No Shame by Tom Allen

I am finding so many treats as I shop my shelves that it is making me wonder why (like all bookworms – and Nemo’s good friend Dory) I can be distracted by new shiny books when there are some absolute gems on my shelves that I have ignored for some time.

I am a fan of Tom Allen, and his dry and unique sense of humour. I have heard him speak a few times about his memoirs/autobiography and, now that the second has been released, I thought it was probably about time that I read the first. Although, in my defence, this has only been on my shelves since the end of November, so it has been picked up pretty quickly.

I adored this book. It is full of charm and wit, as you would expect from Tom Allen. But it is also very honest, and Allen really invites you to see some of the struggles that he faced growing up as a gay man in surburban Bromley. I enjoy that this is not just a chronicle of his life, but that he selects the stories he wants us to hear about his journey through life from boy to young man – and award-winning comedian.

You will laugh out loud as you read this book (quite a choice for me to have read on a train journey to London), and it will break your heart at times as the young Tom Allen struggles a little with his place in the world. But, also, for the clear love that there is between him and his parents, showing unconditional love for their son, even if he did not always realise that everything would be okay after all.

As my first piece of non-fiction of the year, I feel that it was a great choice, as I have been blessed with another well-written and engaging read that I was looking forward to picking up at each opportunity that I had to read. And, as Tom Allen is a contemporary of mine, it was nice to share some of the same nostalgia for Sony Discmans and swimming pools getting their wave machines, and that seeming like the most exciting thing ever. I would definitely like to read Tom Allen’s second book – but first I must continue my quest to get the to-be-read pile down.

Five Survive by Holly Jackson

‘Five Survive’ has been one of my most anticipated reads, so when I spotted that I could grab a copy in the Waterstones post-Christmas sale, I could not turn it down. I mean, it has sprayed edges, so what more persuading did I need?

This book brings together a teenage road trip with a thriller. As a group of friends get stranded off the beaten track on their way to their break, they discover that maybe it was not as much of accident as they orginally thought. In fact, was this ‘breakdown’ all a set-up – but by who and, more importantly, why?

This is a fantastic read: absolutely thrilling, and you are on the edge of your seat at points as the drama intensifies. Told hour by hour in ‘real time’, you live through every event the characters do, feeling their panic and fear intensify as the time passes. And you are desperate to find out, as they are, exactly why it is happening.

For me, this really reminded me of a modern ‘Lord of the Flies’. How the relationships break down and change with no ‘adults’, and various people attempting to take different roles. Especially because, as more and more is revealed about the characters, the more the relationships and roles change and develop.

I was absolutely hooked. Holly Jackson has created a thriller that moves her writing on well from the ‘Good Girl’ crime fiction trilogy – and I am keen to see where else her writing takes us in the future.

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

2023 is the year that I shop my shelves. I am on a book-buying ban and I will be successful (fingers crossed), and I am determined that I get through some of those titles read on my tbr pile, shelf, trolley and the various other places where I have piles of books.

So, I have kicked the year off by grabbing ‘The No-Show’ from my shelf because, to be honest, it has been sat there for far too long, and it was time that I read it. (I mean, it has been there since ‘The Book Taster Live’ event, so really quite some time). It was also my first choice for ‘The Unread Shelf Project 2023’, as I hoped it would tick the box of a ‘Comfort’ read.

And it was a great way to kick off 2023.

‘The No-Show’ was a return, for me, to everything I love about Beth O’Leary: great characters, a clever plot and a feeling of a joy as you reach the end of the book – but not afraid to tackle some tough subjects. I am absolutely not going to spoil it for anyone, because this is a book that I think you have to read to understand what a well-crafted storyline it is. I did work elements of it out as I read the book, but that actually added to the enjoyment, as I was seeing if I was proved correct as I went.

This is a book that is quite difficult to review, as I want to share everything that I think about the book, but I just know I need to allow others to read it for themselves and make their own decisions. In fact, I would love to know if anybody has read ‘The No-Show’, and what they thought about it, because it is potentially on par with my favourite, ‘The Switch’.

So, shopping my shelves has started well; will the year of reading continue this successfully?

The Time Machine by H G Wells

So, I am probably as surprised as you that I am a H G Wells fan. However, ever since I read ‘War of the Worlds‘, I have continued to enjoy his books.

