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A Little Life – A Big Review

This post was originally published back in 2015 in a previous life, on a previous blog. I thought I’d share it for you now so you can see just why I love A Little Life so much 

 

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.

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Upcoming Books

Do you find it hard to keep up with all the exciting new books due to be published? Do you wish there was one handy list that had all the best ones in one place, arranged by date?

 

Then you’re in luck! I’ve listed below everything that is currently available to pre-order on Bert’s Books – I’ll update it regularly too, so keep this page bookmarked and come back regularly! AND finally, if there’s anything you’re desperate to get your hands on, that you can’t find below, then let me know!

 

14th January 2021

The Stranger Times by CK McDonnell

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

21st January 2021

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Winterkill by Ragnar Jonasson

Rescue Me by Sara Manning

The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

28th January 2021

The F*ck-it List by John Niven

4th February 2021

Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

16th February 2021

 A Court of Silver Flames (A Court of Thorns and Roses 5) by Sarah J Maas

18th February 2021

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

A Still Life by Josie George

The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Deity (Six Stories 5) by Matt Wesolowski

4th March 2021

You Got This by Louise Redknapp – SIGNED

Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

18th March 2021

Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers

29th April 2021

Stronger by Poorna Bell

27th May 2021

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

7th September 2021

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

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Bert’s Books of 2019

This year has been a mixture of more books read than ever before and a lack of noting them down – so compiling my list of my favourite books of 2019 has been a bit difficult.

Each time I think I’ve got the list complete, I remember something else – so my Top 10 this year is a top 11, and it’s been the hardest year to pull it together. And there are definitely many other books I could have put in here.

Read on to find out if you agree with my list!

11 The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

The Blurb

In North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge and run into the sea, The Long CallDetective Matthew Venn stands outside the church as his father’s funeral takes place. The day Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his family too.

Now he’s back, not just to mourn his father at a distance, but to take charge of his first major case in the Two Rivers region; a complex place not quite as idyllic as tourists suppose. A body has been found on the beach near to Matthew’s new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death. Finding the killer is Venn’s only focus, and his team’s investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind, and the deadly secrets that lurk there.

My Verdict

This is exactly the book I’ve been waited a long time for. It’s a well-written traditional crime novel where the lead character just happens to be a gay man.

What’s more, it’s not important to the plot – which might make you wonder why it matters – but that’s exactly why it does. It’s representation in mainstream fiction like this that really matters. But, better than that representation – it’s a great book!

Buy Now

 

10. The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris

 The Blurb

Grace Atherton, a talented cellist, is in love with David. Together in their apartment in 9781471173820Paris, Grace and David are happy until an unexpected event changes everything. Nadia is seventeen and furious.

She knows that love will only let her down: if she is going to succeed it will be on her own terms. At eighty-six Maurice Williams has discovered a lot about love in his long life, and even more about people. And yet he keeps secrets.

When Grace’s life falls apart in the most shocking of ways Maurice and Nadia come to her rescue, helping her to find happiness and hope through the healing power of friendship

My Verdict

Harris has created a very real character in Grace, but it’s her love of music and the cello that really stands out for me in this book.

In Patrick Gale’s most recent novel Take Nothing With You his character Eustace plays the cello and it’s some of his best writing – it’s like a gateway drug for this novel where there is more music playing, so vividly described that you can almost hear it.

Buy Now

 

9. The Two Lives of Louis and Louise by Julie Cohen

The Blurb

One chance to see the same world differently. Louis and Louise are the same person born in 9781409179849two different lives. One was born female, and one male.

They have the same best friends, the same red hair, the same dream of being a writer, the same excellent whistle. They both suffer one catastrophic night, with life-changing consequences. Thirteen years later, they are both coming home .

My Verdict

This is a brilliant concept and I love the way Julie explores it, allowing the changes in their lives to be brought about because of influences from the outer world.

Just one small physical difference between them has not only an impact on their lives, but the lives of those around them. It’s the ultimate what-if story!

This book was voted Book of the Year by customers of Bert’s Books!

Buy a signed copy now – while stocks last

 

8. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

The Blurb

Queenie Jenkins can’t cut a break. Well, apart from the one from her long term boyfriend, 9781409180050Tom.

That’s definitely just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Then there’s her boss who doesn’t seem to see her and her Caribbean family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested).

She’s trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her. It’s no wonder she’s struggling. She was named to be queen of everything.

