My Top 20 Books of 2018

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A Year of Reading

As 2018 draws to a close so does another year of reading. I’ve read 60 books this year. Yes, I’m a keen reader. I guess most writers are. But even if I never wrote another word I’d still be a reader. I love how it can transport, educate and inspire me. I love how reading can delight me and make me think.

For this round up of my year in books, I’ve picked out my top 20 favourite books of 2018 – 5 non-fiction and 15 fiction. Most of the other 40 came close to making it on to the list but there were, inevitably, a few which I didn’t enjoy or which I didn’t finish. Reading is subjective after all – and one woman’s can’t-put-down is another woman’s don’t-care-what happens.

My Top 20 Books

So what have been the books that have transported, or educated, or inspired me this year? What books have made me laugh, or cry, or think? The list is in no particular order.

Non-fiction

Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell

 

When she was diagnosed with dementia at the age of fifty-eight, Wendy Mitchell was confronted with the most profound questions about life and identity. All at once, she had to say goodbye to the woman she used to be. Her demanding career in the NHS, her ability to drive, cook and run – the various shades of her independence – were suddenly gone.

Philosophical, profoundly moving, insightful and ultimately full of hope, Somebody I Used to Know is both a heart-rending tribute to the woman Wendy once was, and a brave affirmation of the woman dementia has seen her become.

How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett

This book is a manifesto for quiet activism: how to tackle issues not with shouting and aggression but with gentle protest, using the process of ‘making’ to engage thoughtfully in the issues we are about, to influence and effect change.

Divided by Tim Marshall

We feel more divided than ever. This riveting analysis tells you why.

Walls are going up. Nationalism and identity politics are on the rise once more. Thousands of miles of fences and barriers have been erected in the past ten years, and they are redefining our political landscape.

Understanding what has divided us, past and present, is essential to understanding much of what’s going on in the world today. Covering China; the USA; Israel and Palestine; the Middle East; the Indian Subcontinent; Africa; Europe and the UK, bestselling author Tim Marshall presents a gripping and unflinching analysis of the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come.

Beyond Tribal Loyalties by Avigail Abarbanel

There is an expectation in Jewish communities that all Jews embrace Zionism and offer automatic, unquestioning support for Israel, “right or wrong”. Jewish identity and Zionism are commonly and deliberately blurred. Jews who criticise Israel are often vilified and excluded. By expressing sympathy for the Palestinians, they risk being branded as traitors and accused of “supporting the enemies of Israel”.

Beyond Tribal Loyalties is a unique collection of twenty-five personal stories of Jewish peace activists from Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom & the United States.

The Biography of Story by Trish Nicholson

An entertaining cultural history and a highly original take on the power of stories in societies past and present. Trish Nicholson brings us a unique interweaving of literature and history seen through the eyes of storytellers, making a fascinating journey for general readers and students alike. From tales of the Bedouin, to Homer, Aesop and Valmiki, and from Celtic bards and Icelandic skalds to Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Scott and Chekhov, some of the many storytellers featured will be familiar to you; others from Africa, Asia and the Pacific may be fresh discoveries.

Fiction

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name.

Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th-century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins.

But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

 

Memory and Straw by Angus Peter Campbell

Gavin and Emma live in Manhattan. She’s a musician. He works in Artificial Intelligence. He’s good at his job. Scarily good. He’s researching human features to make more realistic mask-bots – non-human ‘carers’ for elderly people. When his enquiry turns personal he’s forced to ask whether his own life is an artificial mask.

Delving into family stories and his roots in the Highlands of Scotland, he embarks on a quest to discover his own true face, ‘uniquely sprung from all the faces that had been’.

A novel about the struggle for freedom and personal identity; what it means to be human. It fuses the glass and steel of our increasingly controlled algorithmic world with the memory and straw of our forebears’ world controlled by traditions and taboos, the seasons and the elements.

Face the Wind and Fly by Jenny Harper

Love, loss and family life against the background of a controversial project that fractures the whole community. She builds wind farms, he detests them. Can they ever generate love? After fifteen happy years of marriage, Kate Courtenay discovers that her charismatic novelist husband is spending more and more of his time with a young fan. She throws herself into her work, a controversial wind farm that’s stirring up tempers in the local community. Sparks fly when she goes head to head against its most outspoken opponent, local gardener Ibsen Brown – a man with a past of his own. But a scheme for a local community garden brings the sparring-partners together, producing the sort of electricity that threatens to short-circuit the whole system.

