10 Favourite Books of 2017

My annual tradition of listing my favourites of the books I read this year.

Observant readers will have noticed there haven’t been as many book reviews recently. With the wedding and honeymoon in the Autumn I was reading less and I had decided to go back and reread The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I’ve been loving reading them all over again, and am almost done so new reviews should start again early in the New Year.

Anyway, this is about books I read for the first time in 2017, and we’re gonna kick off with the fiction books.

5. The Princess and the Queen by George R. R. Martin

Part of the reason I went back to the ASOIAF series was that I read and loved this novella by Martin. While it lacks the depth of his other works, it still manages to create a realistic, layered world and the story of treachery and war is gripping. Review here.

4. Conclave by Robert Harris 

Harris seizes on the interesting idea of what happens behind closed doors as the Vatican chooses a new pope to weave a web of scandal and schemeing. It includes one too many scandals, stretching credulity at places, but it’s a quick, gripping read. Full review. 

3. The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
Lagercrantz takes over the story of Lisbeth Salander and crafts a gritty, involving thriller. Review.

2. 87th Precinct by Ed McBain

I continue to work my way through McBain’s series and I read three this year. The standout was See Them Die, where he creates a tense sunny day as gang members plot murder and the police engage in a stand off. Other entries Lady, Lady, I Did It! And The Empty Hours are solid thrillers too.

1. Adrian’s Undead Diary by Chris Philbrook 
I continued to read this series and as it progresses, it goes from strength to strength. The diary story telling device works very well, and Adrian’s narration is involving. Philbrook also uses other side stories to develop a wider world picture of the zombie apocalypse and provides background to why it’s happening which takes the story in a new, interesting direction. Eager to read more. Check out my reviews of parts twothree and four.

Alright, onto nonfiction books.

5. Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson

BBC journalist Simpson recounts his eventful career. It documents some of the major events of the late twentieth century and makes a fascinating read. In places he can be rather pompous, but for the most part he is an entertaining and likeable narrator. Review.

4. Books vs Cigarettes/Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell.

Two collections of essays by George Orwell, am becoming a fan of his clever, insightful writing and will keep my eye out for more of his nonfiction stuff. The review of Books… is here while you can find my thoughts on English Murder here.

3. Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson collects writings on various topics which serves up an entertaining read. He brings his usual warmth and keen observation to a mix of criminals, conspiracy theorists and oddballs. My review

2. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese

Picked up after an offhand mention in another book this turned out to be a gem. Talese writes with a vivid style and keen eye for nuance and subtle tells in his subjects. The Sinatra piece is great but the essay about broken former boxing champ Floyd Patterson is just as impressive and painfully moving. Review.

1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

An autobiography of a rock legend which proves to be just as well written as his music. The insight, warmth and openness that make the Boss’ songs so involving is on show here and it is cracking read pleasingly light on ego. Here I am gushing about it.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Well Read? Better to Just, Well, Read

The othet day I was reading the paper and there was a list slotted among the articles. Compiled by a website it was a list of books that people lie about having read.

I can see why people lie about what they read, or at least I used to. When I was younger I would worry more about what others thought of me.

As I’ve gotten older it’s been less important to me. I’m not saying I’ve cast off insecurity and self consciousness entirely, but the anxiety of being seen as stupid or uncultured has diminished.

Take the list above, there was a time when I would have stated that I had read 9 of those. But now I’ll fess up. I’ve read 6. And parts of three.

I managed to slog through The Fellowship of the Ring, helped by my decision to skip all the songs, seriously Tolkien was not a great poet. But a few chapters into The Two Towers I decided life was too short and I’d just wait for the movie. I don’t see anything embarrassing about admitting that I find the man’s writing painfully long winded and dull. He saps the energy from action sequences and in a thousand words makes you care less about a character than some can do in a page. 

I was probably too young when I tried to read The Diary of Anne Frank and at some point I’ll have another go, and be kinder on the teenage narrator. 

I was a kid and I found the early stages self absorbed, but I think as someone who grow up to share my opinions online I can see why writing things down helped her (and not want to throw stones in my lovely glass house). And like I said, be more forgiving of a writer who wrote for herself in an immensely difficult time.