So why is she finding it so hard to rule her own life?

My Verdict

Queenie is one of those novels that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it

It’s funny, but feels heartbreakingly real. Queenie is a young black woman trying to navigate her way through a mini-crisis of self. Who is she? Where does she belong in this world? Does she even like herself?

In short, she’s suffering from all the things we all suffer from, but for me it was the insights into her views on race that really made this book. It’s not the big moments, but the small ones, ones where we, the reader, offended on her behalf but Queenie simply shrugs them off as normal.

It might help you see society in a new way – or it will feel horribly familiar. Either way, it will make Queenie feel so vivid and real – you’ll be rooting for her all the way through.

Buy Now

 

7. Past Life by Dominic Nolan

The Blurb

Detective Abigail Boone has been missing for four days when she is finally found. Suffering 9781472254658retrograde amnesia, she is a stranger to her despairing husband and bewildered son. Hopelessly lost in her own life, with no leads on her abduction, Boone’s only instinct is to revisit the case she was investigating when she vanished: the baffling disappearance of a young woman, Sarah Still.

Defying her family and the police, Boone obsessively follows a deadly trail to uncover the shocking truth. But even if she finds Sarah, will Boone ever be the same again?

My Verdict

I thought this was a great start to a new crime series, Boone is a compelling but flawed lead character and it featured a good mystery to be solved.

I can’t wait to read the next one in the series. If you feel the same After Dark is published in March 2020, and you can pre-order it now.

Buy Now

Pre-Order After Dark Now

 

6. The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd

The Blurb

Lauren Pailing is born in the sixties, and a child of the seventies. She is thirteen years old The First Time Lauren Pailing Diedthe first time she dies. Lauren Pailing is a teenager in the eighties, becomes a Londoner in the nineties.

And each time she dies, new lives begin for the people who loved her – while Lauren enters a brand new life, too. But in each of Lauren’s lives, a man called Peter Stanning disappears. And, in each of her lives, Lauren sets out to find him.

And so it is that every ending is also a beginning. And so it is that, with each new beginning, Peter Stanning inches closer to finally being found…

My Verdict

A bit like Louis & Louise, this is Sliding Doors style concept where we play witness to several different universes concurrently, each of them dealing with grief.

It had the potential to be messy but Rudd’s writing is skilful enough that the reader can stay with the different worlds easily enough. What it results in is a moving exploration of grief that will stay with you long after the final page.

Buy Now

 

5. The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

The Blurb

Yorkshire, 1845, and dark rumours are spreading across the moors. Everything indicates The Vanished Bridethat Mrs Elizabeth Chester of Chester Grange has been brutally murdered in her home – but nobody can find her body. As the dark murmurs reach Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, the sisters are horrified, yet intrigued.

Before they know it, the siblings become embroiled in the quest to find the vanished bride, sparking their imaginations but placing their lives at great peril . . .

My Verdict

I’ve never read any of the Brontës before, but the three sisters are written completely in period style, as if a classic Victorian writer had written the book themselves. The dialogue and their thoughts immediately take you straight into nineteenth century life, such that you simply cease to notice it’s a historical novel at all.

The plot itself is a satisfying mystery which is resolved without resorting to hiding anything from the audience, and definitely left me wanting more from the sisters – each of whom have distinct personalities.

Buy a signed copy now – While stocks last

 

4. Proximity by Jem Tugwell

The Blurb

You can’t get away with anything. Least of all murder.
Proximity
DI Clive Lussac has forgotten how to do his job. Ten years of embedded technology – `iMe’ – has led to complete control and the eradication of crime. Then the impossible happens.

A body is found, and the killer is untraceable. With new partner Zoe Jordan, Clive must re-sharpen his detective skills and find the killer without technology, before time runs out for the next victim…

My Verdict

I loved this book – despite its futuristic setting it still felt very grounded in current reality, preferring to show us the seedier side of a world being consumed by its own technology.

Lussac is considered a dinosaur in this story, but it is his humanity that sets him apart from the iMe technology. I can’t wait to explore this world further and find out what other advances have been made and how they have helped or hindered society.

Buy Now

 

3. Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens

The Blurb

At fifteen, Boady Sanden dreams of being anywhere other than Jessup, Missouri.
Nothing More Dangerous
Then the Elgins move in across the road. Getting to know his new neighbours – a black family in a community where notions of “us” and “them” still carry weight – Boady is forced to rethink the world he took for granted. Secrets hidden in plain sight begin to unfold.

