins. He claims that he was drugged and taken to a cabin in the woods to be chained to a wall. His name is Gabriel, and he was kidnapped by a man named Heath who told Gabriel that he would be victim number 55.  A little while later, another man is brought in to the station. He tells Chandler that his name is Heath, that he was kidnapped and imprisoned by a man named Gabriel, a man who told Heath that he would be victim number 55.  COOL, RIGHT?!

And for a while, it really was. The two men continue to give conflicting statements and the police try desperately to puzzle out which one they ought to be protecting. The stifling heat, the small town police force facing dealing with a serial killer, the confusion. It was also really nice to read a book set in Australia and the way that the novel plays on the unforgiving environment is brilliant. The first third was taut, tense and everything else that you could want from a thriller.

Unfortunately, it loses its way. Fearing the local force to be in over its head, a larger force is drafted in to help. Sadly for Chandler, they’re led by Mitch, an old friend-turned-enemy. Chandler and Mitch seemingly hate each other, apparently caring more about undermining each other than about stopping a serial killer. Running alongside the main plot is a story from both men’s past that I think is meant to explain the animosity. Only it doesn’t. We’re meant to believe that one of these men has let the other down so badly that they’re almost incapable of working together. We’re told it frequently, but I never bought it. The side story was also very repetitive and got rather annoying rather quickly. I’m sure that a manhunt in the Australian wilderness is in fact very repetitive but I just don’t want to trudge through reading numerous pages of walking and the same ‘should we/shouldn’t we call this off?’ musings.

Those chapters were short enough that I still found 55 very readable but they did disturb what was otherwise quite a clever plot. The characters were all pretty one-dimensional (there’s a New Constable, a Womanising Constable, a Nagging Mother and so on…) but I’m fairly relaxed about overlooking failings like that for a good twisty thriller. But then came the ending. Oh, the ending. From a browse of Goodreads (carried out after finishing with a shocked look on my face no doubt), some readers love it because it is different and certainly unexpected. Others, like me, don’t. It’s hard to really grumble without spoiling it for readers who do still love the sound of the plot but I just felt completely blind-sided. It’s ambiguous, which I can sort of live with, but it’s also very unsatisfying. The book lost a whole star in a few pages. I’m still grumpy about it 24 hours later and I feel cheated.

Overall: This is tricky. I don’t feel like I can whole-heartedly recommend 55 knowing full well what readers are running into. And yet it’s actually quite an entertaining read, and something a bit different to the more often seen thrillers set in the US and UK. I suppose actually that’s the best thing to take from this review – there’s good, there’s bad and it’s all very confusing and conflicting emotions will abound!


Date finished: 25 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Simon and Schuster UK in April 2019

Source: Bought

Should you pick up the Wheel of Time series?

The Wheel of Time series has a special place in my heart. When I was about 13, one of my friends at school started reading the series. She stormed through the books and I was curious to see what it was that was compelling her to read thousands of pages of this series I’d never heard of. I’d of course read books featuring magic while I was a child but I hadn’t ever dipped so much as a toe into the world of adult fantasy. I bought the first instalment, The Eye of the World, with a birthday voucher not long later. I’ve been in love ever since. It was an introduction to fantasy and I’ve never looked back.

I used to dash quickly into the fantasy section of our local Waterstones after pretty much every birthday or any other time I had some pocket money to pick up the next book (often skulking because I was too embarrassed to admit as an awkward teenager that I was a fantasy nerd). Between then and some time in my early 20s, I read through 11 books. Eventually, I was leaving so long between books that, although I always enjoyed reading them, it took me longer and longer to get back into the story and world and I missed more and more of the subtleties. In 2015, I went back to the beginning to re-read the whole thing and finally make it to the end in a way that would do my love for the series justice.

Fast forward more years than I’d realised had passed and I’ve just finished book 7 of the 14 book series – A Crown of Swords. I adored it in a way that I don’t remember adoring it the first time. This instalment was a long one at 742 pages. The font is small and, if I’m being brutally honest, not a huge amount happens in the grand scheme of things. And YET, reading it was comforting while also actually being genuinely gripping. I wanted to be reading it all the time. I thought about it all the time when I wasn’t reading it. The world building is incredible and unlike anything I’ve read. That was true all those years ago when I was a teenager and, more remarkably after 20 years more of fantasy reading, it’s still true now. The characters have developed with each and every book, but it felt like this one really nudged them further on.

