A(nother) Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Last week I was heading into London and found myself on a train with no book – EEK! So, I ran into WHSmith in the station and looked for something I hadn’t read yet.

 

It was a small one with only a handful of books – so there wasn’t much there I hadn’t read, but from the new Richard and Judy Book Club (my boss has asked me to add here that it said Book Club is indeed exclusive to WHSmith and is in fact Britain’s Biggest Book Club) – there was Little Fires Everywhere.

 

That’s not a grammatically incorrect description of the state of the store, but in fact the new book from Celeste Ng (whose twitter name is helpfully @pronounced_ing).

 

The story is set in the planned community of Shaker Heights where Mrs Elena Richardson wakes up to find her house on fire. Her husband and four kids are all out of the house and she escapes easily, but once outside, with the fire brigade in attendance, she learns that the fire was started deliberately.

 

There were in fact, little fires set everywhere through the house.

 

What follows takes us back to a year previously when the mysterious artist Mia and her daughter Pearl move to town, renting a home from the Richardsons.

 

Mia’s presence figuratively sets little fires going inside all of the Richardsons, her and Pearl’s influence on them bringing forward a maelstrom of different emotions amongst them all, particularly the kids, who much of the story focuses on.

 

What I loved about this was the way the story seamlessly shifted point of view across eight different characters. Some books I’ve read in the past have struggled with just three, or over ambitiously gone for ten or twelve, but Ng manages to make each of them engaging enough and for the right length of time that it’s not off-putting.

 

Even my least favourite character – Mrs Richardson – earns that accolade through being a busy-body, rather than through poor writing, or for outstaying her welcome.

 

The only thing I found slightly distracting? It took me a while to figure out exactly when the book was set. My automatic assumption with most books is they are in present day – so when I worked out that one of the teenage characters ought to be in their early thirties, I realised I had to go back and reassess.

 

Maybe I missed something – quite possible – or maybe it just wasn’t clear. Still, it was only a minor niggle for a book I really enjoyed. The next time you’re in a train station and needing a read… give this one a go!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is available now from Abacus

 

 

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A(nother) Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I’m now into my fifth year of blogging my book reviews and while I always thought the biggest problem with it would be trying to avoid giving too many spoilers I have now discovered a new problem.

 

I’ve spent much of the last few years banging on about three different books all of which have been my go-to titles whenever anyone asks for a reading recommendation – A Little Life, Tin Man and Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter.

 

Since I first fell in love with A Place Called Winter back at the beginning of 2015 I’ve become a bit of a champion of Gale’s work, both his books and his recent television series (2017’s Man in an Orange Shirt). I even highlighted his new novel as one of my books to look out for in 2018.

 

So, when special advance copies of Take Nothing with You started to head out into the world, I crossed all my fingers and auctioned off my first-born (pity that devil who’ll never receive their purchase) hoping to get a copy.

 

And I received a copy, and it was beautiful and I was very, very excited.

 

Then I realised my problem.

 

Whenever anyone has a big success be it with a book, or film, or album there is a pressure on the artist to produce something equally as good, but not the same, the next time around.

 

The anxiety that brings must be crippling, sending your book out into the world waiting for the reaction like a small dog patiently waiting for their owner to return home.

 

I had a taste – only a very small taste – of that, when I settled down to read Take Nothing With You. What if I didn’t like it? What if I was the one that had to kick the puppy?

 

With some trepidation, I opened the pages and started to read. After about ten pages, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good. Not just good. It was as good as A Place Called Winter – if not better.

 

So now, I’m stuck with my original problem. How do I sell it to you all without spoiling it? How do I talk about all the things I want to talk about without ruining it for everyone? The answer is to keep it brief.

 

We meet Eustace at a particular point in his life, he’s in his fifties, he’s fallen in love with a man he’s never met and has just been diagnosed with cancer. Part of his treatment involves taking a particularly radioactive drug which mean he must spend time in solitary confinement, away from everyone.

 

He will be so radioactive that he must take nothing with him that he would want to keep.