There’s the mother consumed by loss of her husband, the neighbour who carries the wounds of a mysterious past, the quiet boss fighting a hidden battle. But the biggest secret of all is the disappearance of Lida Poe, the African-American woman who keeps the books at the local factory. Although Boady has never met the missing woman, he discovers that the threads of her life are woven into the deepest fabric of his world.

As the mystery of Lida’s fate plays out, Boady begins to see the stark lines of race and class that both bind and divide this small town – and he will be forced to choose sides.

My Verdict

I really liked the atmosphere of this novel, I felt drawn into Boady’s world, and as a young man he displays an ignorance of racism that we can all be guilty of, maybe not of race, but of other things.

With little exposure to the other side of the story, he doesn’t realise how offensive his words can be – and I think that can be a lesson to all of us. A) to be more considerate of others but also B) to try and educate rather than berate.

Buy Now

 

2. The Warehouse by Rob Hart

The Blurb

In a world ravaged by bankruptcy and unemployment, Cloud is the only company left worth The Warehouseworking for. But what will it cost you?A midst the wreckage of America, Cloud reigns supreme.

Cloud brands itself not just as an online storefront, but as a global saviour. Yet, beneath the sunny exterior, lurks something far more sinister. Paxton never thought he’d be working Security for the company that ruined his life, much less that he’d be moving into one of their sprawling live-work facilities.

But compared to what’s left outside, perhaps Cloud isn’t so bad. Better still, through his work he meets Zinnia, who fills him with hope for their shared future. Except that Zinnia is not what she seems.

And Paxton, with his all-access security credentials, might just be her meal ticket. As Paxton and Zinnia’s agendas place them on a collision course, they’re about to learn just how far the Cloud will go to make the world a better place. To beat the system, you have to be inside it.

My Verdict

The scariest thing about this book is you can totally see it happening. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and no one set out to create an evil corporation, but that seems to be what Cloud has become.

Like Proximity this presents a vision of a sleek future that may not be as good as it all seems. For a while there has been a trend of dystopian novels, but the only way I can describe this is as pre-dystopian. Hart presents a world on the edge of destruction, everything monopolised by one big homogenous organisation.

I’d love to see a sequel to this book to see what happens should The Cloud ever dissipate…

Buy Now

 

1. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Blurb

They were the new icons of rock and roll, fated to burn bright and not fade away. But on 12 Daisy Jones and the Six PBJuly 1979, it all came crashing down. There was Daisy, rock and roll force of nature, brilliant songwriter and unapologetic drug addict, the half-feral child who rose to superstardom.

There was Camila, the frontman’s wife, too strong-willed to let the band implode – and all too aware of the electric connection between her husband and Daisy. There was Karen, ice-cool keyboardist, a ferociously independent woman in a world that wasn’t ready for her. And there were the men surrounding them: the feuding, egotistical Dunne brothers, the angry guitarist chafing on the sidelines, the drummer binge-drinking on his boat, the bassist trying to start a family amid a hedonistic world tour.

They were creative minds striking sparks from each other, ready to go up in flames. It’s never just about the music… 

My Verdict

Anyone who’s been paying attention for – ooh, the last 12 months – could have guessed that this would be my favourite book of 2019.

It’s told in transcript form, and at first glance that shouldn’t work, but this does. You instantly have a vision of what these characters look like and it becomes really easy to differentiate them from each other. It’s almost as if the whole thing is playing as a video in your head and you’re just reading subtitles.

The music they talk about becomes as real as the characters and despite never having heard a note of it, I’m willing to put Daisy Jones in my Top 10 artists of all time.

Pre-Order the paperback now

 

 

 

 

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Review: The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd

Sometimes a publisher will hit on a winning formula for a book and suddenly we’ll see the publishing slate with similar titles. Similar jackets. Similar titles.

One of these mini-trends recently has seen the full name of the protagonist appears in the title with reference to an unlikely quantity of their death.

I avoid picking up these books, because I’ve read one of them and though I liked it, I don’t want to read it again. I want something new. It’s not necessarily an approach of book selection I recommend – it’s often just a marketing ploy and the book itself is very much its own story.

The latest book to prove me wrong is The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd.

Lauren Pailing is a young girl when she first discovers there is something different about her. Occasionally, she can get glimpses into other worlds where things are different to hers. Sometimes they’re only small differences, other times they’re big ones.

