Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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Book Review, Shift by Hugh Howey

After reading Wool, the first book I’d read by Hugh Howey and one that has critics and fans alike raving, I was hooked.  Quite simply, the entire concept behind Wool, the sparse and heart-achingly gorgeous writing, the characters and what they endured and survived (or didn’t) had me wanting to read and know more by this author and about this world – our world in a future that we can only hope is never realized.

Shift Omnibus Edition (Wool, #6-8)

Imagine my delight when I discover that Shift is the prequel to Wool – this is the book that comes to explain the Silos, their purpose and the terrible choices that led what’s left of humanity there.

Written as parallel narratives – one from the point of view of Troy, a technician and leader in a Silo in the future and one from the perspective of Donald,  a budding politician in contemporary times swept up in a tide of power, corruption and the assertion of a skewed morality that has deathly consequences, Shift is a commanding but sometimes difficult book.  The writing is very good but lacks the elegiac flow that Wool often displayed.

Gaps and omissions mean that the reader is trusted to put some of the pieces of this comp;ex jigsaw together and, while many have no doubt succeeded, I was often left scratching my head and needing to reread sections to understand what I missed – how A plus B led to G. I confess, it didn’t always work and I am still wondering about aspects of the novel but not enough to go back.

I guess that’s another difference between Shift and Wool. In Wool, I really cared about the characters – I was invested so heavily in their futures and choices, I wept, cried  aloud in fear, shouted for joy, even over the most simple of things. Here, I didn’t like them nearly as much and often felt indifferent when they exited the chapter or tale. I do wonder, however, if this was a deliberate strategy on the part of Howey for what is clear is the obejctivity that was required to create the world of Shift and Wool, the utter conviction in a moral code that doesn’t allow for detractors or questioning – to do so is weak and threatening and both must be eliminated.

So while Shift, by segueing back and forth, reveals the building of the Silos, the politicking and manipulations as well as the ethically fraught reasons behind them – what led to and the rationale for their being inhabited, it’s not always clear-cut or easy  to unearth – but perhaps that’s the point. Certainly, towards the end of the book, once the notion of hierarchy within the silos and the way habits and idiosyncrasies are formed is established, characters who you can identify with and feel sympathy for, including some from Wool, emerge.

I look forward to the next installment to see how Howey will bridge the then and now and move into the future. His imagination is fierce and boundless, unlike the Silos, and his way of expressing possibility, seductive.

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Book Review: Hurricane by Hugh Howey

I fThe Hurricaneirst encountered Howey’s writing with the incomparable Wool (which I also reviewed) so I very much looked forward to reading another of his novels. Hurricane isn’t what I expected at all, which was a disaster story of epic proportions. Instead, what I discovered was a very sweet coming of age story which focuses on the unpopular, insecure, middle child Daniel, who is more often the butt of cruel jokes (and the cruellest is perpetrated at the beginning of the novel) than he is a hero.

Daniel is also decent, loving and protective of his family, especially his little sister, Zola, and is beyond proud of his big brother, Hunter.

When Hurricane Anna tears through a quiet town “near Charleston”, in which Daniel lives, leaving behind terrible physical devastation, the inevitable rebuilding takes on emotional and psychological significance as well. Forced to emerge from the cyber-cocoon and media bubble in which they dwell, Daniel and his family rediscover not only themselves, but also each other. Along with this comes introductions to neighbours they didn’t know existed and, as they rebuild shattered houses, the foundations for solid friendships and even love is also laid.

But it’s when Daniel’s estranged father reappears suddenly that house repairs take on a whole new meaning.

This was a very different book to Howey’s last one and to what I expected. Gentle, reflective, the entire story is a metaphor for so many things. I really enjoyed it and the meanings it softly, despite having a Hurricane at its heart, imparts.

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Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Like quite a few readers and writers before me, I have a confession to make. I tend to avoid self-published books – generally, at any cost – for a whole variety of reasons that blur the professional and the personal. I like my books validated by a publisher, editor, copy editor, marketing team and everything in-between. I figure if they invest in something, then it’s good enough for me. Of course, us readers know that isn’t always true – some professionally published stuff doesn’t make the grade either but, in my experience, that happens a great deal less often than with self-published work. I know, I have read quite a few in an effort to give them an opportunity to both shine and prove me wrong. Up until now, I haven’t been….

Then I read Wool. On the recommendation of two people (one a fabulous writer – OK, it was Anthony Eaton – the other was his lovely wife, Imogen, thanks, Tony and Min!) whose taste and judgement I bow to, I bought and read Wool by Hugh Howey and, in doing so, every negative preconception I ever had about self-publishing has been turned on its head. Not only can Howey write (and then teach a few of us with more novels under our belt how to), but also Wool is one of the finest science-fiction books (no, dammit, forget genre, it’s just one of the best books) I have ever read. I am not kidding. It is absolutely brilliant. I want to sing it from the rooftops, shout it from the car as I drive down the street, blab it all over my website, blogs and FaceBook pages – well, I am doing the last bit 🙂 Read this book!

I am not the only one who feels this way either. What started off as a self-published novella of 12,000 words, about a post-apocalyptic world where humans are confined to a place called the Silo, and the levels they exist upon, their roles within these spaces and the laws and punishments meted out are strictly regulated, in less than 12 months, it has become a publishing sensation. Fans in the USA begged Howey to write more in this world. He did. Thank goodness. Now, Wool – or the Wool Omnibus, which is what I read and which is made up of five novellas that when read together make for one utterly compelling story, is available. It’s a tale about humanity, or lack thereof, power, totalitarianism and a range of deeply philosophical and ethical questions. But don’t think for a moment this book is preachy – on the contrary, by focussing this epic tale on a few characters whom we quickly grow to love, admire and loathe, Howey has made this wide-ranging and fabulous story incredibly personal as well. You invest in both the plot and the people who inhabit the Silo. So much so, I was crying, catching my breath, laughing, and despite being exhausted, unable to put the damn book down.

Upon finishing it, I felt something I don’t often feel on completing a novel (for good and bad reasons): I felt satisfied. The ending is perfect. I don’t need the tale to continue (or even particularly want it to, which is always a good sign for me – when, like Oliver, I want more. But here, I feel it’s also indicative of just how right Howey has paced this), even though a great deal of what occurred within will resonate with me for a long time. Nor do I feel cheated. Reading Wool wasn’t only a marvellous fictive experience; I also received a lesson in how to write. Howey paces this book perfectly, maintains suspense, ups the ante at every opportunity, the emotional cost, the sacrifice and consequences. Nothing is laboured. Thank you, Mr Howey.

If you think I’m raving too much, well, not only did Random House in the UK pick this tale up and is publishing hardback versions, but Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox are optioning the rights for the movie. Credit to Howey, he is keeping the book rights in the USA for himself.
But before all you self-publishing gurus go mad, consider this also: not only is Wool a joy to read as a story, it is also mistake free. Grammar, syntax and punctuation (apart from one minor error I picked up – and that’s much less than appears in my professionally published books!) has been honed and painstakingly corrected. It reads beautifully in that regard as well. The language is wonderful, evocative, moving and polished to a shiny perfection.

I think you get the picture – Wool is a literary, sci-fi reading treat, a genuine surprise and pleasure. It is not “fad” literature or jumping on any literary bandwagon (as many are wont to do). It acknowledges its roots in an old and proven genre and then takes it forward. Magnificent. Really.
Make sure you don’t miss out.

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