 

So, he goes in with just a cheap music player and a playlist of cello music from his best friend Naomi. He lies down, begins to listen, and then remembers – taking the reader with him – his childhood, growing up in Weston-Super-Mare.

 

And here is where the magic happens.

 

Such beautiful writing transports us into the head of that twelve-year-old boy as he deals with his own burgeoning sexuality, the breakdown of his parent’s marriage and an exploration of an unexpected new passion – the cello.

 

I could sing for hours about the poetry of the writing or the subtlety of the plot but it is in the richness of the characters that Gale really excels himself. Each character, no matter how minor, is vivid leaving the reader wanting more.

 

In most books the main characters are obvious, their depth making them stand out from all others, a clue to the reader as to which characters you should care about, which ones you should watch, and which ones you don’t need to remember the name of.

 

That’s not the case here. In the moments they appear all the characters are important, all of them real. None of us can know as we’re living our lives who will be important and who won’t be, and so to Eustace at the time he encounters them they are all important. The things he notices, the people he sees, all of it helps us as a reader inhabit his world.

 

I’ve never read a book before where the minor characters have intrigued me quite so much.

 

A Little Life was about Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude St Francis; The Time Traveler’s Wife was about Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare; Tin Man is the story of Annie and Michael and Ellis. All of these names are imprinted on me in a way that I can reel them off without having to look them up.

 

This book takes its place amongst all of those titles (equal on my spreadsheet – OF COURSE I have a spreadsheet – to The Time Traveler’s Wife) in my list of favourite books, and while Eustace’s name will come to me as readily as all those others, I think the names of Vernon and Carla Gold and Turlough and Jez won’t be far behind him.

 

They all have their own tales to tell, but this is Eustace’s and the whole experience felt as cathartic to me as it did for Eustace himself. Perhaps because – as many other readers will probably experience – so many of the moments in his earlier life are similar to mine. I won’t share with you what they were – they’re for my own private lead-lined box – but I will tell you… I never played the cello.

 

Take Nothing With You will be published by Tinder Press on 21st August 2018

Clean by Juno Dawson

Let’s talk about genre for a bit.

 

On one hand, it’s very useful, particularly for those folk that like a very specific type of book and want to find more of the same. On the other hand, it can stop us from discovering something new, something amazing.

 

Readers can miss some brilliant books because they are pitched as crime or horror and ‘those books aren’t for me’.

 

No other genre suffers from this more than that of ‘Young Adult’. While the sort of books that get grouped in YA are not particularly new – the genre itself has only been a popular thing for the last ten years or so, since the arrival of Katniss Everdeen and Bella and Edward.

 

They are books about people in their later teenage years, discovering love, drugs, sex, essentially life for the first time. They are not necessarily written by young adults, but they are marketed at them.

 

The genre itself is split up into all sorts of other mini-genres – YA Dystopian, YA Romance, etc – so even though you might like YA, it doesn’t really say much about your reading type.

 

There isn’t an ‘Old Adult’ genre – books about old age pensioners that are put into a category specifically for them that says ‘Hey everyone else, don’t read these!’

 

Why am I getting on my soap-box about this?

 

Because I’ve just finished reading Clean by Juno Dawson. It’s a Young Adult novel about socialite Lexi Volkov who ends up in rehab following a near overdose.

 

Lexi has to deal with her feelings about her current enabling boyfriend, secrets from the past and new friendships with the other residents of the Clarity Centre, all of whom have their own different demons.

 

What makes this a Young Adult novel? Lexi is barely out of school, drinking illegally. The other characters are all a similar age – young people troubled with addiction.

 

It’s BETTER than a lot of other ‘Middle-Aged Adult’ fiction that deals with rehab, and frankly, though we’re told the ages of the character, they could be ANY age.

 

Dawson deals with the complexities of rehab with skill, making it seem very real and believable. In other hands Lexi Volkov (Heir to a Russian oligarch) could have been unlikable, but she’s humanised and brought into the real world, made relatable by her very ordinary and common problems.

 

This is a book aimed at Young Adults, and they will love it – but if you’re not young, if you’re an old-adult, then don’t think this is not for you. It’s for everyone.

