Book review: “How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig

How To Stop Time imgTom Hazard has an extremely rare condition called anageria which means he ages extremely slowly. He is one of a tiny group of people who live for many hundreds of years. Tom was born in London in 1581 and mixed with the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe in his youth, worked for Captain Cook in the 1700s and was a jazz pianist in Paris in the 1920s where he met, among others, F Scott Fitzgerald and watched Josephine Baker dance. What an incredibly lucky guy, you might think, but his condition is a curse and does not go unnoticed. He is haunted by the fact that his mother was condemned as a witch in the small village in which they lived, because the locals suspected dark forces at play when her teenage son appeared never to age. In his ‘late teens’ he meets and falls in love with Rose, and they have a child, Marion. Rose is the love of Tom’s life and although they move around, trying to avoid staying in one place too long and attracting attention, he realises that his existence presents a danger to Rose and the child. He has no choice but to leave her. The last time Tom sees Rose is when she is in her 50s, on her death bed with the plague, while he still looks like the young man she fell in love with many years earlier.

Tom has to spend his long and eventful life dodging attention, changing location every eight years or so. He, and others with his condition, are part of a worldwide secret organisation known as Albatross, led by the slightly sinister now elderly Dutchman, Hendrick. ‘Albas’, as they are known, are committed to keeping their condition secret and thereby protecting themselves from scrutiny. They fear discovery by the scientific community and what this might mean. Superstition has treated them badly in the past. Hendrick rules the organisation and controls its members, cleverly maintaining their loyalty with a delicate balance of threat and the promise of protection.

But Tom is unhappy. His condition brings him nothing but pain and grief. He lost his mother in brutal circumstances and his wife and daughter, all because of anageria. Hendrick keeps him close by telling him that his daughter Marion has inherited the condition and assuring Tom that he will find her, but Tom becomes increasingly suspicious of Hendrick’s motives.

In the present day, Tom’s new role is as a history teacher in an east London secondary school. He is a success, bearing the uncanny ability to ‘bring history alive’ to even the most apathetic of his students. At the school Tom meets Camille, a young French teacher, to whom he is attracted. The feeling is mutual, but of course, Tom knows a relationship is impossible. Tom’s inconsistent behaviour towards Camille makes her suspicious.

Thus, the scene is set for a complex and fascinating plot. The novel jumps back and forth in time from present day east London to Shakespearean London, where Tom was a renowned lute player, to the 18th century where Tom sailed to the Indies with Cook, to more recent times when Tom has had to carry out certain international missions to serve the secret organisation.

Haig creates a huge range of interesting characters and it is quite an achievement that he gives them all a depth and uniqueness, which many writers could only achieve with a much smaller cast. The book was not at all difficult to follow, despite the frequent changes of era and setting. For me, my favourite sections were the present-day ones, though, as Tom explored with great poignancy the tragedy of his existence which means he cannot build intimate connection with anyone outside the organisation, for fear not only of exposing himself but of placing them in danger; bad things happen to people who find out about the Albas. Tom is lonely and alone. The people he has loved are all gone and so he fears love. The recounting of past events in Tom’s life help to create and augment the picture of his existence where an overly extended life is a curse not something to be striven for. The unnaturalness of Tom’s situation, the burden he must bear, is profoundly portrayed.

I listened to this book on audio and the narrator, Mark Meadows, was excellent, developing an impressive range of distinctive voices and accents to distinguish the different characters. He also conveyed well a sense of Tom’s building frustration and despair, so much so that his final actions in the book are not only plausible, but completely inevitable.

I recommend this book highly.

Have you read this or any of Matt Haig’s other books? He is everywhere at the moment!

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Hot new reads for the Summer

As Britain swelters under a seemingly relentless heatwave, thoughts are turning to holidays, even though perhaps that fortnight in the sun could just as easily be had at home at the moment! So, if you are looking for ideas for your holiday reading list here are some new titles that you might look out for. It’s quite an international list so if you are outside the UK you should be able to find most of these too.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse – I haven’t read any Kate Mosse but having just finished The Birth of Venus I am in the mood for historical fiction! Set in 16th century Carcassonne, France, it concerns an elderly bookseller and his family and the impact of the religious wars on their lives.

