“Out of Love” by Hazel Hayes

I am a sucker for stories told out of chronological order, so Out of Love caught my eye a while ago.

I don’t know why the concept appeals to me so much. I think it’s something about examining cause and affect, playing around with what the reader knows and when, that somehow suits my sensibilities.

A hardback copy of “Out of Love” by Hazel Hayes sits on a table. There is a mug of hot coffee to one side. On the other, in a small decorative bowl rest two wedding rings.

Out of Love is a great example of this. The story itself is about a breakup, and on its own it would be just another doomed love story. But by playing it backwards Hayes manages to show a side of this tale we might not have seen otherwise.

Instead of a doomed romance, instead we see each part of the relationship in context to what would come next. We see the fallout from the breakup, then the breakup, then the signs of the breakup, back and back until we get to two people meeting for the first time.

Yes, this story probably resonated with me as I’ve recently gone through a big breakup myself. What this story was about, essentially, is how complicated relationships are, and how even the ones that end bring so much to us. We start at the end, seeing how broken and miserable Hayes’ protagonist is. But as we go back we slowly see how much good the relationship did her. How no matter how bad things seem at that point, the growth and the support she gained have left her in a much better place than when it began.

Essentially, it’s a story about how a relationship ending doesn’t mean you’re not better off for having been through it. Growing as a person isn’t necessarily easy or fun.

But this still had the potential to have been a rather dull book. A failed love story isn’t the most original tale, despite the reversed order. What made it grab me was Haye’s writing. There’s a sweep of Irish poetry in her style, lyrical and philosophical. While the story may be universal and well told, the way she tells it touched something deeper.

What made me love this book was that it helped me break through my own issues. I’ve found it so hard to read and write recently, but having made my way through Out of Love suddenly I found myself wanting to throw myself back into those pleasures. Somehow, her character being someone who wrote inspired me to pick up a pen and start working again. Once I finished this book I was able to pick up another without a struggle to make myself do it.

Reading Out of Love was a catharsis for me. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected me as much if I hadn’t been in this particular point in my life. But then maybe it would have.

Review: Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman

After spending two years in jail for giving a false alibi to her abusive boyfriend, Charlie has fled to Cornwall to make a new life. Unsure if she even deserves it, is it possible for her to make a new life for herself? Especially when she doesn’t know how or when her past will catch up with her, only that it can only be a matter of time.

Jo Jakeman’s debut, Sticks and Stones, was about facing the truth about your life and how you free yourself from the shackles that hold you down. Now her second book is about the next steps: trying to create something new in the shadow of your past.

Safe House is a story about trying to take control. Our protagonist Steffi/Charlie is someone who has never had control of her own life. After a life of emotional manipulation by her parents and boyfriend, followed by two years in prison, she’s finally ready to take control of her life.

But how do you do that when you’re not sure if you deserve it? Or when you know it’s only a matter of time before your past catches up with you?

This isn’t as much of a thriller as Sticks and Stones was. There’s less action, mainly being focused on Charlie’s internal world. And we’re missing any real wild emotional ups and downs. Until the end there’s no real antagonist other than her own paranoia.

I will say I think the ending is a little too neat. I like a story to have a few untied threads, giving me a feel that the world will carry on once the plot finishes. Without wanting to give too much away, I felt things were all wrapped up a little too well.

But other than that I can’t really fault it. Definitely worth a read.

“13th”, and the importance of listening to other voices when they speak…

I’ve had Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on my to-watch list for a while now. But it was a film I needed to be in the right mind-state to watch. I’ve not been in the right headspace to actively view anything for a while, but as soon as I was this was my first choice. 

And here’s the thing that struck me.  

I knew every single fact this film presented. But I had never put them together in such a way to realise what it was that they were showing me. 

I shouldn’t have needed someone else to make me realise these things. 

But I did. 

I am white privilege. There’s no denying it. But I’m also like to believe that I’m educated, left-wing, and that I think critically about the world around me. I try and fight unconscious bias. I try to look beyond my own world and see the lives of others. 

But boy, oh boy does privilege get in the way of me seeing things. 

As I watched 13th, I realised I knew each fact that they presented. I know about slavery. I know about the civil rights movement. I know how life for people of colour is innately harder. I know about the ways right-wing politicians have weaponised race. I know x. I know y. I know z

I know all those things. 

I just don’t see them. 

I don’t feel them in the way they needed to be felt. 

I’ve never experienced them. 

If you’d ever asked me, I would have said I knew all about the problems people of colour have faced historically, and face now. I would never have claimed that I understood their experience –  or that I could – but I would have said that I knew what that experience was. 