She thinks this is normal, but when she starts to receive funny looks from her parents, her teachers, her friends she starts to self-censor about what she reveals.

Then she dies.

Except she doesn’t. In the moment before her death, Lauren gets a glimpse at another life, one where she doesn’t die in the accident, and she travels through to it.

The timeline splinters and – much like Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow – we follow the different worlds as the same characters traverse different events, and each of them deal with grief.

In one world, her parents deal with the grief of losing their child. In another, Lauren deals with the grief of losing her old life and having to adjust to this new one where things are ever so slightly different.

Later in life, Lauren shifts again and in her latest world, she starts trying to investigate what has happened to her. We end up following a few different worlds, which sounds like it could be confusing, but Rudd cleverly ensures we follow a different character in each one.

The concept of parallel worlds is explored, but only obliquely. The bizarreness of the worlds is only lightly touched upon by Lauren who can sense that things are different, but isn’t quite sure what.

There’s only one jarring moment when discussing the differences which makes the reader realise just how different the world is, but I sense this is purposeful from Rudd. The point of this book isn’t the things that change between the worlds – it’s the things that stay the same.

The characters are all grieving, all of them going through the same thing and you root for them all, even though, they can’t all possibly be happy in all worlds.

I’m giving The First Time Lauren Pailing Died 7.9 out of 10. You can order your copy now for just £8.99

 

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Review: Proximity by Jem Tugwell

Proximity by Jem Tugwell  

 

ProximityOne of my goals when I started Bert’s Books was to find good books that you might not normally find.

 

That’s either because they don’t have big marketing budgets, or they simply get lost among one of the other hundreds of books that get published every week.

 

From indie publisher Serpentine Books, Proximity by Jem Tugwell is exactly that.

 

It’s the first in a new series ‘iMe’ and follows DI Clive Lussac as he struggles in an underfunded homicide department to investigate a murder. At the same time, he must contend with a marriage that’s broken down.

 

So far, so very like many other police procedurals. What sets Proximity apart from the rest?

 

It’s set in the very near future and through the eyes of Lussac, it appears to be quite a bleak one.

 

Technology has evolved to the point where every citizen is microchipped meaning that when a crime occurs, the police can find out exactly who was in the vicinity at the time.

 

It means that any ‘proximity’ crimes such as violent assaults, murder, kidnap have been all but eliminated. They do still exist, but for Lussac in the homicide department, all he needs to do is press a few buttons and – bam! – crime solved.

 

He almost longs for the old days when solving crimes actually meant doing some real police work.

 

So, when a body is found with no proximity data, he must rely on his long-forgotten detective skills to track the murderer the old-fashioned way – before they strike again.

 

What I liked about this book was that the world it inhabits feels very real. Sometimes you can read books set in the future that don’t feel relatable, but this definitely feels like it could be something we’re headed towards.

 

It feels like we only get a glimpse of the changes – and most of them are presented in a negative light by the curmudgeonly Lussac, so I’m looking forward to finding out more about this world in the next book in the series.

 

One thing it does reveal to us – if we didn’t already know it – is that crime will always find a way and that there will always be those who believe themselves to be above the law.

 

I’m giving Proximity 7.6 out of 10 – and if you like Proximity check out The Warehouse

 

Buy Proximity by Jem Tugwell

 

Pre-order the sequel No Signal now

 

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Review: Bone China by Laura Purcell

In a past life, I was responsible for shortlisting books for a prize, and I read some books I wouldn’t normally read.

9781526602534One of those – and eventual winner of the prize – was the gothic horror novel The Silent Companions. Before reading this, I wasn’t really a fan of historical fiction, but it really seems to have converted me into the genre.

Bone China is the latest from author Laura Purcell.

It features Hester Why, a nurse who has moved to a remote part of the Cornish coast to avoid her own past. There she meets the strange inhabitants of Morvoren House, including the frail lady of the house Louise Pinecroft.

Hester is trying to keep a low profile, but also, she knows that something strange is going on and she starts trying to get to the bottom of it.

We alternate between Hester’s story and forty years previously when Louise first moves to the house with her father, a doctor who is trying to cure consumption.

The character that links the two stories is the creepy Creeda, a young maid that starts at the house when Louise and her father first move in. She comes from a family that produces Bone China and it’s this crockery that forms part of the gothic mystery.

