While I haven’t been strictly counting, according to my rough calculations I’ve read around 70 books this year so far. It’s been one of my most interesting reading years so far, which I can put down to two things.
1) The influence of my work colleagues, who are avid fantasy readers. Although I loved the fantasy genre well before becoming a bookseller, their interest in fantasy has piqued mine and their recommendations have led me to some truly stonking reads.
2) My decision to get an Audible membership. As you can see, three of the titles below are audiobooks, and it has completely changed my reading habits. I now always have two books on the go, one print and one audiobook. It’s definitely helped to speed up my reading and increase the number of books I’ve been able to get through.
So, below (in no particular order) are my favourite books for the first half of this year – do yourself a favour and read a couple.
(Some of the books below I have already reviewed in full – I have linked the titles if you want to explore them in more depth.)
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Audiobook)
As I’ve already said on the blog, I had literally just published my favourite audiobooks of all time when I listened to this little beauty. 14 hours of wonderful storytelling and masterful narration, I listened to most of this in one day (because addictive isn’t even the word). What I particularly loved about this is that it defies genre. Set 30 or 40 years into the future, North America is ravaged by the still-ongoing financial crisis. People are living their lives almost entirely online through an advanced virtual reality platform called the OASIS as real life becomes more and more unbearable. And yet I would hesitate to call it either dystopian or sci-fi in the traditional sense of the word. It is, I suppose, just an incredible story, which is the kind of book I like best.
WhenJames Halliday, billionaire creator of the OASIS, dies, he releases a video announcing that he has hidden an “Easter Egg” inside the virtual world, as well as three clues that will lead searchers to the ultimate prize: the inheritance of Halliday’s creation and his vast wealth. And so grows up a generation of “Gunters”, or Egg Hunters, teenagers obsessed with finding the egg through their encyclopaedic knowledge of 80s trivia (the decade in which Halliday grew up and became a software developer). For five long years, they search in vain, until teenage Gunter Wade Watts solves the first clue. And suddenly, the race is on.
Humour, friendship and incredible plot twists abound in an incredibly well-crafted world. What’s more, underpinning the whole plot, Ernest Cline explores what it means to live in the real world and the downsides and dangers of a life lived online.
This. Book. I received it at the HarperCollins Big Book Bonanza 2017 and have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been so tantalisingly presented (and lets face it, free) on the many tables stacked high with (free) books. Did I mention they were free? I’ve actually reviewed it in full so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but this is an absolutely stunning debut following Eleanor Oliphant, a rather charmingly odd and eccentric young woman who lives her life according to an extremely structured routine. She has no friends (apart from the couple of bottles of vodka that keep her company at the weekend) and her social skills leave something to be desired. But (as she tells herself), she’s completely fine with her life as it is. And yet, when events occur that force her to leave behind the safe cocoon of her comfort zone, we begin to find out a bit more about Eleanor and start to understand why she is as she is. As she begins to make acquaintances and friends for the first time in her adult life, she gains a new perspective on her dark childhood, how it still haunts her – and begins to realise that maybe, she’s not completely fine after all.
This has become one of my favourites because it is just so incredibly well balanced. It explores Eleanor’s traumatic childhood, her deep loneliness and her struggles with her mental health in a way that by no means diminishes Eleanor’s suffering but that leaves the reader feeling ultimately uplifted. Eleanor’s unique voice, her rather quirky sense of humour and her new friendship with her colleague Raymond make this book an absolute delight to read. It made me laugh, well up, think carefully and feel deeply. Recommended for fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Rosie Project.
In the Darkness, That’s Where I’ll Know You by Luke Smitherd (Audiobook)
Charlie is an ordinary guy from Coventry. He works in a pub, enjoys a good night out with the lads and is pretty happy just ambling along in life. Until, after a heavy night out, he wakes up naked in a dark room lit only by a large screen. This room turns out to be the mind of a young woman named Minnie, who is of course as disturbed as Charlie himself when she wakes up and hears his voice inside her head. As they struggle to come to terms with what is happening and try to work out what has happened to them both, a bond begins to develop between them. More than that – Charlie feels like they’ve met before. But Minnie and Charlie aren’t the only ones affected by this turn of events – unbeknownst to them, danger stalks their every move.