 

Clean by Juno Dawson is available now from Quercus

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

I write this review as I take a break from reading what can only be described as a ‘shitload’ of books in a very short of time (currently averaging one every four hours on a weekend) so the irony of what I’m about to write is not lost on me.

 

Sometimes, very rare times, I just don’t feel like reading – when that happens, it takes me a moment to recognise it and I start trying to read several books, giving each one up for petty reasons.

 

The print is too small.

I don’t like the way the paper feels in my hand.

That’s a stupid way to spell that name.

 

Often, when this happens, that’s it. The book is ruined for me, and I rarely go back to it. Hey, there are plenty of other books in the world to try out.

 

I want to use this post to remind myself – and to urge everyone else – that books deserve a second chance, if it’s my own bad mood that stopped me from reading them.

 

I recently asked someone for a reading recommendation and they told me to give The Perfect Girlfriend a try. It was sitting on my table, in my not-quite-discarded pile. It was the victim of a night in early January when I just couldn’t concentrate.

 

Looking at it now, I can’t work out what it was that put me off – likely the fact that it was a proof copy and the print wasn’t quite parallel to the bottom of the page. I gave it another go. And I’m glad I did.

 

We meet Juliette, an air hostess who has recently split up with her partner. She’s determined to get him back, so much so that she’s got a job for the airline he’s a pilot for, and is secretly letting herself into his flat while he’s away to leave him presents.

 

At first – I totally identified with her. I mean, who hasn’t had an errant thought about doing something completely stalker-y when finding themselves infatuated with someone else? Hollywood has conditioned us that romance happens all the time.

 

If we turn up at their workplace during the day with a single red rose, music will swell, and they’ll carry us off into the sunset. If we send them a present, their favourite bottle of wine, they’ll see we really do care about them and again, those strings will start up…

 

The trouble with Juliette is… she does it. And at first, I thought, yeah, fair enough, let’s see how it goes – Clue: not well – but then things progress to the point where even I – yes EVEN I – started to think “Juliette, really?”

 

Still, despite her increasingly desperate attempts to get Nate back into her life, it’s not hard to sympathise with her, even when things become more and more criminal.

 

That big pile of books I alluded to in my opening? A number of them have good guys as protagonists and they’re so… unlikeable.

 

Juliette, on the other hand is well-written, but definitely not the good guy. Still, I can’t help but root for her a little bit. Hopefully that’s a result of the excellent writing – rather than a particular peculiarity to do with my own psychology.

 

What’s the moral of this blog post?

 

Sometimes we should give things a second chance, because it might be our fault they didn’t work out… contrarily the moral of The Perfect Girlfriend is quite the opposite – sometimes things don’t work out because the other person is just mentally and emotionally not able.

 

The Perfect Girlfriend is available now in Hardback from Wildfire

 

 

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

I’ve mentioned before a couple of books that first turned me back onto reading as an adult. One of them was The Time Traveler’s Wife, among the others was Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.

 

Since Labyrinth was released some thirteen years ago, Mosse has written several other books, including two follow-ups to her debut – Sepulchre and Citadel. While I liked Labyrinth – and still have a copy of it on my bookshelf – I didn’t ever go back and read anything else from her.  Something else always came up.

 

So when The Burning Chambers fell onto my desk a short while ago, I decided to give it a go.

 

Reader, I struggled. At least to begin with. It’s five hundred pages that explores the early days of the French civil war – the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Hugenots.

 

We see it through the eyes of a handful of characters – led by nineteen year old Minou who receives a strange letter one day, leading to a chain of events that finds her fleeing from Carcassone to Toulouse before onto Puivert

 

I persevered though, and I’m glad I did. The more we get to know Minou and her family the more human the story becomes, the more engaging.

 

The struggle I had at the beginning was that much of the story relied on the politics of religion – the trouble with that, though is that as someone who doesn’t give much of a toss about religion, I found it hard to care what either side got up to. They were all behaving like a bunch of prats.

