How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig has a way of talking about humans without talking about humans. In The Radleys, our craving and longing to be normal, as told by middle class vampires. In The Humans, the great sorrow of love in all glorious forms, as told by aliens. In How to Stop time, grief everlasting, as told by a very very very old man. That man is Tom Hazard is 436. Here are some facts: he was born 3rd March 1581, he has a condition called Anageria which causes him to age slowly, he is a history teacher in London at the moment. How to Stop Time is the story of his life… well… the highlights or it would be a very long book.

Think of it as an extended version of Forrest Gump. Quite by accident, Tom Hazard finds himself in the company the famous such as Shakespeare but in the tragedies such as witch hunting France. His body ages slowly and his brain can’t cope with the sheer amount of information. Modern day life triggers old memories, causing headaches and heartaches. Everything is not as glamorous as it seems. He has to keep changing his identity with the help of a secret society. Naturally, if you have superhuman abilities, you’re recruited into a secret society.

How to Stop Time is a number of genres in one; science fiction, a love story and a thriller. A little bit of Forrest Gump and a little of Taken; the driving force of the book is Tom wants to find his daughter. He suspects that she has the same disorder as him. They look for her and he looks for others. I’m a huge fan of when a book has a little bit of everything. Keeps things interesting. In Matt Haig’s writing the person is king. The ending felt a little rushed and maybe got too extreme, not of that’s important. The book is Tom Hazard, his struggles and his way of life which is pure magic to read. He meets many interesting characters along the way that are larger than life but their life is large. Cheesy finish. Who cares? Pick it up and get lost among the many centuries of Tom’s life. Nothing gives you perspective like 400 years of hindsight.

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

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Michel Bussi has proven himself a great crime writer. This is the second book of his I have read so I know what I’m talking about. His first book translated into English: After the Crash was one of the best books of 2015: a fast paced novel about identities and two families fighting over one child. It was highly addictive and I had the same hopes for his new book: Black Water Lilies. The story is set in the beautiful village of Giverny, famous for Claude Monet’s gardens. You know the painting with the little green bridge, that garden. Not so scenic when a man is found dead in the stream that runs through the quiet village and tourist hotspot. In his pocket is a postcard of Monet’s Water Lilies with the words: Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.

After the Crash was told over over the series of 24 hours, this is a little slower at thirteen days. This murder is told from three viewpoints: a young girl with a flare for painting, her teacher and the crazy old woman who lives in the windmill. Two out of town detectives are brought in to investigate the murder. The gentleman in question is Jerome Morval, an art enthusiast and adulter. Is the reason for the murder the long last Black Water Lilies or a jealous wife or girlfriend? For such an idyllic village, there are many secrets.

Maybe I went into it with too high expectations as it just isn’t the same as his first. A much slower book with more relationships and history than crime busting and high stakes but gently peels back the layers to reveal the answers. I also had trouble telling the police men apart. Sometimes they were called by their first names and sometimes they were called by their surname. One was about to have a baby and one had feelings for one of the suspects. Nonetheless, it is a perfectly crafted book with hints of truths and art history.

illegitimi non carborundum

illegitimi non carborundum

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Imagine if you will a world not quite like our own. One thing is different. It is the seed that grows the tree of our alternative realities. In 1984, we had a different outcome during WWII. In The Handmaid’s Tale, birth rates are down and it’s all out fault. We use pills to mess up our hormones, condoms to prevent conception and abort it if we don’t want it. Fewer and fewer women are getting pregnant and the extremist Christians get to do their ‘told you so’ dance. They overthrow the government and step in to fix the mess they warned us so frequently about. Passages of the bible are taken literally and women are reduced to their basic biological function. Those that can produce, will. Warning, this is a very blunt review.

This book is terrible. For many reasons. Firstly, terrible things are happening to our narrator: Offred. She’d named so because she is the Handmaid of Fred. She belongs to him, his household and his country’s future survival. All of the staff gather for the ceremony; the reading of the bible and then husband, wife and handmaid are excused into another room. If you had healthy ovaries or had children ‘before’ this was your life now under the watchful of everyone. Her life is dictated her the bible and the new regime and it’s terrible. And the telling isn’t not great either.

