Review (not) Wednesday | ARC Review – How to Stop Time

**I was given this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review**

Okay, first things first, HOW EXCITING IS THIS?? If you’ve been around a while you’ll know that I adore Haig’s work. In fact, he’s the only author I’ve reviewed more than once on here. Saying that, there’s a kind of fear in reading a book you’ve been looking forward to –and even more so when you have to put your thoughts on the internet for the whole world to see. It’s very easy to be disappointed by an author you’ve read a lot of, because you expect certain things from that author, but luckily that wasn’t the case here.

How to Stop Time is centred around Tom Hazard, a man with a rare condition – at the age of 13 the aging process slowed down for him completely, leaving him to age 15 times slower than the average human. At 439, he’s lived a lot of life. Determined to feel normal, Tom decides to become a history teacher – he’s certainly qualified for it.

The book is what I expected from Haig. In a lot of ways it was like The Humans, which I haven’t reviewed here but read recently – watch this space. The protagonists are similar in a lot of ways, though technically no one is more human than Tom Hazard and no one less so than the nameless alien entity now occupying the body of Professor Andrew Martin. This is a bit of a negative – some aspects felt a little like I’d seen it before (and not just because of the historical throwbacks). Despite this, I thought that overall the book was brilliant. Haig has a strong voice that engages the reader, the story was well paced and I was gripped by the plot. It was that wonderful blend of serious, thought provoking, emotional and funny that Matt Haig combines into the social commentaries I adore reading so much. The plot could have been incredibly convoluted and difficult to follow, but it was actually an easy read and a lot of fun – while still pulling on your heartstrings.

Without spoiling too much, the book does include some flashbacks, but the plot is generally pretty linear. There are a few name drops in said flashbacks, some of which I felt worked and moved the plot along (Tom is given work by a famous playwright), and some I felt didn’t really add anything to the plot (Tom meets a famous couple in a bar). They were entertaining and I like the concept, but it did sort of feel like some famous names were there for the sake of a famous name.

I really enjoyed the book. It was what I wanted and expected from Haig, but at the same time I felt that it could have gone just a little further. We are introduced to a few institutions who are linked to or interested in Anageria, Tom’s condition, but aren’t shown much of them – I’d love to know more about them and perhaps see more of their influence first hand. We hear about their previous actions and understand that there’s always the threat of being tracked down by these groups (think E.T) but don’t really see a whole lot of the actual groups. I can’t believe I of all people would’ve liked more action, but it was a little jarring that we’re warned about all these people and then they don’t really show up when everything else is being tied up.

The concept is fantastic as ever and I am always astounded by Haig’s voice and narrative. I feel like this review is quite critical but I really did love the book – I just felt like a few things could have been cleaner. I would absolutely recommend, even if you haven’t read anything by Matt Haig. This would be a wonderful place to start.

See you soon,

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Review Wednesday | The Night Brother (ARC Review)

I was given this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I know that I give a big spoiler in the first paragraph but it would be very difficult to talk about without giving it away! You do find out in the first couple of chapters!! -R

The Night Brother follows Edie and Gnome, siblings who in many ways couldn’t be more different. Edie is introverted, intelligent and resolutely hated by her mother. Gnome is outgoing, adventurous and uncouth – not to mention hero-worshipped and spoilt rotten by the mother he deems stupid. They are linked, quite literally, by one slightly inconvenient fact; they live in the same body. Edie is in control during the day, and Gnome at night. The start of the novel shows Edie unaware of what is happening – she believes Gnome to be a friend, a Peter Pan like figure who takes her on adventures while her mother and grandmother are sleeping. Her grandmother eventually reveals the truth in an attempt to help her find her peace with the situation.

I’ve spoken before about how difficult it can be to get historical fiction right, and this is possibly magnified in making LGBT+ characters and themes take centre stage. I was so glad to read LGBT+ characters that are realistic and proud (if that pride is strictly confined to their own friendship groups and secret gay bars), and the theme of gender fluidity is certainly explored in different ways here.

The premise of “one body, two souls” could have gone many ways, particularly considering how this is dealt with in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is obviously an actual Fin de Siecle period novel with a similar theme. The plot borders on ridiculous at times due to the nature of this, but I felt that for the most part it brought it back quite well. I would have liked a better explanation of the “family curse” and more of a back story for the whole thing though.

