Two To Go

The last time I wrote a rambling was back in August, I talked about how I’d sent Memories of a Murder out to six different agents – three of whom rejected it with astonishing speed.

I talked about what I might do if none of them liked it, and that I wasn’t so sure. The immediate answer, the obvious answer perhaps, was to not give up. To keep trying.

But here’s why that’s maybe not the obvious answer. In the time between that post and this, I’ve read five wonderful books, reviewed six of them, started a seventh and… I’ve worked.

Jeepers have I worked. It’s that time of year for me where work goes from working-an-hour-late-busy to weeping-in-the-corner busy. And my assistant has left me.

Woe. Is. Me.

But also in that time, my lodger has moved out and got his own place. I’ve had time in abundance to ‘do writing’ something which I never had before. What did I do with that time?

Naturally, I finished watching my Cheers box-set. Never like to leave a project unfinished.

Then I started watching Frasier from the beginning. Also, catching up on Revenge which has been sitting my Sky box since January.

I’ve logged on and read emails. I’ve bought some lovely new jars for my kitchen.

I’ve gone out for drinks and dinners. I’ve made three lasagnas – from scratch (well, the cow was already minced, but more or less).

I’ve not done writing. And for one very simple reason. I’m just not wired to.

I’m not a brilliant multi-tasker (I am a man after all), my head can deal with one project at a time. Even if one of those projects has stalled, I have to see it through before I can move on to the next one.

Take my kitchen. Well, don’t, I only just had it put in, but two years ago, I decided that the flat needed redoing from left to right (top to bottom, doesn’t seem like the right phrase when it’s only one floor).

Bit by bit, one room at a time, I’ve been doing it and in March/April time I decided on my new kitchen. In my head, on my list of things to do, was do the kitchen, then repaint my bedroom.

The kitchen wasn’t installed until July, but in the three months preceding that I couldn’t paint my bedroom, even though neither was dependent on the other, simply because I had not crossed ‘new kitchen’ off my list.

I’m methodical. Step A leads to Step B leads to Step C. I can’t go from A to C without having fully finished B.

The problem is, the writing I’ve been focused on is the sequel to Memories of a Murder. I’ve only heard back now, from four of the six agents I contacted.

How can I possibly start writing more on that world when I haven’t heard back from all those people that I sent a request for a rejection to?

What I can do, though, is figure out what I’m going to do next. Keep trying isn’t the option for me – at this time – it stalls me too much.

But I can start a new project while this one’s bubbling under… watch this space.

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A Place For Us by Harriet Evans

A Place For Us is published early next year and I feel safe telling you, it will be one of the best books of 2015.

That bit is a quote. It’s a quote from me from the end of this review. I’ve put it there because while I still agree with everything I’ve written in this post, I worry I’ve been a bit harsh. But I want you to read this review knowing that I really enjoyed it, and I think you will too.

About five months ago, I was given a proof copy of a book by Harriet Evans called A Place For Us – because I’m incredibly rubbish, I’ve only just got round to reading it.

I actually read it just before I read The Martian (still not entirely sure what to read next), which makes it fourth in a run of five books that I’ve really enjoyed.

A Place For Us begins with Martha Winter sending out invitations to her eightieth birthday party. She tells her family that she has an announcement, but as soon as the invitations are written, she starts to wonder if she’s doing the right thing.

At the same time her husband, an artist, is meeting up with a mysterious woman in London. Someone he hasn’t seen for a long time, and Martha doesn’t know he’s there.

If this story was a building – bear with me – it would be a pyramid, it builds and builds and builds right up to a central point (Martha’s announcement) and then barrels down from the peak to a slow stop on the other side.

Many books are a bit more like the Shard, in at the ground floor, then a journey straight up, that ends more or less, at the highest point.

At first, once you reach the peak of A Place For Us, about halfway through the book, you’re left wondering where you’re going to go next, but what Evans does is show us a perfect family, spread apart across the London, Paris and Florence, that comes together, blows apart at the centre of the book, and then slowly comes together again towards the end.

The story is told from various characters viewpoints throughout the book, but Martha is definitely the most engaging character of them all, at least until after the central point of the book, when her character changes.

This is intentionally unsettling, the issue is, none of the other characters are as engaging, and the reader ends up feeling a little lost in the second half of the book.

Two other characters stand out (apart from the oft-mentioned, rarely-seen Daisy) – they are Cat and Joe.

Joe’s viewpoint is rarely seen, and Cat is a great character, but diluted by her similarity to cousin Lucy. I can understand the inclusion of Lucy in the story, it adds a great symmetry to the story, but I’m not sure she deserves the prominence she gets. She is, at times, far to similar to Cat, and I wonder if the book would have been better without her viewpoint.

In addition, it’s a long book. Very readable, but maybe about a hundred pages too long.

I would have liked maybe a hundred fewer pages – it feels like it wanders at some points, and it could do with either cutting Lucy altogether, or investing in the characters of Cat, Joe, Karen and Florence much earlier on to give them all a bit more depth.

Having said all this, I really did enjoy the book. It started out high, dipped a bit, but rose again towards the end. It’s also a great book to think about in terms of how one writes a book. The structure and story are both fascinating, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it for this review – maybe a bit more than I normally do.

It could have been phenomenal, but it just falls short of it. A Place For Us is published early next year and I feel safe telling you, it will be one of the best books of 2015.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

In my blog post about The Martian I warned about pre-judging books because they’re from a genre you might not normally read.

 

It’s a lesson I learned from a book I read a short while before I read The Martian, when I read The Devil in the Marshalsea.

 

I think I’ve said on here before that I don’t really like books set in the past. If I haven’t said it, then I meant to.