The Long Walk Back by Rachel Dove

Does everyone deserve a second chance?

As an army trauma surgeon Kate knows how to keep her cool in the most high pressure of situations. Although back at home in England her marriage is falling apart, out in the desert she’s happy knowing that she’s saving lives.

Until she meets Cooper. It’s up to Kate to make a split-second decision to save Cooper’s life. Yet Cooper doesn’t want to be saved. Can Kate convince him to give his life a second chance even though it’s turning out dramatically different from how he planned?

An Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy by June Kearns

Jane Austen meets Zane Grey
The American West, 1867. After a stagecoach wreck, well-bred bookish spinster, Annie Haddon, (product of mustn’t-take-off-your-hat, mustn’t-take-off-your-gloves, mustn’t-get-hot-or-perspire Victorian society) is thrown into the company of cowboy, Colt McCall – a man who lives by his own rules and hates the English.
Can two people from such wildly different backgrounds learn to trust each other? Annie and McCall find out on their journey across the haunting, mystical landscape of the West.

Somewhere Beyond the Sea by Miranda Dickinson

Can you fall in love with someone before you’ve even met?

Seren MacArthur is living a life she never intended. Trying to save the Cornish seaside business her late father built – while grieving for his loss – she has put her own dreams on hold and is struggling. Until she discovers a half-finished seaglass star on her favourite beach during an early morning walk. When she completes the star, she sets into motion a chain of events that will steal her heart and challenge everything she believes.

Jack Dixon is trying to secure a better life for daughter Nessie and himself. Left a widower and homeless when his wife died, he’s just about keeping their heads above water. Finding seaglass stars completed on Gwithian beach is a bright spark that slowly rekindles his hope.

Oh Crumbs by Kathryn Freeman

Abby Spencer knows she can come across as an airhead – she talks too much and is a bit of a klutz – but there’s more to her than that. Though she sacrificed her career to help raise her sisters, a job interview at biscuit company Crumbs could finally be her chance to shine. That’s until she hurries in late wearing a shirt covered in rusk crumbs, courtesy of her baby nephew, and trips over her handbag.

Managing director Douglas Faulkner isn’t sure what to make of Abby Spencer with her Bambi eyes, tousled hair and ability to say more in the half-hour interview than he manages in a day. All he knows is she’s a breath of fresh air and could bring a new lease of life to the stale corporate world of Crumbs. To his life too, if he’d let her.

But Doug’s harbouring a secret. He’s not the man she thinks he is.

Isobel’s Promise by Maggie Christensen

Back in Sydney after her aunt’s death, sixty-five year-old Bel Davison is making plans to sell up her home and business and return to Scotland where she has promised to spend the rest of her life with the enigmatic Scotsman with whom she’s found love.

But the reappearance of her ex-husband combined with other unexpected drawbacks turns her life into chaos, leading her to have doubts about the wisdom of her promise.

 

In Scotland, Matt Reid has no such doubts, and although facing challenges of his own, he longs for Bel’s return.

Can this midlife couple find happiness in the face of the challenges life has thrown at them?

The Many Colours of Us by Rachel Burton

Julia Simmonds had never been bothered about not knowing who her father was. Having temperamental supermodel, Philadelphia Simmonds, as a mother was more than enough. Until she finds out that she’s the secret love-child of the late, great artist Bruce Baldwin, and her life changes forever.

Uncovering the secrets of a man she never knew, Julia discovers that Bruce had written her one letter, every year until her eighteenth birthday, urging his daughter to learn from his mistakes.

As Julia begins to uncover her past she also begins to unravel her future. With gorgeous lawyer Edwin Jones for company Julia may not only discover her roots but she may just fall in love…

The Perfectly Imperfect Woman by Milly Johnson

Marnie Salt has made so many mistakes in her life that she fears she will never get on the right track. But when she ‘meets’ an old lady on a baking chatroom and begins confiding in her, little does she know how her life will change.

Arranging to see each other for lunch, Marnie finds discovers that Lilian is every bit as mad and delightful as she’d hoped – and that she owns a whole village in the Yorkshire Dales, which has been passed down through generations. And when Marnie needs a refuge after a crisis, she ups sticks and heads for Wychwell – a temporary measure, so she thinks.

A novel of family, secrets, love and redemption … and broken hearts mended and made all the stronger for it.

The Winter that Made Us by Kate Field

When Tess finds herself unexpectedly alone and back in Ribblemill, the childhood village she thought she’d escaped, she’s sure she can survive a temporary stay. She’s spent a lifetime making the best of things, hasn’t she?

