Book of the Year 2019: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t get to read many books this year. As I discussed in my earlier post, my commuting time – which is my main reading time – has been given over to studying, slashing my reading in half (based on the number of books I read this year against 2018).

But even if I’d had a large pool of books to select from, I can’t imagine another one pulling me in as deeply as The Night Circus.

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Yes, once again I’m choosing a book that wasn’t published this year. But as much as I would like my pick for the year to be more currently, I have to select from the pool available.

The words I used to describe this story at the time were “comfortable without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious”. I still feel those are the most accurate. I can already imagine coming back to this book again and again, immersing myself in the pages and rediscovering the beauty and the magic.

The true beauty of The Night Circus is how Morgenstern ensures the pure magic of the circus itself blends with the everyday sections. We see Le Circe des Reves, the Night Circus itself, from the point of view of the world’s public and also from behind the scenes. It is both magical and everyday. Something spectacular and unreal, and yet still grounded in a reality. The perfect setting for a contest of magic where neither participant knows exactly who their opponent is.

Don’t expect fast paced. But also don’t expect slow and bloated. This novel is exactly the right length as it travels through a cast of characters who all feel unique and alive. This isn’t a story of two protagonists with a background cast passing through and appearing only when needed. This is the story of a the world the protagonists live in, fleshed out and real.

I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to this book relatively soon. And when I do I will likely sink right back into it with a smile on my face.

And I received Morganstern’s new novel – The Starless Sea – as a Christmas gift. So I’ll be throwing myself into that as soon as possible.

2019: Looking back, then forward

2019. It’s been… quite a year. Somehow both incredibly stressful and also the most rewarding year in my life for quite some time. Honestly, I’ve had to really struggle to get through at some points. But it’s also held some of the highlights of my entire life.5456FA1F-29F6-4035-BDF1-2AED40FA9345_1_201_a

I also turned 36. I am officially mid- to late-thirties.

So while I recover the amount of food I’ve consumed over the last two weeks, let’s get on with my now traditional look at the year gone and plans to come.

2019, and things that have been

So. Why has 2019 been so stressful? Well, as life has a way of ensuring nothing is ever simple, the reasons are mixed.

Let’s start with the day job. I’ve been lucky to see my career progress this year, and as part of that I’ve been put on a leadership and management training scheme. It’s a really good course, but it’s been very time consuming. A required 448 hours of tracked work outside of normal work hours kind of time consuming.

And that’s meant goodbye free time. Commuting to work? Podcasts and management books. Free evening? Settle in on my laptop to study. A non-free evening? Still on the laptop.

And while I’ve honestly enjoyed the course and got a lot out of it, it’s been draining. Largely because I’ve not got to do all the things I do to relax in my free time. And that means reading and writing. According to my GoodReads challenge I’ve literally read half the books I read last year. And any time I could have spent writing has had to be given over to studying. So I’ve go so much less done that I’ve wanted to. I haven’t managed to get What They Really Know completed like I planned. However I have managed to plan out and get a good way into A Better Thing We Do.

What They Really Know is getting put on hiatus for a while. No matter how much work I put into it, it’s just coming. Something about it just doesn’t fit. Having had a good hard look at it, I’m thinking the issue may be I’m trying to write two books at once. So I’m taking a step back. Once I complete the first draft of A Better Thing We Do I’ll go back to it. Hopefully by then the ideas I have will percolate in my subconscious and I’ll see what needs doing.

It will be incredibly frustrating if I need to spilt it, but I need to look at it as double the number of books I have on the go rather than falling back on the progress of one.

But there has also been another big thing happen to me this year that has caused additional stress. But this time it’s the stress of accepting and learning to handle seismic yet positive change. The sort of stress I wouldn’t give up for the world.

This time last year Frankie and I had some long discussions about where out lives and relationship were going. To cut a long story short, we decided that we wanted to experience polyamory.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase, polyamory is a form of ethical non-monogamy; the practice of loving more than one person. It doesn’t mean you love anyone less. Frankie and I still love each other and are committed to our marriage. It just means that love is non-exclusive.

The example I like to use is how having a second child doesn’t mean you love the first child less. There is simply more love in your life. That’s how I see it. There is simply more love in our lives.