DuVernay has shown me exactly how little I saw any of it. 

There is knowing, and there is seeing and understanding. 

I didn’t put it all together. I didn’t see the depth. Or the history. Or the exhaustion. Or the anger. Or the fear. 

I can look down at all those born into vast wealth, all those who went to private schools, all those who can trace their family lines back to ancient aristocracy, all those who got their high flying jobs through family connections, all those who have never even considered what it might feel like to worry about not being able to afford something they need, and say “I’m better than those people”.  

But I am just as much a product of white privilege as they are. My life isn’t theirs, but I’m still white. 

Just because I haven’t benefitted from the system as much as some, it doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from it at all. It doesn’t mean I’ve ever questioned it. It doesn’t mean I haven’t made racist comments simply because I didn’t think about how offensive they were. Or, even worse, because I wasn’t educated enough to know they were offensive. Doesn’t mean I’ve ever called people out for making the same comments because they weren’t “that bad”, as if there’s a sliding scale of racism and as long as you don’t go too far it’s okay. 

I’m going to try and do better. I’m going to made an effort to actively look out more films and read books about the subject, to actively think about the media I’m consuming and the places I work. I’m going to try and stop allowing myself to not notice when all the people around me, in either my personal and professional lives, are white. 

The amount of whiteness in my life shouldn’t be normal. “It’s how I grew up” isn’t an excuse. 

Hopefully I can do better. I’ll get it wrong. Privilege is a hard thing to break through, if only for the fact that part of its very essence is to hide itself in the everyday. But I’ll keep trying, and I’ll keep listening. Hopefully people in my life will not let me fall back into old habits, and hopefully I won’t allow them to either. 

It’s no one’s job but my own to ensure I improve myself. I just ask that people don’t allow me to slip into bad habits, and in return I shall try to do the same. 

Review: “The Disciple” by Stephen Lloyd Jones

I enjoyed this book, but felt it only really got going in the second half.

There is a really good story here, with a core concept that’s incredibly interesting once you reach it. However, I don’t feel that the set up and initial feel of the book gels that well with the second, much better, half.

I feel the first half of the book could have been half as long and a lot more focused. I love Jones’ style, but it took me ages to get into the story to a point where I wanted to carry on.

But once you get through that, the second half is really worth working through for. The concept for the climax is really interesting. I would have loved to have the opening more focused around this rather than taking so long with character development that could have done with a lit of streamlining.

One thing I want to say is there is a massive improvement to the other of Jones’ books I’ve read. When I read his first novel, The String Diaries, I was disappointed by the tacked on happy ending. Sometimes a dark story needs to be brave enough to have a dark ending. And, without wanting to give too much away, The Disciple has an ending that perfectly matches the tone.

So not a great opening, but definitely worth pushing through until it focuses and pulls you in.

Review: Little White Lies by Philippa East

I finding myself enjoying stories like this one; smaller focused family stories, where people are forced to face the cracks caused by the tiny things done in their past.

A5D70964-D5B1-4301-81B0-6727CCE2C030_1_105_cIt’s similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room, in that it’s about a young girl who’s spent 7 years abducted and locked in an attic. Except here the story start with her being rescued, and told through the eyes of her mother and cousin.

The plot isn’t a rollercoaster. There are no real emotional peaks and valleys. The story is quite a low key presence. Rather than the events, “Little White Lies” focuses in the emotions of these characters as they try to process their own feelings and issues.

But there was something that stopped me getting completely lost in the book. I felt I needed more of Abigail. She’s been kidnapped and held away from her family for seven years, but until the climax didn’t seem that affected by it. She fit into her old life too smoothly. I think this was a conscious intent, as we are seeing her through the eyes of people desperate for her to slip back into her old life, but I felt it lacked a certain punch.

I think this is the book’s only issue. There’s fear, secrets, tension, but lacks any real conflict. I wanted Abigail’s return to upturn things. To disrupt her family’s lives more.

I think the author’s background in psychology is reflected here. I found the characters completely believable, but just a little detached.

I sped through this book. One of those stories that grabs you and keeps you reading. I can’t wait to see what East brings us next.

Recommendation: “Magpie” by Sophie Draper

Claire and Duncan’s marriage has been over for years. Now their son is eighteen, Claire is finally ready to leave. To take her life back. But she finds that secrets from their past tie her to a man who has become a stranger to her. Ties that wind back to a shared past neither of them are prepared to face. 

When I read Sophie Draper’s first novel, Cuckoo, I was not sure if my problems with it were the writing or my own expectations? I felt there was a slight disconnect, thinking it was going to be more supernatural. When that wasn’t the case I felt thrown.

