Van has finished reading…The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

28 Jul

I’m not wholly comfortable with the idea of suspending disbelief as a reader. I think it paints us in a somewhat cynical shade, suggests that even before we’ve opened the cover we’ve got the knowing face on and we’re waiting for you, dear writer, to impress us with the way you pull the wool over. I rather prefer to approach a book with the view that I’m going to learn about someone else’s truth, whatever that may be. This distinction, I think, cuts to the heart of whether you’ll like this novel or not. If, like me, you’re of a more accepting stance with your reading then you’re in for an engaging, sometimes amusing time, with the odd wrench of the heart thrown in for good measure. If you’re of the other camp it’s possible you’ll be rolling your eyes and huffing in disgust.

It’s all down to that central action that precipitates that most beloved of engines for fiction: the road trip. You see, to me it didn’t seem that far-fetched that Hattie should decide to pile the kids into the camper and leave the country in search of something that might be more appropriately described as adult supervision. Like just about everyone in this book (even the dog), Hattie has been rejected by the people she needed the most, and while it’s a question of degrees that favours Hattie she is in fact only marginally less damaged than her hospitalised sister, Min, mother to the aforementioned kids.

Of course, if you’re not like me you’ll be wondering just how hard it is to pick up the phone and ring social services, thereby making the book about three quarters shorter than it is – or a good deal longer and several shades darker, depending on your view of government-funded childcare.


Me being me, my heart aches for young Thebes (and not just because she’s called Thebes). There’s something really touching about the relentless optimism of a damaged child and Miriam Teows sets her exquisitely against the foil of equally-damaged-but-far-more guardedly-hopeful older brother, Logan. The three intrepids tread the fine line between optimism and despair, anger and elation as they search for someone to stand by them, or with them, or for them.


The Flying Troutmans was published by Faber on the 6th August 2009 ISBN: 9780571224029

You can find Miriam on Twitter @MiriamToews

Van has finished reading…The Green Road by Anne Enright

27 Jul

I’m hard-pressed to think of a writer who can unpick a family dynamic as tidily as Anne Enright. I remember being blown away by The Gathering and just how much the author could make you feel what her characters were feeling. Her sense of place – and more importantly of character in place is second-to-none, and she has this incredible knack of conveying those things with a turn of phrase. You find yourself reading a sentence and thinking you know exactly what that scene sounds and looks and feels like, even from the inside. ‘I like you now,’ Rosaleen says to her daughter at one point, and there’s the stunted expectation, the swell of neediness, the disappointment the child must feel; there too is the mother’s desire to needle her children, to frame her family in the context of herself, to feed the future she can already see with all the anxiety it deserves.

The Green Road is something of a fractured novel. It deals with a fractured family so it’s not surprising this disjointedness would be there. As the novel moves forward from 1980 we meet each of Rosaleen’s children in their own chapters as they move away from Rosaleen’s vicinity, if not her grip or the ripples of her nature. They each feel as real and complete as you’d expect from Anne Enright and their relations with each other turn on the finest of points: which buttons to press, or not; the habits that are old and fallen back into against those that are new and expose the differentness of a new incarnation; the awareness of the favourites from the also-rans. But where it falls down for me is in the second part. The second part deals with the family coming back together for what might be a last Christmas together in the family home. It runs in a more linear and conventional way that feels like it’s there to draw events together. I found myself looking for the conclusions I should draw at the end when in fact I didn’t want to draw conclusions at all. What I wanted was more of that wonderful collection-of-linked-shorts feel that the first half had. I wanted to stick with the glimpses, with the joining of the dots and the sublime ambivalence of familial cause and effect.

There’s so much to admire in the way Anne Enright tells a story – her eye for character, her lyricism, her uncanny accuracy with a turn of phrase – and these are all in evidence in The Green Road. But if I were to recommend an Enright title to you it would still be the Gathering.


The Green Road was published by Jonathan Cape on 7th May 2015 ISBN: 9780224089050

Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

14 Jul

That thing where you pick up a book and it feels as beautiful as it looks and there’s an energy about it that positively defies the use of a comma in your first sentence. Then you open the book and begin to read…

You’re not reading your way into a story. You’re not taking in the surroundings and building a picture in your head. You are quite delightfully and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a feeling, a sensation. It’s a cold hand at the base of the spine, hairs lifting at the nape of your neck, bristling along your arms. It’s a whisperer, this book. It’s a body standing just behind your right shoulder where you can’t quite see it, unrolling the story in a hush across your ear. It is fabulous.


Cora Seagrave, recently widowed, finds herself on the Essex coast seeking evidence behind the rumours that abound of a terrible serpent that crawls up out of the sea to take livestock or people. Rational and independent, Cora believes something prehistoric to be at work, a ‘living fossil’. Just as steadfast in his belief there is a rational explanation – though naturally opposed to Cora’s reading of events – is local vicar William Ransome. As staunch as each other in their views, each recognises a kindred nature in the other and a turbulent time ahead is unavoidable. Skirting these warring friends are Cora’s companion, a staunch socialist, her autistic son Francis, her physician friend Luke Garrett and The Ambroses, moneyed and high-ranking conservatives. There’s a realness to all these people that is truly rare, no-one feeling as though they’ve been inserted to assist the plot or appearing not-quite-complete. For me, Luke Garrett is particularly vivid. There’s a palpable vibrancy about him, an intensity that borders on the audible.