I think I enjoyed this more than Silent Companions – it really pulls you into the world that you can almost feel the wind whistling around you as Louise walks across the cliffs.

Like Silent Companions it presents a gothic mystery, one that it doesn’t fully explain as well, so it leaves open the possibility that the fairies are real.

I gave Bone China 7.8/10

You can buy a signed hardback edition of Bone China while stocks last

Also Available:

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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I read Daisy Jones & The Six right at the beginning of 2019 and declared then that I thought it was going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

I haven’t stopped banging on about it since then, so it seemed the right time to finally get around to doing my review of it.

It’s also part of Bert’s Books of the Year on twitter – check it out. #BBOTY

Set in the 1970’s, it’s the story of an average rock band who release the defining record of the era when they collaborate with Daisy Jones.

It has a unique way of telling the story – it’s a transcript of a Talking Heads TV documentary. The unseen interviewer speaks to various members of the band as well as people who were around the band as they rose to fame.

There are some members who don’t get spoken to, though it’s not clear why – is there a rift? Have they died? All options are quite possible as we learn about the bonds that formed amongst the band members – and the bonds that broke down over time.

It’s fascinating to see the relationships change, plus the different perceptions of different events. You almost forget that these aren’t real people – in fact, I had to google just to check.

Though it’s a book, you can almost hear the album sound-tracking the story, so it becomes a bit of a disappointment once you get to the end that the album doesn’t actually exist.

I was a bit put off at the beginning because the style is so different, however you very quickly get into the rhythm of it and the characters – particularly Billy and Daisy – end up staying with you longer after the final page.

It’s being made into a mini-series set to air on Amazon Video, and with Reese Witherspoon set to executive produce it looks like it will be a big hit, so make sure you’ve caught up on the book beforehand.

I’m giving Daisy Jones & The Six 8.6 / 10

 

You can buy Daisy Jones & The Six in hardback now

Or pre-order the paperback edition now

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Bert’s Books of the Year – 2019

It’s coming up to the most wonderful time of the year… Not Christmas, but Book of the Year Season.

 

From around mid-November, newspapers, shops and book-bloggers start wheeling out lists of their favourite titles published that year.

 

I thought it would be more fun for Bert’s Books Book of the Year to be decided by you – so I’ve picked a list of 32 books for us to whittle down to just one.

 

Most of the 32 have been picked by me, but I’ve filled up the list with suggestions from folk on Twitter who responded last week with lots of fab books.

 

Peruse the list below to decide on your favourites, then head over to Twitter using the hashtag #BertsBOTY to join in the fun.

 

I’ve already randomly split the 32 titles into 8 groups of four…

 

Group A

 

Group B

 

Group C

 

Group D

 

Group E

 

Group F

 

Group G

 

Group H

 

The first round of voting will be open until Wednesday 13th November 2019 and you can join in here

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Review: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

In a past life I used to write book reviews every week (you can find them over at alexjcall.wordpress.com) – but setting up a website, and reading about a million books a month has taken up all my time and I’ve not done any in-depth reviews for a while.

 

Fortunately, I’ve become much more productive AND I’ve built a new spreadsheet (you should know by now, I love a spreadsheet) which will help me not only keep track of the millions of books but also score them based on five factors:

 

  • Genre
  • Character
  • Engagement
  • Plot
  • Diversity

 

I’ll talk more about these measures, why they’re important in and how I measure them in more depth in the future, but for now, it’s time to look at the first book to receive the Bert’s review treatment.

 

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

The Vanished Bride

The Vanished Bride is the first in a new historical crime series: The Brontë Mysteries.

 

As the name suggests, the book focuses on the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – as they solve crime in the sleepy setting of Haworth in West Yorkshire.

 

We join the sisters in the summer of 1845 when Charlotte receives news from her friend Matilda, a governess at nearby Chester Grange. Her mistress is missing and her bedroom is covered in blood.

 

It is Anne who first suggests that they investigate, having read about detectorists in the paper, but it is Emily who runs with it, determined that it not be against the wit of three intelligent women to be able to solve the mystery.

 

The three of them set off to Chester Grange to find out more about what has happened, and from there they find themselves embroiled in a plot that only gets more befuddling the further they look into it.

 

Bella Ellis is the pseudonym of Rowan Coleman, author of – amongst many other things – The Summer of Impossible Things. This is meant as a compliment, but if I hadn’t known that this book was written by Coleman, I wouldn’t have been able to guess.