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi – already a best-seller in Dubai and the UAE, this novel, set in the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, looks at how the conflict affected the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad. When our television screens are full of images of refugees caught up in war, of bodies and of bombed-out buildings, I hope this novel will give us an insight into the reality of the lives of people just like us.

Lala  by Jacek Dehnel – an elderly woman recounts her extraordinary life to her grandson. Born in Poland in 1875 she lived through two world wars, life under communism and then liberation. This book has already won prizes in the author’s native Poland.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – set in New York city this novel concerns the increasingly oppressive friendship between two young women, aspiring writer Louise and wealthy social butterfly Lavinia. The two women meet when Louise goes to tutor Lavinia’s younger sister. Their friendship becomes necessary to both of them, but for different reasons, and is characterised by deceit, jealousy and an unhealthy dependency.

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon – McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastapol is one of my all-time favourite books. I haven’t read anything she has written since, but I really like the sound of this novel. Another novel about friendship between two women, Christa and Estelle, this time set in 1939, who have in common Fleur – Fleur was the Belgian Resistance fighter who saved Christa’s father in the Great War. She was also Estelle’s mother. The two women meet just before the outbreak of World War Two.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – I loved Moshfegh’s thriller Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Her new novel, published in the UK this week, promises to be equally dark and thrilling. Set in 2000, around the corner in time from 9/11, our narrator is a wealthy young New Yorker. The deaths of her parents while she was studying at Columbia university, a sense of the pointlessness of her own life, and dysfunctional relationships with her so-called best friend and her Wall Street boyfriend, lead her to take a ‘narcotic hibernation’. It is not without consequence.

The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore – the cover tells you this is going to be perfect for poolside! Gracie Burton blows all her savings on a week-long cookery course in Tuscany, much to the consternation of her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia. The trip turns out to be about more than just mid-life crisis, however, and aspects of Gracie’s past that her family were not aware of, are revealed. Tantalising!

Some of these books are only just out and so may only be available in Hardback, or e-reader – perfect for holiday packing!

What are your recommendations for the summer?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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Book review: “Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

Sight is the debut novel from British author Jessie Greengrass and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was won recently by Kamila Shamsie. This was the first novel I have read from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, and the one which appealed most strongly to my fellow book club members and I. We love the Women’s Prize and always try to get through a couple on the shortlist. We are all mothers, spend way too much time talking about our kids and so the blurb, about one woman’s journey to parenthood, spoke directly to us.

It is a very curious book. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a novel as we become so deeply embedded in the internal world of the unnamed first person narrator that it feels as if it is an autobiography.

Sight img
Strange book, stranger cover!

We know very little of the narrator, except that she is a young woman of indeterminate age, though probably in her early thirties. Her partner is Johannes, whom she meets shortly after the death of her mother. The book begins with her account of her mother’s decline and death and the time she spent caring for her. It is clearly a traumatic time for her and she struggles with all the challenges it represents – emotional, physical and administrative. It is an account of what it is like to be a daughter and an only child and to lose your only parent, your only link with your birth, with your early life and with that part of your life of which you have no memory.

 

She seems to drift into the relationship with Johannes at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable. He seems to offer her stability and comfort. The issue of having a child is clearly something that looms large in their relationship and eventually she agrees, but she remains unsure about the wisdom of this step.

This is not a story. It is an internal monologue, an account of one woman’s ambivalence about having a child. In fact she seems very ambivalent about all her close relationships – with her mother, with Johannes and with the only other significant character in the book, her late grandmother, a psychotherapist who lived alone and practised in a large house in Hampstead, and with whom she spent a few weeks each summer as a child. I suppose this ambivalence is present because we are getting the narrator’s unfettered, unmediated thoughts, but I found it confusing to marry this with any notion of love. For me, love was missing from the book. I understand well that for many women, it is not easy to bond with the foetus they carry, even the baby they give birth to. I can also accept relationships with a parent can be fraught and complex, even where there is familial love on both sides. Our narrator is deeply moved by the suffering of her mother in the final stages of her life; the actions she takes, the things she tells us about, sleeping beside her in the hospice, reading to her, suggest deep love, but she does not seem to me to express it. And when she writes about her grief and her loss, it is more a loss of a role, or a relation, rather than a person. There is something very cold about her feelings, which are captured in the following quote:

“Then I was faced with the problem of what to do with all my mother’s things. I felt that I was expected, somehow, to keep them, to make myself curator, but the thought of storing this detritus of an ended lifetime, of dragging it behind me like a deadened limb, turning myself into little more than a conduit for memory, was horrifying; and so in the end I gave away what I could to anyone who wanted it and hired a skip for the weekend to deal with the rest.”

