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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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Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Lady Athelinda Playford has planned a house party at her mansion, but it is no ordinary gathering. She announces that she has decided to change her will, cutting off her children and leaving her fortune to someone who has only weeks to live…

Among Lady Playford’s guests are Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who have no idea why they’ve been invited…until Poirot starts to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. When the crime is committed, and the victim is not who Poirot thought it would be, will he be able to solve the mystery?”

REVIEW: I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie, particularly those stories led by Poirot, one of her most famous protagonists. I was keen to read these new takes on Christie’s original character, written by Sophie Hannah, after being recommended them by a friend. I was most certainly not disappointed; in fact, I was instantly captured by how Hannah seems to mirror Christie’s writing style so accurately, whilst also adding an additional flavour of her own particular style. The book was witty, offered an excellent social commentary on the class issues of the period, and captured the true essence of a traditional murder mystery. Mostly narrated by Inspector Edward Catchpool, an old associate of Poirot, this novel tells the story of famed children’s mystery author, Lady Athelinda Playford, who lives with children Harry and Claudia and their respective partners, Dorro and Randall. The household also contains a butler, maid and cook – and, most integral to the story, a young, unwell man named Joseph Scotcher who is a close friend of Lady Playford, accompanied by his nurse, Sophie. Alongside Poirot and Catchpool, Lady Playford also invites her lawyer friend, Michael Gathercole, and his associate Orville Rolfe, to stay at her home for the announcement of changes she has made to her will. Upon the announcement that she plans to leave all of her estate to Joseph, who is dying of a kidney disease, there is uproar among her family, and Poirot begins to expect that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a sinister event occuring. When Joseph is murdered later that evening, having just proposed marriage to his nurse, the events take a darker and more confusing turn. As the mystery deepens and the police get involved, making inept decisions at every turn, Poirot and Catchpool are left to work on their own intiative to uncover who, out of the many motives presented by Lady Playford’s guests and family, felt their motive deeply enough to murder an already dying man – and how they did so. I do not wish to reveal the ending of the story here, as the twist is cleverly done and thoroughly explained by the character of Poirot, but I was very impressed with the ending and, indeed, with the book as a whole. I am very keen to read Hannah’s other Christie-inspired work, ‘Monogram Murders’ – I’m hoping it will be waiting under my Christmas tree!

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Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with Ursula. Will the cost of losing her enchanting voice and nearly her soul prove too high for Ariel, or will the power of good prevail?”

REVIEW: Ursula is possibly my favourite Disney villain (closely followed by Scar from ‘The Lion King), and having read Valentino’s previous twists on Snow White and Beauty and the Beast I was really looking forward to this one. I was, however, a little disappointed. The novel had so much potential, but many of Valentino’s ideas and tales about Ursula’s background could have done with more elaboration, as could the story of her time in Triton’s court. The story of how she lost the human father who adopted her was heartbreaking, and explained much about Ursula’s personality and villainous actions. Yet other backstories that would have added depth to her character were skimmed past; we learned that she had been close to Triton’s wife during her time at court, but little more about their friendship. We learnt of the fact that Triton and Ursula were in fact brother and sister, but saw little of the dynamics of their relationship aside from skimming the surface of their fallouts and hatred for one another. This made it possible to understand why Ursula targeted Ariel, but it would have been interesting to be able to identify more depth to her motives. Whereas Valentino’s previous books did make the reader feel sympathy for the villains whose stories she told, I have to admit that despite my intial sympathy for Ursula over the death of her adoptive father I had soon stopped feeling anything for her at all. This is unfortunate, as it is this sympathy for the villains which first attracted me to Valentino’s work. The three mad sisters who feature in all three novels are still prominent in this book, and I enjoyed following their story more than I enjoyed following that of Ursula, though of course the two storylines are linked. I particularly love the character of Pflanze, the cat belonging to the sisters, who can communicate with them as well as other witches. Overall, however, I found the book disappointing, and was able to read through it quickly as there was little to grab my attention.

