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.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

 

Regular readers of my blog will know two things:

 

  • How important JK Rowling is to me (if you’re not clear on this then click here to read more)
  • Since the summer of 2015, I’ve been re-reading and reviewing the Harry Potter series.

 

(FYI – You can read the first three reviews by clicking these links: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

 

My plan was to re-read them all by October 2016 – which is when my mum and I are going to see the eighth story in the series – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 

Of course, JK Rowling has gone and ruined my plan by choosing to publish the script of the play on Sunday 31st July (Both Harry’s and Rowling’s birthday fact fans)

 

Aside from causing me a lot of extra stuff to do at work, this means I now have two months less in order to complete the series.

 

It shouldn’t be a problem, but the complication is that starting with Goblet of Fire the books triple in size.

 

In my head I’ve always referred to Goblet of Fire as “The One Where They Stopped Editing Her” – when the books are lined up on the shelf, the jump in size is very apparent, so I found myself approaching this reading what ‘extra’ is in there.

 

If Goblet of Fire had been the same size as the previous three books what would they have cut out?

 

My initial thought was obviously SPEW, the society Hermione forms in response to the unfair treatment of house elves, since this is the biggest subplot that the film cuts out. I also remember being incredibly frustrated by it at the time I first started reading it.

 

But I started thinking about the point of it. There’s a line from the fake Mad-Eye Moody which says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the best way to get the measure of a man is to see how he treats his inferiors.

 

That’s an allegory for the central point of the Harry Potter books. Voldemort wants to rid the wizarding world of half-bloods and mudbloods. They are less than him, inferior.

 

It is telling that it is Hermione (the mudblood of our main group) that is the one to notice the injustice of the house elf situation.

 

In retrospect, the frustrating part of this plotline is that nothing actually changes. It’s not mentioned again in the subsequent books (to the best of my knowledge) and the situation doesn’t improve for the house elves – although it is often stated that the house elves themselves don’t want change.

 

I’m not sure how true that is. It feels like a loose thread to me, but maybe it’s one we’ll see developed in The Cursed Child nineteen years later.

 

So, is there anything else that could have been cut out?

 

The answer is probably, but I’m glad it wasn’t. Maybe some of the scenes in the pensieve didn’t need to be explored in quite so much detail, but the beauty of this book is the level of detail it goes into.

 

If Philosopher’s Stone was about introducing the wizarding world, and Chamber of Secrets was about expanding Voldemort’s story, then Goblet of Fire continues the expansion of the entire wizarding world that was started in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

The detail and the plot really help set up where the series is going and for that it needs to be this big, what’s a shame is that in all those pages, there’s not an awful lot of room for character development.

 

As we travel from the Quidditch World Cup through each of the Triwizard Tasks right to the final climax in the graveyard where Voldemort rises again, it does just feel like we’re moving from event to event.

 

All three of the main characters are equally annoying throughout, from Harry and Ron’s stupid male pride to Hermione’s unfailing belligerence, it’s a good job we know these characters from the previous books, because going into this one cold, I can’t imagine that anyone would like any of them.

 

There is a little character development – this is certainly Hermione at the peak of her annoyance, and thankfully Ron’s dented pride doesn’t rear its head again until Deathly Hallows. As for Harry, the events at the end of this book certainly do change him, and he goes from annoying to just plain angry in Order of the Phoenix.

 

The stand out moment in Goblet of Fire are the final few chapters, from when Harry and Cedric Diggory land in the graveyard. SPOILER alert – Cedric’s death up to Harry’s desperate attempts to return his body to his family are pretty darn tear-jerking, especially considering we know what is to come.

 

Despite the lack of character development and the lack of humour (I honestly don’t remember laughing out loud at any point in this book, even Fred and George are too busy tied up in their own subplot to provide any light relief) it’s still a Harry Potter novel, which means it’s going to score highly with me – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire scores 4.1 out of 5.

 

I think going forward, I’ll think of this one as “The One Where They All Begin Puberty”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Earlier this year, I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and have now progressed onto it’s sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

 

I’ve previously stated that my copy of Philosopher’s Stone was the oldest thing I owned, but actually, it strikes me as I begin writing this review that it’s actually a tie with Chamber of Secrets – getting them both for my birthday, shortly after Chamber of Secret was published.

I remember being slightly disappointed at the time, because CoS wasn’t quite as good as PS (two paragraphs in and I’ve resorted to one of those people who use acronyms), so it seems strange reading it all these years later from a different perspective

Chamber of Secrets shows a slightly more comfortable Harry, and actually it feels like JK Rowling is slightly more comfortable with the writing, flowing a little more naturally, and being ever so slightly more grown-up.

It’s also interesting how much in here sets the tone for later books. The first of Voldemort’s Horcruxes that would play a pivotal part in the seventh book is introduced and destroyed here, but also is the first clue that Harry himself is a Horcrux.

When Harry talks to Dumbledore at the end of the book about being able to speak Parseltongue, the older wizard implies that it was a gift from Voldemort himself.

Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…

 

If he didn’t know before, Dumbledore surely realises at this point that Harry is a Horcrux and that one day Harry would have to die in order for Voldemort to truly be banished. As a reader knowing this, it may put a different angle on how Dumbledore behaves in subsequent books.

I think the reason I liked it less at the time was because, rather than a new villain, Voldemort was back in a slightly different form. As an eleven year old, it felt like a cop-out for the heir of Slytherin to be the same guy that caused all the trouble in the first book.