Since this decision I have met and fallen in love with a wonderful woman. If you follow my social media you’ll have seen her. She means the world to me. It hasn’t hurt that she and Frankie get on like a house on fire. They have proclaimed themselves Sister-Wives (I phrase I love because they use it in the Wheel of Time series). Our anniversary will be in March. To be honest, neither of us had thought about this relationship becoming so serious. Neither of us had been polyamorous before, and had expecting thing to remain simple and casual. But the heart wants what the heart wants.9B938B27-9E12-48A8-97E6-BBC56752C4C1_1_201_a

It’s not been easy. This lifestyle change has meant us accepting new people into our lives, which means more demands on our time and energy. And it also entails breaking with societal norms hardwired into us from birth, which means there are few support structures out there. There has been a lot of reading, research, and communication. So much communication. And we’ve found friends in the same scene who we’ve been able to talk about it all with. The poly community – as much of it as we’ve interacted with so far – has been amazing and accepting.

There’s more I could say here, but I think I’m going to put in into a future post where I can focus in more details. Drop me any questions and I’ll see if I can answer them.

And look, I managed to increase my blog posts this year. Most of them are sporadic book reviews, but it’s better than nothing. It keeps this alive, at any rate.

2020, and things that are to come

So here we are in the roaring twenties. What are we expecting in the next twelve months?

So firstly I’m going to get through my training course. I’m hoping to be done with all the coursework needed by the end of January, then the course itself ends in March. Once that’s all done, I’m planning to take all the time I’ve dedicated to studying to writing.

79F69240-D612-45EC-A2D6-2B15A8BBBA44_1_201_aAnd with that freed up writing time I’m hoping to get A Better Thing We Do finished. It’s been so long since I finished a book, but this one – touch wood – is coming so much faster than anything before. I got all the core ideas down and then – with some great help from Frankie – blocked out the entire plot. I’m now about half way through the first draft.

In comparison, it took about over a year to work out where What They Really Know was going, and I’m still not happy with it.

Of course, the whole point of the training is growing my role in the day-job. This last year has made we very aware of stress. I’ve seen what stress has done to people in my family, so I’m very aware of burnout. Hopefully there have been some steps that will make this year easier with work, so we’ll see that that goes.

And, of course, we’ll be seeing how our second year of polyamory goes.

Things change. As the decade ends I’ve begun to feel exactly how true those words are. Looking back where I am now, I couldn’t have seen where I am now. Go back five years, and I wouldn’t have been able to predicte it. Go back ten years and the place I am now would have been completely alien to me. Fifteen years back and it would have probably terrified me.

Let’s just say I’m excited to see where the year takes us.

Onward, to 2020.

 

 

Review: “The Loney” by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney. A desolate stretch of land on the northern coast, notable only for an ancient shrine to which a young boy’s devout Catholic parents take him and his brother, Hanny, every Easter in the hope of find an miracle cure for Hanny’s muteness. But when a new priest is assigned to the parish, the family’s religious certainty is challenged, and the cracks in faith and ritual begin to show.

This was an interesting read. I loved the story. I also loved Hurley’s style. He does a wonderful job of writing around what is actually happening. It’s the perfect depiction of a child’s point of view: being witness the lives of the adults around him but never having anyone engage with him to explain exactly what’s happening. Everything was inferred. All the character backstory was there, but you have to work it out. These are not the kind of people willing to be open and honest about their feelings.

The setting was perfect for the story. Looking at it objectively I would have said it was a little too on the nose. But actually, sometimes simple is the best way to do something. The Loney and the house work as a perfect representation of the fragile and isolated world the protagonist’s family have created; with their strict religion and belief that simply religion-ing hard enough will eventually solve their problems.

But as much as I enjoyed The Loney and got a lot out of it, it’s one of those books that didn’t quite hit that point of satisfaction. I loved the story and the writing, but found it hard to get into and a little disappointing at the end.

Thinking back, I think the fact I took a while to get into it was down to me. I wasn’t sure of either the year the story was set or the protagonist’s age until well into the story. This niggled at me, preventing me getting lost in the story as I was searching for clues to work it out.

