My Review of How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

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I got her to play two strings, back and forth, plucking at a quickening pace, along with my heart. I touched her arm. I closed my eyes, and felt fearful of how much I felt for her.

‘Music is about time,’ I told her. ‘It is about controlling time.’

Tom Hazard is much older than he looks, having been born in Elizabethan England with a rare genetic condition that causes him to age very, very slowly (at the rate of approximately one year for every fifteen years). While his mother considered it to be a gift, the condition has caused Tom numerous problems in life. Fear, suspicion and heartache dominate his existence. He’s had to endure his losses, alone, for centuries.

When a mysterious woman named Agnes holds him up at gunpoint late one afternoon in 1891, telling him that she’s taking him to Plymouth and, from there, to America, he has no idea what to think. What he learns is that there are others like him in the world, and that they’re part of a secret organisation, which he now must join. The first rule of the organisation: that you must not, under any circumstances, fall in love. Those who are part of the organisation must change their identities every eight years, moving to a completely new location in a different part of the world and becoming an entirely different person. This is, supposedly, to ensure their safety and the safety of others like them.

The story is told in first person from Tom’s perspective and alternates between his present—where he teaches history in a Tower Hamlets comprehensive school—and his various, colourful pasts. Haig does an excellent job of capturing the feeling of history without getting bogged down in detail, while simultaneously keeping the focus on how Tom’s past affects his present-day reality.

How to Stop Time contains all the right ingredients for a highly engrossing and memorable story: romance, adventure, an exciting plot with mounting tension, immersive settings and an empathetic protagonist I rooted for all the way through the book (and then some). Matt Haig has certainly succeeded in stopping time with this novel, not only for his protagonist, but also for this reader.

How to Stop Time is published by Canongate Books.

I bought my copy of How to Stop Time from my local independent bookstore, Ink 84.

How to Stop Time is available from all good bookstores and from Amazon.

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My review of Love Will Tear Us Apart by Holly Seddon

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I imagined Paul strutting home, a girl on each arm, somehow sporting a moustache and a foot of extra height. Moustachioed imaginary Paul would look down at me as he glided past with his harem.

‘Who’s she?’ the girls would chirrup.

‘Her?’ Paul would laugh. ‘Oh, she’s nobody.’

Kate and Paul have been married for nearly ten years and have two beautiful children—Isabel and Harry. Paul works in advertising and Kate spends her time looking after the kids. However, despite the appearance of happiness, Kate and Paul are both dissatisfied with their relationship.

As they’re preparing for their anniversary trip to Cornwall, Kate stumbles upon a letter, carefully hidden inside a book in their library. What she reads in it will change her life, and marriage, forever. But, now that Kate knows, she needs to tell Paul. Before she’s able to muster the courage to do so, she tries to discern the emotional truth of her marriage. She thinks back over her history with Paul—they grew up together in Somerset, and were best friends during childhood and adolescence, before separating to go to university. It was only after he moved to London, for work, that they started a relationship.

Told in first person, from Kate’s perspective, and alternating between her past and present, Seddon delivers a story brimming with suspense as she paints an empathetic portrait of a relationship in jeopardy.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Seddon’s first two novels, I was looking forward to reading her third. I was not disappointed. If anything, I enjoyed this novel even more. While Seddon’s work falls into the thriller/suspense categories, her stories focus primarily on character—how a specific character came to be who they are and what makes them act as they do. It’s this well-considered interplay between her characters’ motivations and her plot that makes her work such a joy to read. In Love Will Tear Us Apart, there’s also a romantic element, which enhances the story further. It was this last aspect that particularly stayed with me after finishing the book. As always, Seddon raises some interesting questions that resonate beyond the bounds of her story.  I can’t wait to read her next novel!

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Love Will Tear Us Apart is published by Corvus and available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Visit Holly’s website to learn more about the book and her writing.

My Review of Smash all the Windows by Jane Davis

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Maggie’s chest rises and falls. Orange buoys, the shape and size of hay bales, move to the same rhythm. There is something bovine about them, but also something desperately sad. At any other time she wouldn’t feel foolish mentioning this to Jules who, she thinks, would dismiss nothing.  

With an impressive array of research at her disposal, a full cast of true-to-life Londoners and a fascinating and timely premise, Davis casts a spell over her readers.

