Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books of 2016 (so far)

This week’s TTT topic is Favourite 2016 Releases So Far (see The Broke and The Bookish for future topics). I have now read 141 books this year, a large number of which were new releases, so this is much trickier than it should be. I’m actually going to attempt to put these in order too, just to make my life more difficult.

10. This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab
I am officially obsessed with V.E. Schwab. I was looking forward to this tale of a fractured city and creepy monsters for ages and it completely lived up to my expectations, which isn’t usually the case. My review will be up later this week.

9. The Museum of You by Carys Bray
This is a really, really good read; it’s tragic enough to be affecting but, weirdly, is also very, very funny. I thoroughly recommend. Review here.

8. Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
I read this last year, although it came out in 2016, and had forgotten how brilliant it is until I was searching for something new and exciting to teach to year 9 next year. I love everything about Wolf by Wolf and can’t wait for the sequel. Review here.

7. The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
This was a recent read, so it’s still very fresh in my mind. I loved Tempest’s style; although the story wasn’t the most original, it’s a brilliantly written book and I’m now looking forward to reading her poetry. Review here.

6. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Set in Tennessee: check. Characters with cool music taste: check. Deeply tragic story and dysfunctional families: check. I loved this book; if you haven’t read it, you really should. Review here.

5. The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
In amongst the ten billion Brontë-related books I’ve read recently, this stands out: it’s a very clever and also extremely funny story of a (fictitious) last descendant of the sisters and her battle with that legacy. Review here.

4. Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book all my life. It’s entertaining, touching and really life-affirming. There are so many quotes from it that I want to write all over the walls of my house (but I’m not supposed to do that any more).

3. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
More Schwab: I adore the world of this book and its predecessor, A Darker Shade of Magic. Schwab’s characters are brilliantly realised and everything about the book is completely compelling. The fact that I have till next year for the third book makes me want to break things.

2. The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
This YA novel about teens growing up in Alaska is almost too lovely to actually talk about. I constantly fight the urge to force copies of it on everyone I know. Review here.

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
    This book is a total joy; it’s wildly inventive and completely mad and I kind of want to marry it. You can find a slightly more coherent list of reasons for its brilliance here.

Throwing caution to the wind in my never-ending battle against my TBR shelf, I’d love links in the comments so I can check out some other TTTs this week.

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Review: The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

the-bricks-that-built-the-houses.jpgBefore I try to sound really intelligent and conduct an intellectual analysis of Kate Tempest’s debut novel, allow me to say one thing: The Bricks That Built the Houses is really, really good. It’s a deceptively quick read, primarily because it is genuinely difficult to put down, such is the compulsive nature of Tempest’s story. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s one that I enjoyed throughout and was disappointed to have to finish.

The novel begins with Becky, Harry and Leon driving away from London and the mysterious mess they seem to have made of their lives there. After this introduction, Kate goes back to describe exactly what it is that drug dealers Harry and Leon, and Becky, a dancer, have done to make running away seem like a good option. Tempest depicts a London which seems deeply unpleasant, brimming with gangsters and illegal substances and an undercurrent of violence; I will think of all these things the next time some annoying person asks me why I never wanted to live there. Of the three characters, Harry is the most interesting, and Leon the most undeveloped, which makes the narrative slightly uneven; I forgot he was even there until quite late on, although perhaps this was the point, given that his role in the narcotics business is to be the silent, protective muscle of the partnership. Becky is a complex and interesting character, not particularly pleasant but still someone you end up rooting for.

More interesting than the main narrative, for me, were the frequent revelations about the parents of the principle characters; these gave The Bricks That Built the Houses the air of a family saga as well as a gritty crime novel, which I enjoyed. The story of one ancestor who faked an identity to escape German troops during WWII was a particularly interesting one, and while these backstories overshadow the more familiar (because, obviously, drug dealers and sex workers are just really everyday to me) events in the present, they add to rather than detract from the main story.

Reading a novel by a writer principally known for their poetry might create expectations of overly flowery prose, but Tempest’s debut novel, by contrast, is economical in its style, never over-describing or romanticising. It’s made me want to read Tempest’s poetry and I’ll definitely look out for her prose works in the future.

Review: The Museum of You by Carys Bray

museum of youCarys Bray has already upset me once, with A Song for Issy Bradley; that book, about a family who lose their youngest child to meningitis, broke my heart just the tiniest bit. Here, Bray does the same trick but in reverse; The Museum of You tells the story of twelve-year-old Clover, whose mother died several years before. The museum of the title is the one which Clover begins to put together in the spare room: a monument to memories of a mother who Clover herself cannot remember.

