Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Book Review: A Carpet of Purple Flowers

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A Carpet of Purple Flowers, by Tracey-anne McCartney, just didn’t do it for me. It has to happen sometimes. No book is going to appeal to every reader, and no reader is going to enjoy every book. This is going to be a negative review. If I am not honest then I see little point in writing my thoughts down.

The protagonist is a young woman named Bea who owns and runs a second hand bookshop in South London. She lives in the small flat above the premises and is single, having split up with her boyfriend six months previously. She still harbours feelings for her ex but does not regret that they are no longer together. He is a petty criminal, into drink and drugs having suffered an abusive childhood. We are given this back story, and he makes occasional appearances throughout the book, but his part is of little significance so I am unsure why such details are offered.

Bea meets the handsome and enigmatic Karian. We learn that she should not have been able to see him, that he is not of this world. She is drawn to him but, before they can get to know each other, he disappears.

Bea then encounters a young man named Chance who, again, she should not have been able to see. Bea learns that Karian and Chance are from the same realm but that they are on opposing sides in a simmering war. They seem surprised to discover Bea’s connection to their world, yet later in the story this is offered as explanation as to why many of their associates have been assigned to live alongside humans.

Bea ends up getting romantically involved with both Karian and Chance, who is actually called Anathon. He is the only alien who feels the need to hide his true name. Bea also gets to know a few of their associates who, for no reason that is explained, she could not initially see as she could the men.

There is much talk of love before the characters have had a chance to get to know each other. Their romances are largely physical. Attempts at dates often end in hurt and confusion; questions go unanswered and are not asked again. Bea’s friendship with one of the female aliens inexplicably survives despite their repeated manipulations.

The various sexual encounters are described in graphic detail. There is one scene which is presented as a cosmic journey yet is little more than drawn out foreplay with a talented lover. I do not enjoy reading explicit sex scenes so will comment no further on this aspect of the book. I am aware that plenty of readers enjoy such writing.

The men are vociferous in their desire to protect Bea. What they really want is to possess her. Bea is naive in her musings on love, expecting it to be free of pain. There are a great many emotionally intense scenes which became repetitive and thus left me feeling ambivalent. Suggestions are made which are not progressed.

Although many of the ideas were of interest I found the structure clunky. Characters were introduced, lengthy dialogue offered explanations of the other world’s history, but important back stories remained incomplete. When one of the characters mentioned knowing Bea’s mother, who had left her in the care of an uncle as a child, Bea showed little interest in finding out more about her own heritage. A man is brought in to talk to her near the end of the book, the suggestion being that he is significant to Bea; he then leaves without explaining how.

There were also several incidents that felt wrong to me. Early on Karian invites Bea to the theatre. They buy popcorn, something that I have never seen available in any theatre I have visited. They watch a play, which is actually a ballet, except the actors/ dancers laugh and talk. I have never encountered a ballet with dialogue.

The denouement requires that Bea make a difficult choice. Given all that had gone before I wondered at its implied permanence. Perhaps the author plans a sequel.

My overall opinion is that the author had a fine idea for a story but, perhaps, needed a tighter edit. There were several members of the cast whose role did not warrant the space they occupied. Even Bea’s best friend had become irrelevant by the end.

When I consider the work that any author puts into creating a novel I feel guilty for pulling it apart. As I have said, this book did not work for me. Other reviewers have reacted much more positively.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.

Random Musings: Why I read

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Why do we choose to read books? Perhaps we wish to learn, to gain empathy, to escape. As a reader it is possible to climb inside the pages of a book and imagine ourselves living a different life in a place beyond our dreams. There we may find love, become somebody elses hero, enjoy the adulation that will never be experienced in reality.

I have read that when the ‘Grey’ books were first published they proved particularly popular amongst middle aged women. There was speculation that these readers wished to live out fantasies when their own sexual lives had gone stale. Despite being a member of this demographic the phenomenon is beyond my comprehension. Having watched the film (I have not read the books) I cannot understand why anyone would desire such experiences.

