How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

How to Stop TimeThe story: Tom Hazard, currently working as a teacher living in London, has spent his life hiding a secret – he was actually born in 1581. Tom has a condition that means that he ages so slowly that he has lived through many lifetimes. Now under the protection of others like him through the Albatross society, Tom is given all he needs to reinvent his identity every eight years. The only rule is never to fall in love.

But although Tom tries to stick to the rules, being back in the city where he was born brings back long forgotten memories and desires. He’s also been searching for something for a long time which seems to finally be within his reach.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book and the way it was written, and once I’d started I couldn’t put it down. I loved how Tom’s past was overlaid with the present throughout this book – over the centuries he’s been on a stage with Shakespeare, sailed with great explorers and drank in a bar in Paris with the Fitzgerald’s – and when he’s teaching his students history, he’s drawing on all his own personal experiences to really bring the past to life.

At first glance, he appears to have it all – he’s travelled the world, set up with everything he needs and has enjoyed all that the world has to offer.

But there are of course the inevitable problems. He’s watched loved ones die and been unable to stop it, he’s unable to for any meaningful attachments for fear of questions, and the mundane details of daily life become increasingly insignificant.

Threaded throughout the whole novel are little insights that make us think about what it means to be human.  It raises some really interesting questions – what is life without love and the people that surround us? Are existing and living the same thing?

The villain of the piece, Hendrich, the leader of the Albatross Society, is suitably dastardly and threatening, which keeps the pace moving along well and adds some additional drama to a story that otherwise may have run the risk of becoming a little bogged down in reflection and memories.

The subject matter and style really reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which I also loved. I’m not surprised to hear that there’s a film of this in the making, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. The skill of Haig’s writing means that in my head I can already imagine exactly how it will play out on screen, and I can’t wait to watch it.

Top 5: My most anticipated summer reads

The Good Daughter
Author: Karin Slaughter
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind…

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy smalltown family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father – Pikeville’s notorious defence attorney – devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.

Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself – the archetypal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again – and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatised – Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case which can’t help triggering the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime which destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried for ever…

Why I’m looking forward to it: Karin Slaughter is one of my go-to crime writers and one of the few that I auto-buy. She’s great at writing gripping stories with plot twists that I don’t see coming.

The Word is Murder
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publication date: 24 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funeral. A very private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

(So far, so enigmatic! But then I saw this blurb on Horowitz’s website…)

Summary from Horowitz’s website: It’s been two years since Injustice aired and Detective Daniel Hawthorne needs cash. Having gotten himself fired from his job at the Metropolitan police, Hawthorne decides to approach Anthony Horowitz. He’s investigating a bizarre and complex murder and he wants Anthony to write a book about it, a bestselling book of course, with a 50/50 split. The only catch is they need to solve the crime.

But award winning crime writer Anthony Horowitz has never been busier in his life. He’s working on Foyle’s War and writing his first Sherlock Holmes novel. He has a life of his own and doesn’t really want to be involved with a man he finds challenging to say the least. And yet he finds himself fascinated by the case and the downright difficult detective with the brilliant, analytical mind. Would it be really such a crazy idea for Anthony to become the Watson to his Holmes? The Hastings to his Poirot? Should he stick to writing about murder? Or should he help investigate?

Why I’m looking forward to it: This sounds really interesting – Anthony Horowitz has actually written himself into this novel as a character. I recently read and really enjoyed Magpie Murders, which featured a book within a book, and this seems like it will be equally unique. I’m hoping that this latest novel lives up to my high expectations!

The Readymade Thief
Author: Augustus Rose
Publication date: 10 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Lee Cuddy is seventeen years old and on the run, alone on the streets of Philadelphia. A fugitive with no money, no home and nowhere to go, Lee finds refuge in a deserted building known as the Crystal Castle. But the Castle conceals a sinister agenda, one master-minded by a society of fanatical men set on decoding a series of powerful secrets hidden in plain sight. And they believe Lee holds the key to it all.

Aided by Tomi, a mysterious young hacker, Lee escapes into the unmapped corners of the city. But the deeper she goes underground, the more tightly she finds herself bound in the strange web of the men she’s trying to elude. Aware that the lives of those she cares for are in increasing danger, it is only when Lee steps from the shadows to confront who is chasing her that she discovers what they’re really after, and why.

Why I’m looking forward to it: I haven’t read a good thriller in ages. I also love a conspiracy plot. This sounds like a cross between I Am Pilgrim and The Da Vinci Code, and a perfect summer read.

