Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.

New book releases July 2017

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

This is easily one of my most anticipated books of 2017. I’m hoping Haig’s new offering is as full of hope and truth as his previous books.

Release date: 6th July

 

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank has a gift for finding his customers the music they need to hear. When he meets Ilsa, a mysterious woman engaged to another man, he falls in love. 12 years later Ilsa returns to find Frank. The shop has gone; no one knows where he is. All that remains is a series of clues, each one related to music.

Joyce is the author of the brilliant, heart-wrenching novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I can’t wait to read more of her charming, uplifting prose.

Release date: 13th July

 

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy.

This is the first in a new epic fantasy series that has already received praise declaring it to be one of the best fantasy debuts of the year.

Release date: 27th July

 

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Billie Flanagan went on a hike and vanished from the trail. Her body was never found. Her husband and her teenage daughter, Olive, have been coping as best they can, but then Olive starts having strange visions of her mother that suggest she may not be dead after all.

This is a psychological thriller that has been compared to Big Little Lies, and it has already been called ‘clever and compelling’.

Release date: 11th July

 

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

When Nancy and her family arrive in Hawaii, they are desperate for a fresh start. Nancy resolves to make a happy life for herself. She starts taking a yoga class and there she meets Ana, the charismatic teacher. As Nancy grows closer and closer to Ana, she knows she will do anything Ana asks of her.

This sounds like the kind of gripping psychological thriller that would make a perfect beach read.

Release date: 25th July

 

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. 12 families keep order with soldiers and artefacts, spies and memories, clinging to a peace that shifts and crumbles. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king.

From historical novelist Conn Iggulden – author of the Wars of the Roses series – this is the first in an epic new fantasy series that sounds perfect for fans of Game of Thrones.

Release date: 13th July

 

Final Girls by Riley Sager

They were the victims of separate massacres. Grouped together by the press and dubbed the Final Girls, they are treated like something out of a slasher movie. When something terrible happens to Lisa, Quincy and Sam finally meet. Each one influences the other. Each one has dark secrets. And each one will never be the same.

I love the idea behind this book and can only hope that the writing and the plot live up to the promise in the blurb.

Release date: 13th July

 

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy

Every seven years something disappears in the remote town of Sterling: people’s reflections, the stars in the sky, the ability to dream. Aila realises that her mother may be to blame, but some secrets want to stay hidden.

This sounds like a very unusual debut novel, and has been described as ‘thick with mystery, buried secrets, and magic’.

Release date: 27th July

 

This Is How It Happened by Paula Stokes

After waking up from a coma, Genevieve can’t remember the car crash that killed her boyfriend Dallas, a YouTuber turned teen music idol. In the media everyone assumes the driver, Brad, is guilty. As she slowly pieces together the night of the accident, Genevieve starts to wonder if she was really the one at fault.

This sounds like it could be a very interesting novel, exploring themes about the way the internet is always watching and judging our actions.

Release date: 11th July

 

Where the Light Falls by Allison Pataki

Three years after the storming of the Bastille, the streets of Paris are roiling with revolution. Jean-Luc, an idealistic young lawyer, moves his family to Paris in the hope of joining the cause. Andre has evaded execution by joining the new French army. Sophie, an aristocratic widow, embarks on a fight for independence from her vindictive uncle.

With cameos from legendary figures including Robespierre, Louis XVI and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, this sounds like an epic tale that will sweep readers off their feet.

Release date: 11th July

New book releases for June 2017

Godblind by Anna Stephens

There was a time when the Red Gods ruled the land. That time has long since passed and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. But after the death of his wife, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable.

This has been called the most anticipated fantasy debut of the year – so it’s fair to say that my expectations are already pretty high.

Release date: 15th June

It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell

Kate, Aubrey, and Jenny first met as college roommates and soon became inseparable, despite their differences. 20 years later, one of them is standing at the edge of a bridge, and someone else is urging them to jump. How did things come to this?

A story of the complicated ties of friendship and the appeal of revenge.