 

The Devil in the Marshalsea, Daughter and The Martian are all books from the Richard and Judy Book Club’s Autumn 2014 selection. This is where I get a bit work-y, so forgive me, please.

 

My job means I get to work on promoting this Book Club in our stores, which means I get to hear a lot about each of the books, including first hand what Richard and Judy think about them when they’re recording the podcasts for the series.

 

I was trying to read as many of the books prior to the filming day as possible, or at least a bit of as many of them as I could. I figured I’d start with Devil in the Marshalsea because, being a historical novel it was the one I was going to enjoy the least.

 

Well, I got that wrong, didn’t I?

 

I worked out a while back that the reason I don’t like historical novels is because often it feels like the author is showing off everything they’ve discovered while researching.

 

They go into far too much detail about the world their characters inhabit – they either do it in a third person narrative, which ends up being long paragraphs of just descriptive text before the characters even turn up.

 

Or, even worse, in a first person narrative, the main character wonders around supplying remarkably insightful comments about the political situation of the time or else it’s a surprise they’re not walking into things because they’re so busy describing everything in tiny, tiny detail.

 

Take any historical novel, lift out a paragraph and ask yourself – if this was set in the present time would anyone really have that much conscious thought about a lamppost? Probably not – yet, it seems a perfectly normal thing to do in any book set pre-WWII

 

BUT – my point is, that in this book Antonia Hodgson does something quite remarkable. She puts a simple author’s note at the beginning to give a little context about the world we’re visiting – and then she just gets on with the plot – which turns out to be quite a wonderful little murder mystery.

 

Anything else I might say would possibly ruin the plot, but a handy little hint to anyone who does now read it is to remember the rule about any murder mystery. Don’t try to work out who the murderer was, work out why the victim was murdered in the first place.

The Martian by Andy Weir

We all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but often we do. And not just by the cover, but by the title and blurb as well.

 

Take The Martian by Andy Weir for example. Published in paperback last week, the title alone will put some people off, because it infers an alien, which infers science fiction, which infers geeks living in a basement watching Star Trek.

 

Let’s see past the title for a second. The blurb reads as follows:

 

I’m stranded on Mars.

 

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

 

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate.

If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst.

If the Habitat breaches, I’ll just kind of explode.

 

If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

 

I’m screwed.

 

It’s space travel gone wrong. It still seems a bit Star Trek-y. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, I quite a like a bit of Star Trek, but your average Joe in a bookshop might be put off and put it down.

 

You might be put off right now, and maybe you’re considering not reading this blog any further.

 

I’m going to tell you now why you shouldn’t put that book down, why you should carry on reading.

 

This isn’t science fiction, not really. Sure, the premise, the setting and the plot are all, quite literally, out of this world, but the story… the story is about one man’s fight for survival, against all odds.

 

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

James Franco in 127 Hours.

Robinson Crusoe in… well, Robinson Crusoe

 

These are stories all quite different from each other, but they have one thing in common. One character, stuck somewhere, the odds against survival are astronomical and all they want to do is get home.

 

Mark Watney, the ‘Martian’ in question, is no different. Mankind’s third trip to Mars is abandoned after six days when a massive sand storm sweeps through the camp. The rest of the crew make it to the escape rocket, but Watney is struck by an antenna, his spacesuit pierced, and carried off by the wind. His fellow astronauts presume he is dead and get out of there.

 

The blood, the sand and the air pressure all combine to make a seal against the hole and Watney’s life is saved. But he’s alone, on Mars, with seemingly no hope of getting home, and no way of contacting Earth.

 

The story is told through his log entries – a clever technique by the writer, as although being told to us by Watney, we can’t be sure if he survives to tell us – and we follow his first few weeks of solitude as he starts calculating how long he can survive with the rations he has – and how long he can extend that by reducing his intake

 

He soon works out that, he has only one option. Survive until the next Ares mission to Mars arrives – three years later.

 

Watney working all of this out actually makes for a very interesting read as he tries to come up with a way to grow potatoes on Mars, but runs the risk of becoming repetitive. At the right time the story comes back to Earth where a team at NASA suddenly realise that he is on the planet. The remainder of the book travels between Earth and Mars as it becomes a race against time to save Mark Watney.

 

This book got to me really early on. There’s a moment that fills our protagonist with such hope after having been alone for such a long time, that it made me cry. From that moment, I was beyond invested, I needed for him to escape and I stayed up until stupid o’clock in the morning to finish the book.

 

What is most remarkable about that is I can’t tell you anything about Mark’s life. We learn next to nothing about him, despite knowing and discovering things about the other members of his crew, and the people at Mission Control.

 

Regardless of this, we finish the book knowing him. I’ve never read a book where you’ve ended up more inside the character’s head, and that’s part of the brilliance of this book.

 

The ending of the book is almost perfectly timed as well, coming at a point where you’re confident of how it all ends, but never quite reaches it. It’s hard to explain this without spoiling the ending, but imagine seeing someone fall from a building, but not watching them hit the ground… You could be fairly certain they’ll hit the ground, but at the same time, maybe… just maybe………

 

I’ve been on a run of good books lately, having read several that I’ve really enjoyed, each one of them better than the last, each one of them ‘the best book I’ve read this year’

 

But this is one of the best books I’ve EVER read. To the point I’m not entirely sure I want to start another book now… because it won’t be as good.

 

Forget the label of sci-fi, don’t judge this book by it’s cover. This is a book that defies genre. Anyone who enjoys reading will enjoy this book.

 

Of course, if you did want to judge The Martian by it’s cover, you wouldn’t go too far wrong. There’s a GORGEOUS male model on the front with the most remarkable eyelashes you’ve ever seen. I think I may be a little bit in love.