Sunday, 1 July 2018

Favourite Reads of 2018 (so far!)

According to Goodreads I've read nearly 50 books so far this year. It's been hard to narrow it down to 10 favourites, there have been so many good ones published.  So I've chosen 12. Although I read equal numbers of crime and romance, interestingly there are more crime books listed here, along with two fantasy novels - including one young adult...

The Toymakers By Robert Dinsdale

It's going to be really ironic if the first book I read in 2018 turns out to be my favourite for the entire year but The Toymakers is utterly, utterly brilliant and I absolutely loved it.

Cathy Wray runs away to London and finds work at a very unusual toy shop called The Emporium, kind of like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with toys. The aisles are 'alive' with steam trains, toy soldiers, and patchwork animals. I particularly loved the 'instant' trees, which grow into a real forest as soon as their roots touch the ground, and Sirius the patchwork dog. And I definitely fell more than a little bit in love with Kaspar.

The Toymakers is a historical fantasy but with a serious message about the futility of war.

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) is struggling to make a living as a tarot reader following the death of her mother. Falling behind on payments to the local loan shark, it seems like a dream come true when a solicitor's letter arrives to tell her that her grandmother has died and left her a bequest. Except Hal's grandmother died before she was born, didn't she?

Ruth Ware takes familiar tropes and motifs from the traditional/old school gothic mystery and puts her own original spin on it. There is a nod towards Rebecca, with the creepy Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper, but all references are done with an affection for the genre. I became so engrossed in this story I completely forgot to try and work out who the murderer was!

Her Name Was Rose by Claire Allen

Emily is slowly getting her life back together after the break-up of a relationship, when she witnesses another woman die after a hit and run. Over the next few days Emily devours news reports about the accident, and checks the dead woman's social media account, and soon learns Rose was everything Emily wanted to be. Beautiful and kind-hearted, Rose had a handsome husband, a gorgeous baby, and friends who loved her. And now there is a Rose-sized hole in these people's lives. A hole that Emily could fill...

Oh, I did love this book! I read a lot of crime fiction so I knew where it was headed but the quality of writing was great, there were some fabulous twisty bits and the ending was very clever. I loved the character of Emily, despite her flaws, and was so involved in her story I was practically shouting at the book "No, don't do it!" every time I thought she was going to do something really stupid. Her Name Was Rose is now firmly on my 'favourites' list and I thoroughly recommend it!

The Brighton Mermaid by Dorothy Koomson

Nell and her friend Jude found the body of a young woman on Brighton beach when they were teenagers and from that moment their lives were changed irrevocably. Twenty-five years later and Nell has developed a sideline in helping people find long-lost relatives using family trees and DNA testing. The story starts as Nell takes a year's break from work to use these skills to finally discover the Brighton Mermaid's real identity - she's hoping this will lead to the woman's killer.

The Brighton Mermaid has all the ingredients I adore: an old mystery, believable but flawed characters, a fabulous heroine, a dysfunctional family, a bit of a romance - and lots of twists! I liked that everything wasn't wrapped up neatly at the end and that I didn't guess the identity of the murderer. I thought the plot was clever and twisty, and it caught me out more than once.

Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Like the main character in Rebecca, our heroine doesn't have a name. Carl, the man she believes murdered her sister, was once a famous photographer but is now in a care home supposedly suffering from dementia. She begins to visit him, pretending to be his daughter, before taking him out on 'holiday'. In reality she's planned a road trip around Texas, visiting all the locations in his photography book - the last places his victims were seen alive.

The relationship between Carl and his 'daughter' reminded me of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and the story itself a kind of cross between Silence of the Lambs and As Good As It Gets - even though no one falls in love, or gets eaten! I particularly loved Carl's dark sense of humour, and how the heroine's meticulously thought-out plan quickly unravels. They also meet a host of eccentric characters along the way - my favourite was Trudy, the gun-toting estate agent! 

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

Olivia is a TV historian finding it impossible to juggle family commitments with her high-flying career. When she comes across the Victorian diary of one of the first female doctors she knows it will make a brilliant book, but she can't spare the time to do the research. So she hires Vivian to do the work for her. Vivian takes care of the dilapidated gothic house where the diary was found and was apparently once a university professor - the perfect research assistant. Except Vivian sees herself more as Olivia's co-writer and friend, and she has ideas for lots more books that they can write together. Oh, and she believes that every night she's visited by a 'ghost' who wants to kill her...