I understand that desires are as individual as each person and would not wish to limit or condemn whatever others choose to read. When I am offered books to review I will always state that I do not enjoy romances. I try to avoid stories which involve a woman requiring a man for fulfilment, or a man using a woman as arm candy and to service his physical cravings.

A romantic plot thread can be written with depth, humour and originality without descending into lengthy detail. As ‘Pride and Prejudice’ demonstrates, suggestion can be a powerful device. My antipathy is not towards the background to a mutual attraction but towards the reason for the intimacy and the way it is described. I have written of my dislike of gratuitous detail before, here.

Yet this was not always how I felt. When I was in my late teens I devoured easy to read romances by the dozen. Through my twenties I read books involving peril and rescue which often ended with the handsome hero taking his beautiful conquest to bed. The stories have not changed but I have. My life experiences have darkened my views and I now look at that couple and extrapolate their future. In my eyes, happy ever after is Icarus before his fall.

If books are an escape from reality then perhaps our choice of book reflects the place to which we each wish to travel in our dreams. Some look for the heady excitement of a new romance. As a mother of teenagers I fantasise about being held in some regard rather than contempt.

I enjoy books involving strong characters who can hold their own against attacks on their being, to read of relationships founded on mutual respect rather than outward beauty. My heroes can stand alone against the world; they do not require another for fulfilment. When their life presents a trial they do not blame others or look to them for a fix. They appreciate their moments of happiness but can move on.

Books offer a window to the world and I choose to avoid voyeurism. I seek out varied settings that I may expand my learning of other cultures, the characters thoughts enabling me to empathise with why people think as they do.

I read more fiction than non fiction because I also wish to be entertained, to immerse myself in a story as if I were there. I rarely travel and have few people interested in conversing with me so perhaps this is my way of experiencing life.

What do you choose to read and why?

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: If You Go Away

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If You Go Away, by Adele Parks,  is a romance set in England during the First World War. Its protagonist, Vivian, is a society beauty whose sole ambition at the beginning of the tale is to marry a young, handsome and above all wealthy gentleman in order that she may live a life of comfort and ease. Due to a miscalculation on her part things do not go to plan.

When war breaks out her husband enlists immediately. Vivian is required to leave her family and friends, the glitz of the London which she loves, to take up residence in her husband’s country home in the north. Bored and lonely she befriends a local woman, Enid, whom her husband regards as below their station in life. Enid suggests to Vivian that she become involved in the day to day running of the land, doing tasks that are neglected as all the regular workers have left to fight for their country. The work gives Vivian a purpose and she grows to appreciate her new surroundings.

In parallel with Vivian’s story is that of Howard, Enid’s elder son. Before the war he was a playwright in London. He travels to France with a journalist friend and is traumatised by the brutality and pointlessness of what he sees. He risks his life by refusing to enlist.

As the plot develops the reader comes to appreciate how little autonomy women had at this time. Vivian recognises that she is property, first of her father and then her husband. If she goes against their will then she risks being thrown out, abandoned to poverty with no means of earning a living or even worse, being incarcerated as insane. She would not be allowed to care for her child.

Howard’s decisions make him contemptible in the eyes of society, the results of his actions rippling out to affect his mother. As a man though he retains more control over his destiny. His choices may risk his life but he retains the choice. Through his tale there are attempts to evoke the abject horror of the war and the mindlessness with which it had to be fought in order to survive.

The romance elements revolve around sex which is described in some detail. There are friendships, both genuine and self serving, amongst the women, but the lovers spend more time getting to know each other’s bodies than their characters.

I felt saddened by Vivian’s treatment of her husband. They were both products of their upbringing yet she did not offer him the courtesy of honesty as she did her lover, expecting him to understand her needs without being told. He earned the respect of his soldiers but not of his wife, mainly it seemed because of his failure to excite her in bed.

This is a nicely written romance with its fill of beautiful women and brave young men battling situations beyond their control in order to be together and find happiness. I do not wish to denigrate it in any way when I admit that it is simply not my sort of book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Going Back

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Going Back, by Rachael English, was for me an enjoyable trip down memory lane. It chronicles the life of Elizabeth, an Irish student in the 1980’s whose life is changed forever when she and a group of friends from university decide to spend a summer working in Boston, America.