I was quite sceptical of this book. Garland’s descriptions are beautiful, and the first chapter certainly draws you in, but I did begin to get disillusioned with the whole thing at times. I felt some attempts at adding ‘darkness’ were a little lost on me – the mother comes off quite pantomime-y, and a certain scene with a certain doctor just seemed far too fast and confusing – though on doing further research I did find out that his practices weren’t unheard of, which was somewhat of a shock to me (though it really shouldn’t have been).

The characters were very strong, though, and this compared with the descriptive language kept me hooked. There are some striking scenes that I really connected with, though I wasn’t convinced by it all – particularly the ending, I must admit. In all though it was an enjoyable book with some wonderful LGBT+ characters, who are well worth meeting.

See you soon,

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A Bookshelf For… A Year Later

A few days ago Always in the Write turned one and yes, I’m still celebrating. I’m truly amazed that I haven’t quit yet if I’m honest – I don’t like being a quitter but I know what I’m like and didn’t have high expectations of myself! What better way to celebrate than the first in that one series I mentioned ages ago and haven’t touched since my A Bookshelf For…series! Here are my top books I’ve reviewed for each month, along with links to the full reviews if you’re interested. It’s been quite the year, with some damn good books taking centre stage.

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Review Wednesday | Book Review – Wormwood

It is London, 1756. In his Bloomsbury attic sits Dr Sabian Blake – astronomer, scientist, and master of the Kabbalah. Dr Blake is in possession of the Nemorensis, an ancient leather-bound book that holds the secrets of the universe. Scribbled into one of its margins is a mysterious prophecy and deciphering it could prove the key to saving London from a catastrophic fate. But there are others interested in the Nemorensis too, for more sinister reasons . . .

Wormwood is an allegorical fantasy novel, with strong Christian imagery throughout. The story centres around a book called the Nemorensis, seen by some as a fount of knowledge and others the Devil’s work. Dr Sabian Blake, owner of Nemorensis at the beginning of the book, finds a prediction in the book of a comet, Wormwood, falling to Earth and destroying London.

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Review Wednesday(ish) | Book Review – The Golden Tup

I was given this novella in exchange for an honest review. Sorry it’s late! 

The Golden Tup is a novella, originally published in a collection called The Red Grouse Tales – named for the pub in which the stories were told by the author’s friends. The idea of a collection of stories originally verbally told, while an ancient tradition, has become quintessentially British to me. This may be to do with the sheer amount of Victorian fiction I’ve read with this theme, but I am partial to these kinds of stories.

With this in mind, the story is more a story-in-a-story. It opens with the storyteller and her friends. One of the friends enquires about the main characters of the actual story, leading to this being told. The Golden Tup reminds me of The Turn of the Screw in many ways, the obvious similarities in format being one of them.

The darkness and ambiguity in the story also reminds me of James’ work. The Golden Tup is incredibly dark in many ways. The main story focuses on a young couple who move into a long-abandoned farm house. They live a relatively happy, peaceful existence; until things ominously take a turn for the worst. Their tale mirrors that of the previous tenants in many ways, shedding light on why the property had been unoccupied for so long. Garland uses supernatural and religious themes that work well with such a rural, traditional setting. I like the use of Milton’s Paradise Lost, although I did find that this was forced at times.

There were several parts where the writing fell slightly short for me, but that is almost forgiven by the format of the tale. This is a ‘campfire’ sort of story, made to be told in a raw and natural way. It isn’t intended as perfectly polished literary narrative, and that works in this instance. It is the kind of story I can imagine people telling based on shocking headlines or local dramas – if there’s one thing I know about villages it’s that both imaginations and gossip run wild.

This adds a sort-of quaintness to an otherwise depressing and quite shocking tale. It is grounded in the more realistic setting of the pub in which it is told. The rural, quaint overtones are again comparable to many Victorian works of this kind, such as Frankenstein. There’s an element of fun that works to engage the reader further in the tale.

Overall I really enjoyed this story. It was short enough to read on a train journey but engaging enough that I would want more, and may get hold of the full collection. It is a nice little horror story to sink your teeth into, with some interesting motifs and themes.

See you soon,

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Review Wednesday | Book Review – Paris For One and Other Stories

I was given a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paris for One and Other Stories is, as you might expect from the title, a book of short stories. The book features the titular Paris for One, more of a novella than short story, followed by 10 shorter stories of varying lengths.

Paris for One, the main story, follows an anxious Nell as she travels to Paris for the first time. What was supposed to be a romantic weekend with her uninterested boyfriend soon turns into a journey of self-discovery and of Nell finding her courage. The story also follows Fabien, a Parisian writer who was left heartbroken by his now ex-girlfriend a few months before the story begins. He is working on a book but lacks the motivation and confidence to finish it.