The families of those who were killed in the St Botolph and Billingsgate station disaster have become accustomed to defending their loved ones. For over thirteen years they were told that the victims were responsible for their own tragic deaths but, with London Underground consistently running over capacity and the severe overcrowding that’s resulted from it, the families refused to believe the verdict of the initial public inquiry. With opinion against them, however, it was difficult to know what to do. That was, until gentle-natured law student Eric took an almost obsessive interest in the case. Eric’s certainty that the evidence doesn’t match up leads him to spend all his waking hours investigating. But when his hard work finally pays off and a second inquest declares that the commuters were not responsible, it doesn’t bring about the closure the families expected.

Told through the eyes of the families of the survivors, their grief, anger, frustration and attempts at reconciliation are brought vividly to life. Davis does an excellent job of depicting modern-day, multicultural London, and her diverse cast of characters reflects this. The story is inspired by the Hillsborough tragedy, where 96 Liverpool football fans lost their lives in a crush in 1989, and is highly relevant given their families long battle for justice. Davis’s exploration of personal grief and public tragedy is sensitively rendered and deeply empathetic. Although literary fiction, the novel reads almost like a thriller. Smash all the Windows is an engrossing, addictive novel. I look forward to reading more of Jane Davis’s work in future.

Smash all the Windows  is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/

You can read more about the novel on Jane’s website: https://jane-davis.co.uk/books/smash-all-the-windows/

My Review of Violet by Leslie Tate, the third book in his Lavender Blues: Three Shades of Love trilogy

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They picked at the contents, one by one. The nuts came in all sizes; they were whole, lightly roasted and unsalted. Dipping and munching, they shared what they had.

When fifty-year-old café owner Beth Jarvis, divorced and with children, finds herself on a blind date, she wonders what it is she’s doing. Due to her nervousness she’s arrived at the restaurant far too early and now can only watch and wait while other diners arrive,  staring at the door, wondering when—and if—James will show up. Biding her time, Beth sips her wine as she sifts through the letters he’s sent her. Will the real-life version of James be as good-natured and charming?

After James arrives, they share stories over a platter of Indian food. Later that night, Beth is, quite literally, swept off her feet as they dance.  Not wanting the evening to end, they draw it out for as long as possible. When it finally comes time for them to part, they promise to meet again, and soon.

As Beth and James are getting to know each other, they realise that they share very different pasts. James was raised in Chester-le-Street, in Durham, to working class parents. His father worked on the railways and considered himself a revolutionary, of sorts. Later James moved to London, where he married and had children. He works as a gardener and prides himself on seeing the beauty in life. Beth, on the other hand, had an almost idyllic rural childhood, and later married a minister with whom she has two daughters. Her gentle, caring nature means she follows her heart. While this tendency has led her into James’ arms, it’s also meant that she’s sometimes been taken unawares in life. How Beth and James come together as a couple is the focus of the story.

Violet is an empathetic and skilfully crafted exploration of modern day love. It is also a study in character, and the ways in which a character changes, and is changed by, their experience of relationships. The story is written in a non-linear fashion, moving backward and forward through time, showing Beth from different angles and points in her personal history. The narrative is experimental in style, with some sections written in text-speak and including the letters James and Beth shared. This challenged my perceptions, making me pay closer attention to the writing.  Tate’s in-depth exploration of Beth’s character allowed me to draw my own conclusions about her past and present. This made for an enjoyable and refreshing reading experience.

Violet is the third in Tate’s Lavender Blues trilogy, exploring three generations of the Lavender family and their experiences of love in its many forms. The novel stands alone—indeed, I have yet to read the first two books. The first two books are Purple and Blue. You can read about them here: https://leslietate.com/lavender-blues-three-shades-of-love/

Violet is available to purchase from Leslie Tate’s website: https://leslietate.com/shop/violet/

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Violet-Lavender-Blues-Three-Shades-ebook/dp/B07BNR37XK/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Violet-Lavender-Blues-Three-Shades-ebook/dp/B07BNR37XK/

My Review of All the Colours in Between by Eva Jordan

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“Don’t forget that darkness is a force absent of love. just like black is the absence of colour. The more love you can feel, the more colour added, the more light is achieved. And ultimately, in the end, our choices  seal our fate.”

