Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: How to Stop Time

How to Stop TimeHow to Stop Time by Matt Haig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I understand that the way you stop time is by stopping being ruled by it.

Thank you to Goodreads for the opportunity to read Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time. Rarely do I come across a book as potentially life-changing as this one. How to Stop Time is the story of Tom who has a rare but not, he learns, a unique condition where he ages slowly – like only 1 year to every 15 years of an average human’s life. More than 400 years old and Tom still struggles with how to live his long life. Heartbroken and scarred by the loss of his love during the Elizabethan era, the only thing that keeps him going through his loneliness and the overwhelming memories is the hope of finding his daughter which he hopes to do with the help of the Albatross Society, a network which claims to protect people with this condition in return for a bit of ‘recruitment’.
There is a deep melancholy running through Tom’s tale but even in the darkest moments, the moments when he must remind himself what he’s living far, the narrative shines with rays of hope. Albeit thin ones throughout most of the novel. Tom’s struggle and fear of a world filled with superstition and prejudice forces the reader to examine not only how they would live if they had hundreds of years to live rather than our brief time here but also to ponder how the world and our relationships would differ with the perspective that longevity would bring. Haig talks often about how little the world as far as the human experience goes changes despite the importance we give each event we experience. Is the 21st century really that different from the 20th? Or the 20th from any of the centuries before it?
The novel gives the reader a lot to think about. My favorite parts of How to Stop Time, though, are the forays into the immense chunk of history Tom has lived through – performing at the Globe Theater with Shakespeare, discovering new lands with Captain Cook, meeting Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at a Parisian nightclub.
This is not a book made for light reading. While you could pick it up and quickly read one of its short (sometimes only a single page) passages, it is best read when you can curl up and devote a few hours to it and disappear into Tom’s long history. And to absorb its many, many words of wisdom.

I haven’t really read anything else like How to Stop Time but at times it reminded me of Jon Cohen’s Harry’s Trees.  While they aren’t similar in subject matter, they both gave me a sense of hope belied by their melancholy beginnings.  Both novels also spoke of our connections through things bigger than our human lives – history, nature, books, love.  Also, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to tout Harry’s Trees again. 

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Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: That Churchill Woman

That Churchill WomanThat Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephanie Barron’s novel, That Churchill Woman, is the story of Jennie Jerome, the American woman best known as Winston Churchill’s mother. Jennie is a strong, independent woman who in many respects is ahead of her time but must make sacrifices to avoid scandals that would destroy her husband’s career, damage her children’s future, and, yes, lose her place in Victorian society.
The story often goes back in time to explore Jennie’s formative years and the events that lead up to her becoming Lady Randolph Churchill. This helps the reader to understand a character whose decisions may not always be the most admirable but the novel’s strength lies not in character, who often seem two-dimensional, but in its power to transport the reader to the glittering world of society’s upper echelons during the Gilded Age. While reading I felt that I was in the parlors and ballrooms of British estates or on the rocky shores of the east coast of the U.S. And I could not only picture the sumptuous fashions but feel the materials and hear the rustle of the fabric.

If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly about the British Royal family or the Victorian era, I recommend reading Karen Harper’s The Royal Nanny, the story of LaLa who was charged with the care of George V’s (Victoria’s grandson) youngest children.

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Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 2.75 of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River. This historical mystery tale begins when a wounded stranger enters The Swan pub carrying what appears to be a waxen doll and is told like a fairytale. The mystery begins when the doll turns out to be a little girl who seems dead only to come to life setting tongues wagging in the village and villages up and down the Thames. Who is the little girl? Two families seem to claim her but there is a cruel plot afoot. With elements of the supernatural balanced by the scientific logic of a Rita, the local nurse and Henry Daunt, a skilled photographer and the girl’s rescuer, some mysteries are solved and some endings are happy.
The first third of Once Upon a River moves a bit slowly as the reader is acquainted with the characters and the local lore but after Part One the story moves along while not quickly, more steadily with as many twists and unexpected connections as the river itself. It was these twists that kept me reading, eager to learn exactly where the girl had come from. Personally, as the daughter of a photographer, I was most fascinated by the Victorian era photography methods and Taunt’s character.

If you enjoy the Victorian era feel of the Once Upon a River but wished there was more fantasy in it, I highly recommend the superior Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  It is quite a tome so it is a bit of a commitment to read it but it is so worth it.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: Transcription

TranscriptionTranscription by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

On, a two-star rating means “it was OK” and, for me, that’s what Kate Atkinson’s Transcription was – just OK.  Transcription is the story of a young British woman recruited in what I would call domestic espionage during World War II. In the months leading up to the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, she is employed as a transcriber, listening to the recorded conversations between an MI5 agent posting as Gestapo and several (who knew there were so many!) Nazi sympathizers and supporters of appeasement.
The book tells of how the subterfuge and ambiguity of her job and that of those around her messes with Juliet’s mind and how her experiences during the war shape her post-war life. The narrative, which mainly moves between 1940 and 1950, is purposely vague at times, making it feel like one of Juliet’s transcriptions – missing sometimes vital information and often unclear about who is who. The subject matter of Transcription is truly interesting but the execution left me lacking any connection to the characters and often lost in the muddle of names – real names, code names, undiscernable characters. I also found that the storyline of the 1950s tended to drag at moments, which I suppose was the point – to demonstrate how mundane life could be for those who found excitement, albeit horrific, during the war. So, in short, Transcription is well-written as a look at how everything yet nothing changes during war and peace, but it really just wasn’t my thing.

This is where I would normally make a recommendation based on the book I’ve just reviewed but having gone back through seven years of my reading, I can’t think of anything I’ve read that is like Transcription.  However, as I read the novel, a few other books did come to mind.  Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, in large part, about the terror and confusion life during the Blitz, is an excellent read with a thrilling twist.  Some of the bleakness and lack of trust to be found Juliet’s world brought to mind George Orwell’s seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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Historical Fiction, Reviews, Woman's Fiction

Review: Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit

Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit (Kopp Sisters, #4)Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit by Amy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some things never change and some things change all too slowly. That’s the message I got from the latest installment of Amy Stewart’s brilliant Kopp Sisters series. In Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit Constance is unwillingly caught in the middle of a contentious political campaign as every move she makes in her job as the sole female deputy in Hackensack, NJ in 1916 reflects on the Sherriff’s run for Congress as well as the candidate looking to fill his position as Sherriff. In the midst of it all, she works to help her inmates as well as a woman committed to the asylum by her husband. It is a time when ALL of the power belongs to men with little understanding of women’s unique issue and even less desire to understand them. It is also a time of mounting fear and suspicion as World War I rages in Europe and the US debates whether to join the Allies. In spite of the 100+ years that have passed, some of the themes seem all too familiar.
As ever, Stewart seamlessly blends history with fiction while staying true to her richly developed characters. There is a bit more politics and a bit less chasing bad guys than in the first two books but the story is fantastic, leaving you wanting to know what happens next. Luckily, the fifth book in the series is due out next year!

I know that by now I’m repeating myself but I LOVE these books so if you enjoy empowering stories about strong women and historical fiction, read the entire series and get hooked like me.

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