The Night Visitor is particularly clever in that I felt sympathy for the character whose viewpoint I was reading, but as soon as the viewpoint changed so did my allegiance! Creepy and deliciously twisty, I couldn't put this one down.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

In the 1980s, teenager Eddie and his friends leave messages for each other in coloured chalk outside each other's houses. Simple messages, such as where to meet up and whether to hurry. But then the messages start appearing on their own, in white chalk, leading to the body of a murdered girl. In the present day, Eddie is surprised when one of his old friends turns up asking for help with a book he is writing, a book about the killer nicknamed 'The Chalk Man', and his theory that the real murderer was never caught. And then his friend disappears. And the chalk figures begin appearing again...

This book is simply outstanding. I was so gripped I read it in two days flat. The characters are so realistic, so believable, it feels as if they're in the same room, looking over your shoulder as you read. I loved Eddie's dry humour, the nod towards my favourite 80s horror movies, the fiendish little twists, the freshness of the plot, the poignancy of a doomed love affair... And that very final, very clever twist, the one that's easy to miss because you think it's all over, which took me completely by surprise - and that's pretty hard to do!

Everless by Sara Holland

Many centuries ago, the people of Sempera learned to turn their blood into 'blood iron' coins that can be dissolved and drunk to extend life. Now the poor work and pawn their valuables for blood iron, and die young, and the rich live forever. And the reclusive Queen, a kind of sinister Countess Bathory figure, rules over them all.

Living a hand-to-mouth existence, and worried about her elderly father, Jules has the opportunity to return to the Queen's castle and work in the kitchens, but her father's last words to her are to warn her to keep away from the Queen: 'Don't let her near you. Don't let her see you. She'll know you. It's not safe.' What secret has he been hiding from her all these years?

I absolutely loved Everless and was completely gripped by Jules's story as she slowly uncovers the mystery in her past and the truth about her family. I can't tell you much, without revealing spoilers, but there is a little bit of a romance and lots of twists - don't be fooled into thinking you know where this story is going! I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Ostensibly Three Things About Elsie is a mystery. It opens with Florence, a lady of 84 years, looking back on the last few weeks of her life as she waits for someone to find her after a fall. This sounds depressing but Florence has a dry sense of humour and I was quickly drawn into her life at the home, her friendship with Elsie and Jack - and the trouble they cause the long-suffering staff. Florence, you see, is convinced that a new resident is not the man he claims to be but someone she knew sixty years ago - someone who is supposed to be dead.

In reality, Three Things About Elsie is about what it feels like to grow old. The frustration you feel as your health and mental agility slip away from you, and the way younger people start to treat you differently. And how eventually you even lose control over the way you want to live your life.

Three Things About Elsie is by turns funny, poignant, and desperately sad too - and I loved it.

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark is a mystery/family drama, and unusual in that the story starts at the moment fifteen-year-old Lana is found safe and well after being missing for four days in the Peak District. Lana and her mother Jen had been on a mother-daughter bonding holiday at an artists' retreat. Lana, depressed and self-harming, hides behind her sulky teenager persona, whereas Jen tries (and fails) not to be a helicopter parent. While overjoyed to have Lana back home, Jen becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out exactly what happened to her daughter during those four missing days - because Lana is saying nothing.

Whistle in the Dark is mainly about family relationships and the unravelling of Jen's sanity as she worries about her daughter. (I loved the imaginary cat!) The mystery about what happened to Lana almost takes second place, but it kept me guessing and I only managed to work out part of it before the end. I found it very well-written, with brilliant characters I could really identify with, and I absolutely loved it.

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

When the Duke of Ashbury returns from the war horribly scarred ("Faulty rocket at Waterloo. You have precisely three seconds to move past it. One. Two...") his fiancée can't bear to look at him and calls off their engagement. In dire need of a wife and heir (so his estate doesn't fall into the hands of his 'toad of a cousin'), when seamstress Emma Gladstone explodes into his study demanding payment for the bridal gown his fiancée has cancelled, he asks her to marry him instead.

There are two things about this novel that make it outstanding: the cracking dialogue and the brilliant characters - particularly the hero, Ash. A witty, warm-hearted romantic comedy, with characters that leap off the page. I loved it. 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

Naomi Cottle specialises in finding missing children; her own harrowing childhood means she can sometimes be more adapt than the police at finding them, even the cases that everyone else has given up on. Madison Culver disappeared three years ago on a trip to the remote, mountainous forests of Oregon, shortly before a blizzard. The authorities assume she died of exposure and have long since stopped looking for her remains, but Naomi knows that Madison could have survived - if someone else has found her.

I was completely gripped by this story and by 30% I got to the point where I couldn't put it down. Along with Naomi's search for Madison, we learn about how she has (mostly) overcome the demons of her own childhood, the mistake that haunts her, and her struggle to lower her defences enough to allow those she loves to get close. There are no real surprises in the plot, no big 'twist'; the strength is in the author's creation of flawed but fascinating characters the reader really cares about. I even found myself feeling sorry for the villain!

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