Sometimes when writing these reviews I have to be very careful not to give away what a book is about. With The Essex Serpent, it’s hard to know where to start. Sarah Perry covers a monumental amount of ground with this book, it’s about so many things. Chief among them is that dark heart of the Venn diagram that is religion, science and superstition. Where does belief end and knowledge begin? Where is safety, where salvation? What’s truly exceptional about this book is that Sarah Perry asks those questions at every level, from the most intimate and individual to the broadest possible.

The language is glorious. There’s an almost biblical lilt to it at times, deepening the sense of place and moment, and heightening that creeping undertone that’s at the heart of the story. The passages that bring us up to date with recent events are prime examples of this. There’s a tone about them that could almost be tongue-in-cheek, relating the facts, filling us in. Yet that insidious voice lurks within them. Is it real, it asks, can you trust this? Is it what you think, or is it something else? Look at them, it says, back then on the verge of all that discovery. They thought they knew so much. But what about you? Do you think you know any more, any better?

One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an absolute delight to read, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be appearing on any number of shortlists by the end of the year.


The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail on 27 May 2016 ISBN:9781781255445

You can find Sarah Perry on Twitter @sarahgperry and on her website


My thanks to Isabel Costello (who has a book of her own out, which you should also read) at the Literary Sofa for sending me this wonderful book.

Van has finished reading…The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

21 Jun

There’s a great deal of in-betweenness about The Fortunes, the new novel from Peter Ho Davies. It’s actually four separate stories, though each is in itself a facet of the one greater experience: that of being Chinese in America. Though I suspect the author would quite firmly place this work in the fiction bracket, there is a tantalising frisson of the real about it. It’s not quite narrative non-fiction, though the people and places, and I would guess a great deal of the content rises straight from the pages of history.

Just in case that sound a bit lukewarm and you’re wavering, let me add that it’s gripping and sad and honest and immensely enjoyable.

Above anything else it’s a book about belonging. It’s so fundamental to our nature as humans to want to belong – whether we recognise it or not – that it shapes us in every way imaginable. Peter Ho Davies tackles not only the longing but also the being that’s implicit in that state. With Ah Ling, the mixed-race ‘white ghost’ sent to California to make his way in the 1860’s and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese film star in Hollywood, Peter Ho Davies shows us not only the barriers but also the double standards which control the level of integration they are subject to – and ultimately how belittling a process it is. In Vincent Chin’s story we see the forces of longing and being brought brutally to a head as he is killed by two Detroit Auto Workers who think he’s Japanese. Vincent, it transpires, was the most American of Chinese boys.

In the last movement of this quartet we come right up to date as a half-Chinese writer visits China for the first time to adopt a baby girl. Where Peter Ho Davies has been aware of the emotional ebb and flow of his characters in the preceding pieces, here is where that sense of in-betweenness feels closest to the skin. There are truths here that we can all recognise, seemingly harmful assumptions that we have likely made ourselves at some point. It’s a very emotional finish.


I think it would be fair to say there is a low simmer of resentment flavouring each of the lives portrayed between these covers, the injustice of wilful exclusion never far from the surface. But sometimes to belong is to become nothing more than a face in the crowd, indistinguishable from the mass, and sometimes, being invisible is as bad as being excluded. The enduring optimism that underpins these lives akin to square pegs in round holes is what makes them so malleable, so adaptable to each niche they find themselves in.

It’s quite a book. What Peter Ho Davies gives us here is a skilfully woven and emotionally resonant view of what it is to always be on the outside. Put it on your To-Be-Read list.


The Fortunes is published by Sceptre on 25th August 2016 ISBN:9780340980231

You can find Peter Ho Davies at his website,

My thanks to Nikki Barrow at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

3 Jun

That thing where you realise you’re definitely not a young adult anymore. That’s me reading this book.

Nannette O’Hare, white, privileged, even studious as well as being the toast of the soccer team, is nonetheless disaffected. And that’s what made me realise I’m outside the ideal demographic for Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing. I couldn’t get close to Nanette. I couldn’t feel for her in the way I wanted to and so ultimately I wanted to like this book more than I ended up liking it. The story is put together well. The parallels between Nanette’s experience and the events of the novel within the novel, The Bubblegum Reaper, are nicely laid out and the switch to third person about halfway through is really effective.

It’s an outsider’s story so of course there’s the expectation that the main characters will be different from everyone else but I can’t help thinking Matthew Quick missed a trick in making everyone else so normal (or perhaps what I mean here is normal in the same way). Where the difference is as stark as black and white it leaves little middle ground for the reader to question their own doubts or sympathies.