This one was a recommendation from a fellow bookseller who’s also a massive Audible fan. I’d been telling her about Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, my first foray into the sci-fi/thriller cross genre and she told me about In the Darkness, which she said sounded quite similar. It was, and it wasn’t. They share elements of a main character who finds himself in an unbelievable, impossible situation, who has no idea what has happened to him and who has to work out how to get out before it’s too late. However, this just pipped Dark Matter to the post in the favourites race because it was so BRITISH – I don’t know if anyone has noticed that sci-fi fantasy seems quite heavily dominated by American authors? Not that I mind or anything, but it’s quite nice sometimes to read about characters, places and a culture that you know and really connect with. It was quirky, wacky and funny – and I always have to point out the fact that Luke Smitherd, the author, did an AMAZING job of narrating the book himself. SO GOOD.
11/22/63 by Stephen King (Audiobook)
Before I listened to Ready Player One, this was my favourite audiobook. Now relegated to a very close second place (sorry), it still definitely deserves this spot in my top books for the first half of this year. I’ve loved every Stephen King I’ve ever read pretty much, but this audiobook experience was something else. Yes, it was a 30-hour epic listen, but it flew by and never once did I feel bored or that it was filled with unnecessary detail. Craig Wasson, the narrator, was incredible – it was one of those audiobooks that was more than a reading: it was a performance. Every single character had a different and recognisable voice.
The book opens with a portrayal of a very ordinary English teacher from Maine. His life is overturned, however, when Al, the owner of a local diner shows him a time portal in his storeroom, which takes the traveller back in time to September 1958. After becoming ill with cancer after living in the past for five years, Al wants Jake to take up his mission: go back in time and wait for 22 November 1963 – and save President Kennedy from being assassinated. This book straddles so many different genres. It is science fiction, romance, historical novel and thriller all combined. The amount of research this must have taken is truly impressive. Don’t let the size put you off, and give it a go, either in print or on audio.
The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett
Again, the Demon Cycle was recommended to me by a colleague at work after I’d whinged on for the umpteenth time about my book hangover from finishing Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Although, honestly, I don’t think Peter V. Brett’s series quite measures up to Sanderson’s absolutely incredible trilogy, the first book The Painted Man was still a fantastic read and more than fulfilled my requirement of epic fantasy with an interesting magic system, strong world-building and great characters. While I have enjoyed the sequels to varying degrees (their high level of detail and politics make them a little slow in places), it has remained a really strong series throughout. My favourite part is how, when new characters and points of view are introduced, the reader is taken back to events they have already experienced, retold through a new perspective, which leads to lots of revelations and plot twists.
The book opens on a world in which demons, also called corelings, stalk the night, leaving humans to cower in fear behind their magical wards, praying that they’ll see the dawn. Once, humanity possessed offensive wards that enabled them to fight and kill the demons, but these have long since been lost. The Painted Man follows three characters, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, all of whom have lived their entire lives in the shadow of the demons. When Arlen’s village of Tibbet’s Brook is attacked, his father, crippled by fear, fails to protect his mother, who later dies of her wounds. Disgusted by this cowardice, Arlen becomes determined that he will no longer hide behind wards, but will venture beyond his village and find out how to defeat the demons once and for all.
I was trying to do my top 5 but I couldn’t leave this one out. It’s the only children’s book on my list although I have actually read a lot more children’s books this year than I would usually. This is a 9-12 novel about a boy called Matthew who has severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Increasingly confined to his bedroom by his obsession with cleanliness and his extreme fear of germs, he watches his neighbours from the window as they go about their daily lives, recording their movements in his diary. One day, a toddler staying with one of his neighbours goes missing and it turns out that Matthew was the last person to see him through the window – he could be the key to solving the mystery. As the investigation begins to slowly and painfully draw him out of his self-imposed seclusion, Matthew must confront his fears and come to terms with the events that caused his OCD in the first place.
What I loved about this book was its unpatronising and sympathetic exploration of mental health. Lisa Thompson looks at how society reacts to mental health, how isolating and distressing it can be to suffer from mental health and anxiety disorders and how the symptoms that you see are just outward manifestations of a deeper, root cause. I can imagine that any child reading this would gain a much deeper understanding of what it is like to suffer with a health complaint that does not manifest itself physically, while a child suffering from anxiety or OCD would derive a lot of comfort from seeing such a well-written, researched and understanding portrayal of their own difficulties. This was just a beautiful book and I think it should be required reading in a day and age where mental health remains highly stigmatised.
Have you read any of these – what did you think and did you agree with me? What have been your favourite books this year? I’d love to know!