 

I felt like we didn’t spend enough time getting to know the characters – and it wasn’t until Minou’s younger sister was put into peril that I really started to care what was happening.

 

At that point, when it became more about the human element, I raced through the last half of the book.

 

Would I recommend this book? It’s difficult to say, and it comes down to what I always say, if you like this sort of book, you’ll like this book. It’s well written, it delves into the events of that time with – I assume – some accuracy. And if it’s not accurate, it as least believable.

 

The test comes with would I read the second book in the trilogy? For me, that depends on how quickly it comes. If it’s released next year, then the characters will probably still be fresh enough in my mind to pay them a revisit. Now I’m engaged with them, the next book should be easier to get into.

 

If I have to wait a couple of years…? I’m not sure I’d have the patience.

 

The Burning Chambers is published in Hardback on 3rd May 2018 by Mantle

The York Realist by Peter Gill

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After posting last week’s review of The Eyre Affair, WordPress kindly pinged me a notification that I had just published my 200th blog post.

 

I’ve had a quick peek back and that breaks down as:

 

89 Books Reviews

82 Random Ramblings

24 Chapters of Memories of a Murder

2 Short Stories

1 Poem

And 1 Review of a stage show (Dawn French’s one-woman show, for those interested)

 

All of which presents me the perfect opportunity to go little off-piste and talk about something a bit different (AKA I’m reading a big book and struggling with it so there is no book review this week, but I’m distracting you with something new and shiny):

 

A review of a play!

 

 

My twitter chum @adejohnleader very kindly (go on, give him a follow) gave me tickets to see The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse.

 

First off – let’s start with the Donmar. One of the reasons I lept at Ade’s offer was because I’d always wanted to go to the Donmar, and never previously had a chance.

 

The seats are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the stage. We we were sitting on one side of the ‘circle’ (more of a U) and that meant we saw he whole production from the side of the stage, looking down on it.

 

It was a unique experience, one that actually helped immerse you into what was going on. It made me feel less like an audience member and more of a voyeur. Bizarrely, it helped make the whole thing seem more real.

 

There were moments when George – the main character – would look over at our side of the stage while talking to someone in the other direction. His words were saying one thing, but his facial expressions another.

 

I was very aware that my friend who I’d spotted on the other side of the theatre couldn’t see what I could see, and may well have been interpreting things differently. I wondered what things he was seeing that were shaping the play for him. Were we both watching he same play, but having very different interpretations, simply because of our physical perspective?

 

Highly likely, we know that art of any kind is made in the emotional perspective of the viewer, but I’d never really considered physical perspective in other shows I’d been to.

 

Onto the play itself.

 

The York Realist is set in 1960’s Yorkshire and all takes place in the front room of George’s house. He’s a farm labourer, living with his mother, being set up with one of the local girls Doreen – but there is a secret, one bubbling under, one that everyone seems to know, but never mentions.

 

That secret is John and a love affair they share.

 

I’ll be honest John is the other reason I jumped at the chance to see this play. Or at least Jonathan Bailey was. I’ve had a bit of a crush on him for years, ever since I first saw him in dodgy Neil Morrissey BBC1 Sitcom Me and Mrs Jones. Said crush was only heightened after 2016’s glorious Crashing (Can we have another series, please?).

 

But, while he was good, the whole cast were, particularly ‘Barbara’ actress Lucy Black it was Ben Batt as George that captivated my attention the whole way through. He had a presence right from the moment he stepped onto the stage.

 

He was the enigmatic George, drawing us all in and making us understand his character with just looks and eye rolls. The writing – the play was written by Peter Gill – obviously helped, natural as it was, but he inhabited the role so much that the character still lingers clearly in my mind several days later.

 

The play explores the difference in cultures between the two men, John, the out and proud gay man, seemingly less confident in making a move, while, in one of the play’s funniest scenes, George grabs a pot of Vaseline from the kitchen and drags his partner upstairs.

 

Events conspire against them but the emotional crux of the play comes when George must make a decision. Stay in Yorkshire or move to London with John. Similarly, John is confronted with the possibility of just staying in Yorkshire with the man he loves, but in a community where they won’t be accepted.

