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Top 10 Books of 2018

Despite having read a few less books than last year – a total of 65 – I have read some really amazing novels. A lack of time and having a lot more going on, both mentally and emotionally, hasn’t meant that I haven’t still really enjoyed reading as much as I get the chance to. I’m hoping to read a few more books in 2019, but for now, here are my Top Ten Books of 2018!

 

10. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

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“He made her more confident, funnier, smarter. He brought out all the things that were there already and let her be fully herself, so she seemed to shine with this inner light. He loved her so much, he made her seem even more lovable.”

9. The Corset by Laura Purcell

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“But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.”

8. The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

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“There is so much fear in this place sometimes I think it has seeped into the walls.”
7. House Rules by Jodi Picoult
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“I think you’re the only person who gets me. When I’m with you, the world doesn’t feel like a problem I can’t figure out. Please come to the dance, because you’re my music.”
6. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
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“I think the hardest part of losing anyone is that you still have to live with the same scenery. It’s just the person you are used to isn’t a part of it any more, and all you notice are the gaps where they used to be. It feels as though, if you concentrated hard enough, you could find them again in those empty spaces. Waiting for you.”
5. hold back the stars by Katie Khan
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“First love can break you. But it can also save you.”
4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
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“You can’t have too much dog in a book.”
3. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
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“Everything is going to be all right. Or, if not, everything is going to be, so let’s not worry.”
2. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
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“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”
1. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
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“Death, once conceived, was rapacious. It took all with it.”

 

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The Corset by Laura Purcell

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted to have the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog may remember, I absolutely adored Purcell’s previous novel, ‘The Silent Companions’ – in fact, as it currently stands it will probably be my top book of the year – and couldn’t wait to see if  ‘The Corset’ was just as full of Gothic magic as its predeccessor. It proved to be just as gripping from the off, and was also told from the alternating perspectives of two very different women.

The novel tells the story of Dorothea and Ruth. Dotty is a wealthy young woman living with a disapproving father who is desperate to marry her off, despite the fact that she is secretly planning to run away with a policeman. She also has an obsession with phrenology, a medical sensation of the period in which it was believed that the shape of a person’s skull could determine their character. Dotty, however, is particularly interested in the link between phrenology and murder. As part of her research, she is a frequent visitor at Oakgate prison, having deep discussions with the female inmates and examining their skulls as part of her ‘charitable’ work. When Ruth arrives at the prison Dotty is eager to meet her, due to the severe nature of the crime she is accused of – murder.

Through Ruth’s perspective, we are taken back to where her story begins, and learn a great deal about her unhappy life and the unsettling events that occurred within it. Living in poverty with a drunken father and overworked mother, and mercilessly tormented by her classmates, Ruth is forced to leave work and become an apprentice to her mother after her talent for needlework is discovered, in order to keep the house afloat. But with the tremendously difficult birth of her younger sister Naomi, things suddenly begin to take a dark turn, and Ruth realises that whatever she shows starts to possess a power that she can neither control or stop. This continues when Ruth is forced into work for the formidable Mrs Metyard, whose mania after the death of her husband makes her hugely dangerous for Ruth and the other maids to be around. Her daughter, Kate, appears just as cruel, and Ruth endures hell on earth while living under the Metyards’ roof. The only person who seems able to help her in this dreadful place is Billy Rooker, Kate’s fiance, who often tries to help Ruth and the other girls when the anger of Mrs Metyard puts them in peril. Mrs Metyard’s cruelty is uncovered, however, and Ruth instead begins to work for her daughter, Kate, now married to Billy. But when Kate dies a sudden and mysterios death, Ruth believes that her stitches have once again wreaked pain and revenge, and confesses to her murder…

Dorothea, meanwhile, is fascinated by Ruth’s story, though she takes little heed of the idea of the needle and thread causing so much chaos and death. Alongside her visits to Ruth, Dorothea is also attempting to ward off an unwanted marriage proposal, prevent the remarriage of her father and make her own dreams of a love match a reality. When she learns some home truths about her father, however, Dotty is faced with an impossible decision that only Ruth can help her to make…