The book is in two parts. The first covers the fateful summer of 1988, when Elizabeth turned twenty-one and met Danny, a handsome charmer with whom she fell in love. The second part is set in the present day, when her daughter makes the same trip to America where she falls ill, causing Elizabeth to fly to her bedside and return to the scenes of her past.

The whole tale revolves around a summer romance. It explores the impact of making decisions that seem right at the time, of not hurting those one cares about. It offers up a scenario where a memory will colour a life. Elizabeth acted sensibly but then, when things got tough (as life always will from time to time) her memories become ‘what ifs’ and she allowed her regrets to fester. The premise of the story is that it may be better to allow the heart to rule rather than the head, and that secrets are damaging.

With my experience of growing up in Ireland the narrative, expectations and claustrophobia of family were all too familiar. Although I never chose to spend a summer in America I knew plenty of students who did. As the author points out, before mobile phones and Skype it was possible to get away, to disappear and become, even if only temporarily, someone else. It was possible to put aside the guilt and fear of letting down the family, of making mammy cry, and to be one’s self.

It is not, however, a one dimensional tale. Although Elizabeth acted as she thought best, she had friends who were less circumspect and whose lives also progressed through trials and tribulations. To me, these lives seemed more real. Given their ages and personalities, I struggled to believe that all would have been happy ever after for Danny and Elizabeth had she stayed in Boston. I suspect she would merely have harboured different regrets, perhaps about her nice, safe, Irish boyfriend. Knowing the Irish as I do, she would also likely have felt guilt about abandoning her parents. There is rarely only one road to choose and some people will always find happiness elusive. Elizabeth was cited as being uncomfortable admitting to being happy.

The book is, however, a romance. Whilst the characters, scenarios and passage of time are all well written and believable, this is essentially a feel good book about one true love that survives. For fans of love overcoming adversity, it is well worth adding to your bookshelves. A story to curl up with when a little gentle escapism is desired.

Book Review: An Appetite for Violets

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An Appetite for Violets, by Martine Bailey, ticks too many boxes to pigeon-hole into one, simple genre. It is historical fiction, dark mystery, romance, travelogue and cookery. The importance of food is integral to the plot, and offers a fascinating insight into how our forebears expected to eat by place and occasion. The story has been put together in a way that brings to mind a recipe, or receipt as it would then have been called. Each character’s deeds are added, but it is not until they are all mixed together and allowed to react with whatever acts and influences they are subjected to that we can be presented with the resulting dish. It is a clever and original writing device, made all the more tasty by the inclusion of actual recipes from the period explored. As each plot strand is prepared and served we progress as with a meal, which finishes with an unexpected reveal, leaving the reader comfortably replete.

Set in the late eighteenth century the book tells the tale of Biddy, an undercook at a country house, and her relationships with her new, young mistress and other members of the household staff as they embark on an unexpected journey from Cheshire, England to Florence, Italy. It is more than a tale of the privileged who live upstairs and their downstairs staff, although the insights given into each of the characters interactions and day to day lives are integral. It is more than a travelogue, even if the discomforts and privations of travel at that time are well described.

Journal entries and letters are included, as are some dream sequences which give the back story of a slave, footman to the new mistress and loyal friend to Biddy. This variety adds interest, although the pace throughout ensures that the reader is always eager to find out what is to be presented as the next course. There are mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover, plots to unravel. As the backgrounds to each character are gradually revealed the reader gains understanding as to why they act as they do. The story is both light and intriguing with twists and turns aplenty.

Prejudices and jealousies between class, race and nationality are explored as is the timeless corruption caused by differences in wealth.  Alongside this we have faithful friendships, loves lost and found, the mindless cruelty of the self serving privileged, and acts of revenge. It is a cleverly woven tale, yet for all the depth and detail the book remains an easy and enjoyable read. Just as the lightest of dishes can contain a host of complimentary tastes and textures, so this book offers up a complex, thought provoking story that is easily digested.

Even with the addition of that final, unexpected twist, the ending was perhaps a little too sweet for my tastes. However, as an engaging, summer read for those who look for quality and substance without dyspepsia, this book offers up a veritable feast.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.