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

A(nother) Rambling – Big Books of 2018?

A few weeks ago, I talked about my favourite books of 2017… but we’re two days shy of 2018, so now, so I’m calling time on looking back and I’m looking forward instead.

 

November and December are always a funny time for me, I never get to read as much as I’d like partly because I’m so busy at work, partly because I’ve spent most of the year reading and need a break.

 

The last ten weeks or so as well, I’ve been crazily busy writing as well so books have definitely taken a break. But not any more, I’m back with a vengeance, a pile of books that reach almost to the moon and back and five books that I’m particularly looking forward to in 2018.

 

Here they are, in release date order…

 

  1. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – published 11th January 2018

 

This first one’s a bit of a cheat, because I’ve already read it, but I loved it. You can read my full spoiler-free review by clicking the link above if you fancy a bit of a digression, but in short, this book isn’t about Elsie, it’s about Florence. She’s in a care home when we meet her, struggling with her memory – the kind of unreliable narrator who believes everything they say.

 

When a man from her past turns up in the care home, she and best friend Elsie start investigating a long forgotten crime. How much of what happens is true? How much of it is simply misremembered?

 

This, Cannon’s second book, a follow-up (but not a sequel) to 2016’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a lovely exploration of old-age and friendship. I can’t wait for it to be released into the wild and for everyone else to read it, too!

 

  1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – published 8th February 2018

 

Sometimes as a bookseller you get a good feeling about a book before you’ve even read it. Since I first saw this one pop up on Twitter, I wanted a copy.

 

Aidan is stuck in a time-loop, repeating the same day, over and over again, inhabiting the body of a different person each time. The day ends with the death of Evelyn Hardcastle each time, and the only way for Aidan to break out is to identify the killer.

 

I already have a copy, ready and waiting to be read, and it will be one of my first of the new year.

 

  1. The Last Romeo by Justin Myers – published 31st May 2018

 

Justin Myers came out of his alter ego’s shadow earlier this year to reveal he was publishing his first book. Writing as The Guyliner for many years now, his was one of the most famous eyes on social media. His writing veers between insightful to the downright hilarious while sometimes skimming across being a little bit shady.

 

The Last Romeo will follow an online journalist who starts a blog reviewing each and every date he goes on as he tries to find love. If this sounds familiar, it may be because The Guyliner started out in much the same way – though now he just settles for writing the often hilarious weekly reviews of the Guardian’s Blind Dates column.

 

If The Last Romeo is only a tenth as funny and well written as those blogs we’re definitely in for a treat.

 

  1. Studies for Resilience by Patrick Gale – published September 2018

 

Regular readers will know that when I read A Place Called Winter back in 2015, I fell a little bit in love with Patrick. This year’s critically acclaimed drama The Man In The Orange Shirt written by Gale was a bit of a fix for the lovers of his books, but we’re finally getting a full hit this Autumn with a new releases.

 

Not much is known about it at the moment – so I’ll just give you the official blurb:

 

1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.

When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection and humility are added to daily practice.

 

I can’t wait to read it!

 

  1. Transcription by Kate Atkinson – published September 2018

 

I’ve never really mentioned Kate Atkinson on this blog before, but years ago, I went through a spate of reading everything she’d ever written. Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories are both on my bookcase which holds only my most favourite reads.

 

Case Histories particularly is one of my favourites – that rare beast a crime novel that wasn’t afraid to slow the pace down and dive into its characters. Always an inspiration for me, the mere mention of her name is enough to make me excited for a new novel. Here’s the official synopsis:

 

Transcription is a bravura novel of extraordinary power and substance. Juliet Armstrong is recruited as a young woman by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service. In the aftermath of war she joins the BBC, where her life begins to unravel, and she finally has to come to terms with the consequences of idealism.

 

Of course, there are hundreds of books published each year and I didn’t even know that my favourite book of 2017 – Tin Man, seriously, if you’ve still not read it, please do – existed at this point last year, so what I’m really waiting for are ALL the books.

 

I can’t wait to stumble upon my next favourite read.

The One by John Marrs

It seems every January I read a book that I absolutely love and can’t put down.

 

Two years ago, I declared Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter my book of the year (regular readers will know it was just pipped to the post by A Little Life), and last year Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven retained the book of the year post right through to the end of the year.