Lizzie Lemalf is now officially writing full time, her first novel having been a success. Maisy and Cassie, her two teenage daughters from 183 Times a Year, the first book in the series, have grown up and flown the nest. Cassie to London where she’s recently finished university and is now working for a well-known record producer and Maisy to Australia where she and boyfriend Crazee run a tattoo shop. Their little brother Connor is now a teenager himself, though nowhere near as much trouble as his sisters ever were. With Lizzie’s mum remaining cancer free, all seems to be going well for the Lemalf family. However, when Lizzie visits Cassie in London, Cassie appears thin and withdrawn. Despite Cassie’s telling her that nothing is wrong, Lizzie can’t help but be concerned. But this is just the beginning of Lizzie’s worries as everything is about to change for the Lemalf family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Eva Jordan’s latest novel which is written in her characteristically colourful style. The story is by turns laugh-out-loud funny—she does an excellent job of depicting the speech and perspective of teenagers—and terribly sad. Above all, she captures the love of a modern-day family for one another, through the tragedies and joys of life and, of course, everything in between. There were times where I felt she could have been writing about my own family, as she did such a remarkable job of showing the emotions around life events.

The story is told from several different perspectives, including Lizzie, Connor, Cassie and, occasionally, Salocin, Lizzie’s strong and kind-hearted father. This has the effect of increasing the reader’s empathy for the different characters and their roles within the family. While there were certain characters whose experiences I could relate to more than others, by the end of the book, I felt I could understand all of their motives for acting as they did.

Having read and loved 183 Times a Year, I had high hopes for All the Colours in Between. I was not disappointed. If anything, I’d say that Eva Jordan’s second book exceeded my expectations, possibly being even funnier, more poignant and better written than her first one. The themes she explores within the novel are timeless, as well as being timely. All the Colours in Between is a beautiful novel which will stay with me for years to come.

All the Colours in Between is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B074Q352TS/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074Q352TS/

WH Smith: https://www.whsmith.co.uk/products/all-the-colours-in-between/9781911583288

My review of Sealskin, by Su Bristow

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‘And the thing is, Donald, I’ll never know if it was the best way or not, do you see? You choose your path, and then you have to walk it, all the way. We all do.’

Donald is a gentle and lonely young man living with his mother in a tiny, close-knit fishing village off the west coast of Scotland. Struggling to eke out a living for the two of them, he fishes, keeps crab pots and helps his Uncle Hugh when necessary. Unable to relate to his cousins or to the other villagers, Donald takes joy in nature and being on his own.

When he goes out to check his crab pots late one night, he witnesses something magical. Seized by the beauty of this spectacle, Donald acts out of character and does something unthinkable. Afterward, filled with remorse, Donald hopes to make up for his actions. But it’s too late. He will have to live with his deed for the rest of his life. How he manages the aftermath will make all the difference.

I enjoyed this story, which is based on the legend of the selkies, one of my all-time favourite myths (for more on selkies see my review of this series). Bristow’s exploration of Donald’s character was skilful and refreshing—while Donald does something terrible, the writing is never heavy-handed or judgmental. Bristow shows her characters, presents the dilemma and lets the action play out naturally—no easy feat! Her writing is poignant and evocative of the harsh but magnificent landscape of the west coast of Scotland, an area I was lucky enough to visit last year. This is a beautifully-written and memorable novel, which I hope to reread someday.

Sealskin is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and all good bookstores.

My Review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

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‘She doesn’t get it, does she?’ Meredith leaned on the windowsill. ‘Why do you love snow, Verity?’

‘It’s like friendly rain; softer and kinder.’

‘Good answer.’

‘Why do you love it?’

The light from the window turned Meredith’s hair to coral candyfloss. ‘Snow makes me brave. When it snows, the sad part of me goes away.’

Meredith and Verity Pryce live in the beautiful Welsh countryside, at Gull House, which belongs to their grandmother, Mared. They live with their eccentric and erratic mother, Allegra, and Angharad, the ghost of a girl who lived 100 years ago. Meredith discovered Angharad’s presence when sifting through an abandoned sewing box in their disused attic. But, rather than tell their mother about Angharad—she would only overdramatise it and scare the ghost away—or their sensible grandmother, the girls decide to investigate her presence on their own. Through their communications with Angharad, they begin to learn more about her life, and to draw conclusions about their own.

Allegra has told the education board that she’s home-schooling her daughters, but other than a few books sent through the post, no lessons are provided. Verity would love nothing more than to go to school, and so spends her time reading at the library, where a whole new world is opened to her. But Meredith doesn’t mind staying home—her imagination more than compensates for what she doesn’t know. Despite the girls’ best efforts to escape their mother, Allegra’s unreliable behaviour and continued hurt and resentment over the loss of the girls’ father, continues to dominate their lives.

When Allegra gets it into her head that her paintings might make it big in London, the girls have no choice but to go along with it. The ever-helpful Verity tries her best to change their mother’s mind, for Meredith’s sake, but isn’t able to. Their arrival in London ushers in a new period in the girls’ lives, but how each manages to cope with this change will have the biggest impact yet, on their lives and on their friendship.

