Van has finished reading… Echo Murder by Laura Laakso

5 Apr

echo murder

A mugging gone wrong sees a man stabbed in a London alley, but when you’re this close to Old London and its magical community nothing is ever quite what it seems. The victim vanishes into thin air. When the same man is killed and vanishes again days later it’s time to call in Yannia Wilde. But Yannia has her own problems to deal with. Called to her father’s death bed, can she reconcile her obligations with her desires, her Wild Folk upbringing with her vocation in Old London? Can she do all this and solve the case?


Laura Laakso’s Echo Murder is the second in the Wilde Investigations series. Picking up where Laura’s excellent debut, Fallible Justice, left off, there’s tension right from the start with Yannia facing home and all the emotional turmoil that entails. Relationships and obligations take a front seat in this book and the author does a great job of balancing competing forces to keep the reader wondering what’s going to give first. The writing is pacey and the plot tight and engaging – nothing contrived or convenient in the turn of events.

While the world building is as strong as ever it’s the characters that come to the fore in this novel. It’s possible to pick up Echo Murder and feel at home but I would say it’s definitely a better idea to grab Fallible Justice first (I mean, it’s not like that’s a chore!). Quite simply, knowing the first book makes the second book that little bit more accessible and you’re right there with Yannia and company, eager to see what she’s going to get put through this time!

I particularly enjoyed the development of Karrion and Yannia’s relationship in Echo Murder. Albeit they seem more sibling-close there’s a playfulness there that carries more than a hint of will they or won’t they about it, though that might be a longer story arc in the series. It’s the light and shade of comfort and awkwardness between them really sets the relationship apart. And with Dearon in the mix too, well, all manner of fireworks are surely fizzing in the shadows just waiting to go off.

With planning already under way for books 4 to 8 (I’m sure I saw a note about that somewhere!), and a tease for book 3 at the end of Echo Murder, I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next up in this thrilling series.


Echo Murder is published by Louise Walters Books on the 6th June 2019 ISBN:9781999780975

You can find Laura on Twitter @LLaaksoWriter

My particular thanks to Louise Walters for allowing me to review this excellent book.


Van has finished reading… The Office Of Gardens And Ponds by Didier Decoin

27 Mar

gardens and ponds

When master carp-catcher Katsuro drowns in his beloved river the fate of his entire village is cast into doubt. Who will deliver the prized fish ordered by The Office of Gardens And Ponds at the Imperial Palace? Only Miyuki, Katsuro’s grief-stricken widow, knows anything about the fish. Can she complete the arduous journey and save the village?

So begins Didier Decoin’s captivating novel, The Office Of Gardens And Ponds (translated from the French by Euan Cameron). I love the subtlety with which the author draws us closer to Miyuki. In undertaking the journey to carry these fish – the last vestige of her dead husband – she seeks to move with his spirit, see what he saw and feel what he felt. A quiet man by nature, she seeks out where she can connections to the aspects of his life she wasn’t party to. The deft hand in the writing is evident when she stays at the Inn of Just Retribution and she at turns hopes and then fears her husband stayed there on his journeys; as readers we wonder how much of his life, of the man, she really knew. It’s a motif that surfaces again and again.

Miyuki is a perfect foil to the studied exuberance of the Imperial Palace, as unwilling to relinquish the grubbiness inflicted by her journey as the courtiers are to sully their appearance or persons by some slight deviation from the pervading protocol or the current vogue. The balance between Miyuki and the Director of the Office Of Gardens And Ponds, Nagusa Watanabe, is especially good, and what Didier Decoin never fails to show us in these two polar opposites is the people they are beneath the veneer.

The Office Of Gardens And Ponds is something of an immersive experience. Inside the gorgeously decorated covers (chapeau to Andrew Smith for the design), Didier Decoin’s focus on the senses draws us into the narrative, particularly during Miyuki’s journey. I could almost feel myself conjured into any number of prints from Hiroshige’s 69 Stations Of the Kido Kaiso, and it makes a refreshing change to appreciate the landscape from a rural point of view rather than a courtly one. The ephemeral nature of beauty at court is reflected against the ephemeral beauty of nature, and the one inevitability of life we are presented with is death.