And the ending was, I’m afraid, a classic case of not hitting the same feel as the rest of it. It didn’t feel to me like it flowed naturally. From a wonderful, elusive story where everything was inferred, we were suddenly handed a climax that hadn’t been prepared for. Without wanting to give too much away, the climax relied on a certain element that either should have been set up much earlier, or removed entirely.

The Loney is essentially a story about how damaging adhering to a strict dogma can be to people and communities. It uses religion as the example, but doesn’t attack it directly. Rather it shows how a small community and family clutching to its own strict interpretation can only survive until the first cracks of doubt appear, and all too often refuse the see the damage it inflicts on those without their own agency. But I just felt that the framing devices didn’t match this theme, and kind of undercut it.

All in all, though, I greatly enjoyed it and I’ll be looking to pick up more of Hurley’s work. The Loney was his debut novel, and so hopefully his next two will have followed up in the same style, but with a little more evenness at the start and the end.

Recommendation: “A World in Us” by Louisa Leontiades

The most relevant note from my read of this book is that it’s the first one I can remember since school where I’ve actually highlighted sections to refer back to later.

A World in Us is a memoir of two parts. The first is the actual story, depicting how the author and her husband came into polyamory and the soaring highs and crashing lows of their first relationship with another couple. The second is a commentary of sorts written several years later as a letter to the Leontiades’ younger self, going through each chapter in turn and commenting on what she has learned.

On the first level, this is simply a wonderfully written story about someone’s personal journey. What they went through to find who they were. These are four people discovering a new side to themselves, being willing to do something that doesn’t “fit” with societal norms because it’s what feels right for them, and learning things that a traditional, monogamous relationship would have never revealed. It’s honest, emotional, and at times brutal, but also beautiful and affirming.

The second level is as a guide for people newly exploring polyamory. Leontiades never shies away from the light or the dark of her experiences. There a moments both exciting and thrilling, and moments where she’s is emotionally crushed beneath the weight of everything. We are show the pure joy of discovering something that you didn’t know was missing in your life, but also the pain of trying to find your way in a lifestyle your upbringing never prepared you for.

The beauty of this story is its honesty. At no point does the Leontiades try to hide her own faults or issues and how they fed into the dynamic the four of them created. There are times that the others come off as the “bad guys” in situations, this is only because Louisa is our protagonist and so naturally the depictions of the other three are seen through her point of view. And this is effectively address by the author herself in the second half, where she reflects on the events of each chapter with the benefit of time, growth and reflection.

And this isn’t a piece of polyamory propaganda. We are simply presented with Louisa’s story, and are free to take away from it what we want. At no point does she argue polyamory is better or worse than monogamy. Only that both are valid options with their own benefits and pitfalls.

But through her honest depiction of her own experience, with all it’s failings and unaddressed issues, we are presented with the fact that this isn’t a gateway to a perfect life. It will be hard, and it my not be what we were expecting. But, if it fits your personality and you work on it, it can be a rewarding why to life your life.

Overall, if you are newly coming into polyamory I couldn’t recommend this book enough. Even if, like me, Leontiades’ situation doesn’t mirror your own there are so many universal learnings to take away from it.

Wheel of Time Re-read: The Eye of the World

And Book One of my Wheel of Time Reread is done.

Three thousand years since the world was all but destroyed in the War of the Shadow, the Dark One has begun to stir in his prison. As those aware of such things begin to fear the coming of the prophisied Last Battle for the fate of humanity, Rand Al’Thor, a young farmer, finds himself fleeing his home pursued by monsters from legend. As he and his friends make their way into the world, he begins to suffer dreams that may well mean he is destined to save, or destroy, the whole of creation.

I first read The Eye of the World by the pool in a hotel in Spain. I was on my first holiday with my now wife, and I remember buying it as a whim at the airport. If I remember correctly the quote on the front cover said something along the lines of it being better than Tolkien, and I decided to pick it up so I could properly mock it for such a grandiose claim.

When I got home I immediately ordered Book Two.

It’s not the best in the series. I remember even at the time I thought the story was a little too close to the plot of Fellowship of the Ring. But there was something about it. I didn’t know what at the time, but now I recognise that it was a sense that the world I was being shown was so much bigger than the story I was reading.

