Book Review 10 – How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

I need you all to decide a very important question for me: Do audio books count as reading? I have used them on several occasions before this 52 week challenge and found them great for commuting because you don’t need spare hands that can otherwise be used for holding a rail on the train or drinking your tea. You also don’t need to put it away on the walk from the station to the office. What’s not to love?!

What happened was I had started reading ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley in preparation for this blog post, when I found myself stuck on the M25 on a journey that eventually took four hours rather than two. About an hour in, I realised how bad the tailbacks were and decided to make good use of the time by downloading an audio book on my app from the library. It still gives me a little thrill when I borrow e-books from the library. Instant service that’s totally free. I keep on looking for the catch, but there isn’t one! So anyway, whilst I made good use of my time stuck in traffic it was via an audio book.  My hubby laughed when I told him and asked whether watching the movie also counted or maybe reading reviews that other people have written. My husband is big on sarcasm, but he did have a point. Because now that I have committed to “reading” a book a week it felt like… well it felt like I was cheating. So I’ll take a poll on this. I know you lot are a bit shy and don’t like leaving comments, but if I get more comments saying that I have cheated than have said that I haven’t then I will read an extra book to make up for it. If no one comments then I’ll assume you are happy with my audio book!

So on to this weeks review. ‘How to Stop Time’ is about the very long life that the central character Tom has led. Tom has a condition which only exposes itself after the age of 13. He ages extremely slowly. For every decade or so he only ages one year and consequently at over 400 years old he only looks around 40. Over the years Tom has met other people with the same condition. They have to keep moving, never getting too close to people, otherwise others will suspect that something is not quite right. In the past Tom’s condition led to persecution when locals thought his mother was a witch or that he practised Devil worship to stay young. In modern times he and others like him are trying instead to keep one step ahead of the researchers and scientists who they consider would hold them captive and destroy their lives.

The concept is a clever one and Matt Haig has clearly thought long and hard about what a life that spanned hundreds of years might look like. These long living individuals are plagued by headaches caused by the amount of information their brains have to hold. This reminded me of Catherine Tate becoming The Doctor Donna. Perhaps Haig is also a Doctor Who fan! He also made some poignant observations about the character traits of a person who has lived this long. He observes that great age doesn’t necessarily bring great wisdom and that ultimately you have to live your life ‘within the confines of your personality,’ which I thought was beautifully put.

I don’t know if it was because this was an audio book, but I did find the book somewhat slow and meandering. I think what Haig is trying to do is give us a good feel of what has happened in Tom’s life over the period of 400 years, but I felt as though it could do with taking a chunk out. I also found Tom’s life to have been slightly too remarkable. He had known Shakespeare, met F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer of The Great Gatsby, and sailed on maiden voyages to the Cook Islands. I wondered whether 320 additional years of life on the rest of us would really increase the probability of these things happening so much.

Haig has created a thought provoking story. His characters are believable and whilst the book is long, I did find myself consistently coming back to it to find out what was going to happen, which ultimately is what we all want from a book.

So this week I’ll be finishing off ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley and I’ll be back with a review on Monday. I’ll await your verdict on how many books I have to read next week…

Book Review 7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There are of course all sorts of books in the world. The flirty, easy reads that are devoured on summer getaways; gritty crime novels that keep commuters turning pages on packed trains; emotive roller coasters where you dive into the mind of the protagonist; literary heavyweights with awe inspiring imagery and language, the list goes on. I would perhaps pick up any of these before selecting a book about slavery. Not because I don’t think it’s important to understand more about this dark time in human history, but more because many years ago I read the unforgettable, Roots by Alex Haley.

It was one of those books that you can’t wrench your eyes from, despite the abject misery that you are confronted with. The fact that human beings are capable of such horrific cruelty sat heavily with me. And whilst I can’t remember the details of the book all these years later, the residue of that feeling (horror, sadness, shame?) is still nestled inside my brain somewhere, to the extent that when the BBC recently put on an adaptation of Roots, I knew two things. The first, that it would be a brilliantly made, unmissable programme; the second, that there was absolutely no way that I could bring myself to watch it.  No way that I could witness the subjugation and degradation of innocent people. Even if it is a fictionalised re-creation. It happened. The fact that it happened here on the soil that we walk on deeply saddens me.