 

The one for 2017 is The One by John Marrs, and while I’m stopping short of prematurely crowning it my book of the year, it is certainly a contender.

 

The One is set in a world where your soul mate can be determined through a DNA test. A company has discovered the gene and is charging people for the contact details of the loves of their lives – which is a wonderful business model.

 

The whole thing hinges on your partner having taken the test, however, and while some people get a result in a matter of days, others wait for weeks and months, even years.

 

We follow five very different people, all of whom have different reasons for taking the test.

 

Mandy is just getting over the break-up of her marriage; Christopher is a psychopath who took the test on a whim; Jade is a young girl looking for the love of her life; Nick is encouraged to take the test by his fiancée prior to their wedding; Ellie is a high powered businesswoman who seems to have no time for love in her life.

 

The book is constructed so that we get a small chapter (and I mean small, some are only two or three pages long) from each character’s view point, before moving on to the next. This makes it an incredibly easy read, because if you find any character dragging, it’s ok, because another one will be along soon.

 

Having said that, because of this it is a little difficult to invest in the characters. On consideration, however, the writer has done a good job of keeping erroneous detail out of those chapters. They’re packed full with detail and not a single word is wasted.

 

Each story is largely unrelated, although they do follow a similar theme, and brush up against each other occasionally. They all take very different paths and each one of them is quite believable, despite some moments that are a little larger than life.

 

I looked forward to reading this each time I picked it up, and I found myself staying up late on more than one occasion to just read a little bit more. Despite a few moments towards the end, it did lack a bit of emotional punch, although they were some truly gasp out loud moments.

 

This is one of those books that I would recommend to almost anyone. People who don’t read very often will find it accessible, while voracious readers will be able to consume quickly, but find enough intrigue and thought provoking questions to help whet their appetite.

 

I’d love to explore some of the stories a bit deeper (particularly Nick and Christopher’s) – and can’t help but feel this would make a great television series – think Tuesday night anthology series like The Syndicate or similar and you’ll get the idea.

 

Is The One the one for 2017? I’d like a bit more of an emotional impact, so I’m going to hold off for not, but it is certainly one of the ones.

 

The One by John Marrs is published in May by Del Rey

The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger

The Mountain Can Wait.

 

In fact, it’s had to wait, because I’ve been a little busy and it’s been some time between finishing the book and writing this review, so in the words of Miranda, bear with.

 

The mountain in question is in Canada, which was a lovely start, following 2015’s A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was also set in Canada, although more than a hundred years previously.

 

It felt at the beginning that I was returning to a previous home, which is a credit to the writing (both Leipciger’s and Gale’s) – because either they’ve both managed to get Canada spot on, or they’ve both made up the same version.

 

Tom Berry is responsible for replanting trees on the mountain, reporting into a large corporation that is cutting them down elsewhere. He has raised his children alone, after his wife abandoned them when the children were young.

 

One day, on the cusp of adulthood, Tom’s son Curtis is driving home from a party when he hits a girl with his truck. A split second decision, one moment of poor judgement leads to Curtis speeding away from the scene of the crime.

 

Books like this make me stop and think about the name of the book. Why is it called that? What does the mountain represent? What is it waiting for?

 

The mountain in this book is the mountain on which Tom works. The phrase is used to describe Tom’s younger self, shrugging away his family life, wanting to get back to work, to get back to the mountain.

 

“He hadn’t learned yet that the mountain could wait.”

 

The mountain which literally lurks in the background of the entire novel will always be there. Tom can go away, do what he needs to do for his family, and then return to the mountain waiting for him.

 

But the mountain is more than that. It is the inevitability of inescapable events. The moment Curtis drove away from that girl on the mountain road, it was waiting to catch up with him. It is not something that he can escape from.

 

Both Tom and Curtis must come to terms with what has happened, and as they do we get to witness sweeping vistas of Canada that are so beautifully written, you almost wish the book will never end.

 

The scene where Tom lies in a canoe and floats out on a lake is a particular highlight, along with all the scenes involving Bobbie on the remote island where Curtis’s mother grew up.

 

Bobbie is easily the best character in this book – if this were a film, she’d be on screen for all of ten minutes, would be played by Meryl Streep and win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – and I wish we had more of her.

