“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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“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

“Shakespeare’s Local” by Pete Brown (2012)

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Exit, pursued by a beer...

Exit, pursued by a beer…

“Robberies. Muggings. Fatal Accidents. Interest rates.”

There’s apparently something about the tail end of February that makes me yearn to know more about London. Two years ago, that focus fell to the city’s people. Last year, I explored the tube network. This year, I took a look at one of the most British inventions of all: the pub. It’s been longer than usual since my last review, and this is nothing to do with the quality of the book, but more to with troubling external issues such as work, illness, my birthday and a general recalibration of my life. But I’m back now, so pull yourself a pint and let’s get on with the discussion.

Shakespeare’s Local is the fourth book by Pete Brown, a beer expert who realised that by writing about it, he could drink more of it. I was naturally captured by the title, and then found that I had no choice but to buy it when I flicked it open to find a photograph of the pub in question: The George Inn, in Southwark. It wasn’t a pub I frequented, and still don’t, but I’ve drunk there a few times and always admired it. Brown is also taken by the pub that according to the National Trust has been there since 1677, but according to ancient records is much, much older. And so begins the tale.

Brown takes us back to the days of Chaucer and earlier to talk about The George Inn, only it turns out there aren’t a huge amount of records remaining from that far back, so there’s instead a lot of speculation and talk of other local pubs that probably did the same things as the George. Quite quickly, what began as a promised look at the history of a single pub turns into a history of innkeeping in general, London and in particular Southwark, industry and theatre. Only when the story catches up again to the late 1800s (when the pub was supposedly a favourite of Charles Dickens) do we begin to see specific details about the pub in question.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. Brown himself admits that the title is slightly misleading as, while Shakespeare certainly lived, worked and presumably drank in Southwark at a time when the George was there, there is absolutely no evidence to say he did or didn’t ever visit, merely a suggestion that, “Well, yeah, he probably did”. And, actually, that’s good enough for me, because while the book is a love letter to the George, it’s also a love letter to the whole of the Southwark and Borough area, that infamous den of vice that has now become rather fashionable and full once more of playhouses, as well as strange new buildings like the Shard and the Tate Modern.

The book deals with why Southwark and the inns there became so important (and it’s a genuinely interesting story), how they changed their uses over time and how the invention of the railway all but killed off the great pubs of Borough, leaving only the George standing, proud and ancient and full of history. Along the way we encounter characters we know who have a link – tenuous or not – to the George, from Pitt the Younger and Samuel Peyps, right up to Princess Margaret and Rik Mayall.

Brown knows he’s speculating on a lot of the topics, but his frank admission of this fact means you can’t really care. History is, after all, a lie that we’ve all agreed on (to paraphrase Napoleon) and he’s not pulling his suggestions out of thin air. Merely, he takes what we know about the other pubs of the area and applies it logically to what we can then assume of the George. Above all, Brown is a hilarious raconteur and a man you wouldn’t feel worried about spending an evening in the pub with. For what could be such a dry topic, Brown makes it work and brings it to life, describing with great colour the former festivals of Southwark and some of the larger-than-life landlords that have worked behind the George’s bar.

If you like pubs, booze, London or history, this is a book worth looking into. And when you’ve read it, I’ll meet you in the George for a drink to discuss it. See you there – it’s your round.

“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

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station“The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.”

Those who know my reading habits well will be aware that I am rarely one to follow the crowd. When a book is held up with everyone saying, “You have to read this NOW!” I will usually turn the other cheek. I’ll read what I want to read when I want to read it. Oh sure, I’m not saying I always ignore the trends – Rowling, Fforde and Coupland all appear in my library within days of their releases – but I’ve long been wary of popular novels. We all remember The Da Vinci Code, after all.

However, I went against my self-programming the other week and picked up Station Eleven, which has appeared on every “must read” list I’ve encountered for the last couple of months and is stacked in Waterstone’s in pyramids to rival those in Giza. I read the blurb and decided it sounded pretty interesting, and so here we are: a review that’s actually fairly current.