873B418C-EAAF-4D4E-B575-05C28F1E2FD8So I don’t know if it’s the story or a resetting of my expectations that made me absolutely love Magpie.

This story grabbed me from the start. We follow the characters Claire and Duncan, a couple whose marriage has been dead for years, in two separate time periods: Before and After. You find yourself immediately trying to work out the event between them, but Draper masterfully keeps you guessing.

Each shift and change in the plot is satisfying. Nothing feels cheap or gimicky. And, without wanting to give anything away, the grand reveal at the climax was one of those moments that actually had me rereading previous chapters as everything had been flipped on it’s head yet still made perfect sense.

As good as the plot is, at its heart this book is about it’s characters. Both Claire and Duncan are complex, rounded characters. The failure of their marriage isn’t flat and simple. They both contributed to it with how how they’re responded – and failed to communicate with each other about –  circumstances out of their control.

I very much recommend Magpie. With it Draper has shown that she’s a master storyteller.

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.

Recommendation: “The War of the Wolf” by Bernard Cornwell

Now an old man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg finds himself drawn back to Wessex by old oaths and the inevitable coming invasion of Northumbria. But while an ailing King Edward means that soon he’ll find himself marching south, for now he is drawn north by personal vengeance and what may be his final battle.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bernard Cornwall’s series being very samey. I can understand the argument. But I still find that each once is just as readable as the last, and I’ve been waiting eagerly for War of the Wolf to come out in paperback.

I think these books avoid seeming too similar by being based on history. The characters are driven by on actual events, and so while the plot and characters may undeniably have a similarity across all the books, the fact they are draped over the backdrop of history gives them a realism they might otherwise have lacked.

Saying that, I would have though I’d have liked this one less. The majority of the story in War of the Wolf is not based in real events. Essentially, the book sets up the coming death of Edward and rise of Ethelstan that I assume will be the drive of the next story, leaving the majority of the story fictional. But I still enjoyed reading this just as much as the previous stories.

There’s also the fact we’re coming to the end of this series. Uhtred is now in his sixties. And while he, our narrator, can’t die, Cornwall does a very good job of showing age catching up with him. He’s losing speed. He’s still imposing, but lacks the raw power of youth that drove him before. And at the same time, he can see that Christianity is winning, and the old religion, his religion, is passing away. He’s a man beginning to face his own mortality, but in a way that suits the character.

There’s maybe two more books left to this series, assuming that it will end with Ethelstan’s rise as the first king of England (sorry for spoilers, but I think we’re out of the statute of limitations for events over a millennia ago), and War of the Wolf kind of has the feeling of a quick breather before the final push to the climax of the story of the creation of England.

If you’re a fan of the series, that fact is going to leave you more than excited for the next instalment.

Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Review: “Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London” by Matthew Beaumont.

I really wanted to like this book more. In fact, I think the amount I wanted to to enjoy it is the only reason I managed to make myself finish it.

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The main concept is one of those that is oddly interesting: a history of London at night. But it is interesting. It’s one of those areas that you don’t realise you’ve never thought about. I mean, when did you last think about how much public street lighting must have fundamentally changed public life? Or what life in the was city like when it would literally be pitch dark at night? I didn’t know that the literal act of being outside at night was once considered a crime. Did you? 

And the conceit should work as well. Beaumont uses examples of literature from different periods throughout London’s history – from Shakespeare to Dickens – to show how these poets and authors – in their work and their lives – reflected these changes in society. How going outside at night without an explicit reason went from being a crime to a leisurely pastime of gentlefolk.

But unfortunately Beaumont took this in completely the wrong direction. Rather than a history shown through the lens of literature, he makes this a literary critique that simply uses history as a loose excuse to show off his own knowledge. His writing is overly literary and self important – seeing the Forward was written by Will Self was fair warning, I suppose – making large chunks of the book almost unreadable. The topics should be interesting, and most often start off that way, but then Beaumont will slip into deep literary analysis that makes it impossible to stay engaged.

Essentially, this could easily lose around half its word-count. It’s not a thin book so wouldn’t look anaemic, and it would be a much better read. Unfortunately Beaumont appears to be part of that literary scene who believe that part of a good book is making it as hard to read as possible. It’s not the subject he’s writing about that he wants us to be impressed with, but his own intelligence. This is not a book the writer intended to be enjoyed. I’m half convinced that Beaumont may have just published his PHD thesis.

It wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it. There was enough in there to chip through and enjoy. But it’s not a good sign when your reaction on finishing a book is relief.