“And the Shadow fell upon the land, and the world was riven stone from stone. The oceans fled, and the mountains were swallowed up, and the nations were scattered to the eight corners of the World. The moon was as blood, and the sun was as ashes. The seas boiled, and the living envied the dead. All was shattered, and all but memory lost, and one memory above all others, of him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon.”

Obviously I can’t say a lot more given how far I am into the series, although I could rabbit on all day about just how much I love Jordan’s story, his characters and everything that the books represent to me. The million dollar question though – should you pick it up? 

As much as I love it, my answer isn’t an insistent, “yes absolutely what are you waiting for?”. While I *do* want more people to read it, there’s a few points you should bear in mind:

1. It’s trope-tastic – the series is packed to the rafters with fantasy tropes that I know fantasy readers can find tired and annoying. You can bet your bottom dollar that there’s a farm boy going innocently about his business before finding out he’s got untold power (in fact, there are at least 5 people from the same village that experience the same!). There’s a great evil lurking and a final battle coming. There’s a LOT around that that is original but you will be treading some ground that you’ve trodden before if you’re a regular fantasy reader.

2. Other readers seem to hate the female characters – I will grant you that Jordan writes men better than he writes women. The men manage to be conflicted and complex, whereas the women can seem a little more one dimensional at times. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading the series for years but to me, they’re wonderful.  It’s also actually the women who are the strongest wielders of the magic in this world, and there are as many queens as there are kings. Sure, you’ll read a lot about women’s bosoms but there are plenty of strong women in the series to get behind.

3. It is LONG – there are 14 books, each of which are over 600 pages. One even stretches beyond 1,000 pages. Going into the Wheel of Time series is a fair old commitment. Inevitably with a series that is so long, there is a lot of world building, a lot of political wrangling and a lot of travelling. Balancing that is a hugely detailed world, with history and legends and customs all of its own. The plot is intricate and there are innocuous moments in one book that pop up later on. Seeds sown all over for later events. It can be repetitive and it isn’t always pacey but the time and pages are worth it to me.

If you have the time, the patience and you don’t mind a trope or two, please do pick up the Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan was a marvellously creative man and I can’t even imagine the time that it took to build a world so detailed from scratch. Once a favourite, always a favourite.

The Five Highest Rated Books on my TBR

I saw Jean of Jean’s Bookish Thoughts do a couple of videos last year in which she read the highest and lowest rated books on her TBR, using books’ average ratings on GoodReads. Although I haven’t ever gone quite so far as to not buy a book if it was one I really thought was up my street that happened to have a low rating, I have used them before to ditch books from my TBR where I was already wavering.

I really like the idea of testing how closely my views fit with those of other readers. I could have started at the bottom but instead, I’m being positive and starting with the five books with the highest average ratings on GoodReads. Slight disclaimer – I’ve excluded the actual top rated book because it’s part of a series that I’m not up to yet. The book I own with the highest rating is The Way of Kings: Part 1 by Brandon Sanderson. I’m in the middle of the original Mistborn trilogy and I don’t want to start another later series until I’ve done with that. And so, without any more introduction, these are the top five rated books on my TBR, and ones that I’m going to try and get to soon!

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Average rating of 4.64 from 79,324 ratings)

This doesn’t surprise me at all! I’ve only ever seen people rave about this and I actually can’t think of a time when I’ve seen it given any less than a five star, glowing review. I bought it on a birthday book buying binge when I first started seeing those adoring reviews in 2016. I’m fairly sure that I’ll love this non-fiction about the justice system in the US but I have an uneasy relationship with non-fiction so I just haven’t quite ever picked it up. I’m actually quite excited about reading this so I’m glad this is up on the list!