The final one I could claim to have read is George Orwell’s  1984. I’ve taken two tilts at it, but never got to the end. It’s undoubtedly clever, filled with great ideas and foresight. But for me it lacks heart, the characters don’t engender warmth and I grew bored. It was a story I cared little for taking place in an interesting and well crafted world, but you need a book to grip you. You need to care, and I didn’t. 

I’ve since become a fan of Orwell’s nonfiction writing but can’t bring myself to rally for a third assault on his most famous work.

Here’s the thing, nobody should feel like they have to lie about what they’ve read. Read what you like. 

I used to read those “100 books you MUST read” lists, and take pride in how many I scored. But I care less for them. 

Too many books I love don’t feature. Ed McBain, World War Z, Roald Dahl, A Song of Ice and Fire, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Cornwell, Terry Pratchett- you don’t see them there.

And they always feature Charles bloody Dickens. Gods, has a writer ever been hyped so much. I struggled through Great Expectations as an A Level English Literature student, a slow torturous read lacking incident or excitement in every rambling, dreary page. It holds an unshakeable place on my list of least favourite books.

I’m convinced that Dickens makes these lists not because those asked genuinely love the books but because they feel they should. His books are regarded as classics, he’s a titan in English literary history, so one of his books at least must be there. And someone will write about them because they want to look cultured.

Balls to that.

You like the books you like. Don’t let some sneering snob make you feel bad because you prefer Dahl to Dickens, Sue Townsend to Tolkien, that you threw Moby Dick aside three chapters in for Bridget Jones. It’s better that you’re enjoying reading, and spending your hard earned on what you want not what you’re told you should be reading.

People complain that we read less, but then they slag off what they read. And why is “classic” status never questioned? 

Never let someone make you feel bad for not having read something. Ask them if they’ve read your favourite book, and tut if they say no. Or arrange a cultural exchange. You both might discover a new book you like.

Incidentally the one book I haven’t read on the list is Jane Eyre, which has filled space on my Kindle for quite some time. Must give it a go sometime.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

Really getting into Orwell’s essays and nonfiction writing recently, with this being another solid collection of pieces on a variety of subjects.

The title essay is about the British public’s appetite and morbid obsession with murder cases and what makes the best in terms of public interest. He talks about how for a crime to really capture the public interest it should involve macabre ingenuity, and issues of class, love and tragedy. It’s an interesting piece and darkly comic in a way.

Other pieces deal with analysis of boys’ magazines and what they say about society, the death of what he calls “good bad books” and an account of his time as a hop picker. 

All are handled with intelligence and insight, and Orwell is a shrewd observer and commentator. It’s an interesting quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and more of Orwell’s work has been added to my “to read list”.

Verdict: Highlighting Orwell’s skill as a writer and his insight these essays show that even on seemingly trivial subjects he can see deeper themes. He looks at what literature shows about the society that births it. Smart and holds the attention well. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 

Book Review: Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

This is the third nonfiction Orwell book I’ve read (after Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London) and I definitely prefer them to his fiction. This book contains a handful of articles that he wrote which cover a range of topics including his experiences in school and a French hospital, the threat to freedom of speech and books.

The title piece sees Orwell thinking about how much cash he spends on books and why reading had fallen out of favour. It’s dry and I’ve always found old money slightly confusing, but it’s interesting to see reading weighed up against other pursuits and Orwell observes that it is not just cost that can be blamed.
The book works at it’s best when he’s writing about personal experience which gives him an opportunity to use his keen observation and description to great effect. When talking about a hellish hospital in France or his miserable time as a schoolboy he writes in evocative style, honest about his emotions and recollections. The events and characters are utterly real to the reader, and his insight is keen.

But his talent is linking these personal experiences with wider themes and ideas. He talks about how doctors and medical attitudes have changed, how the hospital in France could never exist in Britain and how his schooldays represented the end of an era of snobbishness and petty cruelty which he celebrates being consigned to the past.

Most interesting is his writing about his patriotism, his feeling as World War II loomed that he would do what he could for his country. He writes openly about how as a teen he dismissed all patriotism as foolish, but now writes about it in a different way. His patriotism seems to me the same I feel, a love for country which doesn’t mean blind acceptance or faith. He knows Britain is flawed, but he knows it is better than the Nazis and has good points.

It’s a quick, interesting read and Orwell is an immensely talented writer. The dryer parts drag a little, and it’s dated but the keen observation and intelligence shines through.

