Tag Archives: Alice Hoffman

My Favourite Reads of 2018

Now is the time of year when newspapers and websites are full of lists detailing critics and authors’ best books of the previous twelve months.

I gave my favourite reads of 2017, so I’ll continue the tradition with my baker’s dozen (or so) of favourite reads.

Not all of my choices were published this year, and there are several novels that are part of a long series, including a couple that are sequels or prequels to successful stories.

1) Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. The sixth story in the Matthew Shardlake series.

I can’t praise these books enough. Even if you don’t normally read historical fiction, you’d like them, as they hook the reader in. I prefer Sansom’s handling of the Tudor period to that of Hilary Mantel, as he has more warmth in his writing and conveys the fears of ordinary citizens better. A new story in the series was published in October, called Tombland.

2) Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. I’ve read all of the Dave Robicheaux series, and this is the twenty-first story. Burke is a writing heavyweight whose technique is something to aspire to. He gives a strong sense of place, tying historical events into contemporary attitudes with great characterisation.

3) All That Remains: A Life In Death by Professor Sue Black.

A humbling read from a Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, who literally knows death inside out. Not as macabre as you might think, with unexpected moments of humour, her memoir is gripping and full of wisdom.

4) Norwegian By Night & its sequel American By Day by Derek B. Miller.

An unexpected pleasure. I’d read favourable reviews, but Miller’s unusual approach to crime writing gave me food for thought, as he goes off at tangents, making his stories as much character portrayals as they are entertaining and involving mysteries.

5) Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

I normally steer clear of alternate histories, but I liked the blurb on the cover of this novel that I picked up in the library. I was soon gripped, as the author’s premise of a continuing form of slavery was believable and there were plenty of ‘what-would-you-do?’ thrills. Good characterisation and an effective condemnation of corporate America. I preferred it to Colson Whitehead’s highly-praised The Underground Railroad.

6) The Last Painting Of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith.

I read this novel as part of my research into the world of art and forgery, for my latest Cornish Detective novel is set in the art colony of Saint Ives. I was captivated by the masterful writing and how the author wove two time periods into the narrative. Smith has a lightness of touch using arresting imagery that makes you think deeply about creativity and possession of the finished product.

7) The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman.

A prequel to Practical Magic Hoffman’s most successful novel, and adapted into a Hollywood movie. The author weaves her spell in an entrancing way, making the reader believe that witchcraft has a place in contemporary society. Deft handling of intimate moments makes you feel a part of the story.

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8) Sapiens: A Brief History Of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book appeared on so many listicles, that it almost put me off reading it. I’m glad that I did, for it’s a mind-expanding challenge. The author makes some rather woolly assertions, which made me wonder if he was being deliberately provocative, as surely so and so was more likely….Damn it, he made me think!

9) French Exit by Patrick deWitt.

After enjoying The Sisters Brothers, which was an offbeat Western, I wondered how the author would handle a modern setting. The plotting is off kilter, making you wonder what’s going to happen next…almost as if deWitt is throwing a dice to decide the action. The mother and son protagonists are not people you’d want to get too close to, as you’d be safer observing them at a distance. Gloriously and madly self-destructive, they stick in the memory. Oh, and there’s also a bonkers cat character called Small Frank who’s the reincarnation of the mother’s dead husband! A fun read.

10) Pendulum by Adam Hamdy.

You know how we’re advised to start our story with a hook, and that it’s wise to have a moment of tension or a question at the end of each chapter, that compels the reader to turn the page? Well, try reading Adam Hamdy’s third novel, which does just this really well. His hero is quite the most resistant to injury character I’ve encountered, but the plot is thrilling and the tension never quits.

11) Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

Powerful storytelling with a strong sense of place in a claustrophobic coastal community in Maine. Sure to divide sympathies, the main character Olive is a force of nature. Lots of truth about what it means to be human, so not always an easy read.

12) The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

I was drawn to read this novel, after watching a BBC documentary on Flanagan in which he discussed the writing of it. He’s a personable chap, with his feet firmly on the ground and not one to bullshit about the mysteries of his craft. His novel is also fluff-free and though a harrowing read is life-affirming.

13) Walter Mosley

This year, I read his Rose Gold, Known To Evil, When The Thrill Is Gone, Down The River Unto The Sea, And Sometimes I Wonder About You and And All I Did Was Shoot My Man.

Not only does he come up with brilliant titles, but his plotting is serpentine and engrossing. Mosley is great at thumbnail sketches of incidental characters, and inserting his MC’s internal dialogue into the action. Even if you don’t like crime novels, his are worth a look to see how he makes everything look so easy. 

If you’re new to writing and looking for an advice book, I recommend his This Year You Write Your Novel

It’s a short book, but full of comforting and common sense tips.

What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.

My Favourite Reads of 2017

Now is the time of year when the media publish ‘Best Of’ lists for a variety of categories, including books, television series, music albums and films, so I thought that I’d join in with a baker’s dozen of favourite reads from 2017. Some were published this year, and all came out recently, so should be readily available.

1) A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman:

It made me laugh and it made me cry. A brilliant portrayal of a grumpy old man, a stickler for petty rules and regulations, who’d be a nightmare to know on brief acquaintance. But, he has a heart of gold concealed within his leaden exterior and is blessed with the love of a good woman.

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2) Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders:

Worthy of all the attention it’s received, as much for the unusual way the story is laid out, with scattered thoughts from the spirits of the dead who haven’t quite passed over, but who exist in a state of limbo or ‘bardo’. Some are more aware of their condition than others, and the most confused is Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie who’s just died of typhoid fever in the second year of the Civil War. He’s further unsettled by his father visiting the crypt to hold his corpse, as part of his mourning.

