“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and on day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“Stone Spring” by Stephen Baxter (2010)

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stone-spring“The comet swam out of the dark.”

Stephen Baxter is terrifyingly prolific as an author. Since 1991, he seems to have produced at least one novel a year, and in many cases two or three. If these were short novellas one might be less in awe of him, but they are all enormous, well-researched pieces of science fiction. Indeed, I’ve only read four of his tomes and already that means I’ve clocked up 2,182 pages of his writing. I first came to him with his novel Flood, and its sequel Ark, and later fell for his huge, sprawling blockbuster Evolution. I arrive now on the shores of Doggerland, almost ten thousand years before present day, reading myself onto a coast no living human has ever seen.

Doggerland, or as it’s known in the book, Northland, is the bridge that connects Britain to Europe and disappeared several thousand years ago when it was swallowed up by rising sea levels, cutting the British Isles off from the main continent. Ana is fourteen and is about to undergo her bloodtide, the time in which a child becomes an adult and is chosen by their Other. She is assisted by her grandmother and sister, but more than anything she misses her father, who disappeared months ago while out fishing. At her bloodtide, her Other is declared by the priest to be the owl, a bad omen – a symbol of death.

The small community of Etxelur is shaken when members of the nearby Pretani tribe come to stay, with the possibility of seeking out wives, and soon numbers expand futher as Ana’s father returns with a young woman, Ice Dreamer, in tow from a legendary continent far off to the west, and a slave boy, Novu, from the strange walled city of Jericho join the ranks of the peaceful Northlanders. Everything changes however when the sea turns against its people and a tsunami washes across the village, destroying everything and killing countless members of the community. Ana is left in charge of her people, and she comes to a staggering conclusion: if Jericho can build a wall to keep people out, it surely wouldn’t be impossible to build one to keep the sea out? Her dreams and then her actions will shape the course of history, and lead Earth down a very different path to the one that occured in our history.

As always with Baxter, the book is enormous and appears daunting, but the language flows, the setting and characters are engaging, and you find yourself pulled along willingly as the plot swims around you and tangles itself up in its embrace. Baxter is notable for long passages that contain no dialogue and just describe the world in immense detail, but even these aren’t dull. He paints a fascinating and vivid picture of a world long gone and, to our history at least, mostly never having existed.

His real skill though is how he builds up the various human factions. Each one feels distinct and identifiable. The Northlanders are mostly a matriarchal tribe who each have an animal spirit that guides them. The snailheads engage in artificial cranial deformation by giving themselves pointed heads, and name themselves after body parts (Knuckle, Cheek, Eyelid, etc).  The Bone People wear the bones of their ancestors as accessories. The Pretani, who resemble the Picts of ancient Britain, are aggressive and give themselves tree-centric names (Root, Bark, Acorn, etc), and they live in fear of the Leafy Boys, mute green-stained denizens of the canopies who attack anyone who gets in their way. Naming conventions also are particularly obvious with the True People (Ice Dreamer, Dolphin Gift, Moon Reacher, etc) and the People of the Great Eel (Wise, True, Honest, etc). The fact that we also see the world’s people as being in different stages of development is also great, and factually correct. Indeed, while those in America are hunter-gatherers, those on the European coasts have become fishermen, but the Middle East already had cities.

The book starts with disparate people but quickly brings them together so we can witness our ancestors (or rather, our ancestors in this timeline) doing what humans do best: being human. As with any era, humans are flawed and troubled, as once we developed sapience we also begun to experience love, jealousy, anger, fear, hatred and a hundred other emotions. These things are not new, and these people can feel them just as strongly as we do now. They are different from us in many ways, but they are also incredibly like us.

A beautiful work of art, and an engaging story. There are two sequels, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter, which leap further ahead in time to see what becomes of this world that contains a whole new patch of land that we lost early on. I’m interested to see what will become of Ana’s people over time.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“Progress” by Johan Norberg (2016)

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progress“Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings.”

I’ve said enough along these lines on this blog already, but 2016 was a big pile of crap. All around us the news is full of doom and gloom, always telling us that humanity is going down the drain, becoming more intolerant, stupid and lazy. The rich get richer, the fat get fatter, the poor get poorer. It’s the same old story. But what if I was to tell you that, actually, it’s not all bad? Would you believe me? Try this book.

My friend gave me this book for Christmas with the statement, “You worry about this stuff more than us”. Given I’ve been in rather a black mood for the last few weeks, I decided that 2017 wasn’t going to push me around and I’d begin the year by looking at things a bit more positively. In this book, Swedish academic Johan Norberg takes a look at ten aspects of the modern world and shows that we’re actually improving on pretty much all fronts. He looks at food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation and concludes, with the help of graphs and endless statistics, that things are improving left, right and centre.

Despite what we see on the news – and Norberg argues well that the main reason we think everything is so awful is because of news media – violence and poverty are down, and literacy and life expectancy are up. It may look awful when you see that there are still millions of people living in poverty, but when you consider how many more of us there are now, the proportions show that we’re actually doing fine. Of course, not everyone is rich or free or safe from disease yet, but the trends are looking good, as long as we take the current issues as a blip and focus on keeping everything moving forward. Humanity has advanced further in the last 100 years than it did in the first 100,000.

Norberg is blisteringly positive. He does concede, as I said, that only if we continue to fight the bad things will we continue to see progress, but this is a man who manages to even put a positive spin on the increase in the number of robberies in developing nations (they are proof that now even the poor have something worth stealing) and cancer (people never used to live long enough to develop it, which is why we’re now seeing an increase). He’s not saying that cancer itself is a good thing, it obviously isn’t, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

So while it may not be the lightest book to delve into first thing in the year, it’s definitely worthwhile and positive. Norberg is a skilled writer and weaves statistics and anecdotes together to create a readable book that might just remind us that things aren’t as bad as all that. Onwards and upwards, everybody.

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