 

The pull of home, our friends and family, what’s comfortable vs the new and exciting, vs a love that could go wrong seems to be the main conflict. Reader, myself and a random woman I was sitting next to were in tears.

 

But, as well as emotional, it was funny. Funny in a way that TV can’t be. Looks from one character to another, a subtle eye roll which on the screen wouldn’t translate that well, were suddenly hilarious in person.

 

The theatre reminds me of real life. It is funny, and it is emotional, and sometimes even the through the most mundane of activities – such as George eating his dinner – some of the most interesting parts of life happens.  It’s a trick that television hasn’t been able to achieve for some time. Maybe it used to, particularly in the early days of the soap operas, but our attention spans are too short now.

 

We have to have drama. Or comedy. We very rarely seem to get both, and when we do the drama has to be bigger and better, the comedy has to be more raucous or surreal. On TV a gag about a pot of Vaseline would come across as crude and offensive, on the stage it’s a moment of real life.

 

For me, 2018 is going to be the year of plays. I’m aiming to see one every month. I saw Lady Windermere’s Fan in January, plus a revisit of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in early Feb. I’m chalking The York Realist up as my March visit come early. It’s not the first play I’ve ever seen in the West End, but I have a feeling it will be the one that truly started my love for non-musical productions.

 

The York Realist is on at the Donmar until the 24th March with a special benefit performance on the 21st before transferring to the Sheffield Crucible until 7th April

 

(PS – I’ve nicked the image from the Donmar’s website – couldn’t find anyone to credit, but would gladly amend this blog were someone to let me know!)

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

An alternate version of Swindon in the 1980’s doesn’t seem the obvious place to set a book, but that’s exactly what Jasper Fforde did with his Thursday Next series.

 

The Eyre Affair is the first book in one of my favourite series, but one I haven’t read for a long time. Going back to the very beginning, I was surprised to discover how simple it all was.

 

The world of Thursday Next is one where Wales is its own republic, cheese is smuggled across the borders, England is at war with Russia over the Crimea and literature is the dominant cultural force.

 

There us uproar when Archeron Hades steals the original Martin Chuzzlewit manuscript and threatens to destroy its characters.

 

This is a fantasy series, akin to Pratchett’s Discworld – though with far fewer books – and as such by the end, it became complex and self-referential. Even the above summary seems a complicated – though is nothing like how it ends up.

 

I was surprised to discover how simple it was. Fforde manages to ease the reader in to this strange new world, one step at a time, so that as more and more bizarre things happen, they don’t seem that unusual.

 

I have to confess, I’ve never read any of Pratchett’s Discworld series – it always seemed a bit daunting, the sheer number of books incomprehensible and impenetrable, but now seeing how simple the Thursday Next series starts I’m tempted to give it a go.

 

On the flip side, If you’re a Pratchett fan and you’re looking for an easy, escapist read filled with bad puns, then The Eyre Affair – and the rest of the Thursday Next series – is a very good place to start.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The old saying goes that there are only two things certain in life – death and taxes. The similarity between them is that it’s next to impossible to work either of them out.

 

There’s one other certain thing – that is if you try to write a bestselling book about people waiting for taxes, it will almost certainly fail.

 

Luckily Chloe Benjamin has written about death, a far more fascinating subject. Specifically about four siblings growing up in New York in the seventies who hear whispers of a woman that can tell you the day you’re going to die.

 

They visit her, and one by one they discover their unique days. We see through the eyes of Varya, the eldest, and the last to go inside the woman’s apartment.

 

We and Varya learn that her expected date is long in the future, an old woman, she’ll be eighty-eight. She joins the others, but none of them share their date.

 

We follow their lives as they grow up –  the reader is not aware of the other dates either, although there are clues along the way – and each of them approach life in a different way.

 

Without wanting to spoil anything for anyone who might read, I found Varya’s approach the most interesting. The contrast between the way she chooses to live her long life is interesting in contrast to the others.