Most fantasy books, epic or not, never manage to make it feel that their world is any bigger than the parts we see. The writers flesh out the areas the character travels, but there’s no sense that the world is anything more. As if the protagonist sees everything important, and the rest is inconsequential.

What Jordan managed was to make me feel is that his story is taking place in a small part of something much greater. As is usual in fantasy, the innocent protagonist is pulled from his idilic home into a bigger world. With each step he feels he’s seeing the biggest new thing possible, only to discover even greater still with the next. But with Jordan’s writing you feel there is still more out there.

There is the promise of so much more, teasing a story with a scope we haven’t yet seen.

And there is so much set-up here. The point I always highlight is how there is a passing exchange between two characters, no more than a couple of paragraphs, that set up something we don’t see until around book thirteen. That’s how forward planned these books were. They don’t dwell on it. There’s no “Look at that over there, it must surely be important. One day will will visit that place” dialogue. They just mention is in passing, along with a lot of other things, and let it lie.

So is this book perfect? No. It is a promise of great story to come? Yes.

If you’ve read enough epic fantasy the story won’t be original, but take that as an introduction and you’ll be letting yourself into something amazing.

And on a side note, look at how beautiful this copy is. I can’t remember exactly when this special edition came out. It may have been a twentieth anniversary print, or something to celebrate the series ending. What I do remember is preordering this baby without a second thought.

Now on to Book Two: The Great Hunt.

Review: “Saturn Over The Water” by J. B. Priestley

This one was an interesting read. It’s a bit more adventurous that the last couple of Priestley’s I’ve read. Previous books have had little in the way of real conflict or danger, but this is more of a thriller and while I wouldn’t call the story edgy the protagonist is as at least in danger a large amount of the time.

 

But then it’s a very English kind of danger. There are various points where the characters are on the run and seemingly desperate to get somewhere before the antagonists catch up with them, but they still find time to stop at a nice hotel lunch and a relaxing smoke before carrying on.

Literally one of the plot points revolves around the fact that despite being on a strict time limit, and despite knowing their enemies are in the same town as them, two characters get separated because of of them wants to go out and buy tobacco before they have their coffee after dinner.

But the story is well put together and the writing excellent. It gets a little weird at the end. In the last few chapters the story, which until now was very much traditional spy thriller, suddenly takes on supernatural and spiritual elements. This is a weird shift in tone, and you quickly realise that Priestley’s using the story as a parable for the social politics in his age and his own politics. It’s not a bad ending. In fact I think it rather works. It’s just… slightly odd.

After the unfortunate ending on ‘Lost Empires’ I was wary of ‘Saturn Over The Water’, but while there are a few scenes with an unfortunate misogynistic tint this time we escape anything overtly offensive. Just be prepared for the fact that Priestley was a man of his time.

Reveiw: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

The simplest review for Outlander is that while it was never bad enough for me to want to stop reading, the only feelings I had by the end were relief that I was done with it.

The plot is just so disjointed and jarring. The world and the characters are fleshed out and interesting, but Gabaldon has no idea how to lay out exposition without having her protagonist literally sit down and have a conversation with someone able to spend a chapter lay everything out for her.

Literally at one point the love interest says, in as many words, “Do you remember I told you there were things in my history I couldn’t tell you about yet. I’ve decided that I can now.” Any reason he couldn’t before but could now? Other than they were further into the book, I couldn’t see one.

Outlander’s Plot: Protagonist is in a situation; Protagonist sits down with another character who explicitly lays out a large chunk of exposition; Protagonist moves on to next situation. Repeat until book is twice as long as it needs to be.

And when I say “twice as long”, that’s no exaggeration. I have no idea who looked at this story and thought, “this needs to be over 300,000 words”, but they need to be found and stopped. This is not Epic Fantasy. It’s a Fantasy Romance. Any half decent editor could have told Gabaldon that this needed to be either split into two separate books, or drastically cut by a minimum of a third. A minimum.