Our story begins on a cold and snowy night in Toronto where Arther Leander, a famous actor who is performing the lead in King Lear in the role of a lifetime, drops dead on stage. Among the witnesses are child actor Kirsten Raymonde, and trainee paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary, the latter of whom attempts to save Leander’s life, but fails. On that same night, a deadly virus that has been spreading in eastern Europe arrives in North America and the effects are swift and brutal: within two hours of catching it you are taken sick; within forty-eight, you are dead.

Society collapses, travel becomes heavily restricted and the world will never be the same again, with an estimated 99% of the population now dead. The story picks up twenty years later where Kirsten, now older, wiser and sadder, journeys around North America with the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who pass through settlements and perform music and Shakespeare plays for the survivors. When they encounter a prophet who claims that the plague was divine intervention, their lives begin to get even more difficult as they struggle on and away from him and his men, on to find some saner survivors.

Interspered with this story are flashbacks to the past, telling the stories of Jeevan and Kirsten, but also Leander, his ex-wife Miranda, his best friend Clark and the prophet, as they live their lives both before and after the end of the world. The plots tie together and points become clearer has time goes on, and civilization shows no sign of recovery.

So is the book worth the hype? I’m not sure. I enjoyed it – I like a good dystopia, and in this one the world is displayed in a rather honest and believable style – but I wouldn’t rank it as one of the greats of contemporary literature. The idea that, twenty years after the world has ended, there’s a group still determined to perform Shakespeare and bring moments of entertainment to the daily struggle of the survivors is wonderful, and so very human. While most are cynical and there are many issues and those who try to use the circumstances to better themselves, humans once again show that, deep down, they aren’t all that bad.

The interweaving stories work well together, although some are certainly more interesting than others, although I suppose that’s down to personal preference. I prefer the stuff set after the collapse, although there are a lot of things set up in the flashbacks to normality that then develop fruit in the post-apocalyptic world. We get to see the world fall a few times, from different viewpoints in different locations. Miranda is on a beach in Malaysia when she gets the news. Jeevan is hiding in his brother’s apartment, watching the lights of the city and the television channels wink out one by one. Clark is stuck in an airport with fifty other would-be passengers who decided to stick around when their flights had been cancelled or diverted, never to take off again.

The title, Station Eleven, refers to a comic book that Miranda has been working on about a scientist stuck on a spaceship disguised as a planet, that crops up again and again, to be mentioned by Miranda (who wrote it), Leander (who saw its construction) and Kirsten (who ends up with a copy) and is used to compare the state of that world with the state of the one the characters are stuck in. There’s also an attempt at a comparasion to Shakespeare himself, saying that he too lived in a plague-ridden world with no electricity, but it feels a little heavy-handed and perhaps unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book, smart and with certain glimmers of hope through the text that even after the end of everything, humanity will find a way to survive and, in their own way, flourish, but I still will never be able to explain its explosive popularity. If you like dystopia, then add this one to your reading list, but I wouldn’t hurry you.

If you want to help me on my way to achieving explosive popularity, then please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon, iTunes, SmashWords and other associated locations. Thanks!

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer (2012)

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And on your right, the Globe Theatre...

And on your right, the Globe Theatre…

“It is a normal morning in London, on Friday 16 July 1591.”

Why limit your travels to space when you can travel in time? That’s what I always think and it’s an attitude shard by many others, although they tend to be fictional. In 2013, I read and reviewed Ian Mortimer’s travel book, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England, which as you can infer from the title, is a travel guide for anyone who finds themselves in the 1300s. This time, he’s applying the same idea to the latter half of the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country, theatre was booming and the British were beginning their quest to conquer the globe.

As before, this book mostly ignores lists of facts and figures (although there are some included) to focus instead on the actual day-to-day life of those living in the sixteenth century. Mortimer explains that this is the best way to bring history to life, and he’s absolutely right. The premise is that you have found yourself in Elizabethan England and this is your guidebook on what to wear, what to eat, what diseases you might catch, how to greet people and how not to get conned by the local criminals.