Determined to throw herself into village life, Tess starts a choir and gathers a team of volunteers to restore the walled garden at Ramblings, the local stately home. Everything could be perfect, if she weren’t sharing a cottage and a cat with a man whose manner is more prickly than the nettles she’s removing…

As winter approaches, Tess finds herself putting down her own roots as fast as she’s pulling them up in the garden. But the ghosts of the past hover close by, and Tess must face them if she’s to discover whether home is where her heart has been all along.

It’s Who We Are by Christine Webber

Five friends in their fifties find themselves dealing with unforeseen upheaval as they uncover long-hidden and devastating family secrets. Meanwhile, the world around them seems to be spinning out of control.
The events of It’s Who We Are take place between October 2016 and June 2017, against a backdrop of all the political uncertainty and change in the UK, Europe and America.
The story is set in East Anglia, London and Ireland, and is about friendship, kindness and identity. Most importantly, it highlights how vital it is to reach for what enhances rather than depletes you.

One Thousand Stars and You by Isabelle Broom

Alice is settling down. It might not be the adventurous life she once imagined, but more than anything she wants to make everyone happy – her steady boyfriend, her over-protective mother – even if it means a little part of her will always feel stifled.

Max is shaking things up. After a devastating injury, he is determined to prove himself. To find the man beyond the disability, to escape his smothering family and go on an adventure.

A trip to Sri Lanka is Alice’s last hurrah – her chance to throw herself into the heat, chaos and colour of a place thousands of miles from home.

It’s also the moment she meets Max.

Alice doesn’t know it yet, but her whole life is about to change.

Max doesn’t know it yet, but he’s the one who’s going to change it.

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

A retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, fly to Amsterdam for a midwinter break. A holiday to refresh the senses, to see the sights and to generally take stock of what remains of their lives. But amongst the wintry streets and icy canals we see their relationship fracturing beneath the surface. And when memories re-emerge of a troubled time in their native Ireland things begin to fall apart. As their midwinter break comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are – and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves.

Gift Horse by Jan Ruth

Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father.

Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.

Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved.

Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?

As the truth begins to unravel, Caroline finds herself faced with a complex trail of moral dilemma.

Snow Angel by JJ Marsh

December in a small Devonshire village is the perfect time for a Yuletide festival, a Narnian wedding or a murder.
Now retired, Beatrice is working on a book, planning a wedding and pretending she doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of Scotland Yard.

When a local celebrity dies in suspicious circumstances, Matthew encourages Beatrice to do some private investigating. Her enquiries reveal more than predicted and she discovers even her nearest and dearest are capable of deceit.

A snowstorm hits the village and Beatrice chases a lead, throwing everyone’s plans into disarray and threatening lives. The ancient forest conceals a primeval web of complex loyalties and lethal bonds.

Angels protect their friends. But destroy their enemies.

That’s it!

 

All the books above are available in a selection of formats and can be bought online and in book shops. And , of course, it’s always worth asking at your local library.

Have you read any of the above books? If so did you enjoy them too? What would your top read/reads be for 2018? Feel free to comment below.

Good Reads and Independent Booksellers

Two main reasons for this post: It’s  Independent Booksellers Week in the UK (20th to 27th June 2015) and I’ve only done one book review so far this year.

It’s not that I haven’t been reading. I’ve read more books than usual since January. I’ve just not made time to get the reviews done. Apart that is from my (ahem – modest cough) prize-winning review of JJ Marsh’s Cold Pressed which I posted here.

So now seems like a good moment to flag up the best of the rest of the books-read-so-far in 2015 and to ask that if you’re tempted to buy any of them, you perhaps consider going to your local independent bookshop and making your purchase there. Even if they don’t stock the book they’ll be able to get it in for you. Independent bookshops offer a real booky atmosphere and a personal touch and they need booklovers to use them. (Yes, I’ve included Amazon links but only so you can find out more about the books before you go out and buy them 🙂 )

I should also mention that my two local bookshops have just agreed to stock my novels and I appreciate their support very much. Let’s hear it for Tippecanoe and for Aros.

To keep it manageable I’m doing mainly brief reviews. The books are an eclectic mix, fiction of several genres, non-fiction, bestsellers and lesser-knowns, established and debut authors.

