Van has finished reading… The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow

12 Jun

The Naseby Horses

 

Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. When Simon is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses he’s convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Simon is epileptic, and his seizures are getting worse. Despite this, despite resistance from the villagers, the police, even his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.

Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?

 

Some books have the gift of putting you at ease right from the off, settling you into the story and letting you know you’re in good hands. That’s not Dominic Brownlow’s The Naseby Horses. The feeling of being in good hands will come but you’ve got to get to grips with Simon’s world first, and Simon’s world is a short circuit of the senses. Cue some very immersive writing, and here is where Dominic Brownlow’s debut really shines. The author takes the time and trouble to explore what Simon sees, what he smells, what he tastes, taking the reader into each scene so we experience that jolt of difference. As if that’s not enough, Dominic Brownlow manages to do all this whilst driving the narrative ever onwards, keeping the reader guessing, raising the tension. And then there’s Simon’s memory, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the way Simon experiences time. This is the thing above all else that really unsettles, that makes the book read like a fever dream – but ultimately the thing that really lets you know you’re in good hands!

At the heart of the narrative is an ancient curse and something of a whodunnit, and the fact that it begins with Day Three and ends with Day Six gives you some idea of the level of tension involved. Throw into the mix the fact that your narrator is compromised and you’ve got a plot that will keep you guessing all the way to the end (I would have loved to say, ‘yes! I knew it!’ but come the end I wasn’t even in the same county). Who do you believe, that’s the question, and not just in the narrative but in a wider sense for the book, too. The local history Brownlow includes, the curse – and where there’s a curse you have to have religion. It feels like there’s a debate bubbling away in The Naseby Horses. Where does hearsay end and fact begin? Who writes the history? Who decides what’s true? And with his flawed protagonist, it’s the question Dominic Brownlow is asking you with every word. Who will you believe?

 

The Naseby Horses was published by Louise Walters Books on 5th December 2019 ISBN:9781999630560, and is published in paperback on 24th August 2020 ISBN:9781999630539

 

You can find Dominic on Twitter @DominicBrownlow

My thanks to Louise Walters for allowing me to read and review this extraordinary book.

Van has finished reading… Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait

1 Jun

our fathers

It’s been twenty years since Tommy Baird left the Scottish island of Litta, twenty years since his father took a shotgun and killed his brother, his sister, his mother, himself. Twenty years of trying to escape what happened. Twenty years of wondering why he survived. Now he’s grown, and he can’t run anymore. Tom Baird is coming home.

 

In Rebecca Wait’s Our Fathers, the atmosphere is everything. There’s a rising sense of tension throughout the book. It’s like a guitar string being tightened and tightened until everything sings under the strain, and you wonder whether the bridge will rip out before the neck gives, the string snap or the peg head tear loose. There’s a sublime scene involving a dinner at which the casual mention of a name will have you looking around to see which bit gave out!

The prose is lean, perfectly weighted for the harsh beauty of the island, the elemental shaping of both this rock and the islanders who inhabit it. If you’re looking for comfortable you’re not going to find it here. Though the island in all its ruggedness and beauty is central to the shape this story takes it’s the people and how they’re shaped by it that’s the real tale being told. We see men and women in quite traditional roles, and there’s a distinct hierarchy between islanders and incomers, even when those incomers have been settled for decades. When we really see the characters as individuals it’s frequently in what they carry, in what’s been lost to them. At every turn what’s not said weighs more in the balance than what is, something that repeatedly put me in mind of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, and there’s an echo there too of nature and time, of the relentlessness and the guilt of being the one left behind.

Rebecca Wait’s Our Fathers is a novel to be felt, a psychological excavation in search of answers where none will suffice. It’s a book to immerse yourself in, a tale of isolations in a time of isolation.

 

Our Fathers was published by riverrun on the 23rd January 2020 ISBN:9781529400052

You can find Rebecca on her website rebeccawait.com

My thanks to Corinna at riverrun for allowing me to review this book.