Verdict: Not every essay is a winner, but it’s all written well and Orwell impresses with his ability to express his memories in such evocative and full fashion. A good book to dip in and out of. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell

Having enjoyed his memoir about his Spanish Civil War experiences, I tracked down this George Orwell book, a non-fiction piece about his time living a hand to mouth existence in the poor parts of Paris and a brief time on the streets of London.


Orwell’s writing is simple with no frills, but he has a keen eye for detail and injustice and vivid, unflinching descriptions of the squalor and hardships. Throughout this his view is compassionate and outraged, angrily discussing the negative attitudes that the tramps have to deal with and the system which fails to address their problems.

At times it is dated and some of his views on different nationalities hint at bigotry. But Orwell discusses his time with honesty and an engaging insight. He has particular skill in recounting stories and observing people and their quirks.

The world has changed but you at times it shows how attitudes take longer to change. Interesting and engaging, if a tad bleak.

Verdict: An interesting view at what life was like for the poor in the early 20th century and one man’s experiences of them. Orwell writes well, with insight and compassion and unafraid to offer his opinion on what he feels are unjust or corrupt systems. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

I don’t know a lot about the Spanish Civil War, other than it was in Spain, and wasn’t that civil. It saw allied Communist and Anarchist forces fighting for the Republic face off against the Nationalists/Fascists. The Nationalists would eventually win, setting up Franco’s dictatorship which would last until his death in 1975.

In the fight against Fascism several idealistic men from other countries traveled to Spain and volunteered to fight, among them English writer George Orwell, who would go on to find greater fame for his fiction works Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Orwell’s account of this time has been sitting on my Kindle for a while, and it’s something I’m quite interested in, despite my ignorance of the war. Orwell admits that this is by no means definitive for the war, and carries his bias, but argues that all accounts are and that he can only write about what he saw.

homage to catalonia

The book begins in Barcelona in the early days of the revolution, with Orwell waiting to travel to the front and admiring the spirit of the city. He then travels to the front, a period of monotonous discomfort and deprivation. Firefights are few and far between, and the general tone is of boredom and disillusionment. There is no glamour or heroism there, only a growing sense of futility and tedium.

As the story progresses Orwell becomes increasingly frustrated by the poorly organized war and the failings of those in charge, as well as the rival factions which threaten the anti-Nationalist alliance and culminates in a period of needless street fighting in Barcelona.

It’s an interesting take and Orwell is a fine narrator, addressing his own fears with a distinctly English tone and sensibility. Even in war he seems to expect a certain level of fair play, particularly with regards to the law, but as the organisation he joined is betrayed and outlawed he is forced to flee under the threat of imprisonment, which claims many of his acquaintances.

I’m not naive, and I know revolutions aren’t conducted by pure hearted heroes, but it’s still disheartening to hear how petty rivalries undermine the cause and how quickly things in Barcelona revert to pre-revolution ways. I’m not a communist, but it’s clear how utterly depressing this must have been for Orwell and others, who fought for it and believed in equality, only to see that the class system had returned to Barcelona while they had been fighting on the front.

The treatment of POUM (the party Orwell served) is especially tough, bad enough that they are sacrificed due to being smaller and less influential, the true tragedy is the fact that several of it’s members continued to fight and die in the war, oblivious to the fact they had been declared illegal and would face imprisonment when they returned home. It clearly infuriates Orwell, and it should infuriate the reader, even if they disagree with some of the politics.

It’s a fantastically written book, with Orwell capturing his changing impressions and feelings during his time in Spain, as well as the mix of excitement and fear that seizes him during the fighting. His writing has a simple, vivid touch which avoids hyperbole but still brought the events to life for me. It paints an interesting image of the boredom, futility and surreal nature of war, best evidenced by the almost cordial relationship between Orwell’s unit and their enemy during the street fighting, where they broker a truce and even give their enemy a rifle to replace a broken one.

It’s an interesting insight into a chapter of European history of which my knowledge is vague at best, I’m still keen to read more, but aware of Orwell’s self confessed bias this is a personal and absorbing account of one man’s experiences.

Verdict: Well written by Orwell, who captures the mood and atmosphere well enough. Low on incident, but an honest representation of the often dull business of war. Interesting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War and the background machinations which would, in part, hand victory to the Fascists. An interesting read. 7/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.