A Crown in Time by Jennifer Macaire

Jennifer Macaire has a knack for transporting the reader in time, alongside her characters. In A Crown in Time she brilliantly depicts the raw and unforgiving era of the Crusades. The moment you step into the story, your senses are assaulted with images, odours, sounds and textures that all come together to sweep you off your feet and take you right into the black heart of the Dark Ages. Macaire knows her stuff. She comfortably navigates the era when and the areas where her book is set, and you as a reader know that you’re in good hands. Gone is the vague romanticism of the Crusades and in comes the stench of death, dysentery and unwashed bodies.  The sea crossing to North Africa and back left me reeling with sea-sickness. The brutality of human interaction in those days made me thank my lucky star that I was born eight hundred years later.

Then there are the characters. Isobel, the woman who travels from 2900 to save the French dynasty, isn’t a pre-progammed robot. She is fallible. She makes mistakes. She is unsure about her task. The threat of time-erasure hangs over her head and she doesn’t quite know how to avert it. Things go constantly wrong and she responds as best as she can. You can tell she is lost and that she is on her own. She not only needs to fend for herself (and that’s not an easy task even for her medieval contemporaries), but she also takes it upon herself to take care of Charles, her streetwise orphan sidekick. And of course she is tasked with protecting Jean, the future father of the kings. She invests herself in that task on more levels than one. And it doesn’t quite go to plan. But she has to go on and every new chapter is filled with new challenges.

A visceral read, full of passion and heart.

 

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

The Porpoise is a book of two halves, two worlds, two dimensions, myth and reality, now and then, all of which blends into one whole and then unfolds outside the boundaries of time and space.

A mother dies in a plane crash and her baby is cut out of her womb. The baby-girl’s father transfers to her his love for his dead wife, but his love (or perhaps it is veiled hatred) is selfish and warped, expressed through incest. A young man tries to save the girl, but is discovered and pursued by an assassin sent after him by the father. The girl is trapped but, at a great personal cost, escapes into the ethereal realm of her fantasies, thus freeing herself from the unbearable reality she has been forced to share with her father all her life. And this where each of the characters crosses into the other world. That world isn’t kinder or better. It is equally dangerous and even more brutal – a typically fatalistic setting of a Greek myth. Their stories continue under a different guise: the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (inspired by the play by Shakespeare), starring Pericles himself and his faithful companions, as well the incestuous King Antioch, the treacherous Dionyza, the tragic Chloe, hers and Pericles’s daughter, Marina. They all face cruel challenges, survive betrayal and death, and are tested and punished in ways that have nothing to do with what we would consider justice.

The writing is urgent, taut, engrossing. The book is written in the present tense, which lends it even more urgency. No time is wasted on the conventions of dialogue, or on superfluous adjectives. I was gripped by every new development and swept away in its current. Even though the plot jumps between different characters and eras, it all seems so immediate and intimate, and the characters are so vividly drawn that I had no problem re-engaging with them. The descriptions are dynamic – you watch, rather than read them, like this marketplace:

“He is in the alleyway again. A blind woman is doing conjuring tricks, coloured pebbles appearing and disappearing in her dancing hands. He turns a corner. A boy has stolen a loaf. The baker curses but does not give chase. The boy is a rabbit vanishing into brambles. He turns another corner. A donkey lifts its tail and sprays wet shit all over the white toga of a man at the adjacent stall. The crowd applaud. Pericles leaves the market through the triple arch of the eastern gate and stumbles down the zigzag cobbles to the agora.”

Last night I read well into the early hours of the morning, unable to tear myself away from my kindle until the last full stop. An unstoppable and highly original tour de force.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

It is often the case when a sequel to a novel or a film is just a watered down version of the original. It has the same protagonists facing the same dilemmas with a few tweaks to the time and place setting, and a few flashy gimmicks and new characters thrown into the mix to refresh the plot. Think Star Wars.

Authors (like myself) who write series have to be very conscious of templates, repetition and stagnation. Yes, the heroes of the series grow on our readers and yes, they have to be presented with consistency. But everything else in every new sequel has to be fresh, surprising and curious: a new bookish land yet to be discovered and explored. Otherwise, it all becomes stale like the same stretch of the same congested road a commuter gets stuck on every day. Even the most ardent fans will grow bored and frustrated.

