Two great books

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James Frey – Bright Shiny Morning
Anyone who has read A Million Little Pieces and knows of the subsequent controversy will know that James Frey has a keen sense of storytelling. In Bright Shiny Morning (my first exposure to Frey and so read and reviewed here untainted by any reaction to being misled by Pieces) we follow the lives of a number of interesting characters who initially seem like walking cliches from daytime TV shows.

A young couple, Maddie and Dylan, run away from their abusive family homes to be together in the city of angels. Amberton and Cassie are hugely successful actors in a luxurious marriage of convenience. Old Man Joe is a Venice beach bum who likes his bottles of wine and lives in the toilet of a restaurant. Esperanza is a Mexican-American girl who works as a maid but wants to go to college.

I had great hopes that these four stories would eventually meet each other in an epic climax, but that wasn’t the case. It was still a brilliant book. Interspersed with fascinating facts and thought-provoking lists about Los Angeles, Bright Shiny Morning is a mixture of gritty storytelling and mind-opening information about the development of the city and the sheer size of the place. It’s obvious to the reader that Frey is just scratching the surface of LA and the millions of tales that are ongoing every day.

I was initially taken aback by the lack of punctuation in the book but it actually helps create a sense of the city – ostensibly laid-back but also rough and chaotic. Actor Amberton’s homosexual cravings for someone who works at his agency are balanced against the biker gang violence Dylan has to experience. While Dylan’s uncompromising love for Maddie is as strong as Old Man Joe’s good heart and struggle to do the right thing when he sees a young girl trapped in an abusive situation. For me, Esperanza’s story was weaker than the others and rather predictable, but on the flip side no less heart-warming. However I felt that perhaps the darker outcomes of the other stories were perhaps more realistic.

If you have any interest at all in Los Angeles then this book is essential reading in my opinion. I think Frey’s writing style and the decision to intersperse the fiction with numerous facts helps to sell the otherwise fairly linear stories. For it to be a truly magnificent book I would have liked to have seen some interconnectedness to the four tales. However, it’s still one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Matt Haig – How to Stop Time
A much simpler, if no less moving or thought-provoking, novel comes in the form of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time. Here we have the first-person account of one man’s life and recovery from lost to new love wrapped up in an historic / sci-fi novel. The twist is that the man, Tom Hazard, has a rare medical condition which means he ages at an incredibly slow rate. He’s like Connor Macleod from Highlander without the sword.

He’s been warned off love by the leader of the Albatross group of which he is a member. The group has been set up to keep the members’ condition (super-slow aging) a secret and help these special people to move on to new identities every 8 years. But Hazard has started a new job in London as a history teacher and really fancies the school’s French teacher.

He used to work with Shakespeare and then later played piano in jazz clubs in Paris. He’s seen a lot of stuff, got married, seen his wife die, lost his daughter, been forced to kill and lived through countless different identities. What keeps him going is his quest to find his lost daughter who has the same condition as him.

This sort of bloodless vampire life harks back a little I guess to Haig’s other book The Radleys but here we have more observations about the passage of time and the power of memory more akin to his other science fiction story The Humans. Haig has an uncanny knack of making the everyday occurrences we all experience into things of great beauty and when he writes of love found and love lost he is captivating.

With How to Stop Time I feel like he’s taken his writing to another level like a stripped-back version, reduced to the key messages, of an epic David Mitchell book. Really good stuff and no surprise it’s been optioned for a film (although I’m not wholly convinced Benedict Cumberbatch is the right person to play Hazard).

Photo by Brady Cook on Unsplash



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