Offred is not a wordsmith. Her life is dire and repetitive. This comes across in the writing. She doesn’t exactly transport us to a new world; the sights, the smells and scenery. But who would want to? It reads like a documentary, a diary, non fiction. Given that handmaids like the majority of Gilead can not communicate or write, our narrator conveys facts over feelings. As if she knows she’s speaking to someone outside the boundaries, someone that can help. That doesn’t stop her throwing out the odd commentary on the state of affairs with her favourite swear word: fuck. So it’s not all terrible, Offred has a great sense of purpose. She knows how things should be and that she has to survive to be reunited with her daughter. We’re cheering her on from the sidelines.

I have always meant to read this book as it’s a modern classic. With the announcement of the television series, I bought it and reading it as soon as possible. I have now seen the TV series and I have to say, and I never say this, the TV series is better than the book. The Hulu production gave us so much more than the book could because it can. The book, it transpires, is an organised collection of tapes that were discovered after the fall of Gilead. Offred is not a bad narrator, she is a restricted narrator. With the magic of television, we find out what happened to characters after the formation of this ‘great’ society. And if you read my rambled frequently, you know I always want more. It was far more satisfying than the book. And we’ve only been given the first season. Timed perfectly too. I could discuss why but then this would turn into an essay. I’ll end with Fuck You Trump. Illegitimi non carborundum.   

After You by JoJo Moyes

After You by JoJo Moyes

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Much like the first, I’d written it off. To refresh, I’d read this book over a year ago. I remember the arguments with friends about reading it but Me Before You was more than boy meets girl! So I was proved wrong. It’s a brave book that tackles, spoiler alert, a person’s right to end their own life. Gorgeous and outgoing, Will’s life was one big adventure. A tragic accident leaves him paralysed and Lou Clark is employed as a ray of sunshine by Will’s parents to change his mind. They learn to live and love then Will goes ahead with his decision. This is Lou’s life After You.

The first books ends with Lou in France at Will’s request. This second opens with Lou working in an Irish themed bar in an airport. I’m almost sure Will wouldn’t want that. The money didn’t go to waste. She has a nice flat with a garden on the roof; a roof she falls off of and breaks a bunch of bones. This pulls her family back together, they stopped talking after her actions of 18 months ago. Works not great. Her family are still struggling. She’s in therapy for grief because everyone believes the fall as a suicide attempt. (She does go on a lot about what Will would think and talk as if he’s still alive. He’s not Moyes, you killed him.) If all of that wasn’t enough, a stranger turns up at her door. It’s Will’s daughter.

The first book had earned my respect, this one not so much. It was the book I was expecting the first to be: a good mixture of drama, tragedy and boy meets girls. I was disappointed as I thought Lou would have taken Will’s promise to its fullest: to live. Instead, she muddles through life like the rest of us muggles. As I said in my previous review, it’s not going to win any writing prizes. If you loved the characters from the first they’re all there for you with some new oddballs we come to love as much as Loopy Lou and her yellow strippy tights. Good, harmless fluff to distract you from the chaos of now.

The Unreliable Narrator

The Unreliable Narrator

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You can have too much of something. When I first discovered Jodi Picoult, I read every title I could get my hands on. A solid six months of the same author can show flaws and patterns that make every book feel the same. Having learnt my lesson, I restricted myself to one a year. Maybe two. A lot of her new stuff have come away from broken families fighting law room drama. During my time at Waterstones, we were encouraged to put similar books together. If You Like, You’ll Love! Now I’m thinking that’s a bad idea…

Last week I read a book my mother asked me to read, she needed my opinion and more importantly, my clarity. It was called Sometimes I Lie. A woman is in a coma after an accident. The clue is in the title, she’s a liar. But who is she lying too? The people around her or us? Having read a few of these books I’m questioning if the use of an ‘unreliable narrator’ is lazy storytelling. Let’s discuss.

Maybe the most iconic of these is The Girl on the Train. It would be a short book if our narrator had a good memory rather than being an alcoholic. Told from three viewpoints, two present their version of the truth and the third is a professional liar. She convinces her roommate she has a job but travels to London every day. On top of that, it’s frustrating that she holds the key to this murder but her alcoholic brain can’t make the pieces fit. Given this it’s a third of the book and it’s character flaw, maybe we can forgive it. She’s not lying. It’s a device to create suspense.