The Testaments are a lesson on how to avoid the pitfalls of sequels – the curse of the sameness. The first-person narrative moves away from June. It is now the infamous Aunt Lydia, and two teenage girls (one brought up in Gilead and the other one in Canada), who take the centre-stage. Their stories are vivid and engaging. I was guessing, I was speculating, I was biting my nails – all the things you do when the plot draws you in. The thought-provoking message of The Testaments did not detract from Atwood’s cracking story telling.

Not all of the Booker Prize winners found favour with me as a reader. Some of them I started only to find myself overwhelmed with the heavy theme or the author’s eloquent philosophical referencing. So I wouldn’t bother to read on. Atwood has a message, but that message is delivered subtly, without overpowering the story or dwarfing the characters. And that is the beauty of The Testaments.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Between watching the last available episode of June’s story and opening –with the utmost care, as the author urges me to do on the cover – The Testaments to read what happens next, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale.

The TV series is based on the book. In its own right the series is powerful, uncompromising, thought-provoking. It is also full of dramatic tension, twists, visual effects that burn into your skull, fast pace between now and then, as well as amazing acting – I mean, a-ma-zing. It is brilliant TV. There are very few writers out there who would refuse having their novels adapted for performance. Whether it is for the stage, the radio, television or cinema we want our stories to stay alive and continue to be re-enacted for our audiences, be it readers, listener or viewers. And looking at it from the other side of the coin, there is no film nor theatre or radio play without it being written first. As the famous first line of the most-read book in the world says, First there was the word.

But that doesn’t mean that novels should be written in scenes or film frames. The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t. Reading it, you would think that it is too retrospective and too abstract to ever qualify for adaption. But you would be wrong. Novels – great novels – provide inspiration, a theme, a focus, a feel. Adaptations run away with that and develop it into scenes, frames, events and twisty plots. One does not detract from the other. To the contrary, one feeds off the other. I took note of that as writer: it is written in big red letters in my little black book.

I loved both the series and the book though the series took several liberties with the characters and the plot. Despite that, The Handmaid’s Tale remains instantly recognisable.

The genre provides interesting dilemmas too. You may know from my earlier blogs that I am genre averse. At first sight you would be tempted to classify The Handmaid’s Tale as sci-fi – it is about the future. But it isn’t. Atwood refers to it as speculative fiction. This term fits perfectly. It is about our world today as it may or may not evolve. The chances are that it will. If you believe that, the speculation draws you in and it becomes your alternative reality (like it not). And when the book your read becomes your reality, then you know you’re reading a masterpiece.

French Exit by Patrick de Witt

French Exit is so deliciously decadent that you will want to drink it, shaken not stirred. It is classy, it is wicked and it is irreverent.

The assemble of characters dazzles. The three main heroes (though they don’t qualify for that term in any way, shape of form) are Frances, Malcolm and Small Frank. Frances is an extravagant rich widow hellbent of self-destruction, financially and otherwise. Her son Malcolm is a man frozen in inaction, content to drift through life without any clear direction or destination, sort of attached to his mother like a barnacle to the underbelly of a sinking ship. And Small Frank is the late husband-father who has found home in a body of a domestic cat.

In transit to self-destruction Francis, accompanied by her two dependants, makes a stop in Paris.

At first sight you may think this book shallow, degenerate and immoral, but very soon you come to realise that there is a depth of despair and surrender under the surface of flamboyance and extravagance. Patrick de Witt is very elegant in hinting at it. He doesn’t tell you about it. He doesn’t let his characters tell you about it. Still, you know that depth sits there – the root of all trouble.

The story is character driven, and each character is a scream – unique, distinct and irredeemable. But you wish them well, you root for them, you hope for them.

It is a riot of a book!

 

The Humans by Matt Haig

If I ever read a feel-good book, this is it. It is humanity-affirming, optimistic and generous of heart.

An alien being takes on a human form – that of professor of mathematics, Andrew – and comes down to earth to kill everybody whom the professor may have appraised of his great discovery that would give humans knowledge for which they aren’t ready. Flowed, weird and utterly illogical to the alien, unbeknown to themselves, the humans manage to charm him and get a stay of execution.