 

And that’s the question the book is trying to answer. What’s better, a long life lived carefully or a short one filled with passion and adventure?

 

The more I read, the more I started to think about it. As a reader, we didn’t know when they were going to die, we just knew that they would. We didn’t even know that they knew when they were going to die – they just had a date from an old woman, no hard proof.

 

This is the way we all live our lives – none of us know when we’re going, all we can be certain of is that we will. The difference here, though, is that they are confronted with their own mortality when they are kids.

 

The eponymous Immortalists are not our four characters, they are all children. All of us believe we’re going to live forever when we’re young – this book explores that moment when we realise that one day, we too will die.

 

The characters in this book become obsessed with it, some of them fight it, some of them embrace it – all of them succumb, eventually.

 

The Immortalists is a well-written exploration of death, the characters becoming mouthpieces for society in general. It doesn’t shy away from some hard truths, nor does it quite go down the route you would expect it to. It doesn’t try to solve the mysteries of death, instead, it tries to explore the questions that come up in life.

 

What is it all about? What should we do with it?

 

I’ve been trying to think of something that this book is like, but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before. I enjoyed it it, though, and it shows us a slice of America in a similar way that other big novels have done before. If you’ve enjoyed things like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes LastI think you’ll like this one.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is published on the 8th March by Tinder Press

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

I’m trying to catch up on my Sky Box at the moment… I have about three months worth of Holby City and Casualty, and I think even a flight to Australia wouldn’t give me enough time to watch all the episodes of Neighbours I have backed up.

 

But this week, of all the things I could have chosen, I put on Miriams Big American Adventure, in which, as the name suggests Miriam Margolyes travels around American trying to understand what it means to be an American in Trump’s USA.

 

The first episode saw her visit Chicago, specifically the South Side, one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Indeed, while she was there, there were three injuries in a shooting, and nobody in the area seemed overly surprised.

 

She spoke to young men who said it was kill or be killed. She talked about Michelle Obama who had lived on O block but had gotten out. That was the American Dream they said, to get out, to make their lives better.

 

In the same week, I’ve been reading Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It’s about one weekend on an estate in London, where, following the murder of a British soldier riots are beginning to sweep through the area, and tensions are high

 

We experience the action through the eyes of Yusuf, Selvon and Ardan. They’re all native Londoners, it’s their home, but the white skinheads of Britain First want them to go home.

 

At first, I felt a bit of an outsider myself, reading this book. I’m a white man in my very late twenties (the decade has not only rung last orders, but they’ve turned out the lights, turned off the music and threatened to call the police if I don’t leave immediately) and I do not live in London.

 

I visit London regularly, but only certain areas of it for work, or to see shows. I’ve not been to the estates that Gunaratne talks about. That’s not my London. My London is very safe and comfortable and full of gin and tonics.

 

But the more I read, the more I started to realise this isn’t a story about London. Nor is it a story about a muslim boy, or a black boy, or an Irish boy. It’s a story about the state of the world.

 

We don’t just see things through the eyes of the boys, we also have Nelson, Selvon’s father and Caroline Ardan’s mother. Neither of them are native to London – Caroline grew up in Ireland and move to London to escape the clutches of the IRA; Nelson came from Montserrat in search of a better life and found his own race riots.

 

Gunanatre subtly reveals all of this across forty-eight hours, building up to a Britain First march that ends at the foot of Ardan and Yusuf’s tower block. I struggled at first because there was nobody like me in the book, they were in a part of London I didn’t recognise, I didn’t think it was for me.

 

But then I started to notice the similarities and I started to understand the differences, not just in race and culture but in age as well. That’s the point of books. To explore new worlds, to broaden our horizons. To help break down barriers.

 

Caroline and Nelson came to London looking for a better life. They found what they were looking for, but it was tougher than they hoped. Selvon and Ardan and Yusuf are all trying to find their better lives – they’re trying to build on what their parents gave them.

 

It’s what we all do, or at least try to do. My parents weren’t rich, we didn’t go on regular jaunts abroad and we didn’t have all the new toys or get taken on days out every weekend, but we didn’t exactly struggle, we lived within our means.

