A Year In Novels

“This will be my year!”

That’s a mantra I often used to hear people repeat on New Year’s Day. Probably trying to exercise the power of positive thinking. Fair enough, I say. In the end sometimes it was their year and sometimes it wasn’t.

Personally I don’t remember having “a year” or even thinking that in particular – I was cautious about tempting fate. But this year – finally – I was ready to hope for “my year” as my debut novel was due to be published. The release date had already been put back twice due to the pandemic but I was sure that 21 January 21 was an auspicious date for it to finally be released upon the world.

I hadn’t counted on the pandemic coming roaring back stronger than ever and us all being in lockdown again.

Of course being confined to our homes isn’t nearly the drawback it would have been in the past. People could buy the book online from all the places people normally buy books. However, I suspect having to rely on online only promotion and sales meant slightly less visibility as my plugging got lost in the noise.

Never mind. The important thing is that people read and enjoyed, which some did. Of secondary importance (from my perspective anyway) is that they leave reviews as they always help, especially in an online arena – Goodreads or Amazon, I’m not fussed!

Naturally I should practice what I preach. So here are my top ten books of the year – in the order in which I read them rather than any order of merit and I suspect the list will end a few months ago. But I don’t like the way listicles always use such strange numbers (Number 17 will blow your mind!) so I’m sticking to ten. You also might think it a bit early for books of the year but I also recently lost my reading mojo (it happens sometimes). So I may as well do it now.

NB my “books read this year” count is over 100 so this top ten definitely stood out.

1. The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean

If you spent a significant portion of your childhood in the seventies in the UK – like twin protagonists Abi and Tim – it's likely you developed a taste for or even an obsession with the uncanny and the supernatural. In those days the subjects weren't as intellectually taboo as they are now and seeking out books of true life ghost stories, UFOs and other aspects of the paranormal was a way of making that austere monochrome world more exciting.

The twins decide to fake a ghost photograph, ostensibly to scare people at school, but this irresponsible act of fakery sets off a chain of events that lead to much darker places, and even threatens to uncover proof of the supernatural world that they so much want to believe in...

The plot is gripping and engaging, walking the fine line between credulous and sceptical like an expert and contains the written equivalent of jump scares that would make a horror movie proud.

Recommended to anyone who used to carry a pack of Zener cards around in their school satchel or mess around with home made ouija boards...

Buy The Apparition Phase here.

2. Embers by Josephine Greenland

This novel has that "just one more chapter" quality of readability, drawing you further in in a bid to find out what is at the heart of the mystery discovered by the protagonist Ellen and her autistic brother Simon. There is far more to the book than just a good yarn though, the descriptions of northern Sweden in the summer during the last days of the midnight sun are evocative (they certainly made me want to visit) and the narrative asks questions about conspiracy, identity and prejudice which linger in the mind long after the last page has been read. Highly recommended.

Buy Embers here.

3. A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

I've always been into music of one kind or another and this dystopian near future LGBTQ science fiction tale imagines what life might be like for bands when people are no longer allowed to congregate in crowded sweaty venues for gigs in the aftermath of a pandemic.

Given it was written before 2020, this book is UNCANNILY prescient and has unwittingly ended up asking the question "What if all this never really ends?"

Singer songwriter Luce Cannon is one of the last artists to perform in the Before and as people get used to the new normal she has to start breaking the law to indulge in her passion. Young woman Rosemary Laws was only a child in the Before and now as an adult is thrust into a strange new world when getting a job at StageHoloLive recruiting bands to perform online in the VR of “Hoodspace".

Buy Song for a New Day here.

4. Be guid tae yer Mammy by Emma Grae

A thoroughly engaging and entertaining tale of a schism within a Glaswegian Catholic family which an avalanche of circumstances conspires to widen until it threatens to tear all of their lives apart.

The story is told in a number of strong first person Scots voices, women across three generations who are all so distinct that the reader instantly knows whose perspective they are sharing. Of particular note are young Kate whose OCD and anxiety are authentically described and her grandmother Jeannie who – despite the respect and fear in which some of the other characters regard her – is a fascinating mixture of regret and confidence. Switching point of view also gives multiple perspectives into the feud and allows you to draw your own conclusions as to where the blame lies even before things come to head in a trial.

However, most importantly of all this novel highlights the expectations traditional society has of women of all generations from the 1940s to the present day and how – despite the age difference – hopes dreams and aspirations for a better and more fulfilling life are an essential part of the human experience whether the woman in question is in her twenties or nineties.

The characters' voices stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned, leaving an enduring impression on the memory.

