Fiction book reviews Jan-April 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve done some reviews, but I’ve been reading. So buckle up for four posts in a row of great books, including my ‘best of 2017’ in each category, for I missed my ‘end of year’ reviews in the chaos of releasing my own book, Those Who Wait!

Some really amazing ones in this category – Spark and The Sellout my favourite of this bunch so far this year.

1. Spark – Alice Broadway.

Spark is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and popular Young Adult book, Ink, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2018 (missing out to the worthy winner The Hate U Give).

Last year I told anyone who would listen about Ink, which is set in a world where every major thing you do, good and bad, is tattooed onto your skin for all to see. Without giving away any spoilers, Leora is in the world of the blanks, and nothing is quite as it seems. The twists get twistier, and just when you think she’s done twisting, she twists again. The ending left me open-mouthed.

What’s brilliant about this book is that it has philosophical sophistication: she asks questions of the stories we tell ourselves. At times I thought, ‘this is a critique of Christianity’; at other times I thought, ‘this is about the Holocaust’ and other times I thought, ‘no, this is about racism and Jim Crow laws in America’.

The way that it maps onto all these themes and more shows the power of pure storytelling in conveying universal truths – which is apt, because at its heart that is what it’s about. At least, that’s what it’s about if you’re an adult literature fan – if you’re a teenager, you’re just trying to work out where Leora belongs and who’s betraying whom.

Perfect for teens and adults alike, this is a worthy sequel to Ink. Highly recommended.

NB Ink, the first in the series, is currently on sale for £2 on – for the paperback! Bargainest bargain.

2. Dunbar – Edward St Aubyn.

There’s a series of books re-imagining Shakespeare’s plays, and this was the King Lear adaptation. A businessman, Dunbar, (Lear) escapes from an old people’s home with a washed-up comedian with mental health issues (the Fool), while his daughters (two cruel, one caring) race to find him to destroy his sanity or rescue him, respectively.

In the first few pages, I nearly stopped reading because it was a little stilted, but that soon gave way to excellent, fluent prose. Lear as a play can drag, but there is much wit and levity to balance the sadness and horror within. In particular, his exploration of temporary madness was brilliant.

I’d say that it’s a great book to enjoy in its own right, but at another level if you know (or are trying to understand) King Lear. A great novel, especially for literature enthusiasts or teachers. Highly recommended

3. A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman.

This winner of the International Booker Prize is a challenging read about an unlikeable Israeli comedian giving the most important show of his life, with hints that it might be the last in his life.

It walks a very fine tightrope between the offensive humour of his jokes and the pathos and intrigue of his life story. Somehow the tension is kept throughout with a juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy.

Whilst the context is contemporary Israel and the legacy of the Holocaust, it’s not preachy: the battle is a personal one and it drives the story. I felt grateful at the end that I’d read it – it’s different to anything else out there and a worthy winner of the prize. Highly recommended.

4. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared

Jonas Jonasson.

The storyline of the present-day, where a centenarian breaks out of his old people’s home and becomes entangled with criminals, intertwines with reminiscences of his adventurous life throughout the twentieth century.

It is a darkly humorous and very witty tour through the major events of the past 100 years, well-researched, with bursts of real historical insight. It’s basically a black-comedy Forest Gump, and I can see why it’s an international bestseller. 

It would float out of my memory as an enjoyable, quick and clever read if not for the question that I asked myself at the end of it: Is he a villain, or a hero? What is his morality? This would make an excellent book group book for discussion. Recommended.

5. The Sellout – Paul Beatty.

From the description of this Booker Prize Winner 2017 as a ‘biting satire about race’ I’d got the impression that it was a courtroom rant about racism, and that put me off. It’s not.

It is an exploration of racism in America, told through the eyes of a highly intelligent African American man who battles to stop his town from becoming erased, and who uses absurdity and humour to illustrate the frustration of being black in America.

It’s hilarious, in the tradition of the best kinds of comedians – a dead-pan clever, wry humour that provokes belly-laughs but also discomfits you and makes you think. Sometimes the secondary characters felt a little bit two-dimensional, but the protagonist is such a complex character that it more than makes up for that.

This is an outstanding, unique book that will make you laugh, get angry and wipe away tears as well as presenting a nuanced and thought-provoking picture of racial discrimination in America. I loved this. Highly recommended.

6. Elmet – Fiona Mozley.

A good man who loves violence battles to protect his children and stop his off-the-grid home from being taken away. Although it’s set in the present day, Elmet reads as a medieval story – the conflict between landowners and peasants translated to modern day class conflict.

There are many great scenes, and in some ways this is well-written. But I found myself skipping past long descriptive passages of forest, and the horror of certain scenes were never counterbalanced with any sense of redemption, so the ending felt unsatisfactory to me.

I didn’t feel this was worth the Booker Prize shortlist plaudit, and it wasn’t for me. Not recommended.

7. The Lie of the Land – Amanda Craig.

A high-powered London couple on the verge of divorce lose their jobs, so have to move- together – into a dilapidated cottage in Devon until they can sell their flat and get divorced. Oh, and there’s a dead body in the garden.

The result was a witty and intelligent exploration of town vs country in Britain today, with enough of the relationship and murder mystery to keep the story moving.

If you’re middle class, then it is a painfully-accurate read, and she has some very astute insights into the privileged angst of those with money. This is a grower – in the middle, it was a little slow, but the ending was satisfying, and the themes and characters have really stayed with me. Recommended. (I actually read this in August 2017 and never posted it up, so it’s here belatedly!)

Follow my reviews on Goodreads.

Those Who Wait 

AND don’t forget my own book, with now 70!! glowing reviews, Those Who Wait – Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay. Perfect for anyone who feels like they’re living life stuck in a waiting room.

“This is a gentle book full of humanity, biblical integrity and unexpected humour.” – Pete Greig, founder of 24:7 Prayer Movement.

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