On the opposite end of the scale we have I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. Spoilers ahead. The book opens with a child being killed in a hit and run. A woman runs away to a remote Welsh cottage. We’re led to believe that she is the suffering mother. It comes out she was in the car and she may have been behind the wheel. Like the rest of the book, the prologue was in first person. In my mind, it’s lying to the audience and I hate that. We have set up to believe one thing for a big reveal that is oh so fashionable. The narrator refuses to discuss what happened and withholding that information. It’s a neat trick but it’s a trick.

Another way a narrator could be unreliable is if they are bias. One of my favourite books of 2016 was The Truth about the Harry Quebert by Joel Dicker. A young writer visits his mentor during a small town scandal involving him and the killing of a young girl. There are many layers to this novel which is why I worship it so much. There are twists and turns but rather than withholding information or lying to us, suspense is created by the narrator’s doubt. He knows the truth and shares it with the reader but he also shares his doubts.

There are many ways to keep your readers in suspense, some are cleverer than others. Lying is wrong.

Second Life by SJ Watson

Second Life by SJ Watson

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I don’t know if you can call yourself a fan of an author if you’ve only read one of their books. But if they only have one, that’s hardly their fault. I read Before I Go to Sleep a while ago. Certainly before it become what I understand to be a pretty average movie. I haven’t seen it. I liked the book. It’s twist caught me by surprise through clever writing and the now infuriating troupe of the unreliable narrator (more on that next week). So I was more than happy to jump into his second book: Second Life. Once upon a time, I called myself a fan of SJ Watson.

“She knows what she’s doing. She’s out of control. She’s innocent. She’s guilty as sin. She’s living two lives. She might lose both…” I was drawn in by these conflicting ideas and brutal murder. Julia learns her sister is violently killed in an alley in France, the killer is at large. With no leads or suspects, Julia becomes obsessed with finding truths and answers, and she is willing to risk it all. Her sister isn’t a saint. She uses the darker side of the web to find … friends. Our narrator thinks in order to trap the killer, she must mimic her dead sister. She begins her second life and falls in lust. This, of course, fucks everything up.

I shouldn’t judge a book on ‘plausibility’; my favourite novels include magic and aliens. However, things can go too far. Julia is consumed with finding out the truth she puts herself in great danger. I love my sister but if I believed she was murdered by a sex mad bloke off the Internet I wouldn’t start meeting sex mad blokes off the Internet. Would you? Nothing is going to bring her back, will the truth really bring her closure or does she just enjoy the thrill of her new secret life?

The truth will shock. There are no clues to the reveal making it seem contrived. I fear this is a fashionable summer read that will be lost with the other shocking, unreliable narrator crime books with massive twists that all merge into one when discussed at dinner parties. ‘I couldn’t believe it was the husband all along, wait I think that was someone else. Wasn’t it the long lost twin brother? Never mind, did you see Bake Off last night?’ Success is a tough act to follow, I await the third to know if I am a fan.

Gods and Conquerors

Gods and Conquerors

I like space. Every time I read a new science fiction book with rockets and aliens I fall deeper in love. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Loved it. The Book of Strange New Things: fascinating. Space Jam: Classic. Okay, that last one isn’t a book but it’s the standard I hold most things too. For me science fiction is a way of exploring modern day politics in the ‘safer’ setting of a fictional out of space world. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: diversity. The Book of Strange New Things: colonisation. Space Jam: don’t mess with Earth. One thing’s for certain, space is dangerous.

Gods and Conquers is set on another world. A small crew seize the one way ticket off of planet Earth and head into the unknown. Why? Because it’s there. Why are they leaving Earth? All will be explained. When the team lead by James Verne awake from their ship they are met with desert. They pilgrim into a town to find it empty and abandoned. There are hints of the life that once inhabited the tower blocks. There are also sinister hint that they know about humans begging the question; who conquered who first?

This is Aaron Kane Heinemann’s first novel and it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. The author knows every detail of his character’s lives and personality. Each of them have their own secrets and struggles. They must face their mortality as their own chance of returning home is left smouldering behind them. Like many science fiction greats that has come before, this book is not afraid to ask big questions and deep themes. Heinemann just does it in his own special way; using impossible metaphors and using smilies that would put the classics to shame. An epic story and a telling that is out of this world.