Buy Be guid tae yer Mammy here

5. Your Friend Forever by Zena Barrie 

One of the best ways to experience a story is to have someone tell it to you. Your Friend Forever does so starting in the 1980s with the letters teenage protagonist Maud writes to Tom, the singer from her favourite band. Before long the reader is fully invested in Maud and on the edge of their seat as the events of her life – small in the grand scheme of things but all consuming to her – move in unpleasant directions with horrifying inevitability. Fast-forward to 2011 and fortysomething Maud has just started writing to Tom again, this time via email.

Maud's voice is authentic and – despite thirty years of experience – her character remains constant across both eras of her life. The narrative is intricately constructed and contains plenty of surprises. It's also very funny.

As someone who used to write to my favourite singer in the 1980s I could really relate to this, and would recommend it to anyone who has ever been a teenager.

Poignant, convincing and laugh out loud funny.

Buy Your Friend Forever here.

6. The Twenty Seven Club by Lucy Nichol 

The death of Kurt Cobain by suicide at 27 was Generation X's assassination of JFK – we all remember where we were when we heard about it. For the protagonist, alternative music fan Emma, it sets her thinking about her own mortality. She's due to be 27 next birthday. Why had so many famous musicians died at that age?

Emma is genuine, well-meaning and flawed, the kind of person any reader can instantly relate to and root for. As she travels through this fateful year life throws all sorts of obstacles in her way, some partly of her own making and others beyond her control. The characters around her – work colleages, dad, best-friend – are all authentic, becoming quickly familiar as the reader is drawn ever onward through the story, eager to find out what's next.

A heartfelt, satisfying and funny reflection on life and anxiety.

Buy The Twenty Seven Club here.

7. Billy Lemonade by Sarah J. Maxwell

Young teenager Jane is alone and isolated since the move to Wales and her mother's descent into alcoholism. Then she finds a kindred spirit in Billy Lemonade, a boy who keeps himself to himself but nevertheless is clearly as troubled as she is – and they have more in common than she realises.

A melancholic and evocative portrayal of teenage life, especially the way social structures and status at school loom so large despite – or perhaps because? – of more alarming and uncontrollable parental factors back at home. Billy and Jane are both tragic but compelling figures that you find yourself rooting for almost instinctively as they travel through the mournful tunnel of the school year, and their ultimate destination is as unexpected as it is satisfying.

Buy Billy Lemonade here.

8. TWICE: A Novel by Susanna Kleeman

A unique combination of techno-thriller, road trip and conspiracy theory deep dive that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

Through the eyes and mind of the protagonist Nim, the reader is exposed to multiple points of view and explanations for what is going on from die-hard scepticism at one end of the spectrum to naive gullibility at the other. Also shines a light on Stockholm Syndrome, true identity and the nature of humanity without ever opting for easy explanations.

9. Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

A wonderfully genre bending tale which opens with a conversation between the King and his talking cat and then moves in several completely unexpected directions over the course of the story resulting in a narrative journey like no other.

The unease felt by protagonist Iona – an architect who sometimes feels as if she's been nearing retirement for as long as she can remember – is palpable. On the surface the wooden city and its rules make perfect sense but she can't help feel that there must to be more to it. Words that come to her in dreams which have no meaning but nevertheless seem to have an unmistakable verisimilitude...

Iona's curiosity is infectious and the reader will soon find themselves just as keen as she is to find out what's going on. Unravelling this mystery is both rewarding and illuminating; a reminder to always question the current state of affairs if it becomes patently clear that it makes no sense.

Buy Hearts of Oak here.

10. Psychomachia by Kirsty Allison

The story of Scarlet Flagg who falls through the nineties fashion and music scene in a no holds barred tale of drugs, abuse and excess. By turns shocking, terrifying and even darkly funny in places, this is a book that takes hold of the reader's imagination and instills a craving to find out what's going to happen to Scarlet at all costs, no matter how terrible they fear it's likely to turn out to be due to the relentless narrative bombshells she is subject to.

It's addictive and you can't look away.

The hedonistic agitation of those days is painstakingly drawn with all its flaws and defects highlighted and yet Scarlet – our unreliable yet brutally honest narrator – is unable to escape or see what's as plain as a pikestaff to the reader. She is heading for a fall. The style – including tangential footnotes like a wandering train of thought which detail the endless deaths due to misadventure, malice and immoderation in rock and roll since its inception – is immediate and visceral, a total immersion tragedy which highlights the abhorrent truth: some people's response to encountering vulnerability will always be to exploit it.

Will leave you reeling and live in your mind forever after.

Buy Psychomachia here.


Photo by Min An from Pexels.

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