Release date: 13th June

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Walsh

  1. Sarah Gilchrist has fled from London to Edinburgh in disgrace and is determined to become a doctor, despite the misgivings of her family and society. When one of her patients turns up as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into Edinburgh’s dangerous underworld.

This book sounds right up my street. It’s dark, it’s historical, and it apparently features LGBT+ characters. What more can you want?

Release date: 1st June

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

At school Isa and her three best friends used to play the Lying Game. They competed to convince people of the most outrageous stories. Now, after 17 years of secrets, something terrible has been found on the beach, something that will force Isa to confront her past.

I read Ware’s In A Dark Dark Wood last year and was impressed by the writing (though less so by the plot) and am keen to see if her latest offering is an improvement.

Release date: 15th June

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Two women – a female spy recruited to the Alice Network in France during WWI, and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 – are brought together in a story of courage and redemption.

I’ve never read anything by Quinn before – not least because historical novels about war often focus on men, while this one seems to focus on women.

Release date: 21st June

The Child by Fiona Barton

When a paragraph in a newspaper reveals a decades-old tragedy, most readers barely give it a glance. But for three strangers it’s impossible to ignore. For one woman, it’s a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened to her. For another, it reveals the dangerous possibility that her darkest secret is about to be discovered.

I’ve yet to read Barton’s The Widow, a psychological thriller released last year, but it became a Sunday Times bestseller, which bodes well for this second offering.

Release date: 29th June

The Good Widow by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Jacqueline ‘Jacks’ Morales’s marriage was far from perfect, but it was always familiar. That is, until two police officers tell her that her husband, who should have been on a business trip to Kansas, had suffered a fatal car accident in Hawaii. And he wasn’t alone.

This sounds like a twisty, turny thriller perfect for beach reading.

Release date: 1st June

Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab

Nearly six months after Kate and August were first thrown together, the war between the monsters and the humans is a terrifying reality. August has become the leader he never wished to be, and Kate has become the ruthless hunter she knew she could be.

This is the sequel and conclusion to This Savage Song, an urban fantasy novel from the author of the bestselling A Darker Shade of Magic. I love everything Schwab writes and no doubt her latest offering will be just as dark and gorgeous as her others.

Release date: 13th June

Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

Restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts, this epic tale will reunite fans with Elves and Men, Dwarves and Orcs, and the rich landscape and creatures unique to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

I’m not entirely sure whether I’ll read this one, though I’m a huge fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But in any case, the release of a new story by Tolkien – published for the first time as a continuous and standalone story – is a momentous event.

Release date: 1st June

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (House Editions) by J.K. Rowling

Okay, admittedly not a new book at all, but to celebrate 20 years since the publication of Rowling’s first Potter novel, four special editions are being released for each of the four Hogwarts houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. But this isn’t just about owning a beautiful new edition; fans will also find fact files and profiles of favourite characters within the pages.

Release date: 1st June

Is the Waterstones Book of the Year worth the hype?

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread – his heart halts with it – in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgement: oh what a sinner he’s been – what a black pip there is at his core!

London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she takes the opportunity to head for Essex, where rumours are spreading that the mythical Essex Serpent is roaming the marshes and claiming human lives. A keen amateur naturalist, Cora hopes that the serpent might be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, a local vicar, and the two strike up an intense relationship.

This book has received no end of accolades; shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017, longlisted for the Baileys Prize 2017, and winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016 – it had a lot to live up to.

This book is very much character-driven, with the focus firmly on the relationships between the characters. Cora and Will are the protagonists but there are several other characters important to the story, and each of their stories focuses on a different kind of love. They are each flawed and searching for something, and feel modern in their problems and desires. Unfortunately, because the cast of characters is so large, there were inevitably some I liked less than others.

With Perry’s focus on characterisation, there isn’t a great deal that happens in terms of plot, but the characters and the writing are so wonderful that this hardly seems to matter.

The writing is beautiful, if a little longwinded at times (no one needs a full page description of a marsh) but that speaks to Perry’s influences, to writers like Dickens and the Victorian tone she has successfully emulated. Its scenes are written in a very cinematic way, so you almost feel as if you are watching a film, and you can imagine that the BBC are longing to get their hands on the rights to turn this into a period drama.