2.  The Missing of Clairdelune by Christelle Dabos (Average rating of 4.58 from 9,456 ratings)

This is the second in a series that is being translated from French. I didn’t read the first book at the best time – I was in hospital for a few days at the end of last year and although I did have time reading, I struggled to focus. The series is about a world in which Gods have splintered Earth into various small cities/islands with their own powers and politics. It follows Ophelia, who is married off by her family and sent to a wintery land and subjected to various political wranglings and much intrigue. It was fun and I gave it 3 stars but it wasn’t my favourite. I bought the second because the editions are beautiful and I wanted them to match and it surprises me that it’s as high up this list as it is. Perhaps because people only read the second book when they’re already invested? Ophelia can ‘read’ items and their history by touching them but we don’t see a lot of that in the first – perhaps the second shows more?  Either way, I have actually heard more positive things about this book than I had the first and I want to read more translated fiction so now is as good a time as any to get stuck in!

3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Average rating of 4.57 from 577,660 ratings)

Of all of the books on this list, this is actually the most impressive given the sheer number of ratings. And I’d actually pretty much forgotten that I even had it on my Kindle. It’s seemingly a story of two sisters set in France during World War II. One sister lives in Paris and one lives in the countryside with her husband and both face different challenges during the war. That’s all that’s in the blurb and I’m hoping to go into it knowing as little as that! I do love a good historical fiction and I’m actually much more keen to read this now that I’ve seen how well loved it seems to be. We’re on holiday in March and I might pick this up then to weep a bit by a pool!

4. The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane (Average rating of 4.56 from 2,031 ratings)

From first glance, it’s clear that this is an absolutely beautiful book. From what I gather, it’s a celebration of the natural world, hand-illustrated and featuring words that are fading out of the vocabulary of children. I actually wasn’t necessarily planning on reading this as such but instead was treating it more as…well, art I suppose.  But it is stunning and an afternoon with some gentle nature poetry might be just the ticket while the weather’s still gloomy and cold!

5. Saga: Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan (Average rating of 4.53 from 71,019 ratings)

Another unsurprising entry! I think most people know by now but this comic series follows a young couple from different warring races as they try to escape the various assassins and other threats chasing them down. Think alien Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending…at least as far as I’ve got! It’s gritty and adult and funny and I do love it. I fully expect this to be a four or five star from me too!

And that’s it! The five highest rated books on my TBR that I’ll be picking up soon! Have you read any of these?  Do you ever use GoodReads ratings to decide what to pick up?

2019 Reading Habits and 2020 Goals

In 2019, I read 69 books, with a total of 23,833 pages. That’s four more books and about 1,500 more pages than I read in 2018. I’m pleased that I read more in a way – I’ve picked up books in my spare time solidly, I’ve rarely been ‘between books’ and I’ve read that number without ever picking up short or easier to read books just to make up the numbers. I’ve become more excited about what I’m reading. The downside is that in being so swept up in reading, I’ve really fell out of the blogging habit. I don’t have a lot of free time and often it’s a choice between reading and writing about reading (obviously alongside actually seeing my husband and eating and doing other things I love). So for 2020, my reading goals are much less about quantity.  I’ve reduced my Goodreads goal to 52 books. I still want to average a book a week but I want to be a bit more mindful of what those books are, reading books that are longer or books that I know will take me a little bit of time to read. And on that note, here is what I want to try and achieve in 2020:

1.  Reduce the number of unread books I own to below 500.  

In 2019, I was much more enthusiastic about the books on my shelves than in previous years. The average time that books had spent on my shelves before being read last year was 30 months; in 2018, it was 9 months. You can also see it easily in the number of books I bought in 2018 compared to 2019. In 2018, I bought an embarrassing 224 books, pushing the number of unread books I owned from an already pretty hefty 413 to a slightly out of control 575. In 2019, I bought a vaguely approaching more sensible 79 books and have had a bit of a clear out of those books that I’ve owned for 7/8/even 9 years without picking up and that I’m just not as interested in any more.  Between that, I’m starting 2020 owning 545 books that I haven’t read. I’m delighted that in 2019 I reduced my TBR by 30 books but I want to do even better this year. I’m not focusing on how much I buy (not least because I have a Books and Beer subscription that I frankly refuse to cancel), but instead on how much I own that I haven’t read. If I desperately want to buy a book, I obviously will but I’ll either need to have read more to compensate or sacrifice something off my existing TBR.