So when I rocked up at the recent Croydon Literature Festival, and found The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead prominently displayed at a stall, I hesitated. A book about a slave who decides to escape from her bondage… was this the kind of book that I could read without it haunting me for the rest of my days? Wasn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable? How could I enjoy reading something so tragic?

There were a couple of things that tempted me. I am a sucker for prize winners and nominees and The Underground Railroad is peppered with them: winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, winner of the National Book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a Sunday Times top ten best seller – my fingers are getting worn out just typing the list of Whitehead’s accolade’s for this book. On top of this, I was listening to some podcast or other before the Booker’s shortlist was announced and the presenters were so sure that he was going to be shortlisted. As it happens he wasn’t but then you can’t win everything all of the time. The nominations and prize winnings suggested that this was no ordinary book, and difficult subject matter or not, I just had to bite the bullet and read it.

Perhaps it was because I had primed myself for it, or maybe because I’m no longer the naive young grasshopper I once was, but The Underground Railroad didn’t leave me with the same electric sense of shock that Roots had done many years ago. Whitehead doesn’t dilly-dally over the treatment of slaves, but neither does he linger. In one sense this makes it worse. It gives you the impression that the maltreatment of slaves was so commonplace, their misery so ubiquitous that there was scarcely time to draw breath before you were on to the next atrocity.

In The Underground Railroad we follow Cora who flees captivity and stumbles from one place of seeming refuge to another. Everything is in flux for Cora and those who seek to assist her. The prospect of a merciless death, should they be caught, lurks around every corner and bares it’s teeth any time Cora or her friends get too comfortable. Every time they think that there is a better life, a chance, a place of opportunity; the violence that they are fleeing rears it’s head to remind them, I’m still here, I’m still hunting you down.

Some other tough reads – what are yours?

For me, whilst the central story-line was great, I felt there was a lot of surplus information about the numerous peripheral characters. Cora would often refer back to a character that had helped in some earlier part of her journey and I found myself struggling to remember which particular act of benevolence they had bestowed. But overall, and despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book. It got me thinking, perhaps I have been too hasty in dismissing a book just because it might make me feel uncomfortable. Is there a world of literature that I am missing out on because of it? I’m interested to know your experiences. What has been the hardest book you ever read? And if you could go back in time and make the choice would you put yourself through the experience of reading it again?

I look forward to hearing your tales and I’ll see you here again next week when I’ll be reviewing I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you about that one, but it’ll have to keep till next Monday!

Book Review 4 – Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I first came across Mohsin Hamid a decade ago as I trawled Waterstones near

My signed copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

my then office in Piccadilly. I hadn’t heard of him before, but there in prominent position, with a ‘signed by the author’ sticker were a whole stack of fuchsia covered hardback copies of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. I idly picked one up, scanned the blurb and thought ‘yup, I’m gonna like this,’ and I took it to the till. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like Exit West, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and this alongside Hamid’s scrawl on the first page was enough to seal the deal for me. I wanted my very own signed book. Until last week, this was the only book I had ever owned that was signed by the author. (The more recent acquisition is I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell; which I will of course be reviewing in a couple of weeks.)

I hadn’t been following the Man Booker longlist all that closely when I first heard Hamid being interviewed about his latest book, Exit West on a Guardian Books podcast. If you have heard anything about this book you will know that it is about these strange doors that are portals through which refugees escape, thereby, as Hamid explained on the podcast, dispensing with the necessary and perilous journey that is faced by every asylum seeker (which is a whole story in itself) and focusing more on the human element and what happens to those who actually make it.