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: 1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann. Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind…

Why I’m looking forward to it: I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and while I wasn’t as keen on Perfect, I still think the Rachel Joyce is a really talented author. She has a real skill in creating characters and settings that leap off the page. This sounds like it could be a really interesting story and I’m excited to read it.

The Last Tudor
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publication date: 8 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.

‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does.  So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.

‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.

Why I’m looking forward to it: Philippa Gregory is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m a history graduate who wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the Royal Family – and I’ve always been fascinated by this turbulent period of history. I also love how Gregory’s books always give us a unique (and female) perspective on historical events.

What are your most anticipated summer releases? Did any of mine make your list?

Blood Wedding – Pierre Lemaitre

Blood WeddingThe story: Sophie is convinced she’s losing her mind. She forgets things, has erratic mood swings and there are stretches of time that are complete blanks. Her carefully ordered life has fallen apart. Things come to a head when she’s working as a nanny,  and one morning finds her six year old charge brutally murdered – and all the evidence says it was Sophie that did it. Fleeing the scene, she must find a way to survive while she tries to come to terms with what’s happened.

My thoughts: Sophie as a narrator is as unreliable as they come. While she has fragments of memories that convince her of her own guilt, she cannot explain her actions, even to herself. She has a natural instinct to survive and evade capture, but to do so she must go to places that she never thought she could. She thinks she’s lost her mind, and maybe she has. But then again, maybe she hasn’t.

Pierre Lemaitre specialises in switching up viewpoints mid-way through a story and turning everything we thought we knew completely on its head. He’s done it before, in Alex, and he does it again here superbly. I can’t go into detail or it would completely spoil the story, but there are some intense scenes of psychological torture and violence. It’s very dark and very twisted. It’s like Gone Girl on steroids.

Not everything is as it first seems. We get a unique insight into the minds of two main characters, who are each seeing events from a different point of view and force us to re-examine everything we’ve been told in a new light. Whether or not you believe Sophie is guilty of murdering her charge, she certainly crosses numerous lines as the novel progresses – playing with our concepts of responsibility and blame.

As much as I appreciated the clever plot and the masterful character development that we see in Sophie throughout the novel, I personally found the subject matter to be a bit too intense. I’d like to point out that I read a lot of crime fiction and psychological thrillers, including a number of other books by Pierre Lemaitre (Alex and Camille), and I’d say that generally I’m not too squeamish. However, the more I read of Blood Wedding, the more disturbing I found it. Sophie’s thought processes and experiences are deeply troubling, and I found it a really uncomfortable read.

I still think that Pierre Lemaitre can write a cracking psychological thriller to rival the best in the genre, but this one wasn’t for me. I’m not going to let it put me off reading his books in the future though.

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterThe story: The drowning pool in Beckford has claimed many lives over the centuries. Originally the chosen place to drown witches, it’s now a notorious suicide spot. Most recently, Nel Abbott either jumped, fell or was pushed to her death, depending on who you believe. Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend, Katie, walked into the pool with pockets full of rocks months earlier. And 30 years before that, Lauren Townsend threw herself from the cliff. It soon becomes clear that all of these deaths are connected in more ways than one, and that the people in Beckford are hiding many secrets that they don’t want brought to light.

My thoughts: There are a large number of narrators in this book (around 11 in total) which I initially found confusing. After a while though, I’d managed to get everyone straight in my head and didn’t find this to be too much of a problem in terms of following the story.

As each section is written in the first person, we spend a lot of time in people’s heads hearing their inner monologues. Each of these narrators is also biased to their own point of view and influenced by their own experiences and beliefs. Many of the things they think are true are distorted by false memories, heightened emotions or a misinterpretation of the facts. This creates an atmosphere where we as readers are never quite sure of the facts. Nothing we find out is solid, and truths seem to fall away like an eroding river bed as things are slowly revealed.

While in general I quite liked the descriptive writing style, having so many narrators did mean that we often heard the same events from several points of view, with a new perspective to throw things into a different light. This got a bit repetitive at times. In my opinion losing a few of these characters – Nickie, the psychic, or Josh, Katie’s younger brother, for example – wouldn’t have taken anything away from the overall plot, and we could have easily kept up to date on their stories through their interactions with others.

The character I cared the most about was Lena. She makes some questionable decisions and often lies, but she’s fifteen and grieving. She’s allowed to make mistakes and her motivations are understandable. She’s struggling under the weight of a huge secret, and she doesn’t know how to fix the mistakes that have been made in the past. I really felt for her and wanted her life to take a turn for the better.

