Van has finished reading… Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

18 Apr

speak no evil

There are copious novels about what it’s like to be other – as indeed there are many ways to be other – but there’s something different about Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil, something almost counter to the usual run of things. There’s the ‘good life’ the protagonist, Niru, has – growing up in a good neighbourhood in Washington state, attending a good school, enjoying the luxury of an early admission to Harvard. Set against that the fact that Niru is a black boy in a white man’s world, a point that is ever-present and subtly conveyed. It’s rarely the brash glare of racism but rather the protagonist’s perspective on how his white peers view black culture, and how homogenous that view is. One of my favourite lines this year rises from this point. During a class discussing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the teacher leaves the classroom in a silent rage. When his all-white classmates look to Niru he says, ‘don’t look at me. I’m invisible.’

Then there is the fact that Niru is gay. Coming from a conservative Nigerian family, this is a big deal indeed – and this is where the something different comes in because it seems to me that, rather than being set against his father, despite the homophobia, despite the zeal with which that hatred is applied Niru would love nothing more than to be the image of his father: a strong, proud Nigerian man. It’s not America’s freedoms that Niru clings to. Not the new culture, the culture of his surroundings but those of a country he doesn’t call home – indeed, a country as a gay man it would now be dangerous for him to call home. And therein lies the heart of Speak No Evil: What are you true to; what do you sacrifice?

With father and son there’s some really nice character work going on. Niru comes across as a good boy, a dutiful son despite the force of his resentment and yet at times I found him a good deal less that sympathetic, even selfish. And then there’s his father, a man so well-rendered I feel quite confident I’ve actually met him. His is a huge presence, domineering and physical, proud of his appearance, and yet those principles of his, so rooted in the family and even in the face of his enemies appear to spring from a place of protection. His refrain: Do your parents know you’re here? No? I’ll call you a taxi.

As a reader I love that moment when you realise the full import of what earlier seemed a throwaway line or an incidental detail. Louise Doughty did the throwaway line perfectly in Apple Tree Yard and in Speak No Evil Uzodinma Iweala slips an incidental detail by us with consummate ease. When that moment of realisation comes it’s an absolute joy, affording that glimpse of foreknowledge that ratchets the tension while the tight writing keeps you glued to the page. It’s very nicely done.

Tight writing is an apt phrase for Speak No Evil, a novel that punches well above its word count. If you’re a quick reader you’ll probably devour it in a couple of sittings but fast or slow the impact is there, and the fallout is such that you’ll probably be thinking about it for days afterwards.


Speak No Evil was published by John Murrays on 8th March 2018 ISBN:9780719523700

My thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book


Van has finished reading… Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

9 Apr

lab girl 1

I do like a good nature documentary. I’m not alone in this, I know. That heady mix of weird and wonderful creatures with their little niches of behaviour and brilliance is captivating. Add a certain Mr Attenborough’s elucidating commentary and I’m apt to learn a thing or two along the way.


In our house the cries of ‘ooh, look at that’, ‘I wonder if that’s a …’, ‘wow, what a beautiful …’ tend to be reserved for the background. Let’s face it, even if it’s a sloth climbing along a branch it still moves more than the foliage it travels past. I’m fascinated by orchids. There are over 25,000 species of orchid, with flowers so different you wouldn’t believe they’re part of the same family. There are whole plants that will balance on your finger and plants that can grow taller than a house. There are evolutionary developments that are so niche it’s a wonder they’re still alive, there’s heady perfume and rank stench, there’s stunningly beautiful and really quite ugly too and in all of them there’s the sheer wonder that they’ve grown from seeds so small you need magnification to see them. So where is the nature documentary about this family of plants? What do the commissioners of nature documentaries say?

Well, the trouble is they don’t really ‘do’ much, do they.

And I give you, commissioners of nature documentaries, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, because plants do ‘do’ much and Professor Jahren has the proof.