The book that helped me to the end of 2022, and to reach my reading goal (with mere hours to spare), was ‘The Time Machine’. Another fantastic novella that was ahead of its time.

The unnamed narrator takes us on his journey into the future, where he discovers what appears to be a peaceful and idyllic world. However, he soon discovers that deep below the surface is a race that is ready to destroy such a world.

For a book that was published in 1895, it was clearly very ahead of its time. However, I think it is probably more startling that, in some ways, the warnings in this book are just as important now as they were over 100 years ago.

There is so much to unpick here; the desire for mankind to have the ability to act almost God-like as they develop their understanding of science, for one. But, also, how easy it might be for the divide between the light and the dark to become so extreme that it will become even more dangerous than we all already know it is.

I am definitely going to continue to read the books of H G Wells, because I just find them fascinating, especially as they all seem to be so relevant today, despite their age.

Have you ever been surprised by any of the classics?

The Christie Affair by Nina De Gramont

I am a huge Agatha Christie fan, which – if you have been reading my blog for a while – you will not be surprised by. And, having just watched the Lucy Worsley documentary about the Queen of Crime, I thought I would finally give ‘The Christie Affair’ a go.

This is a fictional version of the events when Agatha Christie disappeared in December 1926. Now, I am pretty sure we will never really know what happened in those eleven days 97 years ago, but it is definitely something that has fascinated all her fans over the years. Especially as it was immediately after she had found out about her husband’s infidelity. Nina De Gramont is clearly one of those fans.

I did find this story very readable, and I was keen to see where the story would take us. I also liked that it had an element of being a story similar to those that we love from the Queen of Crime, a murder mystery woven into the events. It was also interesting that it tackled that ever-present dark cloud of the homes for mothers that used to be found in Ireland, and the controversy that we all know surrounds those places.

To be honest, for me this book was a fascinating tale, but I think I would have preferred it if it had just been about some completely fictional characters. I am sure that nobody would finish reading this book thinking that it must be based completely on true events but, in some ways, it does not sit well with me that predictions are made about the actions of people who can not reveal the truth. This is an issue I often have with some books about real events or real people: is there a risk of confusing fiction with fact? I am sure that would not be the case with ‘The Christie Affair’, as it does seem fairly obvious that it is fiction, but it is always a niggle I have about some books I read based on real events.

However, I would still recommend this book to fans of crime fiction, because it is a page-turner if you like a good story.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

The last ‘Big Classic Book Buddy Read’ was ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Now, I am going to be honest, I was certainly willing to pick this up for our buddy read – however, it took such an event to make me pick it up. I have been told by several readers ‘not to do it’ and ‘it is so depressing’ – so, I had probably avoided it for quite some time. I was also intimidated by the fact that it is by Thomas Hardy; he seems, a little like Dickens, as one of those authors that everyone holds in high esteem.

However, a bit like not judging a book by its cover, maybe you should not judge a book by the opinions of others or its author (or at least its author before you have really read much). I really enjoyed this book and I think it may be one of my favourite classics, although when you think about how sad this book is, it seems odd to associate positive adjectives with the reading experience. And it triggers so many brilliant discussions as you go, which makes it a fantastic book to buddy-read.

Tess’ story is one of great tragedy but none of which is her own making; it is all created at the hands of others and, sadly, the attitude of society of the time. (Which, as we agreed as a reading group, is not quite as different from modern society in so many ways). Tess’ future is dictated to her by her parents and their desire to be better placed in the world, and the men who believe that they can control her, and the tragic consequences of finally being unable to take any more. If you do not know the full plotline, I do not wish to spoil it for anyone, but it is fair to say I think Alec d’Urberville is one of the most villianous characters I have ever encountered, hiding it in charm and redemption, which makes it all the worse.

Hardy’s writing style is fantastic, which I do not think I have ever really appreciated before. His books are very readable and have a modern feel despite their age. (I have read one Hardy before, Desperate Remedies, which was a Victorian Sensation novel, so I assumed that it would be different in style to his other work). I would not now turn down the chance to read more of his books, as I think it is safe to say I am a fan.