Okay, so you can probably see where this is going. I can’t say the story isn’t predictable, but it’s well written, charming and sophisticated.

All of the stories follow similar themes of romance and self-discovery. Relationships are the central theme for this collection. There are marriages, new loves, break ups and old friends. Couples who can’t make it work and couples who work through thick and thin. The protagonists are all strong, realistic women. Some of the stories are set in Paris, but this isn’t a running theme.

As a historical fiction junkie, it comes as no surprise that my favourite story in the collection is Honeymoon in Paris. I adore when stories combine the past with the present, but it is so easy to get wrong that I approach these kinds of stories tentatively. Moyes got this trope completely spot on, however, with her tales of Liv and Sophie. It was only on googling the book for this review that I learned that this is a sort of mini-prequel to a novel based on the two women, The Girl You Left Behind – it’s safe to say that I will be giving that a read!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I was in London when I started it and I feel like it would be a perfect commuting read. The stories are gripping but wrap up nicely, and can be read in short periods of time. While I have found myself wanting more from some of the stories, they work wonderfully as stand-alones and are all paced really well.  They might not be deep, brooding or particularly “literary”, but these are lovely little stories to brighten your day with and help restore some of your faith in humanity. I hadn’t read any of JoJo Moyes’ work until now, but I can see what all the fuss is about.

See you soon,

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Review Wednesday | Book Review – Birds Art Life Death

 

I was given a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

It would be small and manageable, just a tiny bird, embarrassingly little. Not a crisis. And that’s why I regret it. Because the attitude that somehow, without our acting, the little things will take care of themselves does not ring true anymore.

Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death follows her through a year of her life and discovery of birds and their impact. At the beginning of the book her father is unwell and she is beginning to fall out of love with her art. She falls into a rut of being unable to write and create the way she’d like – until she meets a bird-loving musician. The Musician, as he is referred to throughout the novel, introduces her not only to birds but to the idea that the small and seemingly insignificant can mean everything.

For someone who was in such a creative rut, Maclear writes beautifully. She is honest, funny and writes with quiet grace. Her work is well thought out and intelligent, but also raw and natural. Her struggle to create is relatable and her observations pure and uncensored. Her encounter with a Peregrine falcon, for example, shows the greying and harsh Toronto environment against the majesty of the bird.

This is by no means a research book. Maclear’s ornithological interest doesn’t become boring, and she doesn’t write about fact or science – in fact she does write about finding the balance between looking at birds too scientifically or too sentimentally. In a period of being unable to go out birding with the musician she reads books on birds, and finds that many are too factual for her needs. She writes more often purely on her experiences with birds, not the science behind them – although occasionally this does play a part in moving the story on.

The point of the book is to show that the insignificant, small things can be some of the most important. Birds are a constant, as are art, life and death. No matter what is happening in the world, people will take comfort in the small things – and that’s okay.

Birds Art Life Death is a wonderful little book. It is understated and modest, just like it’s subject matter, but with a lot of life lessons and wisdom in its pages. I’m a little disappointed that I only have the eBook copy – I feel like there are some books I want to physically hold, and this is one (that is a good thing!).

See you soon,

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Review Wednesday | Book Review – Devil’s Playground

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Devil’s Playground is an action-packed novel centred around Mia Sawan, American-Lebanese spy for mysterious company The Firm. A Christian banker is crucified in Beirut, then the 10-year old daughter of a powerful mayor in Azerbaijan is kidnapped. Both crime scenes have tags linked to a known criminal, but Mia isn’t so sure it is an open-shut case – or of what the link between the two actually is.

The idea for this novel is incredibly strong. This has been well thought out, researched and it is clear that the author knows his stuff. The start of the novel, for example, is shocking and incredibly powerful. Mia’s character is a strong willed, intelligent, sex positive woman of colour and I wish we could see more of these, especially coming from white male writers like Kidson.

I love the concept, and was looking forward to reading the book. Unfortunately for me the writing didn’t quite match the strength of the ideas. The text tells an awful lot, and is very open – considering this is a book about covert investigation, this isn’t the best match. It is difficult to find a good balance between getting your intentions across and over-explaining, and in Devil’s Playground this hasn’t been perfected.  I also found that while some things were over-explained, such as what Mia wore, others weren’t discussed enough. I would have liked to have seen more of “The Firm”, and some more scenic description – it may not be as exciting as the action packed scenes we saw so much of, but I believe it would’ve added more depth and realism to the book. It is set somewhere that for many Western readers is a mystery, so it would’ve been nice to have had a better picture painted of the settings. It may be that I don’t read action often, but I find that scene after scene of action gets tiring rather than having the desired effect. When every page is written to shock or excite I find that I desensitise and lose interest. Of course there are rest breaks, but the text is very fast paced.