The book is split into different sections that focus on different aspects of society, such as the landscape, the diet, travel, entertainment and religion. Like all good history books, it isn’t afraid to show you the negative side of things. This indeed may have been a Golden Age in the fields of architecture, drama and exploration, but nonetheless there is still much poverty, social inequality, racism and religious hatred. It emphasises that things are not easy and it isn’t all Shakespeare plays and jaunts down the Thames, but rather that many people are starving because their crops have failed, the death sentence is still very much a real thing, and that the Catholics and Protestants remain at each others throats for much of the reign, leading to trouble for anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

It also dispels many of the myths of the time, such as the belief that no one minded the smells of latrines in the towns, or that bathing wasn’t actually unacceptable or strange, merely difficult to do and time-consuming. The Elizabethans believed that disease could be spread by smell, so did their best to keep themselves clean, and while they did sometimes have to shit in a fireplace, they weren’t necessarily happy about it.

All aspects of the time are included, from what sort of accomodation you could expect from an inn (and at what price), how much the general population knew about the wider world, and what life was like on board ship. We even get to meet some of the greats of the time, such as William Cecil, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare himself. Refreshingly, there isn’t a huge amount about him and absolutely no speculation about whether he was the real author of his plays or not. He is presented as himself and the focus is on his plays and sonnets, noting that even in his lifetime, he was accepted as highly talented and very famous.

The chapter on religion is somewhat tedious, but that’s merely because it’s not something that interests me very much, but if you were to find yourself in this era, you’d absolutely need to know about it. These are dangerous times and you can now even be fined for not attending church. Nonetheless, the book is full of incredible facts, including something that has never been mentioned to be in any previous history lesson: a white slave trade was formed during this time that ran for centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to Elizabethan England any time soon, this book is definitely worth taking along with you. And if you aren’t, it’s still a great read. It’s important to remember that the people being discussed herein are not aliens, but your family. For you to be here now, they have to have been there then. That knowledge really brings this book to life, and might make you realise how good we now have it. England under Elizabeth changed everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to the whys and hows that led to us here today.

“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare (1599)

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Heh, heh, heh

Heh, heh, heh

“I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

Nursing a hangover, the day required a simple book that I knew the story of and thus in came the manga version of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s probably my favourite of his works, often billed as history’s first romantic comedy, and it’s the play I’ve seen performed the most frequently in one form or another. I think most people know the story, but to summarise briefly:

There are two stories going on within the play. The first centres around old flames Benedick and Beatrice, who now trade witty barbs at one another and love nothing more than winding each other up. There is little love lost between them. The second story is about Claudio, Benedick’s friend who has fallen in love with Hero, Beatrice’s cousin. However, the nasty and jealous Don John wants Hero for himself, so conspires to ensure their marriage does not go ahead. Meanwhile, everyone else conspires to get Benedick and Beatrice to admit that they actually do love each other, despite their surface-level hatred.

While Shakespeare can be a bit dense from time to time, this is probably the easiest of his plays to understand and, even to a modern audience, it still stands up humour-wise and I actually did chuckle aloud a couple of times. One of my favourite lines involves someone saying to Beatrice, “So Benedick isn’t in your good books?” and Beatrice quickly replies, “If he was, I’d burn down my study.” That’s paraphrased, of course.

Beatrice and Benedick are two of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon, Benedick for his amusing arrogance, Beatrice for her devout hatred of men, and both for their sharp witticisms. Don John is a scheming and nasty piece of work, but otherwise even the minor characters seem quite good fun. The play is loaded with innuendo (hell, the title alone is pure filth if you know your Elizabethan slang) but it’s a good read. Studying the plays in manga form is very interesting as it allows them to be experienced closer to the original intent, and while I’d recommend this one, if you ever get a chance to see this performed then take it. If you’re new to Shakespeare, there are worse plays to start with than this.

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