 

I’ve never read any of the Brontës before, but the three sisters are written completely in period style, as if a classic Victorian writer had written the book themselves. The dialogue and their thoughts immediately take you straight into nineteenth century life, such that you simply cease to notice it’s a historical novel at all.

 

The plot itself is a satisfying mystery which is resolved without resorting to hiding anything from the audience, and definitely left me wanting more from the sisters – each of whom have distinct personalities.

 

It is clear Ellis/Coleman has a great fondness for the Brontës and as she notes herself in the acknowledgements, while there is no evidence that the sisters solved crime in their spare time, neither is there any evidence that they didn’t.

 

I’m not sure the book is enough to make me want to read anything by the Brontës, but it has definitely made me want to find out more about them – perhaps even a trip to Haworth is in order to see the parsonage.

 

A few notes on the scoring before I reveal it –

  • I favour a 1–10 scale as I think 5 doesn’t give a lot of difference.
  • I’m a harsh judge – I’ve never given a book perfect marks before – truly exceptional books will get a 9.
  • I’ll not review books which score less than five – it means I don’t recommend them, which means we don’t need to talk about them.

 

I’ve given The Vanished Bride 7.1 out of 10 – it’s available to buy now in hardback.

 

It’s a great book which I loved, and has definitely made my list of favourite books of this year.

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Matt Cain – My Life in Books

When I was starting Bert’s Books The Madonna of Bolton was one of the books that I had in my mind.

I’d read it, it was excellent and yet Matt was turned down by thirty publishers because the book was ‘too gay’.

It’s really not. I’ve read much gayer books – but they’re usually confined to the heavy tomes written by writers who suck on pipes and win the Booker.

If The Madonna of Bolton – the fastest funded book on Unbound – isn’t reaching the hands of the every day customer, how many other books aren’t I thought?

You know the rest – but the reason I’m talking about it today is that this week sees the publication of The Madonna of Bolton in paperback you can buy it on Bert’s, of course, but if you want to know more about how Matt ticks, here in his own words he explains ten important books from his life – handily, most of them are available to order by clicking on the links.

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis 

9780007323128My mum first read this to me, my brother and sister when we were little and I was completely blown away. Over the next few years I must have read it myself at least ten more times. Because I was a camp, girly boy living in a rough northern town I never really fit in and had a horrible time at school. There were times I was so unhappy I would have loved nothing better than being whisked away to a fantasy world like Narnia, where I was a king and everyone loved me. I think that’s why the book made such an impact on me.

 

 

La Gloire de Mon Père by Marcel Pagnol

41DF55CF5HL.jpgWhen I was a teenager I fell in love with learning different languages; I think that again part of the appeal here was escaping reality and transforming myself into a slightly different person. The first novels I read in French were by Marcel Pagnol and I loved them all, although this, the story of a young boy who bonds with his dad on hunting trips around their holiday home in Provence, is the first one that really drew me in. The films are lovely too.

 

 

Sex by Madonna

620x349.jpegI was at sixth-form college when Sex was released in 1992 and my obsession with Madonna was at its height; as an outspoken ally of the LGBT community and a sexually confident woman whose insistence on expressing her desires labelled her a fellow outsider, I elected her as my spirit guide. Sex was a coffee-table book of explicit images exploring Madonna’s sexual fantasies that was shot by photographer Steven Meisel. The project represented the most transgressive move of Madonna’s career and saw most mainstream media outlets align against her for the first time. But this didn’t stop the limited edition of 150,000 sealed, aluminium-backed copies from selling out on the first day. I was struck by Madonna’s bravery as a feminist and the defiantly queer tone of much of the book, as well as the beauty and power of some of the imagery.

 

 

Fortunata y Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós

40117029.jpgWhen I went to Cambridge to study French and Spanish literature, I found myself forced to read countless novels that I found really hard going. But I did fall in love with the work of Flaubert, Balzac, Zola and Gide in French, and Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa and Manuel Puig in Spanish. One of my favourite novels on the reading list was Fortunata y Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós, which was written in 1887 and tells the interlinking stories of two women of different classes living in Madrid. The book is bitingly critical of the class snobbery and sexism of the time and I loved it. When I spent a year living in Madrid between 1996 and 1997, I re-read it and would often stroll around the streets where it’s set bringing the characters to life in my mind.

