How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard is a man with a dangerous secret. For all intents and purposes, he looks like your average 41 year old man. However, Tom has a rare and unique genetic condition that slows his aging dramatically. In truth he is over 400 years old.

In that time Tom has done amazing things. He’s performed with the great Shakespeare, sailed with Captain Cook, and even had cocktails with Fitzgerald. But now Tom is tired and longs for a normal life.

So with some help, Tom moves back to London and takes a job as a history teacher. All is well and he even meets a lovely French teacher and the two take an interest in one another. Tom’s past, however, continues to haunt him in the form of worsening headaches and memories of his lives gone by. Including the most important one; his first with his wife Rose and daughter Marion.

As events begin to unfold before Tom he must at last come to a decision; to continue living in a past that he can never recapture or come to terms and live in the present.

I will be completely honest with you, dear reader, I was expecting so much more from How to Stop Time. When I first heard of the book, it was when it had been announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (a favorite actor of mine) had been cast in the movie adaptation of the book. Like many fans I was excited and while it took some time, eventually read the book. Now, I’m only looking forward to this movie if they do an almost complete rewrite.

Tom, the major character of the book and through whose eyes we are taken on this journey, is such a boring individual. You would think that after 400 years a person would become at least marginally interesting, but such is not the case! Tom is terribly wishy washy, pining over his dead wife for over 300 years and leaving the search for his daughter – who he learns is like him and ages slowly – to someone else. For all the love that he professes he has for the child, he has an odd way of showing it.

Much like Forrest Gump, Tom floats through history and meets great people almost randomly. He plays lute for Shakespeare, he shares a drink with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he even dines with Cecil B. Demille. Even for one as nearly immortal as Tom, these would seem incredible, but he brushes them off and mopes. He agonizes over his wife and daughter but eventually does nothing.

The flashbacks of Tom’s, to his earlier lives, are certainly interesting. Haig seems to have done a fair bit of research and does his best to capture the feel of London as well as other places. The only drawback is Tom, at times he is very difficult to relate to or even feel any empathy for.

Another point I found irritating was that for all of the information we are given on Tom, there is so little given about the other characters. Characters like Hendrich, the head of the Albatross Society, or Camille, the pretty French teacher Tom develops a crush on. At times these characters are little more than window dressing. The reader is given so very little on them that when something happens, when something is revealed, there is no emotional reaction brought about.

The one individual that brought the most irritation in regards to this ‘not enough information’, was Agnes. We are given to believe that she is Hendrich’s right hand man – or woman, in this case – seeking out Thomas originally and helping him on occasion. Yet, other than that, we are given almost nothing else. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she helping someone so clearly unhinged as Hendrich? None of these points are touched on and are left dangling like loose threads.

The ending of the book is incredibly rushed and was not very satisfying. Throughout the entire book we are given all this build up and it is resolved in a handful of pages. The whole situation with his daughter – something that has gone on for centuries – is not even given that. I find it hard to believe that the decades of hurt feelings and pent up emotions can be simply forgotten just by seeing an old coin. And considering the plot of the book itself, this is really saying something.

The epilogue also felt tacked on and again did not satisfy me while reading it. It was as if Haig had finished the book and then came back at a later date with an “Oh, the readers will want to know what happened next…”. The actual ending of the book, despite its numerous flaws, felt like an ending.

If I were to recommend this to any one, I would say wait for the movie. That might actually be better than this was.

The Hangman’s Daughter (The Hangman’s Daughter #1) by Oliver Pötzsch

It is 1659 and the Thirty Years’ War has finally come to an end. There has not been a witchcraft mania in the area in decades but the discovery of a drowned boy changes things. Badly beaten and tattooed with the mark of a witch, the boy is recognized as one of the many orphans in the small village. With the boy being seen at the local midwife’s home on more than one occasion, fingers soon begin to point in her direction.

Jakob Kuisl is the town’s hangman; living with his family of wife and children on the outskirts of the village. It is he who is charged with getting a confession from the midwife and torturing her until it is given. He, however, believes her innocent. He is also not the only one; his daughter Magdalena and the village doctor’s son, Simon, believe her to be innocent as well.

When another tattooed orphan is found murdered, and then a third, the village becomes frenzied. Walpurgisnacht is approaching, a night when witches are said to dance in the forest and have consort with the devil. Some have even claimed to see the devil himself – a man with a hand made completely of bone. With the deadline fast approaching, Jakob, his daughter and the doctor’s son must try and find if they are dealing with mass hysteria or a very real enemy.