It examines typical gothic themes of reason vs superstition, science vs religion, forbidden desire, hostile landscapes, and faith. The atmosphere is superb; from the bleak Essex estuary to the claustrophobic, poverty-stricken streets of London Perry transports the reader instantly to 1893, to a time when everything was changing and nothing seemed certain.

An entertaining historical novel that leans towards the gothic, this would be a great book to take on holiday with you.

Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

How do you know you’re real if no one remembers you?

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

As memory of me faded, so did a part of myself. Whoever that Hope Arden is who laughs with her friends, smiles with her family, flirts with her lover, resents her boss, triumphs with her colleagues – she ceased to exist, and it has been surprising for me to discover just how little of me is left behind, when all that is stripped away.

Hope Arden is the girl the world forgets. It started when she was 16 years old. A father forgetting to drive her to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at her and sees a stranger. No matter what she does, the words she says, the crimes she commits, you will never remember her.

This is a very clever book with a lot to say. What starts as a tale of magical realism quickly deepens into an exploration of identity, friendship and perfection.

In this book, Perfection is an app which helps users achieve a ‘perfect’ version of themselves. Users score points for obeying the app’s instructions – going to the gym, eating a healthy meal, attending an A-list party – and lose points for refusing to go along with its demands. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book and, as it’s not so far from the world we currently live in, strikes eerily close to home.

Hope is a character unlike any other and her unique situation provides North with plenty of opportunity to muse on complicated emotions of loneliness and fear. How can Hope hold down a job if her boss won’t remember her? How will she find a place to live if her landlord forgets what she looks like? How does she know she’s real if no one remembers her?

My main problem with this book is simple: it’s just too long. I have nothing against doorstopper books if the story warrants the longer length, but this book could have been cut in half and very little would have been lost. It starts off slowly and the slow pace works at first as we get to know Hope as a character, but before long the minute attention to every last detail of Hope’s thought processes becomes repetitive and dull. Despite the brilliant writing I still found myself skim-reading large passages because I was bored.

If you’re a quick reader I would definitely recommend this book. However, those who prefer to take their time and move through a book a little more slowly might find themselves becoming too bored to carry on.

Debut novel based on the true story of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on a physical form, like a coat, whether that form be like a cat or a dog or some warped combining of the two; those who have it that the devil can enter a person in such a manner that he can be deftly taken out again, like a stone from a plum. I scorned those who believe such things. I lived in London once; I can remember how to sneer.

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the town where she grew up and where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew is changed. As whispers of witchcraft spread through the town, rumours spread that Matthew is keeping a book in which he is gathering guilty women’s names.

This book is based on the true story of self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins – though whether or not he had a sister in real life is unknown. It tells the story of a bizarre time in England’s history, when accusations of witchcraft were taken seriously and many lost their lives after accusations got out of hand.

The problem with this book is clear in the title. We don’t experience the events through the Witchfinder himself – nor through any of the witches who are accused – but through a woman who really has no part to play in the story. She spends most of the book listening at doors, overhearing conversations and watching events unfold while taking no part in them herself.

Because Alice is so far removed from the action Underdown fails to create enough excitement to really compel you to keep reading. Alice keeps repeating her desire to find a way to stop Matthew and make him see reason, but she fails to actually step up and do so. As such, she doesn’t actually do very much, and is a fairly bland and uninteresting character overall.

Underdown’s attempts to provide reasons for Matthew’s behaviour fail to ring true. It makes no sense that the feeble reasons she provides – mainly that he was made fun of and rejected as a child – would provoke such an extreme reaction. If she had made the confident decision to leave him as a mystery, without resorting to an easy explanation for his actions, it would have been more believable.

There are flashes of really good writing here and it’s unfortunate that Underdown hasn’t managed to carry it through the whole book. There are moments when she creates a truly compelling, chilling atmosphere, and towards the end of the book the pace really picks up; it’s just a shame that it takes so long to get there.

The novel has its pros, and if you are interested in Matthew Hopkins and this period of history you will no doubt enjoy it, but it fell flat for me.