 

I’d also have loved for more exploration of the relationship between Tom and Curtis and how the absence of Curtis’ mother dominated their lives together but what we do have is a beautifully vivid setting and a very melancholic ending.

 

I’ve given The Mountain Can Wait 3.3 out of 5.

 

Next week, I’ll be reviewing Everyone Brave is Forgotten by Chris Cleave

My Top 10 Books of 2015

For December, I’m taking a break from reviewing books. I’ve not stopped reading them, but in recent weeks, I’ve felt myself being a touch too critical of perfectly good books.

 

With that in mind, I’ve decided to follow the tradition that every other media outlet follows in December. Regurgitating old opinion, dusting off old content, covering it in a sprinkle of glitter and presenting it as a ‘Review of the Year’

 

Here are my Top 10 books of 2015 – there’s even some new content in here not previously on my blog!

 

  1. The One In a Million Boy by Monica Wood

 

This charming tale hasn’t been published yet, but the hardback is coming in April 2016, and it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for. My review when I first read it back in October comes across more critical than it should – but only because of the impossibly high standards I expect of books that are sent to me from the delightful @PublicityBooks at Headline publishing. More about her later.

 

  1. Losing It by Helen Lederer

 

I have a rule about the reviews I put on my blog. To avoid being accused of any kind of bias, if I’ve socially spent time with, or am in regular contact with an author then I don’t review their books. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read them.

 

This novel from funny-woman Helen Lederer about a middle-aged writer whose life seems to have stalled, while the lives of those around her flourish is the only book this year to make me snort with laughter on the underground, so earns it’s place on this list.

 

  1. Nothing But Trouble by Matt Cain

 

Another title – and the last – on the countdown that didn’t get a review of it’s own on the blog this year, but this look at the glamorous behind the scenes goings-on of popstar Lola Grant is funny and sexy as well as being so well-written, that I was shouting at the character’s as they made some dubious decisions. There was a strong anti-drugs streak through it and the main character as well, which is not the obvious route to go with a book like this.

 

  1. The Secrets We Keep by Jonathan Harvey

 

This is another one that I feel looking back I was too harsh on in my review. The acid tongue of Lynda La Hughes mixed with the plot twists of Coronation Street, what’s not to love? A pacy plot mixed with characters you actually care about makes up for the ever so slightly frustrating ending.

 

  1. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

 

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but this book made me feel as if I had. You can feel the humidity coming off the page and it’s that sense of place that really helps this coming-of-age story succeed.

 

  1. the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

 

This science fiction novel is like somebody decided to make a list of all the things needed to make a successful mix of Douglas Adams, Red Dwarf and Star Trek – but it works. A compelling cast of characters means not only do I want another book, but I want a TV series. The upcoming Star Trek television revival, would do well to have a look at the rough nature of life in space represented here.

 

  1. Moving by Jenny Eclair

 

I liked this more than I ever thought I would, and it’s only as I write this and consider the upcoming books in the list, that I realise it’s because it’s the story of someone’s life. There’s something incredibly voyeuristic to think that come the end of the book, only one person knows the truth about everything, and that’s us, the reader. What makes this book even better is that despite Eclair’s unique personality, she manages to reign it in, giving the character’s their own distinctive voices.

 

  1. I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh

 

I nearly gave up on this book, despite it being well written, it seemed to be meandering early on. Then there’s a development that I wasn’t expecting and it shoots the book off into a completely different direction. Well worth a read.

 

  1. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

 

I read this almost a year ago now, a copy of the book sent to me by @PublicityBooks – and I didn’t regret it. Harry Cane (not the footballer currently playing for Tottenham Hotspur) is a Victorian gent whose life is changed when he discovers the pleasures that other Victorian gents have to offer.

 

Like Moving, you’re fully invested in the characters, and like My Sunshine Away has a wonderful sense of place. An amazing book with a great cast of characters, this will be appearing in a lot of people’s best books of 2015 – not least the Costa Book prize who have shortlisted it in Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 2nd January.

 

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 

There’s really not much more I can say about this book and I don’t think it will have come as any surprise to anyone that I’ve placed this at the top of the list. I’ll be re-reading it again soon, but the biggest pleasure I’ve gained from this book, is the sense of community it has engendered with other people who have read this book.