I really enjoyed having the alternating perspectives of these two characters, as it enables the reader to get to know them better. I did, however, find myself enjoying Ruth’s chapters considerably more than Dotty’s, and eagerly raced through the pages to get to them. Despite seeming a relatively ordinary young woman, Dotty is decidedly less likeable than the supposed murderer Ruth. She comes across as selfish and macarbe, though the reader does eventually come to admire her will and determination to stand on her own two feet. Ruth, however, is a far more sympathetic character, as we learn more deeply of her suffering, her strength throughout these obstacles, and the fact that the events that unfolded leading up to Kate’s death were not really her fault. I remained hooked all the way through, and as the story got darker and more unpredictable I couldn’t put the novel down. The twist at the end was brilliant, although I had hoped for mercy for Ruth. My love for ‘The Silent Companions’ remains stronger, but I would definitely highly recommend ‘The Corset’.

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The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile,  Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a mysterious wooden figure – a silent companion – that bears an unsettling resemblance to Elsie herself…”

REVIEW: I had been eager to read this book since its release, so was extremely happy to receive it as a gift from my boyfriend recently. My hunch about this novel was right, as I absolutely loved it; I cannot praise it highly enough and would be very surprised if it doesn’t end up being my top book of the year. This novel tells the story of Elsie, and flashes between past and present as Elsie, locked up in an asylum and so traumatised she has lost the use of speech, begins to write the story of what happened to her at the urging of her doctor. The whole novel contains a real echo of the traditional Gothic novel, reminiscent of classics like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Monk’ and is hugely gripping from beginning to end. The suspense built in the novel genuinely did give me chills on many occasions, and I felt so sucked into the story that I often completely forgot what was going on around me, as can only happen when reading a truly great book.

As well as the flashes between Elsie’s past and present, a third timeline is added when we learn of the origin of the silent companions and their arrival at The Bridge. During the reign of Charles I, a nobleman’s wife named Anne writes of the events leading up to the King visiting the manor house. She writes frequently of her mute daughter, Hetta, whom she conceived through witchcraft and who seems to show similar kinds of tendencies in terms of her work with plants and herbs. When seeking novelties to decorate the house and impress the King, Anne comes across the wooden ‘companions’ in an antique shop. These are portraits of various people that are also shaped like human beings, meaning that when hidden around the house they would give one a fright upon being seen. As soon as the companions are brought into the household, however, terrifying things begin to occurr…

When pregnant and widowed Elsie is relocated to The Bridge in 1866 with her husband’s cousin Sarah, the servants and villagers act with oddity and hostility towards her. Elsie soon finds herself in danger of far more than malicious gossip, however, when the companions are discovered and begin to multiply, leading Elsie to question just how her husband’s sudden death occurred – and if her and her baby will be next…

This novel is incredibly well-written; both sinister and vividly descriptive, the reader is hooked and thrilled by the entire tale. There are many heartwrenching moments in the novel as well as terrifying ones, and the combination of these leave the reader constantly on edge. The end of the novel – particularly the final word – is especially chilling and leaves the reader stunned, continuing to think about the novel long after closing it. I would very highly recommend this book.

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Fraser

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “London, 1728. A young, well-dressed man is driven through streets of jeering onlookers to the gallows at Tyburn. They call him a murderer. But Tom Hawkins is innocent and somehow he has to prove it, before the rope squeezes the life out of him.

It is, of course, all his own fault. He was happy settling down with Kitty Sparks. He should never have told the most dangerous criminal in London that he was bored and looking for adventure. He should never have offered to help, the king’s mistress. And most of all, he should never have trusted the witty, calculating Queen Caroline. She has promised him a royal pardon if he holds his tongue but then again, there is nothing more silent than a hanged man.”

