A(nother) Review: Tinman by Sarah Winman

Sometimes we need healing.

 

We talk about the healing of physical injuries, of taking time to rest up, to avoid possible infection.

 

I sit here, a rainy Wednesday night, a glass of red wine held in a hand that sports a magnificent red welt and an ever shrinking scab. The result of careless handling of a pan of hot water a week ago.

 

It sploshed. I swore.

 

In the week since, it has drawn concern, it has stopped more than one meeting at work as the injury becomes clear. It is obvious. And so is the advice dispensed from every would-be doctor.

 

We don’t talk about the healing of the soul, of the mind. Not really.

 

I only mention this, because today, I needed healing.

 

Not the scald on my hand, which will heal without my intervention. It may scar. It may not. To me, it’s sort of irrelevant. It’s skin. It’s part of me, but it’s not me.

 

Right now, I am emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted. It is my fault. I’ve not been looking after myself – I’m not only burning the candle at both ends, but I’m burning it in the middle as well.

 

I’ve been pushed and pushed myself too far, both in work and socially. All of this, for little old introverted me, is too much. The fear of letting anyone down, of making anyone’s life harder has all but crippled me.

 

So, today, through the post at work, I receive a copy of Tinman by Sarah Winman. I’m excited. I’ve been dying to read it since learning of it’s existence back in early January. Five weeks or so ago, but it feels like an age.

 

Winman herself told me of the premise, and I wanted it there and then. Opening that package today, I realised it was exactly what I needed. A treat. Something I had been looking forward to. I could sit with this book, something I knew I would enjoy and just shut out my world, my life, and take refuge in someone else’s a for a short while.

 

Taking some time for me. That sounds quite trite, quite… 90’s American self-help (“remember, you’re you”), but sometimes we need that.

 

Tinman is the story of love. Of first love, and loss. The story of Michael, Annie and Ellis. It is the story of healing.

 

At a little under two hundred pages, it is but a snapshot into their lives. We stand on their doormat and glimpse in at their home, we don’t see everything, but gosh does that glimpse make us feel we know them.

 

By page thirty four, I was Instagramming a line from the book (the modern equivalent of underlining, of highlighting):

 

He staggered up and felt so much space around him he almost choked

 

By page forty eight, I was on the edge of tears. In fact, Winman took me to the emotional edge, and left me there for the rest of the book.

 

That’s a hell of a talent to have you feeling those things by that point. Most books haven’t even got started by then. For comparison’s sake, at page forty eight Arthur Dent has only just made it into space (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Harry Potter has only just learnt he is a wizard (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). The latter, a famous plot point in a short book, that somehow manages to pack a lot in.

 

And there’s Sarah Winman, making me cry. Like I’ve known these characters for years. I don’t want to say too much… In short, early on, Annie sends Ellis off to find ‘him’.

 

You think you know who ‘him’ is, but then things start to become unclear. Maybe it’s Michael, maybe it’s someone else. I’m left with a feeling that it might be his own self that Ellis is looking for.

 

Tinman is simply a beautiful book, writing that draws you in. Short elegant sentences that are more than the sum of their parts.

 

I want company, I don’t want company.

 

It is desperately sad, each of the three characters representing a different kind of heartache. You wish things were different, you’re sort of glad they’re not…

 

Sometimes we all need healing. My hand. Ellis’ heart. Your stress.

 

That might take the form of a bandage for your hand, closure for your broken heart, or something to help you switch off and mentally de-clutter.

 

For the first two, I can’t really help, but for the latter, for those time when you just need to switch off and delve into something ‘other’, escape your own life and lose yourself in someone else’s. Sometimes all you need is a good book.

 

And this – pardon my French – is a fucking good book.

 

Although, you may have to wait… Tinman by Sarah Winman is published on the 27th July 2017 by Tinder Press.

 

If you’re nice, or if you need healing, I might lend you a copy.

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A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.

 

Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.

 

I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

 

I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.

 

I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.

 

In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.

 

After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

 

And I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.

 

Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.

 

To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.

 

It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.

 

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.

 

Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?

 

Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.

 

(SPOILER: I did neither)

A(nother) Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

             One of the problems of being vocal about having a favourite book is that often people give you books that ‘you’ll love – it’s just like A Little Life’.

 

Here’s the thing, if I wanted to read a book just like A Little Life, I’d just read A Little Life – anything else runs the risk of just being a pale imitation.

 

So when two people suggested I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne for that very reason, I was pretty skeptical. When the person who I share my love of A Little Life told me it was nothing like it, my skepticism turned to indifference and the book was placed onto the windowsill of perpetuity. So-called because once a book ends up on there, it can take some time before I take it off – if I ever do.

 

However, I did promise to read it while on a break from work, and in truth, it was the perfect time. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is quite a tome at over six hundred pages long, so with a fortnight of downtime looming, I thought I had just the right opportunity.

 

As it was, I didn’t need a fortnight.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies tells the story of Cyril Avery from just before birth, right through to his seventieth year in 2015.

 

Cyril is the result of an affair between Catherine and an older man, a scandal in her hometown of Goleen. The parish priests of Ireland in 1945 didn’t look too kindly on children born out of wedlock and Catherine was banished from her village.