The cover of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren says it’s a story of trees, science and love but you don’t have to be into trees or science to enjoy it because I think primarily this is a story of love. That love comes in many forms, the most enduring – and perhaps the most endearing too – is that shared with Bill. It’s the one that at the same time makes the least and the most sense. Perhaps it’s that while they both spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find out why certain things are, when it comes to their relationship they are interested only in the fact that it is. After all, if it ain’t broke…

Don’t let all that sciencey stuff give you the wrong impression either. Although there is research in there (the Sitka Willows I found particularly fascinating, the telling thereof taking me back to Eucalyptus-lined streams in Andalucia) Professor Jahren writes with feeling. Chapter 8 in part three is perhaps the most moving description of incipient motherhood I’ve read. At once it’s both spare and emotional, which packs quite a punch.

There’s another thing I love about this book which really shouldn’t be a thing at all. It should appear so small and normal as to go by not unnoticed but accepted, unchallenged. It’s the designation Professor Jahren uses when talking in general terms: ‘when a scientist does this or that she…’; ‘when a professor says this or that she…’, ‘…but she finally did turn into a tiger.’

It makes me smile, but still a little sadly. That it’s there is a good thing; that it still needs to be there is not.

And then there’s quite possibly the loveliest thing I’ve read so far this year, shortly after that tiger line. ‘This house is full of people who love you’.

Whoever you are, may there always be someone who is ready to say this to you!



Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a captivating, funny and uplifting view into the scientific life. It’s also wise and warm and erudite on the gift of living. But please, Professor Jahren, I’d love to know – the orchids in the glasshouse where you grew the sweet potato, and the orchids that line the big tree at the roundabout in Hawaii, what genus?


Lab Girl was published by Fleet on 5th April 2016 ISBN:9780349006208

You can find Professor Jahren on Twitter @HopeJahren.


My particular thanks to Fleet for allowing me to review me this book.

Van has finished reading…Sight by Jessie Greengrass

28 Mar


I do like the way Jessie Greengrass writes. So tightly-controlled and yet ruminative, I could almost liken it to the telling of a good joke in the way her words build so you feel the weight of each sentence coming to bear, focusing the attention, fining everything down to a sharp point, and when it comes it comes like a punchline, succinct and precise so you sit up and never fail to appreciate just how apposite the choice of words is. And how the bluntness of the delivery can heighten the emotional impact!

Jessie Greengrass’ debut novel, Sight, is a delightful thing.

It’s not a light read, which is not to say that it’s a difficult read but that there’s so much packed into it: the intertwining of the discovery of X-Rays, the birth of Freudian analysis, The Lumiere’s first screenings and the brothers Hunter and Van Rymsdyk documenting the late stages of pregnancy with the narrator’s recollections of childhood, her mother’s death and her own progress toward motherhood. It’s easy to feel like you’ve missed something. And then the questions it will pose. Do we understand a thing because we’ve seen it? What can we know of it without that sight? And in the seeing, what mystery do we lose? Though so many of the reference points are historical there’s no doubting how timely and relevant the work is. Sometimes it feels as though we’re a more visual society than we’ve ever been, yet we trust what we see less and less, and feel all the more isolated for it.


There’s a real sense of distance in the writing that feels very much like an extension of the tone of the stories in the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It. It lends the narrator’s voice a kind of numbed sensibility and leads me down a chicken-and-egg thought process: does the voice make the narrator or the narrator the voice; is it the nature of Jessie Greengrass’ writing that dictates her literary themes, or the themes that set the tone? And that sense of control – I wonder what it would look like if one of Jessie’s narrators completely lost it. It feels like that possibility is always there, just below the surface, out of sight.

I really like the conclusion of the novel – not an end as such but merely the last written page. There is life beyond it and that’s all to the good. It is a beautifully-fashioned bow to hold the first of those pages neatly together with the last.


Whether you pick up Jessie Greengrass’ Sight because of the beautiful, sensuous cover or for the excellent writing it really doesn’t matter. The thing you need to know is that it’s well worth the effort. Enjoy the cover, revel in the writing and then ponder at great length the many questions it poses.


Sight was published by John Murrays on the 22nd February 2018 ISBN:9781473652378


You can find Jessie on Twitter @JessGreengrass

My thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… Claudia by Anthony Trevelyan

14 Mar


It was the Curtis Brown Book Group (how I miss the CBBookGroupies!) that introduced me to Anthony Trevelyan when we had the pleasure of reading his excellent Desmond Elliot Prize longlisted debut, The Weightless World. I’m very pleased to say that his second novel, Claudia, is every bit as enticing.