And so here they are – my five star reads for 2015 so far:

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Torn by Gilli Allan: A contemporary romance-plus novel – no gush or slush – believable, flawed, three-dimensional characters, vividly drawn setting and not one, but two expertly crafted will-they-won’t-theys. An evening or  bedtime curl-up read. [Accent Press]

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Get the Happiness Habit by Christine Webber: (only available as e-book so not one for the book shop) Self-help book on how to improve your emotional wellbeing. Easy to read, practical down-to-earth advice on how to improve your optimism levels and to recognise daily moments of happiness. Focuses on taking exercise, practising altruism, developing an inquiring mind, building resilience, maintaining a social network – in the real world as well as online, finding soul-feeding moments, for example through mindfulness or meditation or just going for a walk or listening to music, adopting a stoical view of life and taking time to care for ourselves. All sensible and doable. [Bloomsbury Reader]

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Us by David Nicholls: It’s David Nicholls so hey, I was expecting an entertaining read. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a contemporary story of midlife crisis and re-evaluation told in first person by husband and father Douglas. His marriage is failing and his relationship with his teenage son is fraught. The holiday he hopes may set things right doesn’t go to plan. This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always brilliant story of a guy whose good intentions pave a chaotic path. [Hodder & Stoughton]

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Contemporary thriller.  The story is told through the eyes of Rachel, Megan and Anna. Rachel is the girl on the train, commuting to work, fantasising about the people she sees from the train window, but then the fantasy becomes a much more challenging reality, a scary, tense and engrossing reality involving all three women. This is a gripping read – a definite page turner. great twists and storytelling. [Doubleday-Transworld]

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: I quickly followed up reading this book by reading its sequel The Rosie Effect. Both are great. Narrated by main character Professor Don Tillman, both books tell of life as experienced by Don, a brilliant geneticist looking for and failing at romantic love.  He also happens to have Asperger’s syndrome. His unique take on human relationships leads him to set up a project to find a wife. Against all odds it succeeds and the two books follow his finding Rosie and later marrying her. Both books are charming, witty, funny, highly original and are just sublime storytelling. [Penguin]

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: This book, published twenty years ago, is a writing manual – except it’s not. Oh sure it has lots of good advice for writers about facing the blank page, about getting started, persevering, getting support and getting published, but it’s also about so much more. It’s really a sort of wry look at life in a way – in that a lot of Lamott’s advice can be applied generally and not just ti the act of writing. It’s warm, instructive and wise.

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Killochries by Jim Carruth: This was a first for me. I’ve never read a verse-novella before. Carruth is a prize-winning Scottish poet. He was poet laureate of Glasgow last year. This slim wee volume is stunning – brief and beautiful. It tells a redemptive story of two men, distant relatives, both very different from one another. One an atheist poet, the other a bible quoting, stoical Christian. They are forced by circumstances to live together for a year on the older man’s somewhat bleak farm but as they do so they gain a mutual respect and a renewed perspective on life. [Freight Books]

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In the Shadow of the Hill by Helen Forbes: There’s an Ann Cleeves meets Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson vibe going on here – fans of crime fiction will know what I mean by this.  This book is not just any old crime fiction, it’s Tartan Noir crime fiction, and it’s set in the Hebrides –  so before I even started reading this book it was already ticking important reading boxes for me. This is the author’s first novel and I can’t wait for the next one. It’s starts in Inverness on a slow burn and gradually picks up pace until after several clever, unforeseen twists it reaches its exciting conclusion on the island of Harris. The characters are believable and well fleshed out, especially the main character of DS Joe Galbraith who is both flawed and likeable. I definitely look forward to getting to know him as well as I know Jackson Brodie and John Rebus. [ThunderPoint Publishing]

Bella's Betrothal

Bella’s Betrothal by Anne Stenhouse: (only available as ebook) This is a historical romance and it’s set in Georgian Edinburgh. And with this novel I’d say we’re sort of in Jane Austen meets Bridget Jones territory. But as well as the history and the will-they-won’t-they romance, there’s also a mystery at the heart of this novel. It’s an enchanting story and the author gets the tension level just right. There’s a great cast of characters from Bella’s good friends and her lovely aunt and uncle to her horrid mama and menacing pursuer. Being an Edinburgh native, I loved all the references to places I know and was impressed by the author’s attention to the details of the city’s development as its New Town was being established. Best of all though was Bella herself. Bella is no wimp. She’s resilient and feisty in the face of scandal and suffering and in the face of a real threat to her personal safety. She makes informed choices and she does what’s right even when it puts her at risk.  [MuseitUp Publishing]

So there you have it. What’s your favourite read of 2015 so far? And which independent bookseller do you support? Please do reply below.