Overall, the novel had a controversial but gripping plotline, however I felt that this was let down by poor editing and a mismatched writing style. This is very easy to do and I admire the clear amount of knowledge and thought put into the concept, but the writing distracted from the story too much for me to fully enjoy it.

See you soon,

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Review Wednesday | Purple Hibiscus

Mama had greeted him in the traditional way that women were supposed to, bending low and offering him her back so that he would pat it with his fan made of the soft, straw-coloured tail of an animal. Back home that night, Papa told Mama that it was sinful. You did not bow to another human being. It was an ungodly tradition, bowing to an Igwe. So, a few days later, when we went to see the bishop at Awka, I did not kneel to kiss his ring. I wanted to make Papa proud. But Papa yanked my ear in the car and said I did not have the spirit of discernment. The bishop was a man of God; the Igwe was merely a traditional ruler.

I don’t normally talk about what brought me to read a book on here, mostly because a lot of them were simply there or looked good/pretty. With Purple Hibiscus, however, I think there needs to be an exception. Many of you may have seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Newsnight back in November, discussing the US election with Robert Emmett Tyrell, founder and editor-in-chief of conservative magazine ‘The American Spectator’. Tyrell was unable to see racism or even real fault with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. When Adichie responded he accused her of being emotional – and therefore apparently incapable of intelligent or logical thought. Adichie explained, quite calmly for a woman effectively being told to sit down and shut up, that as a white male he is in a privileged position and cannot define racism. Even if he could, all evidence points to Trump promoting hateful and dangerous attitudes towards people at disadvantage; people of colour, immigrants, disabled people and women. The way Adichie held herself with grace and elegance, despite being visibly upset and angered by these remarks was admirable. She dealt with this situation beautifully, especially considering that she was unaware she was to be on the show with another guest until she arrived. She is a strong, smart woman and her writing in Purple Hibiscus reflects this.

Purple Hibiscus was Adichie’s debut novel, first published in 2003. The novel is told through the eyes of fifteen year old Kambili’s, a Nigerian Igbo girl. She, along with her brother Jaja and mother, lives in the shadow of her overbearing and strictly Catholic father. She has an almost outside view of him – she is enamoured by the charitable, God-loving exterior that her wider community sees, but struggles to consolidate this with the abusive, cruel-hearted man only seen within the walls of their compound. Her world is flipped upside down as she begins to see through his shiny exterior.

What strikes me about this novel is its incredibly strong voices. Kambili, while submissive and oppressed by her father speaks eloquently – a reflection of both the character’s strict education and the writer’s own tone. She rarely actually says more than a few words, but her internal narrative is intelligent and mature. Of course this is in part Adichie’s personal writing style shining through, but fits Kambili well. Her Aunt Ifeoma is fiercely passionate and confident, laughing loudly and standing fearless in the face of both her brother and the prospect of losing her job. Her grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu is peaceful and respectful of his son’s faith, but strong in his own traditional indigenous beliefs while JaJa’s fiery temper increases as he becomes more disillusioned by his father’s behaviour.

Her Papa is by far the loudest voice, unsurprisingly. Of course this doesn’t, however, make him the strongest character. He is overpowering, speaking over those he considers lesser and ensuring he gets his own way – no matter the cost. We are shown shocking acts of violence and cruel outbursts, particularly against his wife. She is deeply afraid that as such a popular figure in the community he will be seduced by a younger woman and leave her, but believes that giving him another child would prove her worth. He is more concerned by his image, though I’m not sure whether he is concerned with his image in the eyes of God or the eyes of the clergy. He often appears to use religion and charity as leverage to work his way up the social ladder, rather than a way to please God, and yet insists on saying long, sermon–like grace prayers. Perhaps he just likes the sound of his own voice.

Throughout the novel I was prone to comparing it to The Poisonwood Bible, and in many ways they are very similar. Religion and colonialism are strong themes, and it was interesting to see such a similar story told by a native African voice. I intend to compare them in detail in a future post, but I will say this – the sensible, intelligent Kambili is a much stronger 15 year-old than American Dream obsessed Rachel Price.

I’ve rewritten this several times and still feel like I could revise it all day and not do the book justice, but I truly loved Purple Hibiscus – it is a harrowing, well thought out and engaging novel with a lot of heart. Read it and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

See you soon,

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