 

There’s a knowing look, a smile and a sympathetic pat on the back.

 

I always considered myself to be dead on the inside, but A Little Life had be sobbing like a child. If you don’t even squeeze out one tear while reading the ending of this, then you truly are emotionally dead.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’m about to do something I swore I wouldn’t ever do. So to past me, I must apologise.

However, to present me, future me and to you, whoever you are that happens to be reading this, I won’t apologise, because I have something to say.

I’m about to review a book that I only read forty pages or so of.

I know what you’re thinking. That was either a completely life changing forty pages, or… they were a bit shit.

Actually, neither.

I’ll admit to being a bit biased before I (attempted to) read A Brief History of Seven Killings, for two reasons, both of which are A Little Life.

 

Now, even I’m starting to get bored with how much I bang on about A Little Life so I’m going to try and soon write a blog that doesn’t reference it, but here the reference is relevant.

It was indirectly recommended to me on twitter by someone claiming it to be better than A Little Life, and it also beat the Hanya Yanagihara tome to this year’s Booker Prize (which was not a huge surprise since the favourite never wins).

I felt obliged to give it a go, and I was hooked by the premise of multiple characters crossing oceans and years to tell the story.

My first issue was a small one – the paper of the pages was not of great quality. Thin pages, mean hard to turn pages and I kept skipping pages without realising it.

However, the reason I didn’t realise I was skipping pages was because the language used in the book was so hard for to follow, told in many places in the dialect of the character speaking.

Jamaican Patois is not something I’m hugely familiar with, it’s not something that crops up all that regularly in deepest Wiltshire, and so I found it hard to inhabit the mindset of the characters. It left me detached and uncaring.

What it did make me realise however, is how alienating most fiction can be to ethnic minorities. Most things are written in a formal English, one that most people don’t speak on a day-to-day basis, but is close enough to traditional spoken English that it is accessible.

I wonder how easy someone who regularly speaks Patois would find it to inhabit the characters of A Little Life or A Place Called Winter. Perhaps the limitation is mine and mine alone and it wouldn’t be a problem.

There’s an interesting study to be done here on ethnicity and reading habits, and it’s probably one that already exists if I cared enough to seek it out. But it strikes me as suddenly very obvious why there are some cultures where literacy is low – they’re under-represented in fiction, the fun part of being able to read.

I did find that if I read the passages aloud (in a very bad attempt at a Jamaican accent) there was a wonderful lyrical, almost poetic quality to the writing. This isn’t a book that was written, it was carefully crafted, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to listen to my own voice for nearly seven hundred pages.

From what I read, it certainly deserved to win the Booker Prize (a prize that is traditionally given to books that most people struggle to get into) and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t struggle with dialects.

I, however, will seek out an audio version so that I can listen to someone much better at reading out loud tell me the tale.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

“Winter is coming”

That’s what George R R Martin promised about a gazillion years ago. For those that are bored of waiting, winter’s here in Patrick Gale’s stunning new novel ‘A Place Called Winter’

Before anyone gets too excited The Game of Thrones series and Gale’s latest are about a million miles apart in terms of content, but I find inserting as many pop culture references into a blog post as possible (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) increases the potential reach of said blog post.

This book (and subsequently this blog post) deserves to reach as many potential readers as possible – so the bigger audience I can give it, the better. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell so many people it may break the Internet (thank you Kim Kardashian).

I’ll leave the references there (for now) and get on with telling you why you should read this book.

Now, don’t tell the others, but I do have a favourite book. I don’t actually name-check it much, although I have referenced it on this blog before, because it is inherently flawed.

Apart from being a wonderful and tragic love story that has moved me to tears before, there’s a large section of it that just doesn’t work. I couldn’t bear anyone telling me they didn’t like it.

A Place Called Winter is the closest novel to my favourite book, both in terms of content and in degree of favourite-ness that I’ve ever read.

Harry – because all the best characters in fiction are called Harry, including Harry Potter and my own hero, Harry Hicks – is a well-off bachelor, living his life in the early 1900’s, and he’s quite happy, with no job to speak of, but nor does he have any particular commitments either.