The pace of Into the Water is definitely slower than Paula Hawkin’s first novel, The Girl on the Train, and as a result the twists and reveals felt like they had less impact, and I also had a good idea of what the final twist might be. I also wasn’t keen on a particular subplot that delves into the supernatural – it wasn’t needed in my opinion. While I did enjoy Into the Water, it didn’t keep me gripped as much as others in this genre have recently.

 

Buy it here: Amazon UK

The Ice – Laline Paull

The IceThe story: In the near future, the polar ice caps are melting, the transpolar shipping route is being heavily utilised and individuals and countries are jostling for power and control. When a cruise ship searching for an increasingly rare glimpse of the elusive polar bears travels into the restricted waters of the Midgard Lodge, they get more than they bargained for when a calving glacier reveals the preserved body of a man.

The Midgard Lodge is a private retreat run by businessman Sean Cawson, and the body discovered is that of his long-time friend, business partner, and ex-Greenpeace activist Tom Harding. The discovery of Tom’s body starts an inquest into the events that led to his death, led by his friends and family, while Sean also faces an internal struggle that is increasingly difficult to contain.

My thoughts: Much of the novel focuses on Sean’s character development. At the beginning of the novel, he is presented as a selfish opportunist taking advantage of the people around him for his own personal and monetary gain. I feel like as we got to know him more we were supposed to see that there was more to his character, but for me this never really happened. I couldn’t connect with him as a character. He wasn’t likeable and I struggled to see his redeeming features.  I think as a character though, he was written really well and came across as totally believable.

The environmental message is one that is impossible to escape from. At the end of the book, I wasn’t thinking about the characters or their stories, I was thinking about the trans-polar route, global warming and capitalism – and the future of the world as we know it. There are two conflicting viewpoints set out here – those who can see the damage that is being done to the environment and want to slow it or stop it as best they can, versus those who can see that change is coming no matter what and believe they may as well be at the forefront of progress.

The descriptions of the Arctic from the early polar explorers talking about the hostility of the natural landscape, which precede each chapter, are sharply contrasted against commercialisation and modernity. There’s a real sense that the natural world as we know it is shrinking and dying, to be replaced by luxury hotels and convenient mod-cons.

This conflict is brought to life through Sean and Tom’s personal story. Although I thought this was handled a bit heavy-handedly at some points, it is a valid and valuable debate and it certainly made an impression.

Pacing was a bit of an issue in this book for me. I felt it really took some time to really get going. Until I got to around 50%, I was struggling to find a compelling reason to pick it back up. After this, the story does really pick up the pace, but if I hadn’t received a copy of The Ice for review, it might have taken me a while to get through it. Having finished it though, I’m glad I persevered. It was a really insightful and thought provoking read.

Golden Son – Pierce Brown

Golden SonThe story: Having made it through the Institute and secured a patronage from one of the most powerful men on Mars, Darrow has continued his studies in warfare and leadership. This goes further afield than his own planet and includes commanding fleets of ships in epic space battles. He’s fully embedded in the Gold ruling classes, while also working hard to break it apart from within.

My thoughts: I’ve read enough YA thrillers to know that sometimes they fall down flat when they try and move past the trials of book one into the wider universe of their fictional book world. Golden Son manages this feat magnificently, despite having a far vaster and more complicated world than any other series I’ve ever read.

Where in Red Rising we were focused on just one tiny part of the universe Pierce Brown has created, in Golden Son we see much more of it. We also learn more about the structure of society and how it all fits together. Politics and strategy play a far greater role in this book, and there’s an emphasis on how all actions and decisions have consequences. Continue reading

Top 5: 2017 releases I’m most looking forward to

American War
Author: Omar El Akkad
Publication date: 6 April 2017

Goodreads summary: Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

Why I’m excited: It’s a dystopian world that’s been described as frighteningly realistic, given the political developments of 2016. I haven’t read a good dystopian book since Justin Cronin’s The Passage series, so hoping this is as good as the critics have made it sound.


City of Circles

Author: Jess Richards
Publication date: 10 August 2017

Amazon summary: Danu is a tightrope walker who is mourning her parents after a disease has ravaged the circus where she grew up. Her mother has entrusted her with a locket that hides a secret.

She begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past. When the circus leaves she stays behind.

Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?

Why I’m excited: I loved Snake Ropes, Jess Richards’ first novel. Her writing is beautiful and dream-like. This has also been billed as one for fans of the Night Circus, which I also loved. Continue reading