The main difference between this and Bray’s previous novel is that The Museum of You is surprisingly funny; although the main plotline is obviously tragic, the day-to-day lives of Clover, her father and their neighbour, Mrs Mackerel, contain plenty of moments to make you smile (or, in the case of the latter, chortle in a fashion which may wake up sleeping partners). Mrs Mackerel speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS HALF THE TIME because she can’t hear properly but is too proud to wear a hearing aid; I can’t explain why, but I find this way of emphasising words (see also: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas) really amusing. Mrs Mackerel also possesses a fundamental inability to get well-known sayings right, which creates plenty of humour too. There’s also a very amusing subplot in which Darren, Clover’s father, tries to buy her a book about puberty but ends up with How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, which traumatised me as an adult so God knows the effect it would have on a pre-teen.

Obviously, beneath all this is genuine sadness, as Clover slowly unravels the mystery of what happened to her mother. Echoes of her lie all around the house, even beneath the wallpaper. As Clover gathers mementoes of her lost parent, inventing her own, often inaccurate narratives about books and t-shirts, the reader cannot help but be struck with the pathos that lies in the difference between the emotional stories she comes up with and the truth, revealed to us before Clover. The heartbreak of the whole story, from Darren holding on to Becky’s possessions so many years after her death, to his seemingly distant father and mentally ill brother-in-law, might make The Museum of You sound overwhelmingly sad, but, ultimately, I didn’t find this a depressing or in any way mawkish read; Bray tells the story of this extended, troubled but loving family in such a subtle, witty and authentic way that the overall effect is to produce something really quite lovely.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Exciting Releases, July-December 2016

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is about books we’re excited about in the second half of 2016. Once I had finished freaking out about being halfway through 2016, this is what I came up with:

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman (October 13th)
I remain obsessed with Illuminae, so obviously I am extremely excited about this one. It is possible that this is the most excited I have ever been about a book. My husband, a non-reader who also loved Illuminae, has, I think, deliberately booked our holiday in October around the book’s release, so we can each buy a copy to read while we’re away.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (27th September)
Another book which will be on about a million lists this week: I loved Six of Crows and I’m really looking forward to being immersed in this world again. I’ve also been nerdy enough to pre-order the Grisha trilogy boxset, so it is possible that by October I’ll have forgotten that it isn’t actually real.

Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas (6th September)
Again, this is a predictable choice. I’ve had mixed feelings about the Throne of Glass series, but I liked Queen of Shadows so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for more Chaol and Aelin picking a name and sticking to it.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (16th June)
This is kind of cheating because this actually just about comes out in the first half of the year, but I won’t buy it until it’s a bit cheaper, by which time it will be October or something. I love Annie Proulx’s books, especially the Wyoming stories; this sounds quite different to the rest of her writing (for one thing, it doesn’t appear to be set in Wyoming) so I’m looking forward to picking it up.

Kids of Appetite by David Arnold (20th September)
My love for Mosquitoland, Arnold’s previous novel, knows literally no bounds, so this is one of my most anticipated books ever. I’ve not seen much in the way of plot details, but Amazon informs me that this will be “a powerful and funny young adult novel that meditates on loss, love and disability” (actually, Amazon actually tells me that it “mediates” on these things, but I’m assuming that’s an unfortunate typo).

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr (3rd November)
Having discovered that this is coming out, I’m appalled that I have to wait until November to read it. I’m a huge fan of The Smiths and Marr’s solo work, and was put off reading Morrissey’s autobiography by the fact that it apparently only included about two pages about the band. So I’m hoping Johnny is a little more open about the making of some of my most favourite songs.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (6th October)
This is part of the Hogarth series of Shakespeare retellings, with Atwood taking on The Tempest. I’ve not been a huge fan of the other books in this series, but Atwood on her worst day is better than pretty much everyone else on their best so I am confident that this will be awesome.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (15th November)
I’m a big admirer of Smith’s novels so it is exciting to find that she’s got a new one coming out; this is set in north-west London and west Africa, following the lives of two aspiring dancers.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (6th October)
All the Bright Places was one of my favourite books of last year, so I’m really looking forward to reading this and needing a lot of therapy afterwards.

Little Women by Jennifer Adams (1st November)
I have previously written of my immense love for the Babylit series; if you haven’t seen them, they’re board book primers, taking key ideas from classics and adding beautiful illustrations. We have the full set in our house; I could say this is all for my daughter’s benefit but I’d be lying.

What have we learned from this list? That I probably need to sell a kidney to finance my book-buying from September onwards.