 

In Dublin, Catherine gives up her child and gains a job at the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. Cyril is given to an odd couple – the Avery’s – who seem to have only wanted a child in the same way that a person might want an ornament for their shelf.

 

We check in with Cyril every seven years of his life, and each part seems to be a self contained story – this is similar to how A Little Life is constructed, which, at times feels like lots of small stories sewn together.

 

However in most other elements, it is quite different. A Little Life was timeless, no doubt a modern day story, but with no elements that could specifically date it. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is quite pointedly set at a specific time and place in history.

 

As well as being the story of Cyril Avery, it is the story of the progression of gay rights in Ireland, of how far things have changed over the course of seventy years, while A Little Life is a story about the relationships between men both physical and emotional, it doesn’t necessarily dwell on the sexuality of the main characters.

 

For these differences, it actually doesn’t feel right to compare the two books. So, for now, I’ll stop.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an engrossing story, which somewhat relies on coincidence and happenstance to make it’s point. This, when combined with the seven-yearly structure, does give the reader a slight detachment.

 

It is hard to inhabit a character’s mind-set when some of the more dramatic moments of his life happen at the end of a chapter, before a leap forward in time of seven years. The emotions that Cyril must have felt, the grief, are not delved into in any great focus, instead we are exploring the next part of his life.

 

This is ok. The reason I’m dwelling on it, is that It kind of works without the need to dive into those feelings. The ending is pretty emotional, it elicits a tear or two without being too sentimental.

 

I said it’s hard to inhabit his mind-set, but Boyne achieves the emotional connection with the character without exploring those feelings, because we know without having to read it, exactly how Cyril would react. I can’t help but wonder how deep that connection would be if we had lingered a little on some of those big moments.

 

The last thing to say about this book is the humour. It could have been po-faced. It covers topics such as abuse, rape, prostitution, murder, homophobia, abandonment… It could have been so miserable, however there are some truly funny bits in it. Sustained laugh out loud moments, that make you realise just how un-funny books be.

 

So, here’s the thing. Why have people been comparing this to A Little Life if they’re so different? Well, maybe they’re not that different after all.

 

While covering different themes – and doing them in different ways – there is a connection between them. They’re not identical, but they are, I guess, cousins. They sit well together, and anyone has enjoyed the former, will definitely enjoy the latter.

 

Book of the year? Maybe. Probably. I’m going to stop commenting on that, because I’m starting to look stupid.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday and is available now

The Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill

 

I can imagine it’s quite difficult to write a new detective novel. There are so many different detectives out there already, all with a substantial series of books to their names, that it’s hard to distinguish them from each other.

 

Sure, the plots are often quite different, and the settings vary, but ultimately, they all cover the same ground: a detective must track down a killer before it’s too late.

 

And yes, I’m afraid I did just boil down one of the most popular genres of fiction into one sentence. But my point is, how do you make that one sentence unique?

 

The answer is through your heroes, your detectives. They must be rich, deep characters who the reader can care about easily, and passionately. The real point of a crime novel, is not how and when the detective can catch the criminal, but how the case changes the detective.

 

Finding a new crime series can be just as hard for the reader as it is for the writer. How do you know which ones you’re going to like? Do you just have to take a punt and hope for the best?

 

Well, yes, unfortunately.

 

However, you do get a little bit of help. Sometimes a recommendation from a friend, or a blog, or a striking cover.

 

In the case of The Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill, it was a tagline that caught my eye:

 

Two childhood friends

One became a detective

One became a killer

 

This told me straight away that this writer at least got the point of a detective novel. So… I took a punt.

 

DI Ray Drake – the detective in question – starts the book out in a pub, a party for him and his Murder Investigation Team, following a commendation for a series of homicide investigations.

 

He doesn’t want to be there, and about the only person he can find who also doesn’t want to be there is the newly promoted DS Flick Crowley.

 

Ray is Flick’s boss, but when Flick begins to investigate a series of murders, Ray does everything he can to put Flick off the scent.

 

We witness events unfolding from both Ray and Flick’s point of view, as well as those of various other characters – including flashbacks to a children’s home in 1984. It should be difficult to keep up with so many different viewpoints, but it just about works because of the ambiguity between Flick and Ray.

 

With The Two O’Clock Boy Hill has managed to introduce us to a new crime series by giving us not one but two lead characters – the only problem is, we’re not sure who we should be rooting for. For a reader, this is fantastic. It adds a new twist to what can otherwise be quite a formulaic genre.

 

Parts of this book are predictable, but these are embraced by Hill, who leads us down one route, and then in the final pages, pulls the rug from under our feet.

 

The ending is, frustratingly, incomplete – but again, that’s a hallmark of the genre, they often end at the resolution of the case, without fully exploring the aftermath, however here, you really do get a sense it will be picked up again in subsequent books.

 

Hill has built a solid foundation for a new crime series and in Flick and Ray has created two characters that the reader will want to invest in – even if they’re not sure who the hero of the piece is.

 

The Two O’Clock is published by Sphere and available in paperback from April 7th.