So thank you again to my fellow book buddies for another great read of a classic – I can not wait to see what we read next.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

This a book that I have had my eye on ever since it was on BBC Two’s ‘Between the Covers’ – so, when I had the opportunity to treat myself to a copy (when I was in fact shopping for other people) I was quite excited.

This is a beautifully constructed and thought-provoking novella, set in a small Irish town in 1985. Set in the week before Christmas, but certainly not your traditional festive read, it raises a lot of questions about the influence and control of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in living memory. It forces the main character, Bill, to question so much about what he has been led to believe about his faith and his past. In fact, he starts to reconstruct his past from the new evidence he has in front of him.

It is, again, difficult to write about this wonderful book as I do not want to create any spoilers for people who are considering reading it. However, it is a powerful novella that will stay with you for a long time. And Bill is a character that will also be with you for quite some time to come, as his bravery to challenge what he knows and help those that he can, make him a modest hero.

This is my first book by Claire Keegan and I am hopeful that it will not be my last, as I am keen to seek out others as she has a beautiful writing style that draws in readers from the first page.

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer

The bookstagram community is a great one. Just as I had mentioned I had not read ‘The Stranding’, it was kindly sent to me by a fellow bookstagrammer, Jill.

I had a bit of an idea about what this book was about as it had been recommended to me quite some time ago but, as usual, I did not read the blurb, I just went with word of mouth. But, I am not sure that quite prepared me for what a fantastic read this is.

Told by interweaving the past and the present, we find out what has led Londoner Ruth to be on the other side of the world, as the world as we all know it is changed forever. I do not want to give too much away as I feel that this is a book that needs to be read to be fully appreciated. It is a clever piece of post-apocalyptic fiction which may bring readers to this genre who would not normally find themselves there. I also enjoyed that some of the narrative is left to you to draw your own conclusions.

The two timelines in the story also make this quite an addictive read as you wait for them to collide, to make it clear what exactly has led to the events in the present.

This is the second strong female post-apocalyptic novel I have read this year. It is great to see that a genre that may usually be associated with male authors and male characters is moving into a new era of representing excellent women’s writing and storytellling.

So, if you are yet to read ‘The Stranding’, I would recommend it for 2023 – it is a page-turner.

Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

A friend lent me this book Christmas 2020, and to my shame I only picked it up Christmas 2022, as I fancied just this type of read as we battled through the last week of work. I, also, had not been the biggest fan of the first Shopaholic book, although I did enjoy the film, so maybe I had been subconsciously putting it off a little.

However, that may have been a little bit of a mistake as, actually, I rather enjoyed this book. And I thought the writing had developed since the first Shopaholic book.

This is a story full of humour and warmth. Becky is just a character who shows such tenacity and has such a kind heart, even if sometimes she manages to get herself into some rather crazy situations, which may occasionally seem a little far-fetched – but that make for a rather fun read, which is just what you need in the festive season.

I found myself ready to catch up with Becky every day, and it was a little like reading about a friend (especially, as I certainly know someone who is a little bit Becky) and although it may not be groundbreaking it is a joy to read and great fun.

So, sometimes it is worth reading that book that has been hanging around for a while, because you may be surprised after all.

The Christmas Murder Game by Alexandra Benedict

When I visited my favourite charity bookshop at the start of the festive period, I spotted ‘The Christmas Murder Game’ on the shelf and decided I had to give it a go. I mean, what more do you want at Christmas other than a good bit of crime fiction.

This book was a brilliant piece of Christmas crime; I could not put it down and just had to keep finding out what was going to happen next. In fact, it was so absorbing that at one moment, which was a little bit creepy, Mr Bookwormandtheatremouse managed to make me jump by silently walking into the room. Which, to me, is definitely the sign of a good, thrilling read.

This has everything that you would expect from a classic crime novel. There is a big house (waiting to be inherited), a family full of dark secrets, snow that traps everyone together and, well, mysterious clues that have been left to be found. Just an ideal set-up for cosy crime.

It also has one of the best characters I have ever read that you love to hate, although as the story progresses you realise that this may be a little unfair. But, no spoilers here – you are going to have to read the book to find out more about that.

If you a fan of good, well-structured crime fiction, then this is a book for you. And, to be honest, I would not just save it until Christmas if you manage to grab yourself a copy; any of the cold winter nights would be a perfect time to read such a book.