 

I’ve always wanted a better life. Wanted to not have to worry about money in the same way my mum might have.

 

The kids in this book, they want a better life, to not have to worry about the things their parents worried about. It’s the same thing I wanted. It’s the same thing those young men on O-block in Chicago want.

 

I’m luckier than most, the life I want to better was not a bad one at all, but we all have the same driving force. The mad and furious city isn’t London. It’s the whole world and it’s time we started to recognise not just our differences, but our similarities as well.

 

Books are written for many different reasons, and mostly we hope people enjoy the story, but every now and then there are books described as ‘important’. I sometimes think that’s a bit pompous, and a way of saying, “you won’t enjoy this, but it’s about controversial subject X, so you can’t say you don’t like it”.

 

 

Here’s the thing. I DID enjoy this. Yes, it had a message, but it delivered it in a way that took me on a journey with the characters. It didn’t change them, there’s not much you can change about characters across a weekend, but it changed my perceptions of them, it changed my understanding about them.

 

In Our Mad and Furious City is published by Tinder Press on 3rd May 2018.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Writing is hard.

 

Even the writers who claim to just open a blank page and then start writing will begrudgingly agree with this.

 

There are writers who do tons and tons of research for months beforehand, while others go the opposite way and make up their own richly developed worlds where they get to decide the rules and history. There’s no research in that, but it’s just as hard – if not harder.

 

But it’s always been mystery writers who get my respect. Those who are able to write a compelling story around one simple question – whodunit?

 

As a – so far – unsuccessful writer, I know first hand how hard it is. I spent six years writing a novel, a murder mystery, carefully placing clues, highlighting them subtly to the reader but not drawing too much attention to them, drip feeding enough information that they could solve the problem, but not so much that it makes it easy.

 

I played around with my structure, my lead character couldn’t be everywhere at once, so things had to happen in certain orders. People had to let slip small pieces of information at opportune moments without it being too clichéd, too signposted.

 

I brought in flashbacks to help inform the reader, to keep it interesting, to give them the same information my lead was getting without pages and pages of exposition.

 

It was hard keeping every ball in the air and I STILL didn’t get published (apart from the pages on this very blog… what’s that you want a link? Oh, go on then, click here to start from the beginning). Imagine how hard a published writer would have had to work.

 

That – finally – brings me to this week’s book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

 

It is a typical Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery. Big old house in the country, a huge cast of characters. Deceit, betrayal, blackmail and of course, death.

 

How to solve the mystery, though? How to solve the problem of a character needing to be everywhere at once? How does one person do the job of a whole police force?

 

Here’s the clever bit – our main character, Aidan Bishop has woken up in the body of someone else, with no memory, either his or those of his host. He soon learns that upon falling asleep at the end of the day he will re-live the day again, this time in the body of someone else.

 

He will see the same day from eight different perspectives, and all he has to do to escape from this loop – he’s done the eight lives several times before – is solve the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle.

 

Think Quantum Leap meets Downton Abbey via Groundhog Day.

 

I love a murder mystery, and I cannot resist time travel, so this book had the perfect premise for me. I didn’t see the reveal coming, but in retrospect it all works which is one of the few things I ask for in a mystery.

 

On top of these elements, there was an interesting power struggle between Bishop, essentially a blank slate, and the pull of the personalities from his hosts. Each character he – and subsequently we – inhabited felt completely different, but familiar at the same time.

 

Lastly, the trap that some of these books fall into, perhaps one of the traps I fell into, is that of the cast of supporting characters. Too few and it’s obvious who-in-fact-dun-it, too many and it can overwhelm the reader.

 

Turton has a huge cast of characters, fifty plus have travelled to Blackheath for a party and that works in his favour. Our lead characters can claim not to know many of them, and therefore we get them drip-fed into our consciousness. On the flip side, enough of them are omnipresent to make it feel like we’re not completely detached from what has come before.

 

All in all – my favourite book of the year so far – and I’m incredibly jealous I didn’t have the idea.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books on 8th February