Having read and loved Lovekin’s first novel, Ghostbird, I had high expectations of Snow Sisters. I was not disappointed. As with Ghostbird, the story Lovekin tells is poignant, enchanting and insightful.  Lovekin powerfully conveys the ways in which women and girls internalise their experiences until they become a part of their psychological make-up. Lovekin’s prose is crisp, clear and beautiful. Her stunning evocation of the Welsh landscape and the magic of childhood makes this a novel to be savoured, slowly over time, and reread, for its many layers of meaning.

Snow Sisters was published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press on 21st September 2017.

You can purchase Snow Sisters from Honno: http://www.honno.co.uk/

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

Amazon U.S.: https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

With thanks to Honno for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

You can follow the Snow Sisters Blog tour here:

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About Carol Lovekin:

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Author photograph copyright Janey Stevens

Carol Lovekin has Irish blood and a Welsh heart. She was born in Warwickshire and has lived in Wales since 1979, settling in Lampeter eleven years ago. A feminist, she finds fiction the perfect vehicle for telling women’s collective stories. Her books also reflect her love of the landscape and mythology of her adopted home.

Snow Sisters is her second novel. Her first, Ghostbird, is also published by Honno.

Visit Carol’s website: https://carollovekinauthor.com/

Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/carollovekin

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009564096097

My review of Love Unlimited

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Love Unlimited is an intriguing anthology of short fiction with an uplifting concept at its heart. Although love is the theme, the love featured in these stories isn’t purely romantic. Where it is romantic, it’s rarely the traditional boy-meets-girl love story. There are stories about the love a parent feels for a child, ambiguous love, the rediscovery of love following loss and the way loneliness and a sense of compassion can bring about a different kind of love, amongst many others.

While not all of the stories were to my taste, and there were places where I felt the writing could have been stronger, I found the general message of the collection to be commendable. Featuring stories by eleven different authors, the anthology includes a range of writing styles. What I enjoyed most about this collection was its sheer diversity. The characters featured in the stories span cultures, generations, abilities and sexual orientations. It’s rare to see so many diverse characters in one place and this alone makes the collection worth reading.

A few of the stories which I particularly enjoyed, include:

Summer Healing by Kelly Cain: When budding law school student Hayleigh Malone returns home for the summer holidays in order to visit her ill grandfather in hospital, she’s surprised to find herself falling in love with his nurse, whose political opinions are very different from her own. Cain’s story shows how irrational love can be at times, while also showing how it can be used to bridge people of different opinions and backgrounds.

I liked that the author showed how current political movements in the States affect real people and their relationships. Hayleigh’s interest in, and involvement with, the Black Lives Matter protests was pleasing to see, as movements such as these aren’t included often enough in contemporary fiction.

In Her Space by Geralyn Corcillo: When a sixty-four year old librarian discovers a young man living under her house, she isn’t quite sure what to do. She’s always worked hard to remain unnoticed and has lived alone for most of her life. When she discovers that the man has been going through her trash and eating the fruit from the trees in her yard, she decides to help. Through opening herself up to his presence, she begins to learn to accept her own.

The story skilfully navigates the gulf between our perceptions of ourselves and the truth. Love, empathy and kindness are shown to be powerful tools to connect with others and promote healing.

The Shining Girl by Anne Hamilton: Pale-skinned and blue-eyed Caroline has survived a devastating cyclone in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. On her flight home to London, England, she ponders her options going forward. The experience has made her view her life—and the man she loves—in a new light. But, having lost so much already, will she be able to recover that which is most important to her?

The Shining Girl won first prize in the New Asian Writing (NAW) Short Story Competition 2016, and it’s easy to see why. With beautifully written prose and deftly handled subject matter, the story explores the magic inherent in our lives and relationships. I also enjoyed her vivid descriptions of India.

You can purchase Love Unlimited  from: https://books2read.com/loveunlimited

On Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36096719-love-unlimited

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The Battle of the Birds: Guest Post and Cover Reveal by Virginia King

Today I’m welcoming Virginia King to talk about how she chose the title and cover for her latest book. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Virginia.

Many authors say that in the process of creating a book, the writing is the easy part. It’s choosing titles and covers where the real work begins.

Title Torture

I was writing a collection of stories re-imagined from the folktales that inspired the modern prequel to my mystery series, Laying Ghosts.