2. Read at least 12 classics

Lucy @ Lucy the Reader is hosting a year long challenge/community focussed on reading more classics. Of the 69 books I read in 2019, only 2 were books I classified as ‘classics’. 6 books were published in the 1960s or earlier (including those 2 classics). I’m not the type to beat myself up about what I choose to read by any stretch but I do enjoy classics when I read them (and I own plenty!) so it seems daft not to. I’m not going to make a list as such but I definitely want to read The Woman in White by Wilkie CollinsLady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a ghostly Persephone classic I’m really excited about) this year.

3. Read more diversely

Why yes, that is intentionally loose! I’m not concerned about female v male author numbers – 72% of the books I read last year were written by women and I won’t ever feel sad about not given men less attention than women. I am bothered that I only read 5 translated books last year. 60 of the 69 books I read were written by authors from the UK or the US. That just isn’t good enough, especially considering that I have a Peirene Press subscription and own plenty of fiction by authors with more diverse backgrounds.

4. Write a blog post for each book I read

By this I don’t mean a review necessarily but I do want to chat more about what I’m reading. I actually want to write more generally, including about the other things I love, like food and travel and exercise, but mostly books. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I start writing a book post and I need to stop it and just start writing a bit more casually. I’m not a professional – I do this for fun. That means it should be fun. So I want less structure and more chatting.

And that’s it! My reading goals for 2020! Do you have any goals for 2020 or are you planning on just winging it?

Top Ten Books of the Year: 2019

I’m currently reading the 740-odd page chunkster that is the seventh book in the Wheel of Time series and it’s New Year’s Eve.  That means I can finally call it – the ten best books I’ve read in 2019! There’s a bit of a mixture of genres on the list, which I’m really happy about and reflects how I feel my reading year has been.  I’ve re-jigged these about 20 times now and I’m fairly sure that they’re in reverse order of preference. For today anyway!

The first five entries in my top 10 were ones that I gave 4 stars when I read them so weren’t my absolute favourites but that are still getting a mention because I like ‘top tens’ and because they’re the ones that were really 4.5 anyway and have stuck with me.

10.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Finished: 16 February) – I loved The Haunting of Hill House when I read it a few years ago but hadn’t then got round to picking up anything else by Shirley Jackson, despite having bought this one not long after finishing Hill House.  As ever, when I read it, I realised that it having languished there was ridiculous.  It follows three characters, Merricat, Constance and their Uncle Julian, leaving an isolated life in an old manor house, cut off from the nearby village following the mysterious deaths of the rest of their family.  Constance was tried for but acquitted of their murders but the village still believe that the family is wrong. As ever with Jackson, the writing creates an atmosphere that just feels wrong. The way the characters think and talk in Castle is a little off the wall, but in a way that feels entirely real for young people who have grown up with just themselves for company. I wasn’t surprised by some of the later events because the hints are so heavy early on but I was surprised by how much my heart broke for the sisters.  Definitely recommended.  Let’s assume that from here onwards…

9.  My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Finished: 09 April) – I don’t feel like this needs much introduction given its stellar turn in the bookish awards for 2019.  I listened to the audiobook of Braithwaite’s novel of a woman trying to prevent her sister from being outed as a serial killer while trying desperately to stop the man she loves falling victim to her charms and it is fabulous.  It manages to have both the tension of a thriller and to be very funny (the latter enhanced greatly by the superb audiobook).  There are also some wonderfully poignant moments about the sisters’ relationship and their lives together that are so cleverly woven throughout the narrative of their present day exploits.  It’s only short and more than worth the few hours you’ll spend reading it. The hype is justified.