REVIEW: Having greatly enjoyed ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’, I was really looking forward to reading the first of its sequels. Once again, I found this novel just as impossible to put down as the last, and had devoured the whole thing within a day. This novel follows seamlessly on from the last and continues the story of Thomas Hawkins whom, as the book opens, is on his way to Tyburn to be hanged. The novel continues to flash back and forth between the events leading up to the hanging and Tom’s approach to the gallows in the present. It is easy to fall back into Tom’s world and Hodgson once again does a fantastic job of setting the scene and making the reader feel as if they can really smell, taste and experience the world of eighteenth century London.

I really enjoyed seeing how the relationship between Tom and Kitty had progressed, and also enjoyed the introduction of Sam, nephew of Tom’s old cellmate Samuel Fleet, who becomes almost like a son to Tom despite Kitty’s wariness of his sly and quiet ways. When a murder is committed in the house next door, fingers are soon pointed at Tom, who was seen to have had a very public argument with the dead man just a few days prior to his murder. In order to save his own skin – and that of Kitty – Tom is talked into becoming one of cunning Queen Caroline’s many spies. His mission is to help the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, escape the clutches of her vengeful husband Charles, on a quest to ruin her and take away their son. Sucked into court life and determined to save himself and his lover, Tom is also tasked with solving the murder of his neighbour. Just as in the previous novel, the reader is as puzzled as Tom by the murder and equally as conflicted about who can be trusted. The twist in this murder was just as spectacularly delivered and I again loved the ending of the novel.

 

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The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “London, 1727 – and Tom Hawkins is about to fall from his heaven of card games, brothels and coffee-houses into the hell of a debtors’ prison.

The Marshalsea is a savage world of its own, with simple rules: those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease. And those who try to escape will suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the gaol’s rutheless governor and his cronies.

The trouble is, Tom Hawkins has never been good at following rules – even simple ones. And the recent grisly murder of a debtor, Captain Roberts, has brought further terror to the gaol. While the Captain’s beautiful widow cries for justice, the finger of suspicion points only one way: to the sly, enigmatic figure of Samuel Fleet.

Some call Fleet a devil, a man to avoid at all costs. But Tom Hawkins is sharing his cell. Soon, Tom’s choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder – or be the next to die.”

REVIEW: The first in the Thomas Hawkins murder mystery series by Antonia Hodgson, ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’ is at once unputdownable and instantly gripping. The writing is fast-paced and descriptive and truly makes the reader feel as though they themselves are living in 18th century London; particularly during the chapters where Tom is locked in the Marshalsea, where the reader can almost feel the claustrophobic, terrifying atmosphere of the prison itself. Tom is a likeable character despite his many vices and shortcomings, and the reader instantly roots for him – I suspect this is because he is open about his own flaws, rather than trying to hide them from himself or the reader. He is a witty and intelligent character who the reader can instantly get behind.

Tom ends up in debtors prison after wracking up gambling debts that he fails to pay off after having been robbed of his last savings. Life in the Marshalsea is cruel and only money can prevent Tom from being taken the other side of the wall, where prisoners are cramped together in tiny cells, hardly fed and forced to stew in their own dirt, where disease is rife and corpses are dragged out every morning. With the help of his friend Charles, Tom is given a mission – to find the murderer of the late Captain Roberts, in order to secure his release and the payment of his debts. He finds a cellmate in the notorious Samuel Fleet, whom most of the inmates are convinced murdered Captain Roberts himself; but despite his misgivings, Tom soon begins to trust Fleet, and finds him valuable in terms of the investigation – despite being distracted by Fleet’s pretty niece Kitty, who works as a maid at the prison.

Due to the many twists and turns taking place throughout the novel, the reader is just as wrapped up in the mystery of who killed Captain Roberts as Tom is. There is a constant questioning from both Tom and the reader as to who could be trusted, and the mystery remains thrilling right up until the very end of the novel, when the killer is finally discovered. I loved the ending of the novel and couldn’t wait to get started on the next!

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All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the valuable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.”