The book is entirely predictable. I am not betraying any great secrets or twists for there aren’t any. You will know very soon into the book that the humans in Andrew’s life will get our alien onto their side. But the predictability doesn’t matter. It is the spirit of this book that is so sweet and so endearing that you will want to keep reading. It is also the poignancy and almost Christ-like self-sacrifice of our alien that captures your heart. And last but not least, it is the hilarity of the alien’s observations of human rituals and his definitions of our everyday objects. Seen from the perspective of an alien, we are laughable – in a good way.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan

If Ruth Hogan’s first book was a breath of fresh air, this one is a kiss-of-life.

Hogan navigates through difficult subjects with enormous sensitivity and what seems like plenty of direct personal experience. The title character, Sally Red Shoes, is painted with the bold strokes of an expressionist’s brush – she is a greater than life eccentric and at the same time a vulnerable old lady whom Masha, the heroine of the book, befriends and looks after. In fact, the looking-after is mutual, and the relationship between the two women is most endearing to the reader. Alice is the third character in this triangle of personal tragedies, secrets, crimes, redemption and survival. I simply couldn’t list all of the well intertwined themes of this beautiful book.

It is a deeply emotional book composed of three personal stories: Masha’s revival from the most excruciating tragedy of losing her child and her journey towards normality, Alice’s tight and claustrophobic world spinning out of her control, and the most enigmatic of the three: Sally and her unconventional past.

Each of the characters has a distinct voice. The story’s setting is a wonderfully portrayed old Victorian cemetery, rich with its own characters.

It’s a tender-loving book, touching and life-affirming.

 

How to be Good by Nick Hornby

 

I must be one of the only two people who, until now, has not read How to Be Good, and if you’re reading this review, you must be the other. Years wasted! The book is a cracker.

Katie is a good person, in her opinion: she is a doctor, provides for her family and has mild liberal views. Her husband David is the devil: opinionated, cynical and lazy. But David undergoes a sudden transformation, and it seems like it is he who ends up teaching Katie how to be good.

His metamorphosis starts with the shock of Katie asking for divorce. She is shocked by it herself. It isn’t because she is having an affair with Stephen, it is rather than she is emotionally spent. And that’s not good. David finds a guru in the person of DJ GoodNews, a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a saviour. Instead of fighting Katie for the house, for the custody of their children or even for the survival of their marriage, David goes about giving everything away and saving those less fortunate than himself, often at his family’s expense. Though you get a sneaky feeling that this may be the only way of saving his marriage since he has burned all other bridges…

David transformation and Katie’s reaction to it is wonderfully presented. From reacting to David’s antics Katie moves to introspection. And she is learning to let go of certain things and to hang on to others. But the beauty of this book lies in the fact that it is free from the so-called absolute truths or values and free from didacticism. Instead, it bristles with humour and sharp observations of the middle classes, mid-life crises and all that middle-of-the-road fluff our lives are stuffed with.

All the Hidden Truths by Claire Askew

All the Hidden Truths touches a nerve. It is topical as it tackles the most disturbing challenges of modern times: gun violence and the media intrusion on victims’ and their families’ privacy.

After a fatal shooting at Three Rivers College in Edinburgh, three women’s lives are brought into the spotlight: Moira’s (the mother of the shooter), Ishbel (the mother of his first victim) and DI Birch (the investigating officer). Askew digs deep to exploretheir reactions and how they transform under pressure from the ever-present and unscrupulous attention of the press.

Row emotions are dissected with sensitivity and great insights, family secrets are revealed and some difficult questions answered. Askew makes poignant observations about the nature of gun crime where everyone ends up a victim, including the perpetratorand the society overall.

The resolution is most satisfying and Askew leads us towards it with skill and conviction.

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman

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The Light Between Oceans is an exquisite exposition of human vulnerability. It is about the insurmountable need to give love to a child, and the intricately linked selfishness and selflessness involved in this act.
The story of Isabel and Tom and little Lucy the ocean brought to their doorstep is set against the sweeping background of the interwar period in Australia. The Great War plays its part in influencing Tom’s actions, or rather reactions.
The writing flows effortlessly and takes the reader with it on a sea voyage into the depths and complexities of human heart.
This book is a rare gem.