8.  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Finished: 30 September) – Another one that probably doesn’t need any introduction! The first in Mantel’s trilogy telling of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII. I did a very niche A-level in Tudor History so it’s a period that I know relatively well. I know that it’s a bit of a cliché but Mantel really does do an incredible job of bringing the period to life. I can only imagine the amount of hard work and research that must have gone into making the story seem so effortless. The writing took me a bit of getting used to (Cromwell is rarely referred to by name and mostly as ‘he’, which can be a bit confusing at first) but once I did, I was obsessed. I read it during the second week on a two week holiday in Greece in September and I’m so glad I devoted the attention to it that it deserves. I’ve owned it for maybe 7/8 years and I’m kicking myself a bit for not having read it before. Plenty of time before the release of the final instalment in March if you’re like me and haven’t tackled it yet!

7.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (Finished: 09 April) – A bit of classic science fiction up next! It’s the story of a young man, Charlie Gordon, who has an incredibly low IQ but is given the opportunity to participate in an experiment with a treatment that is expected to vastly increase his intelligence.  In a relatively short space of time, Charlie becomes a genius. I actually wrote a review of this at the time that you can read here.  It’s such a moving novel and thinking of it still makes me a little bit sad.  An oldie but a goodie.

6.  Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kowaguchi (Finished: 16 September) – Speaking of feeling a little bit sad, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is one you should absolutely be picking up if you fancy a bit of a cry (just me?!).  It’s beautifully but sparingly written and packs so much into barely over 200 pages. It’s about a cafe where you can time travel back, only for the length of time it takes for a cup of coffee to get cold, only within the cafe and only on the strict understanding that nothing will change when you return to the present. There are a few different characters’ stories told and there is love of all different kinds (love between sisters, romantic love, lost love, parental love), tinged with sadness in some cases and hope in others. I gave it 4 stars when I finished it but I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t give it 5 now!

And now, conveniently enough, the five books I gave five stars at the time of reading this year! Three have actually held their spot since the middle of the year so I’m pretty happy that my love for those wasn’t short lived. Strangely, I seem to have real hotspots! I read a fairly weighty 3 of these books in September and another 3 in April. Either I’m more generous in those months or lucky!

Onto the top five…

5.  Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (Finished: 27 April) – YA gets a bit of a battering sometimes, with YA fantasy coming off particularly badly. It would be doing Days of Blood and Starlight a bit of a disservice then to just say that it’s good YA fantasy. Because honestly, it’s just good! The series is about a huge war between angels and ‘revenants’/demons, with necromancy, torture and other horrors thrown in for good measure. There’s a romantic sub-plot that’s tangled and not the usual YA boy-meets-girl-instalove and the way Taylor writes friendships is just fabulous. It’s a far cry from the YA fantasy of the early 2010s and writing this makes me realise how ridiculous it is that I still haven’t finished this series!

4.  Wakenhyrstby Michelle Paver (Finished: 07 September) – Paver is one of my auto-buy authors and Wakenhyrst did not disappoint. A looming, deteriorating mansion on the Fens, creepy goings on, the religious ramblings of a man whose sanity we rapidly start to doubt and a young woman at the middle of the story that is hard not to sympathise with. Who doesn’t like a sinister story set in a crumbling old house with supernatural undertones and secrets galore in the winter?! I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to call it a ghost story but if you like ghost stories, I’m sure you’ll love this.

3.  The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (Finished: 11 August) – I seem to have read and loved a lot of crowd pleasers this year! The Fifth Season is the opening novel in Jemisin’s seemingly much-loved and hugely successful Broken Earth trilogy. The world that this trilogy is set in is tumultuous and prone to being ripped apart by huge natural disasters. Orogenes, those that have some power over the earth, are feared and enslaved, ‘protected’ by Guardians. When you look at it from afar, the picture that Jemisin is painting of race and slavery is fairly clear but it doesn’t feel heavy handed or clunky while you’re reading. Quite the opposite. The pacing is fantastic and the three storylines woven together perfectly. I personally didn’t see the ending coming and I did a fair amount of shock faces while it all played out. I’m really looking forward to getting to the next 2 books for 2020!

2.  The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (Finished: 19 January) – The oldest entry to the list at only the fourth book I read this year. When I included it in my mid-year favourites list, I thought that it was fairly noteworthy that it had hung on until July. That I still remember it so clearly, and still love it as much, easily earns it a second spot on this list. If you’re a historical fiction fan, this should be on your to read list. It’s gothic and gloomy and atmospheric and everything you could possibly want from a novel set in 1830s London.