Perhaps it’s no surprise that so much of historical fiction tends towards the intricacies of courtly life, whether eastern or western. In Didier Decoin’s subtle and enthralling The Office Of Gardens And Ponds we get to glimpse beyond the veil. We see the artifice of striving for natural, unaffected perfection, and we see the perfection of unaffected nature. Above all we see people, far removed though they may be by time and station and culture, doing the very same thing we all still do today: searching for meaning in the blink of an eye that is life.


The Office Of Gardens And Ponds is published by MacLehose Press on the 2nd May 2019 ISBN:9781529402438

You can find Didier on Twitter @DecoinDidier

If I find out where you can find Euan I’ll let you know.

My particular thanks to Corrina Zifko at MacLehose for allowing me to review this lovely book

Van has finished reading… When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt

25 Mar

when death

It’s no surprise that death is such a big part of literature. An inescapable event that touches everyone at some time, it cannot help but shape us, and in good fiction it’s a short road to an emotional response (I’m thinking Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, or The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes). But there’s a tidiness about fiction that real life simply doesn’t afford. All the things, all the people you have to deal with that you really don’t want to, that you don’t feel prepared or even qualified to deal with. Even at the end of a long life, when it comes it comes too quickly and you’re not ready. You’re never ready. Untimely death. Always.

Words fail us in real life. Words fail Naja Marie Aidt too in her memoir, When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back. Her — memoir: There’s a superlative out there somewhere that fits but it’s none of the usual ones. I almost want to say numbing memoir (though it’s hardly a superlative) because that’s the echo her words found in me, that senselessness, the not knowing what to do and the knowing there’s nothing you can do. It’s an incredible book. Let’s go with that.

Words fail Naja Marie Aidt in two ways. Firstly, she is a writer, and yet this experience is a thing that she now knows can’t be written. Not truly. Not precisely. You can imitate, yes. You can place one word after another and you can change their order, you can build a scene and you can describe but that feeling, that loss, hole, absence; it knows no grammar. She unfolds events through repetition, recollection, outburst, and also silence. The white space on these pages speaks too.

Secondly, it’s the most painful of medicines to recite, recall, remember and yet it’s necessary because it’s the closest you can get and for a fleeting moment you’ll be there. Almost there before that word insists. Never.


Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back is a beautiful thing, a tragic thing, eloquent and touching and desperate. A work that one could only wish should not have been so necessary.


When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back was published by Quercus on the 21st March 2019 ISBN:9781787475366

You can find Naja on Twitter @nmaidt

My particular thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this rather special memoir.

Van has finished reading… Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary

12 Mar

someone elses skin

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction. I suspect it’s down to a few poor choices early on – something I grabbed on holiday or in a waiting room or because the cover caught my eye – that proved to be cast in the mould of every police procedural you’ve ever seen, and decipherable within the first chapter. However, I do like to push the comfort zone every now and then. In the case of Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin I’m glad I dipped my toe back in the pool.

Actually it wasn’t the cover or the title but the name that drew me to this book (Writing-Community-Twitter, it’s one of the best things about Twitter, I think), a name I’d come across and for some reason associated with cat-woman (see Twitter comment above). The copy I picked up is also a World Book Night copy, so that’s a good endorsement too.

The opening scene is a peach: All the hard prose and atmospheric shadow you’d expect from a crime scene in a crime novel, except that the scene we’re introduced to is the protagonist lead-detective’s parents’ home. The house she grew up in, washed in waves of blue light, cordoned off with chittering blue tape, overrun with colleagues in forensic suits. And they really don’t want to let her in.

What follows is a journey into what it is to be a victim expertly disguised as a cracking novel. As I got to know DI Marnie Rome, hook after hook drew me ever deeper into the story until there was no possibility I was going to put it down. And though it might’ve been somewhere between a third and half the way through that my suspicions were piqued as to what was really happening, by then the need to know if they were going to get away with it had taken over everything else. The character interaction between Rome and her DS, Jake Noah is nicely pitched. It really doesn’t matter what your genre is when your characters work this well, and it’s exactly this understanding of the character dynamics that means there’s no shoe-horning a point in. The twists, the quirks, all the little throwaway lines that weave back in later are merely part of the pattern that makes the whole. By any measure that’s a sure sign of quality and craft.


The front cover of my World Book Night 2015 copy of Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin states ‘this book is a gift.’ They’re absolutely right.