The Hangman’s Daughter is one of those books where the title and the description do not quite match the story inside. If one were to go by the description on Goodreads or on Amazon, one would be led to believe that Magdalena is the main character. Unfortunately, she is not and is at best a secondary character; one might even argue that she is a tertiary character.

The book description leads us to believe that Jakob Kuisl is a secondary character when in truth it is HE who is the main character. It is he who does the most when it comes to proving the accused’s innocence or guilt. It is he who first learns the truth behind the killings and who eventually faces the man with the hand of bone.

Description differences aside, The Hangman’s Daughter is a fairly well written story. Jakob Kuisl was a real hangman and his family as described did exist. The town he lived in and some of the people also did exist. Everything else though must be taken with a healthy grain of salt.

It is evident that Potzsch often takes dramatic liberty. However good a man that Jakob Kuisl might have been, it is quite unlikely he would have gone to the same lengths to prove a person’s guilt or innocence. Jakob is also one of the few characters that is actually “fleshed out” for want of a better word. Many of the characters, especially the townspeople, are little more mannequins – used to voice the cruelty and superstitions of the time.

The mystery itself is quite slow to develop. And when resolution finally comes, it feels almost anticlimactic. As if Potzsch ran out of steam when it came to the end of the book. Although maybe this could be attributed to the translation, one cannot be truly sure.

All in all, The Hangman’s Daughter is fairly enjoyable. The reader must of course take in to consideration the liberties the author has taken, but even with that it is a decent read. Over time I am sure I will be seeking out the rest of the titles in the series.

The Devil’s Bible (Bohemian Gospel #2) by Dana Chamblee Carpenter

The Codex Gigas, also known as The Devil’s Bible, is an ancient book shrouded in mystery. Once considered one of the wonders of the world, the truth behind who wrote it and where has been lost to time. Yet there are those who continue to whisper about the strange book – about how it calls to the power-hungry and eventually drives them mad.

There is no one alive who knows the truth – no one except Mouse.

Going by the name Emma Nicholas, Mouse has been running from the truth behind the Devil’s Bible for centuries. Using a normal name and trying to live a normal life, Mouse only wants the one thing she can never have. Yet her life of a lie has caught up with her and when she finds herself facing exposure, Mouse has little choice to run.

Believing herself beyond help, a stranger’s kind act gives Mouse the first glimmer of hope she has felt in years. This flicker will need to be fanned to a full force flame however if Mouse wants to win this game of souls that began a very, very long time ago.

The Devil’s Bible is a real book, and like it is portrayed in this book with the same name, it is shrouded in mystery. No one truly knows the truth behind this book – who wrote it and where – though many theories abound. Chamblee-Carpenter offers one version, mixing reality and fantasy in this edge of your seat story.

I really enjoyed reading The Devil’s Bible. It wasn’t until I was adding this book to my Goodreads queue that I realized it is the second book in a series. Fortunately, one does not have to read the first book to enjoy the second. The first book seems to be solely about Mouse’s early life up to the point where she penned the Devil’s Bible. The second book is more modern day and touches briefly on Mouse’s past enough that the reader is able to follow along.

There are some who might compare The Devil’s Bible with The DaVinci Code with its combination of speculation and truth. And while there are some similarities, I enjoyed The Devil’s Bible more. While rich in religious imagery, it also doesn’t bash you over the head with it.

The one drawback I found was what was supposed to be the “final” battle between Mouse and her father. Looking back I can see why it was written that way as it left things open for a sequel. However, as I was in the process of reading the book, I felt let down. Like so many things, the ending makes sense in hindsight.

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed The Devil’s Bible. There are numerous people on Goodreads who say you should read the first book, The Bohemian Gospel, first; yet there are just as many who were like me and read the second book without reading the first and liking it just as much. Whichever way you decide to tackle this tome, I recommend it to all of my readers.

The Tudor Bride by Joanna Hickson

Catherine de Valois, King Henry V’s French bride, is a beautiful and intelligent woman and easily dazzles the English people. Yet life at court is often full of intrigue and conspiracies abound. However Catherine believes herself invincible as she gives Henry a son and heir, securing the family line.

When King Henry is stricken with fever and subsequently dies, Catherine finds herself adrift in a foreign land. The regency council takes her young son to raise him as befitting a king and forces her to retire from court. At the secluded manor of Hadham, Catherine surrounds herself with familiar faces from her life in the royal household. Among them is Owen Tudor who served with her husband Henry, and who now serves as chief Steward for her.