1.  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Finished: 22 June) – In a way, I wish that this book still didn’t feel quite so relevant. And yet, six months after I’ve finished it, it still feels like a book that everybody should be required to pick up. The writing is just stunning. Sparse and simple but absolutely flooring. If you somehow still haven’t heard of it, it recounts Nadia and Saeed’s decision to leave their increasingly war-torn home country and the pain it causes them, following them as they struggle to find a new country to call home. The challenges they face in their potential new communities were disappointingly familiar but what really struck me was how well Hamid relays the small struggles that his characters face. The simple pleasure of a hot shower in a private room with a soft towel. The grief of thinking you’ve found a home only to be forced to move on again by small-minded locals. The power of the smell of familiar cooking when you’re far from what you know. It’s beautiful and crushing. My copy got wet when a bottle of water leaked on it in a backpack while we were on holiday and I still couldn’t bear to throw it away. Nor will I ever.

And that’s it! The ten best books I’ve read in 2019! I hope you all had an amazing reading year. Let me know your favourites in the comments so I can hopefully pick up some recommendations for 2020.

Book Chat: ‘The Hunting Party’ by Lucy Foley

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

All of them are friends. One of them is a killer.

During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves.

They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.

The trip began innocently enough: admiring the stunning if foreboding scenery, champagne in front of a crackling fire, and reminiscences about the past. But after a decade, the weight of secret resentments has grown too heavy for the group’s tenuous nostalgia to bear. Amid the boisterous revelry of New Year’s Eve, the cord holding them together snaps.  Now one of them is dead . . . and another of them did it.

Keep your friends close, the old adage goes. But just how close is too close?

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors, and my absolute go-to if I want a quick comfort read fix. If publishers declare one of their books as a book for fans of hers, I’ll almost definitely be lured in but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m judging that book just a little more harshly than I otherwise might. Thankfully The Hunting Party fared well even with the Christie comparison lurking in the back of my mind.

The premise isn’t that unique – a group of old friends head to a lodge in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish highlands for a New Year’s Eve celebration. A snowstorm sweeps in and cuts the lodge off from the rest of civilisation, which becomes all the more unfortunate when one of the group is murdered. There are plenty of novels treading that familiar ground. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Hunting Party was a complete revelation in crime fiction, there is enough that will keep you guessing to make it worth a few hours of your time on a gloomy evening this winter. In this slight twist on the classic, readers are kept in the dark not only on the identity of the murderer but also the identity of the victim. Obviously we know that someone has died from the opening couple of chapters, but not who. There are chapters following the group on New Year’s Day after discovery of a body, while most are set a couple of days earlier and show the celebrations starting out and gradually souring.

To be honest, there were moments where I would have been happy for every single one of the characters to be the unlucky one. If you’re one of those readers who needs to like and identify with the characters in a novel, The Hunting Party probably isn’t for you. This bunch of Oxbridge graduates is pretty gross. They’re all varying degrees of pretentious, selfish and mean-spirited. They treat each other appallingly and there are grudges and secrets that gradually out. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend one actual night with the group but I was completely obsessed with reading about them. I know it’s a cliche when it comes to thrillers but I did absolutely tear through this and it’s so easy to just keep turning the pages.

Alongside all of that victim-murderer headline plot are some smaller, more personal mysteries. Looking after the lodge guests are Heather and Doug, both of whom clearly have their own reasons for taking a job on an estate in the middle of nowhere. The novel shifts perspectives, with Heather and Doug both providing  outsiders’ views on the central group and narrating the ‘present day’ sections. In some thriller novels, there are chapters that are weaker and there to just move along the plot but I was still invested in Heather and Doug and there were no lulls in pace for me. Just a solid thriller all round!

Overall:  Winter is the perfect time to pick up The Hunting Party! For British readers, it’s also surprisingly nice to read a book with British slang and current cultural references. It’s sharp and so readable and witty. Get on it.