In Exit West we follow the story of Saeed and Nadia who meet in an unnamed country which is experiencing civil war. The book explores Saeed and Nadia’s feelings about leaving their home. I liked the fact that things weren’t black and white. Just because you might die if you stay where you are doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t think twice about leaving everything you have ever known. Equally, once the migration has actually taken place life is far from ideal. What happens to a relationship when all you have left in the whole world is each other? When you no longer have a place to call home and can’t guarantee your future? What then?
Exit West isn’t just a commentary on the refugee experience. It is a story about ordinary people, about love and life. It is a story about the choices we make, but also the legacy of those choices. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid reminds us. We are constantly reminded that existence is transient. That things have happened before and that they will happen again. The book is contemplative and philosophical and Hamid is an expert crafter of words, churning out page long sentences without batting an eyelid. But is it a prize winner? We shall have to wait and see. Hubby and I are off to the Man Booker Prize Readings in a few weeks at the Southbank centre, where the shortlisted authors will be talking about their work. I’ll be listening closely for any clues for 17th October when the winner is announced. Good luck Mohsin Hamid!

A glimpse of what’s to come

So there we are, four books down… I must say, so far so good. I haven’t found it too difficult. In fact the more I delve into the world of reading, the more I begin to think perhaps 52 books isn’t so impressive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading a book a week isn’t any sort of challenge to me. It is, after being out of the habit for so long. It would be so easy to put my book aside and just watch TV or browse the internet, so I am pleased that at least thus far I’ve stuck with it. It’s just that others put me to shame. I am following a rather marvelous woman on Twitter who goes under the name of Bibliophile Book Club, and she posted the other day that she had read 141 books this year. 141. No really, 141. By the time this goes out she will probably have got another five or so under her belt. I am in awe! But I guess that is her challenge (she’s wondering if she might hit 200 by the end of the year) and this is mine. I’d better learn to walk before I can run ?.

Come back next Monday – we’ll be taking a look at a Man Booker Prize longlisted book, Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Book Review 3 – Tin Man by Sarah Winman

They say don’t judge a book by its cover but any publisher worth their salt would tell you that is nonsense. If nobody judged a book by its cover then all books would have plain white covers with simple black typeset print giving the title and author. And if that was the case then the world would have been deprived of the canary yellow beauty that is Tin Man.

The choice of colour isn’t incidental. The story is told around a famous yellow painting and the colour crops up again and again under various guises. It’s an extension of Sarah Winman’s touching tale of a trio of friends. As if the story itself has seeped out onto the jacket.

Tin Man begins with Ellis, following the quiet and melancholy rhythms of his world. Ellis is cautious, tender and bruised. The latter part of the book is told from Ellis’ friend Michael’s point of view. Where Ellis is lonely, Michael is desolate, parched of hope.

Tin Man’s fragile characters are utterly endearing. They don’t shout and rampage. This is a book where lives unravel, but slowly, poignantly and with an ethereal beauty that leaves you gasping.

Winman also breaks ground with her writing style for example through her refusal to use speech marks around dialogue. It is remarkably done. I don’t think I was once confused about when a character was speaking. Part of this is to do with the poetic style she employs. The book is almost one long poem that is more engaged with the characters’ feelings than the action. In one sentence Ellis will be lying in bed, in the next he is out in the street. Winman dispenses with the banalities of the quotidian and focuses on her characters experiences. The outcome is a strong affinity between the reader and her characters. We live in their heads and their hearts. We feel the depth of their pain. We bask in the warmth of their memories.
A certain famous yellow painting
Alongside the speech marks, Winman also more or less dispenses with chapters. Tin Man is merely made up of a few separate sections all of which contain a storyline that flits between past and present. It works. Too well in fact. Since there weren’t so many natural breaks I had to force myself to put the book down in the wee hours of the night to make sure I could get some sleep! This particular problem was resolved quite quickly. You can’t hold yourself back from Tin Man. You find yourself immersed in it until it is sadly, achingly, but satisfyingly over. It is testament to Winman’s ability to put such beauty on the page that I read this book in three days.
You’ll remember that I am trying to read a book a week. This book was devoured so quickly that I forgot I was even taking part in any such challenge!
In the next few weeks I’ll be embarking on something of a man booker fest. First up is a shortlisted one. Come join me next Monday when I’ll be poring over Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.