Usually, reading the blurb for a book gives you a fair idea of what to expect. Not so with Claudia! With the blockbuster-movie strapline (An Entrepenuer, a hammer-wielding assassin, and the end of the world) and a plot-line that Ned Beaumann would be proud of you might well be going in expecting something extraordinary. And in a sense Claudia is extraordinary, yet it’s a tale that’s very firmly nestled in the quotidien. It’s one of the keys I think to what makes Anthony Trevelyan’s books work so well: the sheer everyday acceptability of events. No matter how bizarre the situation, no matter how outlandish the premise, there’s never a moment where it didn’t feel not simply possible but probable, perhaps even inevitable.

There’s a really nice line in humour with this book too, a gentle sort of comedy that lends an added pinch of realism to the excellently rendered characters and situations. Though they are frequently and quite distinctly not like people you’d know, those funny moments are the grounding factors, the points at which you do recognise strains of familiarity.

For those of you interested in lessons in the literary there’s a really nice point-of-view change in chapter 4. None of your clunky hard returns or gaps in proceedings but a seamless shift in emphasis from one character to another, all couched around said character’s saying goodbye. They both stand but instead of simply saying, ‘they stand’, first one stands and then the other – and in that moment, you realise a line or two on, you’ve been gifted from one head to another. It’s quite lovely!

Whether it’s The Weightless World or Claudia, I’d urge you to pick up an Anthony Trevelyan novel. I could urge you to pick up both but I suspect one will naturally lead to the other anyway. It’s a name that deserves to be more widely known and I for one am looking forward to wherever Mr Trevelyan intends to take us next.


Claudia is published by Sceptre on the 19th April 2018 ISBN:9781473664777

You can find Anthony on Twitter @agmtrevelyan


My especial thanks to Ruby Mitchell at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.


Van has finished reading…Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

20 Feb

devils day

I do like it when a book turns out not to be what you thought it would be – at least not entirely anyway. The opening chapter of Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is good old-fashioned atmosphere all the way, pushing all the buttons the ominous-looking cover has already tweaked. But then it turns in the next chapter, it settles into the longer story, into what at times feels almost like a social history and I start to wonder what this book really is. Of course those buttons then get pushed all over again and by now I’m starting to wonder where the bad apple will be found. It’s all rather pleasing!

The writing itself fits nicely together, with that storyteller voice from the first chapter surfacing again and again, weaving the lesser fictions into the greater one and above all else it reminded me just how much stories are histories in their own way, and that history is just as much a fiction sometimes as anything Granny revealed in words at the fireside.

If you’re of a writerly persuasion yourself you’ll be particularly interested in the second chapter, which is a peach of a lesson on showing-not-telling.


There’s some lovely character work going on too with the central family, whose surname, Pentecost, is a nice touch. The dynamics are excellent and really draw you in, and there’s not a little delight in how your view of each of them subtly (and possibly not-so-subtly at times) shifts. I particularly like the way the narration alters. There’s a point where you suddenly feel as though you’ve been led into a place from which there is no escape, and being on the inside, being in the know is really uncomfortable. Of course it also underlines the protagonist’s early admission that he’s ‘acquired a reputation for telling stories just like the Gaffer’, his grandfather. If that’s not code for ‘trust at your peril’.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is an ideal winter read. A joyous blending of small community everyday struggles and super creepy atmosphere. Pull up the duvet, ignore the creeping shadows and immerse yourself in the murk and mystery.


Devil’s Day was published by John Murray on 19th October 2017 ISBN:9781473619869

I couldn’t find Andrew on Twitter, or at his website. Perhaps he’s up on the moor, looking for a stray, or down at Far Lodge tap tap tapping out a tale just like The Gaffer used to tell.


My thanks to Emma Petfield at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

24 Jan

All rivers run free

What an excellent way to start the year! Two great books in a row, and both with a superb sense of place and landscape. Natasha Carthew’s All Rivers Run Free needs to be on your Reading List.