Date finished: 10 December 2019

Pictured edition published: by HarperCollins UK in January 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely, and desperate to change his life, so when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, but the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice: stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return–when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…

Thoughts in 2019:  As I mentioned in my recent review of Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, I still vividly remember how I felt when I read Dark Matter. My slightly tired looking paperback copy has survived many culls because I can’t face getting rid of it and I just want to know that I still own a copy. I read a lot of historical fiction and even more ghost stories and this remains one of my absolute favourites. It isn’t only the sense of the unknown and the creeping unease, it’s the staggering level of detail about the otherworldly environment of the Arctic. I still can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Thoughts in 2012:  Earlier in the year, when my village in Yorkshire was being snowed upon, I had a sudden craving for curling up next to my fire and devouring a book.  I didn’t want to just read, I wanted to be completely immersed in a story and only come up for air when absolutely necessary.  Dark Matter was without a doubt the perfect choice and I read it in a single snowy day.

The story opens with a group of intrepid explorers setting out for the Arctic, jauntily taking photographs of themselves in their special clothing and engaging in the kind o f British public school banter that I have fortunately not had much direct experience of.  As with so many great ghost stories, there’s a pervasive sense of hope and excitement that you know is being crafted so that the ultimate descent into horror is more shocking.  The setting is fantastically mysterious.  I’ve always wanted to visit somewhere like Norway, see the Northern Lights and experience that other-worldliness that this book excels at describing.  So too, do our merry band of scientists.

Of course, where would we be without a few wisened old characters along the way warning of the great dangers lying ahead?  Dark Matter has an ageing sailor tasked with taking Jack and his group to Gruhuken, grimly warning off the dangers hiding in the perpetual night.  From that moment on, the story takes a turn for the creepier and I was hooked.  Honestly, I only stopped reading to make dinner and eat it.  I was fascinated by the setting but most of all I was captivated by the occasional glimpses at the mysteries of Gruhuken.  Snippets of its history and hints at its secret were doled out sparingly but often enough that it feels as though the story is never going to let you go.  When I was finally “in the know”, everything fit together and I was left staring at the pages in shock, with a faint look of disgust no doubt on my face.

Paver has spent a lot of time travelling in the Arctic and it shows.  The environment and the atmosphere are so detailed and breath-taking that you feel as though you can hear the ice creaking around you and feel the crisp, frozen air swirling.  There’s a fantastic article on the author’s website here that describes how much she put into making this book as perfect as it is:

“I went in summer, at the time of the midnight sun, and Jack’s experiences on first seeing Spitsbergen are mine: the sinister, black-faced polar bear who’d been eating the walrus from the inside; the abandoned guillemot chick; Jack’s solo walk to the small, cold lake; and those brief but desperate moments when he thinks he’s lost… All this is what I’ve seen and experienced myself”

The unravelling of Jack’s hopes, dreams and sanity in the icy wilderness is utterly heart-breaking. I desperately wanted him to give up, take his way out and leave the shadows alone and, even with everything else that was brilliant about this book, it was that that kept me reading.  Jack is such a wonderful narrator and his vulnerability is disarmingly charming right from the opening chapters.  As the story is largely told through Jack’s diary entries, there is plenty of time to get to know him.  He is a complex character who is so darn real that it’s impossible not to be sucked in. His naivety and desperation to fit in with his fellow explorers at the outset is tinged with a bitterness that he has to try so hard and his later decisions are constantly coloured by his life experiences.  Nothing he did seemed out of kilter with the character I felt I’d come to know and I wish that more authors knew their characters well enough to make that work.

My only complaint about this book is that it made me agree with the Daily Mail.  No good can come from agreeing with the Daily Mail BUT their reviewer was right, Dark Matter is “a blood-curdling ghost story, evocative not just of icy northern wastes but of a mind turning in on itself”. Read it.

Overall: As a ghost story, Dark Matter is exceptional.  As a description of the dangerous beauty of the Arctic, Dark Matter is also exceptional.  In the end though, the beauty of the novel lies in that age-old haunting question: “What’s waiting for you, just beyond the edge of the light?”