 

Van has finished reading… Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin)

17 Apr

tyll

Out of the village, past the tree where the Cold Woman waits, into the forest where things unspeakable lurk in the darkness, young Tyll Ulenspiegel waits through the night with the wagon and his fear. Come morning he will never be the same.

Escaping the ordinary village life laid out for him, Tyll will become legend, outrunning cannonballs on the battlefield, outwitting the wise in the courts of Europe, even outfoxing death in the depths of the earth. With his jester’s costume and his crooked smile he will see us all and make us laugh – but it’s he who will laugh longest.

Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (translated by Ross Benjamin) is exquisite. From the get-go Kehlmann sets a febrile tone. We get an eye-witness account of Tyll’s arrival at a village, the masterful performance he gives as the villagers are swept up in excitement and fear, and the carnage he leaves in his wake. It’s the quiet dread that lingers though, the thought that he might turn his gaze on you.

Tyll is a dream of a character, irresistible and irrepressible and Daniel Kehlmann’s writing carries him superbly. Where much of the supporting cast could easily have become caricatures it’s in their words, beliefs, actions that the author reveals the folly of their various stances. Just as Tyll’s juggling is a triumph of him imagining himself doing it, so we see scholars, politicians, even royalty finding proof of their station by believing the evidence to be there, of having written their futures before they’ve even arrived. And there’s a small wonder in the midst of all this, that Tyll isn’t a likeable character – if anything he should be the complete opposite of likeable – yet you can’t help but root for him, can’t help but want his always to be the upper hand. There’s humanity in his portrayal that is unexpected, and consequently all the more profound, and in amongst all the cold and darkness and horror it’s the thing that shines brightest.

 

It seems entirely fitting that reading Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll feels a little like being part of a performance, that the reader picking out the very tidy little ‘in-jokes’, working to place this peculiar history, place the people in it, becomes one of the players. Or perhaps it’s that history itself is somehow reduced (or one might say elevated) to a series of scenes within acts, and that we’re part of a play within a play. Or maybe it’s simply that Tyll is laughing at me now, fallen as I have for his little ruse, and that what you’ll learn is that life, dear reader, is something akin to a jester’s wicked prank, that Tyll’s closing words are all the wisdom you’ll need.

 

Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (Translated by Ross Benjamin) was published by riverrun on 6th February 2020 ISBN:9781529403657

My especial thanks to Corinna Zifko at riverrun for allowing me to review this extraordinary book.

 

Van has finished reading… Roots Of Corruption by Laura Laakso

19 Mar

roots of corruption

 

On the night of Samhain, the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, and ancient magic runs wild in Old London.

When Lady Bergamon is attacked in her Ivy Street garden, Wishearth turns to Yannia for help. Who could have the power to harm Lady Bergamon in her own domain? While Yannia searches for the answer, nature herself appears to be killing Mages in Old London. Yannia and Karrion join forces with New Scotland Yard to solve the baffling Mage deaths. But wherever they turn, all the clues point back towards Ivy Street.

Yannia’s abilities are put to test as she races to save Lady Bergamon’s life and prevent further murders. But with the lines between friends and enemies blurring, she must decide who to trust and how much she’s willing to sacrifice for Old London and its inhabitants…

 

Laura Laakso’s Roots Of Corruption is the third book in the Wilde Investigations series. As with Echo Murder, the second book in the series, there’s no let-up for Private Investigator Yannia Wilde, the pressure to solve the case coming in right at the start – and this one will call into question her closest relationships. The premise allows a deeper probing of what makes Yannia tick, and particularly how Yannia and Karrion fit together. The emotional tension is ever-present and that taut you could probably play a tune on it, and one of the things I really like about Laura Laakso’s writing is the extent to which she’s prepared to put her characters through the ringer. You might go into some books with a sense of everything working out fine in the end but that’s not the feeling I have with the Wilde Investigations series. This is definitely true of Yannia’s friendships, and in Roots Of Corruption they are stressed to breaking point.