Away from prying eyes, Catherine and Owen become lovers; the love between them burning brightly. When someone from the regency council makes a bid for power and tries to seize the throne, Catherine – and those around her – face more than scathing gossip. They face mortal peril.

The truth surrounding Catherine de Valois is generally spotty at best. During this particular time, women weren’t held in the same regard as men and the records reflect that. What really happened to Catherine after Henry’s death is open to interpretation and it is something Hickson takes and runs with.

Told from the point of view of her friend and nursemaid, Guillaumette, we are with Catherine from her marriage to Henry to her eventual illness and death. We are witness to the ups and downs in her short life; the happiness and the heartbreak.

Hickson builds a fascinating world based on what knowledge there is available. It is quite obvious she has done her research for the characters (a goodly number of them real people) seem to come alive on the page. She weaves a tale of mystery and intrigue that captures the imagination. Several times while reading I had to remind myself that much of what she was describing actually happened.

As there is so much of Catherine’s life that is unknown, Hickson does take some liberty with telling the young Queen’s story. This is understandable and is dealt with in quite a believable manner. Those readers who are real sticklers for true historical accuracy might have a few quibbles, but they would be few and far between.

While I am not the biggest fan of books set in this particular era, I enjoyed The Tudor Bride. Readers who enjoy Hickson’s other works as well as the myriad of books set in this time will enjoy this tale.

 

The Ninja’s Daughter (Shinobi Mystery #4) by Susan Spann

It is autumn in Kyoto in the year 1565. When a young woman is found murdered on the shores of the Kamo River, the local police aren’t interested in investigating. The girl is an actor’s daughter, one of the many of low social status in the city.

Master Ninja Hiro Hattori learns the girl is the daughter of a fellow ninja and feels obligated to avenge her. He enlists his friend and charge, a Portuguese Jesuit named Father Mateo, and the two soon find themselves embroiled in a very dangerous plot. In the world of theater nothing and no one is as it seems and the only clue they have to help them is a single gold coin.

I generally don’t start a series in the middle but this was one of the times it couldn’t be helped. My library only had this part of the series and I was unable to find the earlier books. Considering how much I enjoyed this book, I am hoping to find the previous stories.

The Ninja’s Daughter is set in a time of change for Japan. Long isolated from the outside world, Japan was an insular society and viewed outsiders with distrust. This kind of culture clash is used to great effect in the story as what Hattori takes as normal, Father Mateo often finds puzzling or even unthinkable. For the police to not investigate the murder of a girl is horrifying to the priest.

Spann shows how good research can go a long way with a story by bringing 16th century Kyoto to life with her words. She shows how different cultures can clash but can also come together when the time is needed. As much as I enjoyed The Ninja’s Daughter, I likely would have enjoyed it more had I started with the first book.

While it does have potential to stand on its own, readers will likely want to start with the first book of the Shinobi Mystery series. Personally, I’ll be keeping an eye out for earlier books as well as later books of this series.

Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful by Teresa Riordan

“There are no ugly women, just lazy ones.” – Helena Rubenstein

In the battle of the sexes, women have employed any number of potions and contraptions to catch the eye and win the hand. From corsets and crinolines to lipstick and hair dye, shrewd and canny women (and sometimes men) have used every means at their disposal in the quest for feminine flawlessness.

New York Times columnist Teresa Riodran delves in to the history of many of these incredible inventions. She explores that strange yet interesting intersection of fashion, business, and science. Where social trends often fueled technological innovations. And where beauty inventions have sought to put the imaginative and resourceful woman on an even playing field with the conventionally beautiful.

As a woman rapidly approaching 40 (kicking and screaming), I have found the subject of beauty and self care more and more interesting over the years. As something of a history buff, the history behind the subject is equally fascinating. To find a book that combines the two made for me a delightful read.

What could easily have been something dry and boring is instead made quite interesting with Riordan’s well researched and often amusing writing. It is obvious she finds the subject of beauty and the history behind it fascinating and she brings that to her writing. Each chapter is devoted to one aspect of appearance that women have focused on; hair, skin, nails, etc. Chapters are even devoted to the bust and the behind!

I found Inventing Beauty to be an informative read. While she concentrated on mainly the American/English aspect of beauty inventions and focused on a mere 100 years, it is a well thought out and well executed tome. I would love to read more on the subject going back further and potentially focusing on other cultures, but that will likely be another book at another time.

This is not the book for every reader as not every person finds the history of beauty interesting. Those who do (like myself) would do well to pick this book up and give it a read. It casts new light on what we women have done in the name of style and shows how primping and preening never really go out of fashion.