A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.

 

No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!

 

Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.

 

Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.

 

Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.

 

We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.

 

I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.

 

And then I read Sal.

 

Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.

 

Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.

 

This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.

 

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.

 

It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.

 

Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.

 

While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.

 

Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018

A(nother) Review: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

 

After last week declaring that I didn’t read much Non Fiction, I went straight into reading another Non Fiction title. It’s not something I would have normally done, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back into a Fiction book, however, the subject of the book was irresistible, particularly after reading Sara Pascoe’s Animal.

 

Animal was part-memoir part text book about the female body and mind and society’s attitudes towards it.

 

How Not to Be A Boy to me felt like it might be the same from a male point of view, so jumping straight into it from Animal felt like the perfect thing to do.

 

Initially, I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment comes from my own expectations, promises that were made by neither the author or the publisher.

 

It is much more of a traditional memoir, an exploration of how Webb grew up feeling different to his father and brothers, and how he felt that meant he wouldn’t fall into the same traps as them.

 

Men don’t talk about their feelings. One of the many possible chapter headings that Webb could have used is the over-arching feeling to this book, and while this is not fictional, it’s been structured and written to make the reader realise that at a young age Webb realises all of these so-called rules are bullshit, but he ends up believing and attempting to adhere to them anyway.

 

The chapters are both funny and sad, often at both at the same time, and in fiction Webb would be an unreliable narrator – just when you’re starting to think he’s being a giant cock to everyone, he reveals something else that has been going on in the background that explains it all.

 

I was a little frustrated as we got towards the last chapter, Webb has talked about his relationships with women and his wife and daughters, but had barely touched upon his bisexuality, apart from a small fumble with a friend back in school.

 

Nor has he offered any potential solutions to this problem of fragile masculinity that he’s explored throughout the book.

 

But then in the last chapter, he talks about how he finally told his dad that he liked boys as well. He mentions boyfriends – that we as readers didn’t meet – and his brother already knows, we don’t find out how. For Webb, obviously, the most important factor of his bisexuality is his father’s reaction – and it’s an interesting one, not one that we would expect.

 

As for how we change these unspoken rules, Webb presents the solution in his parenting of his two young daughters. Change yourself, and instill different  attitudes in your children.

 

His family openly talks about ‘The Trick’ this idea that men have to be a certain way, and how both men and women are fooled into believing it. Feminism, he writes, is not about men vs women, it’s about men and women vs the trick.

 

It’s a brilliant ending to the book, one that neatly ties up the various hanging questions he has left dangling in previous chapters.

 

I went into the book expecting part-memoir, part lecture on masculinity, and was initially disappointed that it was more of a memoir than I was expecting. I leave it wanting more memoir.

 

The funny, and surprisingly touching How Not To be A Boy is published on 29th August 2017 by Canongate

A(nother) Review: How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

The American President is a motherfucker.

 

Just one of the lines from Matt Haig’s new novel, How To Stop Time, which forces you to stop time, stop reading, and laugh out loud.

 

The story is a relatively simple one, but one that I’ve been eager to read since I first heard about it last year. Tom Hazard is old. He’s very old. Four hundred and thirty-nine to be precise.

 

He has a are condition that causes him to age at about a fifteenth of the rate of everyone else, which sounds rather excellent at first, because we’re all a little bit scared of death, and this man will get to live – probably – for a thousand years.

 

Except… everyone else isn’t aging at the same rate. His parents, his friends, those he love. They all die, will die, eventually, while he’ll live on.

 

We join him at the beginning of a new life. Tom periodically, along with others of his kind, starts again, as people become suspicious of his never-changing youthful appearance. As he navigates the new relationships, trying to avoid becoming too attached, we learn about his history, about his wife long-since dead, his past encounters with famous writers and poets… and his daughter who MAY still be alive.

 

Any novel that plays with time is expected to be a little convoluted, hard to follow, but this is such an easy read – because while time is long, there is no time travel in it, the pieces we read of Tom’s past are like the flashbacks we see in any contemporary novel – they’re just to a much earlier time.

 

I found the principle of the story intriguing, just how can someone cope with that much loss in their life, what propels him to keep going when year after year the people around him are dying, the history of the world is repeating itself over and over again.

 

The answer, we learn, is hope.

 

Hope that his daughter may still be alive, hope for a better life, where one day he can be open about who he is.

 

If you follow Matt Haig on Twitter, you’ll appreciate this book on another level. There are references to the trolls he encounters on a daily basis who attack him for being a snowflake, and there is an underlying political point that Haig is making in this novel – but if you miss those, then that’s ok – it’s still a wonderful book.

 

It is a testament to the writing that a book like this can work. Much of what we have is exposition, historical narrative explaining who Tom is, with the plot only really going up a gear towards the end. But a skilled writer like Haig can just sweep you along in the writing – and it takes a certain special something to make a reader instantly remember the name of an obscure character mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book when they later pop up again.

 

If I had one criticism… I wanted more. I could have stayed learning about Tom’s history for pages and pages more. We skip over years and years – because as implied there were great periods of nothing happening.

 

Perhaps a sequel?

 

How To Stop Time is published on 6th July by Canongate