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.

Book Review 2 – Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Welcome back everyone and thank you for following me into week two of my 52 book quest. Another week over, another book read and another tweet sent – this time to that genius of a man Carlo Rovelli.

You may be wondering what brought me to this book. The truth is (and this is just between you and me so don’t go spreading it about) I am a bit of a closet science nerd. All those programmes about space and black holes, far away galaxies and the search for extra terrestrial life; I’m always hooked. So Reality is Not What it Seems was always going to be right up my street. I originally discovered this little scientific gem through a Guardian Books podcast and it immediately spoke to that latent science nerd that dwells within me. I knew then that it was my kind of book.

However between buying the book and reading it I set myself this 52 book challenge, and as I mentioned in the last post I was concerned about having to get through the book in a week. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Rovelli actually wrote Reality is Not What it Seems, specifically for me.

‘I’ve written with a particular reader in mind. Someone who knows little or nothing about today’s physics but is curious to find out…’

He might as well have followed this up with, ‘Yes, you, Rekha Shane from 52 Good Books. I wrote it for you.’ That’s not to say there wasn’t a certain amount of head scratching and Googling going on whilst I read. There were concepts that I kept chewing over and only coming away with a hazy understanding of, like a dream that I was sure I could recall that persistently eluded my grasp; but these moments were interspersed with flashes of enlightenment. I remember being sat on the Southern rail service to London Victoria (rarely a delightful experience) and suddenly grasping the efficiency of electromagnetic fields. I think I must have been the happiest passenger in Southern rail history.

Rovelli’s t-shirt suggestion

Essentially this book brings physics to the masses. Rovelli is keen to show how cool science is. I’m inclined to agree, science is way cool. The universe we live in is fascinating. How could we not want to find out everything there is to know about it? Mind you, I figured he may be going a bit far with his suggestion of putting the loop quantum gravity equation on a t-shirt, but then I’m not a scientist. Keen to find out if there were people out there wearing t-shirts like this, I asked my brother-in-law, who is a genuine, bona-fide astro-physicist, whether he owned such a piece of clothing. Disappointingly he didn’t, but he did say he once met someone with a tattoo of Schrodinger’s equation on their back. I have no idea what Schrodinger’s equation is, but the fact that someone thought it was brilliant enough to permanently ink onto their back is simply awesome. See, science is cool! Anyhow, let’s get back to the book.

There are two parts to Reality is Not What it Seems. The first part is about the history of physics and established scientific principles. Rovelli makes a clear demarcation between this and the second part of the book where he moves into much more speculative territory. Now I wouldn’t usually do spoilers (the electron did it!) but I’m not sure I’m going to make any sense anyway (let’s just say that Rovelli is better at this than me) so let me try and sum up the major thesis of the second part of the book. Space is apparently made up of a kind of space atom which are not actually in space but themselves are what space is constituted of. This struck me as a bit “Emperor’s new clothes,” but stick with me because things are about to get weirder still.

Rovelli goes on to say that both space and time disappear at this level, which sounds a tad spooky, but from what I understand is just a scientists way of saying, don’t use space or time in the equation. Not putting space and time into a physics equation however appears to be tantamount to social suicide in physicist circles. It’s one sure fire way to make certain you’re talked about around the physicist water cooler. But then you know what they say; the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Rovelli is blasé. He reminds us that if we didn’t challenge populist thinking we would still think the world was flat and resting on a tortoise’s back.

Let those sticklers ride their tortoise. The rest of us can hitch a lift to reality instead. It really is, not what it seems.

Thank you for coming back to my blog. Swing by next Monday to read my review of Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Book Review 1 – The Power by Naomi Alderman

So before I get to the nitty gritty of the book, I thought I’d start with how this all began… I recently joined twitter – not to tweet, I might add, I actually have the grand total of two followers, which is fine, that wasn’t the point (not initially anyway). I wanted to join so that I could follow the things I’m interested in, libraries, local events, GBBO, Doctor Who etc. But one post-work friday afternoon I was sat in the garden reading, and it occurred to me that I could use my Twitter account for the other thing I had got it for, customer service (in a positive sense in this case). So I dashed off this tweet with a pic of my copy of “The Power” and tagged (or whatever the Twitterati call it) Naomi Alderman the author. A couple of minutes later my phone buzzed and I opened it to find that Naomi Alderman herself had liked my tweet! So I may only have two followers, but I have ‘likes’ in high places. And so begins this blog. I hope to do the same every Monday, on Twitter, and follow it up with a little book review on this blog. So by this time next year I will have read 52 books. Simple right?(!)

Anyway, The Power. This book won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I think it is technically classed as sci-fi (or at least it was in Croydon Library) and I never really thought I was interested in sci-fi till I read this. The thing is the book is about more than just the other worldly sci-fi stuff. The fact that women around the world develop the ability to electrocute people with their bare hands is almost beside the point. When I started reading the book, I thought the title ‘The Power’ was just a reference to the electricity that runs through the women, but it is more than that. The book deals with where power in society lies, how that becomes threatened, how it shifts in a situation like this. What happens when the physically weaker sex become the stronger one? The premise may be fictional but the stage it plays out on is very much real.

Alderman constructs a world where everything is totally different to our own, and yet eerily similar. The Power is, at times challenging and at times uncomfortable reading, but through to the last page, a veritable monster of a tale that keeps you gripped. An absolutely deserved prize winner.

Next week, I’ll be reading Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli. It’s not a novel. I bought this before I decided to start a blog and now I have just realised that I am going to have to read a book about physics in one week. GCSE science was an awfully long time ago… Wish me luck – I’m definitely going to need it!