Not an easy read, and if you try, I recommend doing so in at least 20-30 page chunks, to get a sense of who all of the dead spirits are; it’s a very moving experience—horrific, contemplative and loving.

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3) The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, by Lars Mytting:

The best novel that I read this year or for many a year. A stunning achievement and just what a novel should be, for it involves the reader in a deep-seated mystery as the naive protagonist tries to unravel a tight knot that hides family identity, wealth, betrayal and who he really is and who he wants to be. Travelling between Norway, the Shetland Isles and the battlefields of northern France, it’s sure to be turned into a film.

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4) Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh:

If you want to know what it feels like to be a brain surgeon, this is the book to read. I was immediately in awe of Henry Marsh, and it’s one of the most humbling memoirs I’ve read. Truly terrifying too, it will make you count your blessings. I’m on the waiting list at my local library for the sequel, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon.

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5) The Dry, by Jane Harper:

A highly-praised debut crime novel by a British author, who does a fine job of making the reader feel the heat, claustrophobia and paranoia of an isolated community in the Australian Outback where the murder of a family makes everyone a suspect.

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6) The Force, by Don Winslow:

Winslow is without equal when it comes to writing tense crime novels involving the drug trade and the inevitable violent betrayals, paranoia, self-loathing and multiple murders. His The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars must have the highest body counts of any novels. In The Force, a corrupt detective who’s been taking dirty money and operating as part of an unofficial police unit within the NYPD finally gets his comeuppance. He’s a totally believable flawed hero, compromised by many ‘well-what-would-you-do’ situations.

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7) H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald:

Grieving the unexpected death of her father, the author returns to an early love of falconry, by raising a goshawk. Her road to recovery is involving, tearing at your heart as you will her on. Macdonald writes brilliantly about wildlife, the weather and the landscape. I found it captivating.

8) Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane:

One of the best thrillers that Dennis Lehane has ever written, and that’s saying something when you remember Mystic River and Shutter Island. The plot has more twists and turns than an epileptic snake, carrying the reader along in a state of excited confusion.

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9) Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford:

A rollicking good read, that deserves all of the praise and awards it’s received. Spufford knows his stuff historically, and he pens a believable world in 18th-century New York, where things turn frighteningly violent very quickly. I’m eager to read the sequel.

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10) The Heavenly Table, by Donald Ray Pollock:

This absorbing novel will probably get lost by being shelved among Westerns in bookshops and libraries, and though it’s set on horseback, the three gormless heroes have adventures that say much about human foibles. It’s lewd and crude in places, but very entertaining.

11) The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan:

An unusual crime novel, which was unjustly overlooked, and, I fear, will remain a neglected treasure. I only noticed it, as it was the last book shelved in the novel section of my local library! A debut novel by a mature writer, it tells of a strange friendship between an implacable, imprisoned serial killer, a complete psychopath, and a gullible young deputy, who finds missing people in the Montana snow—usually dead. Zupan rivals Helen Macdonald for his descriptions of landscape, and you’ll soon be feeling cold. It’s one of the most memorable stories I’ve read.

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12) All Involved, by Ryan Gattis:

I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy this tale set in the days of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, mainly as the author had previously written quirky titles for young readers. However, I was swiftly gripped by the dilemmas faced by a dozen different characters, including coppers, drug dealers, store owners, nurses and the homeless. Some scenes were real edge-of-the-seat stuff—and I mean real—much scarier than any imagined dystopian worlds.

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13) The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman:

The reader is transported to New York in the early 20th-century, where the protagonist works as a mermaid in her father’s museum of freaks, among such as the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl and a century-old turtle. She meets a handsome Russian immigrant photographer, who has left the confines of his Jewish community to concentrate on his career. When he photographs a tragic factory fire, he gets embroiled in the case of a missing girl and dark forces hunt the two youngsters. Hoffman is superb at summoning up the atmosphere of the streets, river and surrounding countryside of a young city. Best-known for Practical Magic, which was turned into a film, and to which she’s recently published a prequel called The Rules of Magic, Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is sure to be filmed too as it’s equally spellbinding.

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What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.

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Nobody Does It Better

Which writer’s work do you eagerly anticipate reading, impatient for their new novel to be published?

It could be someone who writes a series of novels featuring the same characters, or an author who takes years to pen their new story, which finds itself shortlisted for major literary awards. You might be working your way through a writer’s back catalogue, enthralled by their skills, while still taking glee from the occasional stinker of a title, that simply didn’t work.

We’ve all got our favourite authors, and some of them aren’t highly regarded by the critics, but who cares? If books are like food, why not have the occasional naughty treat?

My own list of got-to-read authors includes Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Camilleri, Annie Dillard, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Henning Mankell, Elizabeth Strout, Jo Nesbø, Justin Cartwright, Haruki Murakami, C. J. Sansom, Ann Patchett, Joe R. Lansdale, Don Winslow, Donald Ray Pollock and Jane Harper.

I read two hugely impressive debut novels in 2017, which whet my appetite for the second titles by Lars Mytting and by Kim Zupan.

My list of authors I seek out is based on those that I like. There are plenty of novelists whose books I admire, but don’t particularly like. As an example of this, I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which was written in a complex way, with long sections devoted to streams of consciousness. Woolf was experimenting with ways of writing a novel, as part of the Modernist movement, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Who floats your boat?

Which author makes you forget what you’re doing, to read their story?