 

As with the first two books (Fallible Justice and Echo Murder) the world building is excellent, and aside from a new realm opening up to us in Roots Of Corruption, our knowledge of how magic works also broadens. There’s sense and reason in every decision, and also signs of some very interesting rabbit holes too – it only remains to be seen which ones Laura Laakso will choose to investigate in future episodes!

While the tension levels continue to rise there’s also a good deal of humour in Roots Of Corruption. Karrion continues to say inadvertently hilarious things at entirely the wrong moment (his timing is perfect) but his comedy crown might just be up for grabs in the shape of Mery, a chain-smoking, eye-rolling new edition to the cast that, according to Laura, might well make an appearance in future episodes. I can only hope so!

 

Roots Of Corruption is everything I’ve come to expect from Laura Laakso. Tense, funny, absolutely gripping and ultimately very satisfying. And with three books in the series, there’s never been a better time to meet Yannia and the magical world of Old London.

 

Roots of Corruption is published by Louise Walters Books on the 26th March 2020 ISBN:

 

You can find Laura on Twitter @LLaaksowriter

 

My especial thanks to Louise Walters for allowing me to review this fantastic book. Support a great Indie publisher and buy it here.

Van has finished reading… The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

17 Mar

 

the night tiger

It’s June, 1931, in colonial Malaya, and it’s a time for strange gifts. A British doctor receives the gift of a young Chinese houseboy as a bequest from an old friend, and Ji-Lin, an apprentice dressmaker and part-time dancehall girl is left with a gruesome souvenir at the dancehall. As fate weaves a web to draw these unlikely allies together, a tiger stalks their trail – though it is said that a man-eating tiger, if it eats enough, can take on the form of a man and walk among us. Perhaps it’s not a tiger after all!

 

Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger is a stealthy tale indeed, drawing the reader into a lush and captivating world. With romance, the supernatural, a bit of whodunnit, a twist and a perfect ending, there’s something for just about everyone along the way, and the further in you go the harder you’ll find it to put down. The blending of the supernatural with the everyday is perfect, Yangsze Choo always giving just enough for the reader to connect the dots, and so feel the chills. While rational explanations might sometimes be the order of the day, there’s always plenty of scope for the unbelievable to be what lingers in the foreground. The writing is vivid and I found myself coming out of some scenes with such a clear image I could almost believe I’d seen it on a screen.

I was particularly taken with the way the range of characters move through the story, and how the fact of colonialism shapes their various worlds. Albeit an ever-present fact, it’s something Yangsze Choo appears to have kept in the background, allowing to be a subtle part of the overall flavour.

The characterisation is excellent. Tied into the idea of the Confucian Virtues with consummate skill, each of the main characters carries the yin and yang of their Confucian names, and none more so than Ji Lin. One of the two narrators, she’s a great protagonist, though impulsive to a fault, and I fully expect you’ll be shouting at the pages every time she takes a fateful turn. The other narrator is the houseboy, Ren. Wiser than his years and sharper than his station, Ren is an absolute gift of a character. He is the heart around which all else revolves, and he’s the one above all others you’ll be wishing, praying, rooting for.

 

Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger is a confection. Vivid and gripping it’s a joy of a book to read.

 

The Night Tiger was published by Quercus in paperback on the 7th January 2020 ISBN: 9781787470477

You can find Yangsze on Twitter @yangszechoo

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin and Corinna Zifko at Quercus for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier (translated by Emily Boyce)

9 Mar

a long way off

Sixty-year-old Marc is on the road. With a cat and his grown-up daughter along for the ride he’s heading for, or maybe running away from…something. Though things start well, as their journey progresses events take increasingly darker turns, and a trail of destruction blazes in their wake.

 

You know it’s Noir when your first instinct is to laugh, and even as you do you know you really shouldn’t. I think it’s the recognition that does it, that connection to the situation, that sense of solidarity – after all, we’ve all been there before to some degree. Though in Marc’s case you’ve got to hope the degree is small. His disconnectedness is acutely drawn, the deadpan being the foil that highlights the ludicrous around him, or perhaps reflects his own. The sense that things are going to get messy is palpable, though I guarantee you’ll be surprised just how messy that is, and Pascal Garnier’s characterisation is perfect. Even the cat never puts a paw wrong.