 

 

Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins

9781849836258By the time I left Cambridge, being forced to read and analyse so many worthy, academic books had pretty much killed all the joy I used to find in reading. That summer I went on holiday with two girlfriends and we each read a Jackie Collins. I picked up Hollywood Wives and within minutes I was drooling, gasping and giggling out loud on the beach. After years of feeling like my batteries had run out, it was as if somebody had switched me back on again. I’ve since read several of Jackie’s books and love her colourful characters, energetic plotting, and the intoxicating cocktail of humour, glamour and sex that she serves up every time.

 

 

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

9781784700034When I started my career in TV arts programming, Jackie Collins was one of the writers I was lucky enough to interview – and over the years I’ve also had the opportunity to interview or work with David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Jonathan Harvey and Barbara Kingsolver. But one of the first authors I interviewed for TV was Sebastian Faulks, whose World War 1 epic Birdsong is one of my favourite books of all time and was the first to reduce me to tears. Meeting its author made me see writers as real people and writing itself as something that maybe I too could do one day.

 

 

Thomas Hardy: A Life by Claire Tomalin

9780241963289During the eight years I spent making documentaries for The South Bank Show, I worked with several amazing artists, including Carol Ann Duffy, Ewan McGregor, Darcey Bussell and Ian McKellen, each of whom inspired me in different ways to draw on my own creativity. But my early attempts at writing fiction were rejected by countless agents and publishers, something which left me feeling devastated. Then, in 2006, I made a documentary with Claire Tomalin about her biography of Thomas Hardy. I’d always loved Claire Tomalin’s work; although her biographies are impeccably researched, they read like freely-imagined fiction. And I was hooked on her latest when I discovered that, like me, Hardy was devastated when his first novel had been rejected for publication – and even when he’d achieved success, his work was often derided by critics. I went on to devour all of Hardy’s novels before setting off to shoot the documentary on location in Dorset and Cornwall, where I spent a wonderful few weeks that inspired me to keep writing and not to give up on my dream.

 

 

One Day by David Nicholls

9780340896983I love this book so much that I don’t think I could ever be friends with someone, and I certainly couldn’t fall in love with someone, if they didn’t feel the same way about it. If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t read it, it tells a twenty-year love story through a series of set-piece scenes taking place on the same day at yearly intervals. I read it when I was writing my first novel Shot Through the Heart, when I’d been single for ages and needed switching back on to romance so I could make my own fictional love story come alive. One Day delivered exactly what I was looking for – and a whole lot more besides. It’s a book that has been written with such sensitivity and humanity I think it has the power to make everyone who reads it a better person.

 

 

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

9781408821985Between 2010 and 2013 I worked as Culture Editor on Channel 4 News, reporting on all areas of the arts. During my time in the role I was lucky enough to meet even more amazing artists working in various fields, such as Grayson Perry, Pedro Almodóvar and the Spice Girls, but I made sure I devoted a lot of attention to stories about writers and the publishing industry as I was trying to use my position to finally secure a book deal for my own fiction. While covering the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize) I interviewed the author Madeline Miller, who’d just re-worked the Greek mythology in Homer’s The Iliad to create the gay love story at the heart of that year’s winning novel, The Song of Achilles. I don’t think you’ll ever read a more beautiful account of romantic, lustful and intimate love – gay or straight. I felt stunned after I’d read it – and was relieved to find that its author wasn’t just clever and talented but adorable and friendly too.

 

 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

Tales of the CityThis series of novels set in San Francisco burst into life in the mid-1970s and they’re a riotous romp through the interlinking stories of several ‘gay, straight and travelling’ characters from different backgrounds, many of them tenants of 28 Barbary Lane, a boarding house run by transgender landlady Mrs Madrigal. It was while working as Editor-in-Chief of Attitude, the UK’s biggest-selling magazine for gay men, that I went to San Francisco to shoot and interview author Armistead Maupin. The experience was one of the things that inspired me to dig out my manuscript for The Madonna of Bolton, a novel I’d written that had been rejected by over thirty publishers who considered its gay content and central character ‘uncommercial’. I wanted to prove them wrong – and that’s when I decided to crowdfund the novel through Unbound and attempt to raise the funds in record time. I succeeded in seven days and this helped secure a mainstream release for the novel. It became a bestseller in hardback last year and attracted some very positive reviews – and now I can’t wait for it to be released in paperback!

 

The Madonna of Bolton is available in paperback  from Thursday 16th May