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The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Joe, Beth and Frannie take their cousin Rick on an adventure he’ll never forget! Find out how they escape from the Land of Dreams. And what goes wrong in the Land of Topsy-Turvy. And who drives a runaway train in the Land of Do-as-you-Please”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved Enid Blyton as a child. Beginning with my Mum reading me her Famous Five books as bedtime stories, I soon ended up loving such series as ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ – and, of course, the Faraway tree stories. I picked up this copy during a free book giveaway at work a couple of weeks ago after realising I couldn’t find my Faraway Tree collection (which I’m still desperately hunting for!), and couldn’t resist re-reading it. ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ is the second book in the series, and I remember it as one of my favourites. These stories truly are enchanting. A magic tree, inhabited by lovable characters such as the beautiful fairy Silky, the amusing Saucepan man, and kind-hearted Moon-Face, hosts a different magical land at the very top of its branches every week. Three local children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, are eager to introduce their cousin Rick to the wonders of the Faraway Tree and their beloved friends there, and this leads to a number of enchanting and amusing adventures for the children and their magical friends. My favourite tale had to be that of the Land of Magical Medicines, in which amusing incidents involving lots of growing, shrinking, flying and swelling up took place. The stories made me feel as safe and comforted as they did when I was a child, and I remembered the enchanting feeling of escaping on a new adventure every chapter with a great deal of fondness. I would highly recommend this book, and it is definitely the sort of story that should be read to children to encourage imagination and a belief in magic – one day, I hope I will be reading it to children of my own.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.

 

 

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘Jane hasn’t lived anywhere for longer than six months since her son was born five years ago. She keeps moving in an attempt to escape her past. Now the idyllic coastal town of Pirriwee has pulled her to its shores and Jane feels as if she finally belongs. She finds friends in the feisty Madeline and the incredibly beautiful Celeste, two women with seemingly perfect lives – and their own secrets. But at the start of a new term, an incident involving the children of all three women occurs in the playground, causing a rift between them and the other parents. Minor at first but escalating fast, until the whispers and rumours become vicious and spiteful, and the truths blur into lies. It was always going to end in tears, but no-one thought it would end in murder…’

REVIEW: Although I am normally an advocate of reading books prior to watching their adaptations, I must admit that when ‘Big Little Lies’ aired on TV a few months back I watched the first episode and was hooked. I watched the six episode season in less than a day (and I’m not normally a binge watcher) and knew that I had to read the book it was based on. After doing so, I have to say the show was an excellent adaptation, varying only minimally from the original novel. The novel focuses mainly on three women, although other female characters are also heavily involved, such as Madeline’s ex’s new wife Bonnie and Renata, one of the other mothers at the school. Jane is the closest to a protagonist out of these three women, having moved to the town of Pirriwee with her son, Ziggy, for a fresh start by the beach. She soon befriends ditzy Madeline and stunning Celeste, who hides her husband’s emotional and physical abuse behind a very formal and polite exterior. The three cement their bond on the first day of school, when Ziggy is accused of hurting Renata’s daughter, Amabella. Jane and her new friends are convinced of his innocence, but the war between them and the other parents continues as Ziggy is isolated and the other parents attempt to have him suspended. By the time of the much-anticipated Trivia Night, tensions are at a high, and the novel takes a highly unexpected and brilliant twist. This is one of those books where it is very difficult to sufficiently review it without giving too much away, and I would hate to spoil the ending of such a gripping and well-written novel. In reading this, the reader not only becomes very invested in the characters, but is also able to picture the beautiful coastal setting in which the novel takes place, as Moriarty writes so well. I would highly recommend this book for people who have watched the TV series, and those who enjoy dramas and thrillers.

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The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved¬† – plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naivete, and a vulnerability that she barely recognised. Today, her fame as an author, actress and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a (sort-of) regular teenager.”

REVIEW: As a huge ‘Star Wars’ and Carrie Fisher fan, I was so upset to hear of her death just before Christmas last year, less than two weeks after I had lost my Nan. I received this book from my brother for my birthday in February, and have only just gotten around to reading it. This autobiography intermingles Carrie’s own memories of the events that occured during the filming of the first ‘Star Wars’ film with a series of extracts from the journals her ninteen-year-old self kept at the time. This is the autobiography that caused a sensation when Carrie revealed the intimate details of her affair with Harrison Ford, who was married at the time. Her own commentary is witty and lively, and she makes little apology for what happens, encouraging the reader not to blame Harrison for the affair, which was common among actors who were away from home for an extended period of time. She writes affectionately of other men involved in the franchise, particularly George Lucas and Mark Hamill, as well as the hair and make-up artists she had on set. The pages from her journal are particularly interesting; it is clear to see the talented author she would become in those pages. Her writing style is witty, but also beautiful and evocative, really giving off a sense of vulnerability, as does the poetry she writes in these pages. This book is fascinating and ideal for any ‘Star Wars’ or Carrie fan, giving a real insight into the events behind the film and how Carrie’s personality and character developed over the years.