When he helps his brother court his future wife, he meets a woman of his own and quickly marries and has a child. Scandal soon threatens to hit however, when his affair with another man is discovered.

In order to keep it quiet and protect his wife and daughter from the news, Harry signs over his entire wealth and boards a boat to start a new life in Canada.

That covers the first third of the book, but I don’t think ruins anything, because it’s the last two thirds that are really the meat of the story.

I won’t go into too much detail on the rest of the plot, because I think this is a book that definitely delivers on the beautiful writing, and I won’t be able to do it justice, however I do want to talk about the title: A Place Called Winter.

Knowing I was going to do a review of this book, I spent the first part of the book trying to work out what this place ‘Winter’ was, what it represented.

I felt a little foolish when I realised that Harry’s new homestead in Canada was called Winter, and I nearly disregarded my previous thoughts, but they came back to me the more I read.

Winter usually represents an ending, a dark cold place, where things can’t survive. And that’s where Harry was heading. He had a wonderful life, he had money, no particular worries and a wife and daughter who he loved – despite his burgeoning attraction to other men.

And then he was banished, sent away across to ocean, penniless and alone. Hopes for him were not high and it was likely that having never worked a day in his life, he wouldn’t survive out in the coldness of Canada.

Life in the small homestead of Winter compared to the beautiful ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ of Jermyn Street in the early twentieth century was hard.

But because life was hard, everyone was just there to survive. They pitched in and helped, but ultimately everyone let everyone else live the lives that they needed and wanted to live.

Compare that to the civilised world of London, and suddenly Winter doesn’t seem so cold and inhospitable anymore.

Harry accepted his sexuality fairly quickly for somebody who had never even considered it before, but part of me wonders if that’s because it wasn’t a thing to consider back then.

Homosexuality, for many people, simply didn’t exist. Whenever news of it did start to surface because of scandal or rumour, it was quickly hushed, as it was in Harry’s case.

So maybe when Harry met this man, the confusion that he had probably felt, but had never been able to put a name to, suddenly made sense, and everything felt right, so he just went with it.

When I was growing up, it was ok to be gay. Perfectly legal, but still a bit of a taboo. Nobody was gay in school, nor did I know any real-life gays until I started at college. I was fascinated by them, but I also knew hundreds of stories where things had gone wrong for gay men who had revealed themselves.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify what I was, because unlike Harry, I had been exposed to plenty of it over the years, but it did make it difficult for me, in a way that it wasn’t for Harry.

Ten years later, I think things are slightly easier. We’re further away from the Thatcher years, and it’s even more ok to be gay. In fact, it’s almost cool. Kids come out in school now, and maybe that’s because of gay men like me. I’m not saying I’m any particular trailblazer, but I am gay, I came out and nothing bad happened. The more stories we hear where things are ok, the more likely young men (and women) are going to be comfortable in telling the world who they really are.

The winter that existed in London for gay men a hundred years ago has thawed, and while not exactly easy, things are easier. But we mustn’t forget about people like Harry.

There’s an extra emotional punch in the story – Harry’s a real man. Or he was.

He’s the author’s great grandfather, and though the story has been fleshed out from the notes and letters that exist, the first third of it is real. Harry lost everything and had to move halfway across the world, because, well… we don’t really know why. Gale has embroidered the story and he imagines that it’s because Harry’s love wasn’t permitted in the society that he lived in. We won’t ever really know if that was the case, because the likelihood is if it was the case, it was hushed up and never spoken of again.

Losing your entire way of life, just because of who you love… That’s a very sobering thought.

A Place Called Winter is published by Tinder Press in Hardback and eBook in March 2015 – and in Paperback later in the year.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

There are many more things I could say about A Little Life, and I could probably talk about it and digest it and analyse it forever, and I probably will, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll just add these last few points:

  • It’s taken me a week to even contemplate writing this post, such did it effect me that I couldn’t face thinking about it.
  • I’ve many more books in my ‘To Read’ pile, but I’ve regressed to Harry Potter. I need to cleanse my pallet so to speak, before I move on to anything else, and I know that the JK Rowling series will not be diminished by what has been read before.
  • To my sister – who will likely be one of the few people to read this review. This is my Moulin Rouge.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.
A Little Life is published on August 13th 2015