I’m willing to give a pass on how quickly the protagonist adapts to being in the the past, and the nature of the interactions and relationships between her and the main love interest. There are… problematic elements, especially when it comes to 18th Century attitudes towards women. But this is, somewhere in its sprawling length, a romance novel. I wasn’t expecting a realistic portrayal of relationships.

And the most frustrating thing about it is I can’t bring myself to simply dislike Outlander. All the way through, while despairing at the exposition dumps and overlong periods of nothing happening while we waited for the next exposition dump, I found myself actually engaged. The concept has real potential. There are moments where you can see Gabaldon has done her research and has some interesting ideas about how a 1940s viewpoint would interact with 1740s society, and there are enough plot threads left hanging that I would honestly like to learn more about. But the idea of starting book two and having to slog my way through another one like this one send shivers down my spine.

So I find myself torn. After a break I may come back to this series. But I know that if I do by the time I’m half way through the next book I’ll be wishing it was over.

A day just for me

How long has it been since I’ve had a day to myself in a London coffee shop to do nothing but write?

Too long.

I’d forgotten the freedom of it. No distractions. Just a coffee, my iPad, and the London atmosphere around me.

With work training taking up so much of time, plus a very welcome increase in my social life this summer, finding dedicated writing time has been hard.

But today is just for me and my story.

Wheel of Time Re-Read: New Spring

After years of fighting, the Aiel War is coming to an end. But while many are hoping for peace, Moiraine Damodred is privy to a piece of information that could set the world aflame once more: The Dragon, the man who all but destroyed the world three thousand years ago, has been reborn.

As all others with this knowledge are found dead in suspicious circumstances, it is up to Moiraine to find the newborn child destined to lead the world to ruin, hoping he can be guided for the good of mankind. Because if the agents of the Dark find him first, it will mean the end of everything.

I was excited about starting my Wheel of Time Re-Read, but I wasn’t expecting to get pulled back into the series so quickly.

New Spring is a slight oddity. It’s a prequel – a prequel that annoyed a lot of people who wanted Jordan to focus on completing the main story – depicting how two of the main characters of the first few books meet and the begin the quest we find them on – eighteen years later – in the first book if the series.

As someone who’s read the series already it’s a great way to start a reread. It’s a reminder that the story has been going on years, even centuries, before the main protagonist of the series was even born, in a way that makes the world seem so much bigger. And this has always been my main draw to the series; how Jordan managed to make the world feel so vast, yet varied.

But I’m not sure where I’d recommend it for someone coming into the series for the first time. It’s interesting to a fan to have this little piece of backstory, but I can’t say for certain it this would add to the experience of someone coming new to the series, or if it would remove some of the mystery from the first few books.

But if you don’t read it first, when would be the best time? Adding it in as a flashback between two of the main books doesn’t seem to work. I’ll have a think about it once I’m into The Eye of the World and see what I think then.

Now on to The Eye of the World.

Diving back into the Wheel of Time

And so it begins.

The Wheel of Time is my favourite ongoing book series. An epic fantasy story told over fifteen novels and spanning a mind-blowingly detailed world and history.

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I remember picking it up at the airport one year. The first book may have a little bit of a generic fantasy plot, but the characters and writing grabbed me so hard I picked up the second straight away. I know many people have issues with the series, but while most of these issue I just don’t see at all, I won’t argue that after book six it looses some of its momentum and I won’t deny that the story could have been wrapped up in 10 books if Robert Jordan had been a little tighter with his story telling. But I still absolutely love them.

I was lucky, as by the time I discovered the series it was already ten books in so I didn’t have too much wait between them. And by the time I caught up I was well and truly hooked. But the last time I read any of them was six years ago, and since we moved house and I rearranged them on my shelves they’ve been playing on my mind. So now I am finally giving into my own pressure and diving back in.

This will be a significant time commitment.

Last time I read through these series is took me three solid months. And that was when I commuted to London, so adding lunch breaks into the mix I had two and a half hours a day to read. This time I’ll be taking my time a little more. Aside from not having that commuting time now, I have other books I want to read, and writing takes up most of my lunchtimes. Plus I might take a break between books to keep things fresh. So we’ll see how it goes.

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All I can say for now is I’m half way through New Spring and I’m already excited to be back in this world.