 

Pascal Garnier’s A Long Way Off (translated by Emily Boyce) is sublime. It’s a slim volume that punches well above its weight. Very dark, very funny and scarily relatable in our increasingly fractured world.

 

A Long Way Off is published by Gallic Books in March 2020 ISBN:9781910477779

My thanks to Isabelle at Gallic for allowing me to review this book

 

Van has finished reading… Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

21 Feb

washington black

Called from the cane field to serve at the master’s table, eleven-year-old Washington Black measures his future in mortal fear. This night will affect that future in ways he can’t begin to imagine as possibilities open before him, but in the 1830’s will the world allow a young slave to dream, let alone strive to achieve it?

 

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is not the novel you might expect, given the first half-dozen chapters. You might start out thinking it’s a book about slavery but while books about slavery are also books about freedom, Washington Black is very much a book about freedom that’s also about slavery. The calculated cruelty and obscene privilege of the plantation owners, the anger and desperation, the futility of the slaves’ situation – it’s all there in those opening chapters, exquisitely rendered in tense descriptive prose. But as things take a turn for Washington, so the story takes flight, extends not beyond the possible but certainly to the outskirts of the probable, and you, dear reader will be glad you’re along for the ride. From the Indies to America to the frozen North to Europe and North Africa, Washington’s journey is a dizzying adventure.

Freedom, and the lack thereof is the prism through which Esi Edugyan shows all the main players – though it might be described as freedom with a small f that features largest as it’s each character’s own sense of liberty which directs. Big Kit is a formidable presence (at times putting me in mind of Caryl Phillips obeah woman, Christiana, in Cambridge), and the relationship she has with Washington is beautifully complicated. There were echoes in that relationship with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and also Tucker Caliban and his legendary ancestor from William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. Kelley’s A Drop Of Patience chimes too, in the nurturing of Washington’s talent and his striving to find a place in the world, which is ultimately a striving to find peace in himself. To that end, the novel’s ending is perfect.

Though in the modern parlance it’s easy to view the white characters’ issues as first world problems, barely a single player enters the stage without some coercing will driving them from where they might otherwise be happy. The men of the Wilde family are flung far from home, while their mother, stoic in her unhappiness, struggles to maintain the family pile. Even the slave catcher, Willard, is driven to extremes by the things he cannot shake off.

 

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a treasure. Captivating characters, exquisite prose and a story that will have turning page after page after page. Read it, enjoy it, then put in your shelf alongside Ellison, Baldwin, Whitehead, Kelley.

 

Washington Black was published by Serpent’s Tail in August 2018 ISBN:9781846689598

Van has finished reading…Abigail by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix)

21 Jan

abigail

In Budapest in 1943, Gina’s cosseted and carefree existence is about to change forever. Her father, a General in the Hungarian army, having already sent her beloved governess back to France, sends Gina to a boarding school far away from the capital. Ensconced in a very strict religious institution, with any and every instinct towards individuality repressed Gina rebels. But with rebellion comes punishment, and not only from those in authority. Alienated from staff and pupils alike, she finds herself truly alone for the first time in her life. Alone except for Abigail, a statue in the grounds who pupils confide in through handwritten messages. Can Gina find a way to navigate this alien world she finds herself in? Can she see beyond her selfishness to understand those around her? And can she find out who is the mysterious figure behind the statue and the legend of Abigail?

 

There’s little doubt you’ll have come across coming-of-age stories set in boarding schools before, and possibly ones hinging around wartime but that’s no detriment to how enjoyable a read Abigail is. You get all the things you would expect – the pupil shenanigans, the adult-pupil power plays, the firm friends and sworn enemies – but into the bargain there’s the author’s immaculate plotting, the casually-discarded breadcrumbs that raise the reader’s eyebrow, and the expert timing that never once delivers a pay-off until a good few pages after you expected it to arrive. Where there’s mystery Magda Szabó keeps the possibilities alive so you’re never entirely sure you’re on the right track until the moment of truth.