Someone Else’s Skin was published by Headline on 27th February 2014 ISBN:9781472207715

You can find Sarah on Twitter @sarah_hilary

Van has finished reading… The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

25 Feb

blood miracles


Does anyone else read in regional accents? Perhaps it’s the frustrated actor in me but when it’s apparent there should be an accent in play I can’t seem to help myself. It’s not something I willingly attempt out loud – even in my head it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s Sundarbans or Sunderland – but occasionally the voice on the page is undeniably insistent (much to Mrs Van’s recent consternation, Mrs Millwood from Mr Doubler Begins Again was evidently meant to be a soft and comforting Midlands). With Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles it’s bordering on the impossible not to hear the clip and push of the language. I should probably apologise to everyone concerned for unleashing my Irish twang on them, but sure I’ve only meself to forgive in that case. (Chalk it down, I hear someone mumble in the background).

Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles is a delight from start to finish. It tells the story of Ryan (who first appears in McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies), a Twenty year old drug dealer struggling with the complexities of his life. His criminal associates have drawn him deeper into a world his long-time girlfriend still hopes he can leave behind. Things are set to go from bad to worse, of course, and so begins a tense and pacey descent into the darker corners of life in Cork.

The genius in the telling, I think, is in how Lisa McInerney treads such a thin line with Ryan. He’s the kind of person you might look at and think, ‘he’s not a bad kid really’. You might. Faults aplenty, he’s not especially likeable, but there’s something in there. He’s not wilfully dark, not invested in inflicting, though not a stranger to it either, especially when under the influence. The sum of the parts that make him are the real tale that’s told here: his background; his parents – one dead and the other deadbeat; his hamstrung prospects and his limited options. Even so, there’s a glimmer every now and then of the kid he could be, given the chance, and the second master stroke is in McInerney’s choice of people who do give him that chance.


In some ways Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles will be the exact tale you think it’ll be. In other ways it definitely won’t. One thing you can be sure of is that it’s a slice of life as real as any, and the thrill of the pace is all you’ll need to carry you through.


The Blood Miracles was published by John Murray on the 20th April 2017 ISBN:9781444798890

You can find Lisa on Twitter @SwearyLady


Van has finished reading… Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

19 Feb

reservoir 13


What an ominous title. Obviously it had to be the unluckily numbered one, and that together with the opening paragraphs set a tense tone that never really lets you go, even after the last page has been turned. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is the story of the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, a teenager who goes missing while on holiday with her family in the peak district. Except it’s not. To be writerly about it, Rebecca’s disappearance is the inciting incident. It’s already happened as we read the first words and what follows is – not unlike If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things – everything else that happens in the vicinity of that terrible event.

It feels like reportage at first, the prose clipped to the bone, almost telling rather than showing, detail kept strictly to the need-to-know. The village where it happened, its inhabitants and their lives begin to peek through the blanket of fear, of loss, and time begins to assert itself. There’s repetition, chapter by chapter, the seasonal pattern of rural life. The cycle of village life imposes itself on the narrative, and it’s quite the master stroke. The more you learn of the village, the landscape and the people who live there, the more you wonder who knows what, who’s done what…

And to be a little writerly again, Jon McGregor has a true understanding of the power of molossus; I lost count of the number of paragraphs that ended with three stressed words.

(See what I did there).

There’s a lot said about genres of fiction and the desire to subvert them but there don’t appear to be that many novels that genuinely do. As I sit here I’m umming-and-aahing about Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. On the one hand, it sets out in the vein of a mystery or a whodunit: A girl has gone missing and immediately we’re invested either in finding and saving her just in time, or discovering who did what dreadful thing and bringing them to book. On the other hand, it’s Jon McGregor, and that’s not what you tend to think of when you think about his books. Either way, what is evident is that he understands these expectations intimately, and plays the reader every step of the way, hanging us on a hook as he takes a tour through grief and loss in all its quotidian glory. It’s superbly done.


Reservoir 13 was published by 4th Estate on the 6th April 2017 ISBN:9780008204891

You can find Jon on Twitter @jon_mcgregor

Van didn’t finish reading… A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

31 Jan

Sorry, Eimear. It’s an amazing commitment to the form and I really, really wanted to like it.