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How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…”

REVIEW: I picked this book up as a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and absolutely fell in love. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in just a couple of days despite the rush of returning to work after New Year. This book is perfect for history geeks like myself as we get to see some of the lifetimes that Tom has lived and the people he has met, including Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although the book begins in the present, the chapters switch to reveal more about Tom’s background and what he has suffered throughout his almost five hundred years on earth. In the present day, Tom is a history teacher led under the guidance of the Albatross Society, who protect those with longer lives at the cost of them committing some rather unsavoury tasks every eight years. He has a dog named Abraham and a crush on the French teacher, Camille, and seems perfectly normal. However, Tom’s life began as the descendant of French aristocracy living in a small English village, where his mother was accused and killed of witchcraft due to his youthful appearance and apparent lack of ageing. When Tom finds the love of his life in Elizabethan London, she and their child also begin to be targeted due to Tom’s lack of ageing, with the superstitious Londoners of the 16th century accuse him of being a demon in disguise. Though it breaks his heart, Tom realises that he is a danger to those he loves due to his condition, and from then on resolves to live alone. And in the 19th century, when he is recruited by the Albatross Society, they agree with his conclusion, warning him not to fall in love and change identities every eight years. In the present day, however, Tom is growing increasingly wary of Hendrich, the leader of the society, who seems to be becoming more ruthless towards those who refuse to join the society and who expects Tom to either persuade or kill them on his behalf. Tom only agrees because Hendrich promises to find his long-lost daughter, Marion, who has inherited his condition; but when Hendrich wants him to kill Omai, his oldest friend, Tom is faced with an impossible choice…

This book is absolutely fantastic. There are so many twists and turns, and so many beautiful and poignant moments; I was often left with tears in my eyes. Haig manages to make every single time period that he writes about realistic and engaging – it is clear that he researched each period thoroughly. The characters, Tom in particular, are easy to connect and empathise with, and the reader finds themself warming to him almost instantly. As a dog lover, I confess I also loved the addition of the elderly dog Abraham in Tom’s present day life as his companion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.

As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

REVIEW: This book has been on my TBR list for a long time (as have a significant number of the books I own!), but I decided I had to read it before watching the TV adaptation that aired on the BBC over Christmas. I was instantly hooked; Burton’s writing style is vividly descriptive as well as gripping, building suspense and the curiosity of the reader. The characters are complex, each having their own personalities and secrets that make the book, and the hints Nella receives from the miniaturist of future events, even more intriguing. Nella arrives at the home of her new husband and instantly feels left out in the cold; Johannes himself is often absent and lavishes more affection on his two whippets than he does on her (though, as a greyhound owner, I can sympathise with him on that one); his sister, Marin, is distant and controlling; only the servants, Cornelia and Otto, seem to warm to Nella and try to make more of an effort with her. When Johannes gifts her with the cabinet that holds a replica of their own home, Nella initially feels confused and a little patronised. Deciding to make the best of the situation, she looks up a miniaturist to make pieces for the house; and this is where the suspense really begins to build. Providing far more than Nella asks for, the miniaturist sends packages containing exact replicas of all those who live in the household, and as secrets unfold and events start to take a dramatic turn, every step is reflected in the figures and items made and sent by the mysterious miniaturist. I don’t want to give too much away, as one of the things that led me to enjoy this book so much was the revelation of secrets and the plot twists these led to. I couldn’t put this book down; I loved Burton’s writing style and how engrossing the plot was. It made me cry more than once, and I loved the intricacies of the characters and the depth Burton clearly went into when creating them. The book also highlighted so many of the social issues and stigmas that existed at the time, including attitudes towards sexuality, race and women. I would very highly recommend this novel and look forward to adding Burton’s second novel, ‘The Muse’, to my TBR pile!

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Love Letters to the Dead by Aca Dellaira

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “It begins as an assignment for English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain – he died young, and so did Laurel’s sister May – so maybe he’ll understand what Laurel is going through. Soon Laurel is writing letters to lots of dead people – Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse…it’s like she can’t stop. She writes about her new high school, her new friends, her first love – and her shattered life. But the ghosts of Laurel’s past can’t be contained between the lines of a page forever. She must face up to them – before they consume her.”

REVIEW: This book has had a few highly critical reviews on Goodreads, so I went into it with pretty low expectations. It certainly exceeded them, however, as I personally really enjoyed this novel! As someone who has been grieving, and is still not entirely past it, I found Dellaira’s depiction of grief, as expressed by Laurel’s character, to be very relatable, and considering grieving is such a complex process that differentiates greatly between people, I think this is an impressive feat for any writer to achieve. The novel tells the story of Laurel through the letters she writes to a variety of dead celebrities and historical figures. Through Laurel’s letters we learn of her struggles to accept the death of her older sister May the previous year, and how it has torn her family and changed the dynamic since – Laurel’s relationship with her Dad was one I found particularly moving. We also learn about Laurel’s new life upon transferring to her new school, particularly her friends and the boy she develops a crush on. She reveals nothing about her sister even to her two closest friends, Natalie and Hannah, and they struggle with problems of their own as they develop feelings for each other and try to face the social stigma that these feelings are a victim to. With Sky, however, Laurel is able to be most herself, as Sky seems to understand and empathise with some of what she is going through and how it has damaged her; it is clear to the reader that Laurel has severe anxiety problems, even though she doesn’t neccessarily realise this herself, and these problems make it a struggle for her and Sky to progress in their relationship – particularly as Laurel refuses to confess to him her previous childhood traumas and how May’s death has added to these. I think the characters in this novel are so well-written in that they all seem so real; they are relatable and the reader can empathise with all of them and their different situations. I think Dellaira’s depiction of grief and loss in this novel are its best and most impressive quality, and I would recommend it, particularly to those who have been through similar experiences.