A(nother) Review: The Six Loves of Billy Binns

I’d seen a lot of good things about The Six Loves of Billy Binns but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about – it just felt like it was going to be one of those books that I’d enjoy.

Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a little summary of what it’s about so you can decide for yourselves if you’ll enjoy it (you will).

Billy Binns is 117 years old, he’s the oldest man in Europe and the longest-serving resident of his care home, having been there for over thirty years.

He’s your typical, sweet old man, but – as you’d imagine for someone approaching his thirteenth decade – he’s pretty frail and his memory is failing him.

He decides to write down his own potted history, exploring the relationships he experienced in his life so that he can share them with his son Archie, the next time he comes to visit.

The book flips back and forth between Billy as an old man and Billy’s younger life – a method that works well to put you in Billy’s fragmented memories. He starts off as young a boy, innocent but curious and then begins to grow up into a man who makes mistakes – some quite big ones, some perhaps unforgivable.

In a way, the book makes me think of a cross between Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Anne Griffin’s recent When All is Said.Both concern older people approaching the end of their lives, reflecting on their past.

The difference between them is I a hundred per cent believe their account of things, even Cannon’s Florence who is suffering from dementia… but there’s something about Billy where even at the end of the book, I’m not sure we completely know the truth.

That’s because we see everything from his point of view, we don’t see anybody else’s version of events and there’s enough vagueness in Billy’s to make you realise it’s only an interpretation not necessarily an accurate count.

What this novel does succeed in doing is making the reader think about the nature of aging and how easily their interpretation can be dismissed. There is one thing about his past that is contradicted by a staff-member at the care home and from then on, I immediately began to doubt everything he was telling me.

The lasting thought though is how he has spent thirty plus years in a care home. We all like to think that when our time comes, if we have to spend any of it in a home, that it will be brief, but to spend a third of your life in one is a scary thought. 

Sometimes the only thing scarier than dying is living forever.

The Six Loves of Billy Binns is available now from Tinder Press

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

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.

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.