All Rivers Run Free tells the story of Ia Pendilly. Living in a caravan on the coast of Cornwall with her common-law husband, Ia’s life at Twenty-five is not what she imagined it would be. She is childless and lonely. When one day she finds a young girl washed up on the shore Ia rescues her, and in doing so sets in motion a change that will take her into a world she barely knows, and to a place she can only dare to remember.

Natasha Carthew’s writing is lyrical despite the starkness of the story and Ia’s voice really shines through. The sparseness of commas might throw you at first but trust me, give the first page a second read if you need to because the atmosphere is all in the effect of those extra tacked-on clauses. The isolation, the mistrust, the second-guessing – you can almost feel the struggle Ia is having, hear it as a conversation with herself. I was strongly reminded of Jess Richards’ City of Circles, and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, all books with at their heart a young woman adrift in her own world and trying to make sense of life.

You could almost count the main cast of All Rivers Run Free on the fingers of one hand, though this only deepens the sense of anxiety in Ia’s situation and temperament. There’s a likeness in all these characters too, though don’t mistake that for similarity. They each stand in their own skins, vividly rendered and distinguishable in their action and motivation. It’s location and situation that ties them so strongly together.

The storyline is really compelling, Natasha Carthew sticking rigidly to Ia’s point of view so I found myself always wondering about the goings-on in that elusive wider world. This, along with that excellent characterisation meant I had no trouble rooting for Ia all the way. I could begrudge her nothing, nor hold anything against her. And with the sharp-focus description of the landscape she passes through I found myself wishing it were genuinely possible to make a film that’s as good as the book. river run

All Rivers Run Free will be published by riverrun on the 19th April 2018 ISBN:9781786488626

You can find Natasha on Twitter @natashacarthew or in person where Cornwall is at its wildest.


My particular thanks to Corinna Zifko and Elizabeth Masters at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

17 Jan

two houses

I’ve been excited about The Two Houses ever since I heard that Fran Cooper’s second novel was on the horizon. Her debut, These Dividing Walls was one of my top five reads of 2016 and I was eager to see what her second book had to offer. I was not disappointed. Kicking 2018 off in the best possible way, Fran Cooper’s The Two Houses is a cracking read.

Recovering from a breakdown, acclaimed ceramicist, Jay, and her architect husband, Simon are looking for a weekend escape property. They find The Two Houses on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, a property whose central rooms were reputedly so haunted a previous owner had them cut out. But as work starts to put The Two Houses back together, Jay and Simon discover that Two Houses casts a dark shadow across the whole village.


Right from the off the atmosphere is perfect, malevolent and brooding, that sense of place that was so apparent in These Dividing Walls fully evident in the setting of the scene for The Two Houses. As the point of view shifts so does the appreciation of the landscape and I think it’s this that underpins the atmosphere as the story moves on. I love the way Fran Cooper uses language, too. Little touches that frame each character in their own thinking –Jay’s pottery terms and Tom’s farming phrases – it’s really effective, and importantly not overdone.

As with These Dividing Walls, the characters are superbly rendered. The way each clique fits together, be it London or Yorkshire village, is good but then each individual within those groups is distinguishable, each with their own drama, their own history, their own concerns about the future. And then there’s the village itself. Its setting, its location, even its weather make it feel as much a part of the cast as Jay or Simon or Tom.

It’s amazing how small a drama the story actually is when you think about it, which is testament to Fran Cooper’s skill in really getting under the skin of things. The plotting is lean and really finely tuned, nothing out of place or wasted. The language feels apt and precise, well thought out – at one point even down to a syllable. It frequently left me with a smile on my face, the Harvey effect kicking in. It’s lovely when you get a book that does that, gives you an appreciation of the craft that’s gone into its making without pulling you out of the flow or getting in the way of the story.

There is a mystery at the heart of The Two Houses but a mystery alone is rarely enough to make a great story. The lovely thing about Fran Cooper’s work is that it’s the humans caught up in that mystery that interest her more. You might pick it up for the puzzle but I guarantee it’ll be what the people around it are going to do next that’ll keep you turning the pages; it’ll be the fate that awaits them, and even the fate of those Two Houses that’ll have you caught up until the final page.



The Two Houses will be published by Hodder on the 22nd March 2018 ISBN:9781473641570


You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop


My particular thanks to Veronique Norton at Hodder for allowing me to review this book