Okay, I’m definitely not a young adult anymore so I’m a little less qualified in appraising how well these characters will translate. Whereas a character like Lalla from Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship (which wasn’t written or marketed as a Young Adult novel) carries an appeal that spans a broad age range (if you have kids and they’ve not read the Ship yet trick them into reading it by saying it’s a grown-up’s book) Nanette, for me, is far more niche. I can see the ways in which Nanette would appeal to a younger reader but they may well be the exact reasons why she’ll be distant to an older one.

I guess every generation needs its Holden Caulfield. Nanette O’Hare could well be a Holden for the disaffected youth of today. Of course the problem with that is that we already have Holden who is consistently a Holden for every generation. Still, as the cover of the book says, there is room for all of us in this world. Try it for yourself. If you don’t love it your teenagers probably will.

Every Exquisite Thing was published by Headline on 31st May 2016 ISBN:9781472229540

You can find Matthew Quick on Twitter @MatthewQuick21 and on his website,

Van has finished reading…How To Be Both by Ali Smith

27 May

I scarcely know where to start with this. Reading Ali Smith is like literary acupuncture. There’s so much going on with the words and the story and the characters that I find myself going ‘oh’ every other minute because there’s something else that’s just brilliant about what’s on the page. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want at times to applaud.

There are two narratives in the book, woven together in a really inventive way. In the version I have it’s the voice of Francesco Del Cossa that comes first, though apparently you may pick up a copy with George’s narrative coming first instead. Such is Ali Smith’s ability that a dual narrative presents a challenge only when the story is written to stand being read in either order. For my part I think I’m glad I lucked on the story this way round. There’s a sheer playfulness about Francesco’s story (a playfulness that belies a certain amount of bitterness and also a deep remorse) that set me up for what was to come. Where playfulness is the watchword with Francesco, we’re in far darker territory with George. Ali Smith plays on the idea – or one might even suggest the myth – of duality really beautifully, time and again underlining the idea. Supposedly opposing states are examined and exposed, even to the notion of grief and optimism inhabiting the same space.

That makes it three times since September that George has laughed in an undeniable present tense.

These are currently my four favourite words in the English language: an undeniable present tense.


As I’ve comes to expect with Ali Smith, this is a book to revel in. There is such a sense of joy in the wielding of language I couldn’t help but smile even while my heart was breaking. The two stories complement wonderfully. The characters reveal themselves in everything they do and say. Even the level of research that likely went into this book is presented seamlessly. I suspect one could run a writing course on this text alone.

It’s wonderful. Read it.


How To Be Both was published by Penguin on 28 August 2014 ISBN:9780141025209

I didn’t find Ali Smith on Twitter. She’s obviously too busy writing fantastic books! (note to self: spend less time on Twitter).

Van has finished reading…Paradise Alley by Sylvester Stallone

23 May

Yes. That Sylvester Stallone. No, don’t make that face.

I first read Paradise Alley over twenty years ago on a recommendation from Mrs Van. Of course I made that face and dithered but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the intervening years it’s that there’s a look Mrs Van has that brooks no prevarication. Don’t judge, she said, just read it. And that’s good advice.

The fact of the matter is that it’s a great story. It breaks no moulds in what it sets out to do. It’s not prose to stop you in your tracks so you can marvel at its construction. It’s not setting out to win prizes or change your view of the world. It just wants to show you post-war Hell’s Kitchen. It talks in simple language that fits the station of the defined characters (that you might well end up rooting for despite yourself), and it gives you a story arc that could’ve been pulled from the pages of a history book. Okay, there are one or two affectations in the writing that, for my money, would’ve been better edited out. There’s a tendency every now and then to break a sentence over three lines that lifts you right out of the scene. There’s a tendency to overuse names, too where at times a simple he or she wouldn’t have left any doubt about who it referred to. The strange thing about this one though is that after a time I felt it added to the sense of claustrophobia, the sense of helplessness that pervades the book. And just about everybody is helpless in this book, though it’s not through want of trying. The sense of time and place is strong and Stallone’s scene-setting is solid. There are also moments where a single sentence paints the clearest image.


…a bum sitting in the gutter trying to find out where he dropped his future.
It’s at once descriptive and emotional. It’s wholly in keeping with the voices of the characters in the scene, and it’s a line beneath the unwritten, ‘there but for the grace of God…’ As a writer, those are the lines you work for. And when it comes to Big Glory’s swan-song, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep a dry eye there I suspect.


I try not to be snobby about books. I am now old enough to know better on that score. Books should be given a chance. Someone went to a lot of trouble to write what you hold in your hand. If you’ve ever tried to write one you’ll have an idea just how much trouble. If you’ve ever tried to write anything halfway decent you’ll know. To dismiss that effort out-of-hand, to bypass it because of the general consensus or what others might think is to diminish that. Give it a go. That’s the price of admission. With your summer holidays coming up it’s an ideal book to add to the pile. And if having tried it you find it’s not for you, well, fair enough. But you might just find yourself surprised.
Paradise Alley was published by WH Allen in the UK in 1978 ISBN: 0491022549


You can find Sylvester Stallone on Twitter @TheSlyStallone, though he’s more widely-known for things other than his novel.


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