Later, around the time of books four and five, Chamber of Secrets felt the weakest, because in comparison to the others, nothing actually happens. There is no advancement of the story. Philosopher’s Stone had a confrontation with the real thing, and Azkaban had the reveal of Scabbers and introduction of Sirius Black, while Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix had the return of Voldemort and the beginning of the war.

In comparison, Chamber of Secrets was a meaningless romp, but in hindsight it sets up a lot of things that come into play in the later books.

All these years later, I’ve changed my mind, far from being one of the weakest books in the series, it may be one of the best.

There’s one thing I haven’t changed my mind about though: Dobby.

Can’t stand him.

Talk about ending on a bombshell.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

It has been eighteen years since the lines “Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” were first released to the general public.

I read it shortly after it’s publication, at the age of ten and it coincided with a class project on creative writing. One of the pieces of work we had to do was write a book review about a title we had recently enjoyed.

That was the very first book I reviewed, and now eighteen years later, I’m returning to it to see how it’s stood the test of time.

That, perhaps, sounds slightly ridiculous, since we all know the juggernaut that the Harry Potter brand has become, but sometimes it’s worth looking at things objectively, and separate of their going legacy and re-evaluate them for what they are.

In short, is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a good book?

Ten year old me, certainly seemed to think so. Unfortunately, I don’t have my original review, but I do remember three things about it. I know that I drew a picture, copying the now-iconic face of Harry Potter from the front cover and I remember stating that the authoress (I’m sure I used that word) had a done a great job in setting up for a second – and maybe even a third – book and that I would very much enjoy reading it if and when it came.

Today, it was very difficult for me to read something that I knew so well, especially if I put it down for a period of time. It’s a book I could read without actually needing it in front of me I know it so well.

It us, however, hugely underwritten, when compared to the later novels. While a lot of us might agree that some of the later books in the series (stand up Order of the Phoenix) were hugely overwritten, Philosopher’s Stone rattles through the events of Harry’s first year at breakneck speed.

The moment Dumbledore confronts Harry about the Mirror of Erised, for example, takes place over just a single page, in later books, that would have merited at least a chapter just to that one conversation. It is tantalisingly brief and Dumbledore himself remains an enigmatic character throughout.

Harry has two conversations with Dumbledore in the whole book, once at Christmas, and then once at the end of the book, after the events behind the locked door on the third floor corridor.

No wonder ten year old me wanted more, the book was astonishingly brief, and as such it suffers a little bit for it. The characters are well-developed and the plot, while more basic than later ones, proceeds at a good pace, but there is a lack of warmth and everything feels too streamlined.

Still, it’s a great introduction to the series, it sets some things up nicely for the on-going series (whether those set-ups were intentional or not) and for a ten year old boy looking for something more to read, it’s a great gateway novel.

In reading Philosopher’s Stone, I’m reminded that the series did not become a runaway success straight from the beginning, it wasn’t really until the third book was released that it became a hit amongst adults as well as children.

Back to my question then… is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a good book? That really depends on who’s answering. The nearly 28 year old me says it’s comfortably on the high end of average, the ten year old me say it’s the best book he’s ever read. And that’s a good thing, because it wasn’t written for me, it was for him.

I’ll finish this review with the way I finished my review eighteen years ago, with my favourite quote from the novel, a quote that comes my favourite scene, one that sets the tone for the remainder of the series.

‘Ah! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans! I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavoured one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them – but I think I’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?’

He smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, ‘Alas! Ear wax!’

No Copyright Infringement Intended

While I was writing my last blog post I was trying to remember the very first thing that I wrote.

I will apologise once again for bringing up JK Rowling, but my first piece of fiction (that I can remember) was very similar to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I was in Year 4 of school and our teacher Mrs McAteer was arranging a class assembly. I can’t recall if there was a theme, or if it was just a loosely-connected series of skits, but I seem to remember that we were all asked to get into groups and write something that we could then act out.

We had a small green triangle, some sort of stone – green onyx or something, the type of ‘gemstone’ that one might acquire for twenty pence in a museum gift shop – as our inspiration. I can’t remember now if we were given it, selected it, or indeed if we got it from a tacky museum gift shop.

I was grouped with three friends of mine, Gary, Christian and Simon, and we came up with a story about four student wizards. We were to play a character each and we wrote the piece together, writing our own dialogue, while I naturally wrote the connecting prose – although a play, it wasn’t written in script form.

I was ‘Stupid Smee’ a dim-witted, simple fellow, Christian was ‘Jungle Jack’ a fairly average student who was actually a bad guy, Gary was ‘Scorpina Scorpion’ a foreign exchange student  and Simon was… ‘Magic Martin’

The stone – acting almost like a portkey – magically transported us across to a jungle, similar to the Forbidden Forest, where we had to fight a Voldemort-like dark wizard who wanted the stone to help him live forever, much like the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Smee we had Neville Longbottom, Scorpina was our Ron Weasley, Martin was our version of Hermione and Jack would have been the equivalent of Malfoy.

We were Harry Potter without Harry Potter.

Thinking back, I found myself amused by just how much like Harry Potter my untitled first project was…. And then I remembered, I was in Year 4 in 1995 – two years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.

I now can’t help wondering if JK Rowling ever visited a small primary school in Swindon, and watched a group of eight year olds pissing about in a school assembly.

I’ll let her off – I’m sure no copyright infringement was intended.