What I found most difficult was that there seemed to be little real love in her relationship with Johannes. This was the man she chose to be the father of her child and although she finds great comfort in their easy companionship, their shared interests and the great care he shows for her, there is also at times a kind of contempt.

Perhaps my reading of it is too simplistic or too literal – perhaps if my internal thoughts were this closely mapped they would also reveal ambivalences in my feelings for the people I love most in the world. Our thoughts are closed to everyone but ourselves, and even to ourselves sometimes.

This is not a linear narrative – it jumps back and forth from her childhood, to the present, the antenatal appointments, to her mother’s death. In that sense it bears similarities to a ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Woven through it are accounts of three scientific figures – Rontgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic relationship with his daughter Anna, and John Hunter and the development of early surgery in the 18th century.

What I liked about this book was the remarkable writing, the intensity of the observation, particularly of her relationship with her own young daughter:

“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do that she was born for, which is to go away from me.”

There is profound insight in this book, not necessarily to the human condition – there was much here that I could not empathise with – but I mean in terms of the self-awareness. The deep introspection has given her a powerful knowledge of her own nature, of the events that have shaped her existence and of the impact of her relationships upon her.

This is a long review for a book in which very little happens! It was not an easy read and it sometimes frustrated me. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and offers a fresh approach to much-explored themes, even if at times it feels rather dislocated.

Recommended if you prefer psychology to plot.

If you have read Sight, what did you make of it, and how does it compare to the other novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist?

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A little light reading

I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time – at the moment it’s my book club book and a children’s book, and then I usually have one other. Sometimes this ‘other’ is necessary as a bit of light relief! Many people tell me that they love to read, but can’t find the time, so they read in bed…and fall asleep after a few pages. I know that feeling! It makes reading anything at the more challenging end of the spectrum very frustrating because you can easily lose the flow.

In this grave hour imgI have learnt my lesson and carve-out reading time for myself in the day. My bedtime reading is usually reserved for lighter books, entertainment. I have recently discovered the Maisie Dobbs series by British-American writer Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up In This Grave Hour whilst browsing at the local library. Set in London in 1939, at the time of the outbreak of World War Two, my principal interest in it was as background for a book I am currently working on. I ended up enjoying the book far more than I expected.

Maisie Dobbs is a private detective, working in London. She is titled, due to marriage, but hails from a humble background herself, though she clearly has many high level Establishment connections. Maisie is a widow, her husband having been killed in the First World War. There is clearly a sadness to her life, as there seems always to be with great literary detectives.

The mystery Maisie solves in this book concerns the violent murders of three Belgians, all of whom escaped Europe and the Nazis as they began to make their way across the continent. Maisie uncovers links between the incidents that the police have been unable to find. At the same time, war preparations are being made in London and children are beginning to be evacuated from the city, including to her own father and stepmother in Kent. Maisie finds herself particularly drawn to a young girl who goes to live with them, whose identity is unknown and who refuses to speak. Another, parallel, mystery that Maisie has to get to the bottom of.

Once I had got past my snobbery about the “this kind of book”, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was easy to read, a good story, competently written and with easy likeable characters. In This Grave Hour is the thirteenth book in the series, (the fourteenth was published earlier this year), and the author seems to have produced one a year pretty consistently. The first book is set, I believe, at the end of the First World War. It reminded me of a couple of books I have read in the past, the Kate Shackleton Mysteries by Frances Brody. Set in the 1920s, the heroine is a widowed private detective, based in Yorkshire. I read Murder in the Afternoon and Murder on a Summer’s Day, which I have reviewed on here, and enjoyed them both. There are nine Kate Shackleton books altogether.

So, if you’re looking for some light reading, for bedtime, or perhaps for a forthcoming holiday, I would recommend either Maisie Dobbs or Kate Shackleton. You could do a lot worse and you may actually find they keep you awake!

What is your recommended ‘light reading’?

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