One of the real joys of reading Magda Szabó’s Abigail is the balance of awareness. What the reader sees in the wider context, and what each of the characters know or believe or choose to believe in spite of everything is central to the whole thing ticking like a well-tuned clock. I don’t doubt you’ll find yourself willing Gina to listen more closely, to see more clearly, to understand better. But then how many of us were just like Gina in some way at that age, and with so much less at stake! Perhaps it’s this that touches us in the reading, the wish that we could’ve been, can still become the best of ourselves.

 

It’s no wonder Abigail is Magda Szabó’s most popular book in Hungary. It’s a novel that wears its wisdom lightly. A story that holds the attention, it is funny, and sweet, and very human. It is urgent, heartfelt and honest without once leaning toward sentimentality. It really is a joy to read.

 

Abigail is published by MacLehose Press on 14th January 2020 ISBN:9780857058485

My thanks to Corrina at MacLehose for allowing me to review this fabulous book.

Van has finished reading… The Past by Tessa Hadley

8 Jan

the past

Four siblings meet up in their grandparents’ old house for three long, hot summer weeks. But under the idyllic surface lie simmering tensions.

Roland has come with his new wife, and his sisters don’t like her. Fran has brought her children, who soon uncover an ugly secret in a ruined cottage in the woods. Alice has invited Kasim, an outsider, who makes plans to seduce Roland’s teenage daughter. And Harriet, the eldest, finds her quiet self-possession ripped apart when passion erupts unexpectedly.

Over the course of the holiday a familiar way of life falls apart forever.

 

Tessa Hadley’s The Past is a gloriously intricate novel, though the weight of that intricacy doesn’t impinge in the slightest. The writing is crisp and delicate, with a lilt to it that continually put me in mind of Jane Austen. The characters are finely tuned, each in their own way at the mercy of their disparate desires, shaped by the agony of attaining and the fear of losing. As they navigate the proximity imposed by their family holiday each life is like a miniature-scale landslide, so the most mundane decisions becomes freighted, the blandest of words barbed. So often, what’s not said echoes as much as words shouted aloud. Yet there’s comfort too in the knowledge they have of each other, in their shared history in the house they grew up in. Whether they choose to look or turn away, the past is always there.

Speaking of things not said, I particularly enjoyed the bittersweet image of closing paragraphs, or rather the thoughts it left to linger – how closeness is not the same as proximity, and how blood ties rarely find their strength in blood. Did they know? Would it have made a difference if they did? In both cases I’m inclined to think not.

 

The Past was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015

I read the Vintage paperback ISBN:9780099597469

 

Van has finished reading… Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

18 Dec

exit west

In a city on the brink of turmoil two young people notice each other. Negotiating their days around the city’s inexorable slide into warfare, they take the chance of something beginning. But time is running out. For them, for people like them, for people not like them, and rumours are spreading about the possibility of escape through mysterious black doors that are opening up everywhere. Will they take the chance, and if they do will it be worth the risk?

 

I’m hard pressed to think of a novel that confounds your expectation quite as much as Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. I could almost believe the author mapped out a quite different story to begin with, and then went back and turned left instead of right at every available opportunity. What’s really impressive about this is that it’s achieved with subtlety. The tone of the writing is a mix of fairy tale and rambling anecdote that is frequently and momentarily pulled into sharp documentary focus. The upshot of this is the heart-breaking detail that passes with the quotidian, deepening that sense of disbelief that such things are possible whilst underlining in vivid red that they are.

Where the book skips away from reality is a master stroke. No need to describe or explain the horror and danger of protracted migrant journeys but there lurks the fear of what lies on the other side of the ‘door’. The device also affords the author space to encompass many other ‘routes’, widening the angle from the main characters’ journey to reveal the global picture.

 

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a peach of a book, a riveting human story and a timely history lesson that will hold up a mirror to your assumptions. Very much a necessary read.

Exit West was published by Penguin on the 8th February 2018 ISBN:9780241979068

You can find Mohsin on his website mohsinhamid.com