REVIEW: This is a beautifully written and evocative novel which follows the stories of two young people, Marie-Laure and Werner, during the years of the Second World War, focusing particularly on the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure is a young French girl, blind and living with her beloved Papa, a security guard at the Museum of Natural History. In his charge is one of the most precious jewels in the world , the Sea of Flames. This particular diamond is world-renowned and held under tight lock and key, and endangers the lives of Marie-Laure and her father when he is put in charge of it in order to hide it from occupying German Forces. Moving to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with her eccentric uncle Etienne and his maid, Marie-Laure has to learn to adapt to a whole new landscape, as well as cope with the disappearance of her father.

Meanwhile, a young German orphan named Werner is plucked from the obscurity of his orphanage and the love of his younger sister when his clever inventions and skills with electrical equipment get him noticed by the Hitler Youth. As he becomes more deeply involved, Werner begins to notice the wrongs of the regime and understand its deep-seated hatred and brutality. His noticing of this keeps him from revealing the identity of Marie-Laure when he discovers her making secret radio broadcasts during the German occupation. This is the point at which the stories of the two characters intertwine, a point which shows us the true beauty of how people will still help others even when the world as they know it is falling apart.

I loved the alternating point of views of these two protagonists, and other more secondary characters were also involved, including Nazi general  Von Rumpel, who is ruthless in his quest to find the Sea of Flames. Having the point of views of bother Marie-Laure and Werner allowed the reader to experience how young people in two very different countries may have adapted to the dangerous situations and tense atmosphere of the period, allowing greater focus on a huge event. Doerr’s writing style is gripping and interesting, as well as being brilliantly descriptive and beautifully worded; he really brings across a deepening sense of danger in the lives of both characters as the story (and the war) progresses. And when the meeting of Marie-Laure and Werner finally comes, it is just as the reader hoped it would be and more, although the moment is snatched away far too quickly by tragedy that has the reader reeling and feeling heartbroken. Despite the poignant ending, it is also a satisfying one that ties up the loose ends and leaves the reader feeling a sad echo of the novel long after they had finished it.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

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“I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me”

“He was another knife, I could feel it. A different sort, but a knife still. I did not care. I thought: give me the blade. Some things are worth spilling blood for”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, vengeful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love”

REVIEW: I absolutely adored Miller’s debut novel, ‘The Song of Achilles’, which is now widely regarded as a modern classic. I’ve therefore had ‘Circe’ on pre-order for months now, and was so excited when it finally arrived. I got sucked into the story of Circe straight away; I enjoy Greek mythology, and therefore knew the basis of her story and the stories of those whom she meets during her exile on Aiaia. However, Miller writes with such detail, making every character come alive so vivdly, that even if you were clueless about Greek myth the novel would still be easy to get into and understand. It is easy for the reader to bond with Circe, mostly through emotions like empathy and understanding, as we see her increasing loneliness throughout the novel. When Circe is stung by unrequited love and seeks revenge, this is also something the reader can sympathise with; we have all been hurt by love, in some way or another. This makes Circe easier to connect with, and the reader enjoys following her experiences while on exile in Aiaia. Circe is visited by some of the most famous and notary figures of her time, and also learns to defend herself against the mortals who would take advantage of her being a woman alone on an abandoned island. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between Circe and the infamous Odysseus, and later in the novel her friendship with his wife, Penelope. Through these briefly appearing characters, we are able to keep up with the wider political events in Greece at this time and to witness Circe’s involvement in them. It allows the reader to experience the famous events of the Odyssey from an outside, female perspective which puts a different spin on it.

I also enjoyed the fierce and believable relationship between Circe and her son, Telegonus, the illegitimate child of Odysseus, and the budding romance she develops with Odysseus’ other so, Telemachus, as incestuous as this may seem to modern eyes. In light of this particular relationship, I also loved the ending; both pure and romantic, it showed Circe making the ultimate sacrifice for Telemachus and finally choosing whether to remain a deity or become a mortal like her lover.

I greatly enjoyed this novel and loved learning more about Circe, and more about the famous Greek myths in general, through the eyes of a character whom I could somehow relate to and whose perspective I enjoyed reading. I did not enjoy it quite so much as ‘The Song of Achilles’, but I would highly recommend it all the same.