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A strange message. A deserted beach house. A shocking incident from the past …

When a text message from a long lost friend lures Selkie Moon to Crystal Cottage, the chilling events from a house-party four years earlier wrap her in ghostly fingers and turn her life upside-down.

The folktales form a standalone collection but also a companion to Laying Ghosts. I was going through the usual torture of choosing a title when my mystery author friend Ellen Seltz offered to help. She asked for details of the stories in the collection. One involves the 250-year-old murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’. Ellen found a phrase in the following stanza from the original ballad:

He pierced her body till the blood it did flow,

Then into the grave her body did throw.

He covered her body, then home he did run,

Leaving none but birds her death to mourn.

Ellen suggested None but Birds for the title of the collection and I was thrilled. It had the right amount of mystery and suspense, while hinting at the dark themes in the stories. But because the collection is a companion to Laying Ghosts, I settled on a variation that gives both titles a similar word pattern: Leaving Birds.

Yay, I had my title. Hurdle one vaulted – with panache. Next came the cover. That should be easy given I had my subject on a plate: birds. Then followed the battle of the birds!

Photos or Illustrations?

Covers guide readers to the genre of the book. All the books in my Selkie Moon Series contain mystical clues inspired by folklore, but the mysteries are modern so the covers are a compilation of photographic elements to reflect this. Leaving Birds is not strictly part of the series and it’s a mix of traditional and modern stories, more closely linked to folklore. Should I use an illustrative style of cover so that the reader would recognise the ‘folktale’ genre?

Conducting a Cover Poll

To get other opinions, I polled the subscribers to my Myth Mystery & Mayhem newsletter. Showing them the following two stock images, I asked: Do you prefer a photographic or illustrative cover for Leaving Birds, a folktale companion for Laying Ghosts? These images are samples of two different styles of cover, not the final cover. The theme of the collection is the loneliness of death, and the cover will be black and white.

Bird Cover Concepts

How Readers Voted

The almost 100 votes were 65/35 in favour of the photographic image. Then I worried that the pop of red had skewed the vote. If I’d removed it from the illustrative cover, the samples would have been more equal. But the red had an unexpected role to play.

Photographic voters liked:

  • Herons, because they’re regal and mystical
  • The drama of the spooky mood
  • The sense of eeriness and mystery
  • Imagining a great black bird surveying a graveyard
  • The single bird and lack of colour being barren and solitary like death
  • Crows, because they’re linked to death

Illustrative voters liked:

  • Hummingbirds!
  • The pop of red against the stark background
  • The colourful bird suggesting a ray of hope in the loneliness
  • The bird’s wings suggesting a soul soaring away
  • The handwriting feeling personal, dated and creepy
  • The celebration of a life departed instead of the gloominess of death

Taking Care with Stock Images

The two concepts are both stock images which could be used as they are. But Joel Friedlander from The Book Designer says that a good cover is not just a stock image with titles added. It is the compilation of images and graphic effects that create a design. Also, if you use a stock image as it is, you’re likely to see it on other covers.

Playing with Cover Concepts

Taking into account the mood of the folktale collection and the feedback from readers, I briefed my cover designer. We tried a different photo of a lonely bird – a seagull on a chimney – as well as the original heron image. And we blended some handwriting into the background like the illustrative sample.

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As much as I loved the lonely seagull in the stock photo, when I saw it as a cover it just didn’t evoke the powerful mood created by the hunched heron. The handwriting also didn’t fit as well with the gull. The battle of the birds was over. We had a winner. And although I was committed to a black and white cover as a companion to Laying Ghosts, I asked my designer to try out some red on the handwriting – for that pop of colour some of my readers had liked in the illustrative sample.

Cover Reveal: Leaving Birds

Here’s the final cover of Leaving Birds, a standalone collection of creepy folktales with adult themes, and a companion to the modern ghost story Laying Ghosts.

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Leaving Birds contains:

  • ‘The Woman with Hair of Gold’ – retold from a Russian folktale
  • ‘Peig’s Place’ – a modern ghost story re-imagined from an Irish folktale
  • ‘Polly’s Folly’ – the possibly true events behind the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’
  • ‘Serendipity Rules’ – the newspaper report that inspired the plot of Laying Ghosts

If you like to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of books and how they’re written, Leaving Birds also contains insights into how each story inspired the writing of Laying Ghosts.

Laying Ghosts is available:

Leaving Birds is available:

Follow Virginia on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/selkiemoonmysteries

Virginia King FB Nomad Portrait

 

In the Selkie Moon Mystery Series, Virginia King gets to explore far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia was a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.