Book review: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

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I feel kind of proud of myself that I got around to reading a bestseller while it’s still a bestseller and not years after the fact. I’m not going to lie, the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as protagonist Tom Hazard in the film adaptation prioritised this book’s position in the “to read” pile. His production company was confident enough about the novel that they bought the film rights before it was even published, so it had that to commend it.

And what do you know, it really is a good book. I was a tad ambivalent about Haig after Reasons to Stay Alive (still don’t know why, don’t @ me), but How To Stop Time was such an effortlessly good read that it’s almost criminal. For all its depth of character and theme, Haig keeps it simple, poignant and promising, and I won’t lie, there were some wet eyes near the end.

How to Stop Time follows the story of Tom Hazard, a man who suffers from a rare condition which causes him to age more slowly than other people. The love of his life has been dead for centuries, and the only thing that keeps him going is his search for his daughter Marion, who has the same condition he has. The book jumps between the present and the past, sketching in the details of his life and the historical people he’s met, and the loneliness of being lost in time.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2017).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.14/5)
The best feature of the book: Haig has a talent for keeping his protagonist very human despite his odd condition.
The worst feature of the book: I’m tempted to say “more historical detail” but that probably would have slowed it down.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. The novel has fantasy elements but it’s not fantasy. It’s thrilling but hardly a thriller. If you like “the pain and beauty of life” kinds of stories, you’ll love this.

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Unfinished books: 2017 edition

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This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

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Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

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Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

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History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

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Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

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The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

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The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

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Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

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Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

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The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

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Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

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Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

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The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?

Book review: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #5)

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Much like Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla feels like the wait at a train station between stops. The story reads like filler for the greater series arc; King pausing to recollect his characters and stop some gaps in a tale than in its writing spanned decades. And by this point you’re entangled enough that you indulge him the sandbox town of Calla Bryn Sturgis and its inhabitants and their secrets, because like Thunderclap darkens the Calla’s horizon, the ending of the series draws near…*

The story follows on the heels of Roland and his ka-tet’s confrontation with the wizard in the previous book. As a gunslinger of old, Roland’s aid is theoretically available to anyone who asks and is deemed worthy of assistance. The Calla, with their children being stolen every two decades or so and their husks sent back, ruined, reluctantly ask him for help, and Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake and Oy stay to render assistance in the only way they can: with their guns.

As far as filler goes, it’s not bad. Like I said, at this point you forgive King his dwelling on the town’s inhabitants and their idiosyncrasies. He covers a lot of important ground in a by-the-by sort of way, though, and fans of his will enjoy the return of a character from Salem’s Lot. But if you’re concerned mainly with finishing the series, Wolves of the Calla feels like an unnecessarily long phone call with a slightly delirious uncle: just cut to the chase already!

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Wolves of the Calla
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.17/5)
The best feature of the book: The Dark Tower series’ plot strings start to pull together more discernibly.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the self-indulgent.
Trigger warnings: Kids with disabilities. A dash of misogyny. The usual, really.
You’ll like this if… If you’re committed to the series you’ll like it, but if you had to start the series with this book you’d likely never get beyond this book.


*Or so you think. You fool.

Book review: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #4)

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I should probably start this review by admitting that after finishing Song of Susannah (The Dark Tower #6) I made the mistake of reading spoilers for The Dark Tower’s ending, and haven’t touched the novels since. I’d heard, years ago, someone describing the series ending as (spoiler alert) “they all go back to the start”. Apparently that’s a very literal summary. Pre-Song of Susannah it didn’t make sense to me, but after finishing the sixth novel in the series it really, really does. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I read the series years ago it was Wizard and Glass that proved to be my boredom/offended threshold for King’s The Dark Tower. Roland, not fully committed to his ka-tet the way they are to him, begins Wizard and Glass by telling his friends about the events that led him to seek out The Dark Tower. This involves a lengthy flashback to Roland’s adolescence, his love affair with “girl at the window” Susan Delgado and the things that happened in the small town of Hambry. Roland and his friends had been sent there to keep them safe after Roland’s fateful confrontation with Walter, but Walter and the King he serves have a long reach, and Hambry is not as far removed from danger as Stephen Deschain had hoped.

Wizard and Glass is the emotional gut-punch that, despite your best intentions, finally wins you over to Roland’s side. An ambivalent character for the first three books, erring first on the side of apathy and then becoming more human, Roland’s yarn completes his transformation from “The Gunslinger” to Roland Deschain, son of Stephen, son of Eld. King takes you deep, emotionally, if you can stand the story-world of Hambry and its archaic ways, and the arrogance and youth of adolescent Roland. Unfortunately Susan Delgado, for all King’s attempts to the contrary, stubbornly remains merely “the girl at the window”. It’s a pity because she was an interesting character.

Altogether a decent, if slow, addition to the series. Much of it reads like King was just sitting down and having fun in putting his world and its people together, but he does it well enough that it’s tolerable – at least on the second attempt.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Wizard and Glass
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scriber (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.24/5)
The best feature of the book: King’s great at telling stories, and this book is the story of Roland.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a dull interlude. The pace slackens, and it isn’t really picked up again until Song of Susannah, two books hence.
Trigger warnings: Misogyny in general, nonconsensual sexual contact, teens having at it.
You’ll like this if… If you’ve come this far you won’t need a reason to keep reading.

Book review: The Waste Lands by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #3)

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The third book is probably my favourite so far (I’m on book number six, Song of Susannah, at the time of writing this review), though I have my reservations about it. Having drawn first Roland, then the other major characters for the series, the story is more settled and its eventual destination is less up in the air, subject to King’s (often drug or alcohol induced, let’s be honest) whimsy.

The Waste Lands picks up in the forest just beyond the beach Roland found his two companions, Eddie and Susannah, on, three months after Odetta and Detta’s doorway confrontation. Roland has been training Eddie and Susannah in the way of a gunslinger. But all’s not well with Roland: having stopped Jake’s (first) death in the second novel, his mind is tearing itself apart, one part insisting that Jake is dead, and the other insisting that he’s still alive. As the trio find the Path of the Beam, which will lead them to its centre, the Dark Tower, Roland’s condition deteriorates, as does Jake’s back in New York.

Roland, Eddie and Susannah eventually pull Jake back through to their side. The relief of this scene – for some weird reason you want Jake and Roland reunited, although it’s obvious that Roland can’t really be trusted with the welfare of the individual members of their ka-tet, their group – is undercut by what can only be described as a rape, though King plays it like it’s a victory for Susannah (or the Detta part of her, anyway). It sucks. I’ve always thought of King as more or less benign, but the sexual aspects of his fiction often go to dark places and honestly the novel could’ve done without it, though not the series, as we see later.

With Jake (and a bumbler named Oy) completing their ka-tet, the group set off to find Blaine the Mono – a train that could take them across the wastelands and bring them nearer the tower. But first, they have to get through an otherworldly, gang-infested New York called Lud…

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scriber (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.24/5)
The best feature of the book: There’s more emotional investment in the characters.
The worst feature of the book: Lud sucks. Blaine sucks.
Trigger warnings: Nonconsensual content of all shades. Evil technology. Hazardous conditions.
You’ll like this if… You, like me, just want to finish the bloody series.