Archive | January, 2015

Van has finished reading…The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

28 Jan

Where’s the whimsy? I was expecting whimsy! Okay, I wasn’t really, but you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that there’d be an amount of light-heartedness about the story that would follow such a title. And in that opening paragraph – so utterly suburban in its outlook – I could feel the tug of a knowing smile already twisting my lips as I settled down with this wry narrator. But that’s as suburban as it gets with this book; the execution of it is right at the other end of the scale. Just look at that first paragraph, how it hems and fixes us so completely; you just know that these things that have been going on like this for years are about to veer.

It’s very English in the same way that some books are very American or African or Indian. I don’t think it has anything to do with location or the author, it’s very much down to Harold and Maureen and that wonderfully clipped narrator. Is it in the humour? Well, yes, but I don’t think specifically so. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s generationally English. Harold twenty years younger would I think feel completely wrong, a fish out of water entirely. And yet, and yet. It’s that reserve that still laces through these isles that’s so easy to recognise. The way the desire to do something, and the sheer lack of knowing what or how so hamstrings the emotions when they’re the very things we really need to get us through. How many of us on reading this look back to a father or grandfather and remember the all-purpose brogues in the hall by the door! Trainers? Hiking boots? Well I never!

I generally try and avoid those overused words ‘beautifully written’; I always feel the need to say, ‘but it’s typed and printed, it’s not calligraphy.’ However in this instance I think it’s hard to avoid them. It’s a portrait that Rachel Joyce gives us. Of Harold, and of Maureen; of their separate togetherness and it’s a thing they seem to tend like a third family member. And there’s the landscape too, dear old England in all its verdant finery. Genuinely, beautifully written.
And very funny too, which of course gives the counter to those moments when you’re not going to be able to swallow that biscuit on account of the lump that suddenly clogs your throat. Thanks for that, Rachel! Me and my ‘no, no, I’ve just got something in my eye’ on the train.

This book will probably make you laugh, and likely it will make you cry, unless perhaps you’re made of stone. Either way it will entertain and possibly edify. You’ll meet people and places so recognisable you’ll think you’re reading about that place a little way down the road there. And the best thing is that when you’ve finished this one, there’s The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessy waiting for you! Enjoy.

Van has finished reading…The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

26 Jan

This is the first book from my stint as a member of the inaugural Curtis Brown Book Group (@CBBookGroup). As such I’m going to try and depart from my usual ‘what I like about it’ and give a more rounded review.
And what a book to start with! Despite knowing all about books and the judging thereof by covers, I can tell you that photos of the cover of Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship don’t do it justice. Holding my copy in my hands did little to abate the sense of excitement and expectation. When you get your copy I firmly believe you’ll not be disappointed by cover or contents. It’s a truly excellent book.
Teenage girls braving dystopian futures seem to abound these days, but I implore you not to let this one pass you by. Above all else this is a story about people, about family and about love. It’s about the things love makes us do, and the lengths we’ll go to to secure what’s important to us. Lalage Paul (you might think it a bit Hollywood-baby-name at first hearing, but it’s as old as the hills and like all good names there’s a reason for the choosing of it) is like any teenager. Her world is much smaller than the one she walks through. Though Lalla’s excuse for this is a world rapidly falling apart, what we see through her eyes is still that unaffected gaze the brushes the surface of things beyond the family unit. I don’t want to blow any plot points for you so I’ll say only that Lalla is on the brink. She is about to come of age; In her world becoming sixteen means a good deal more than being able to vote. Her world is about to get a great deal larger. There’s a really nice sense of concentricity about Lalla’s awareness that feels very real. She struggles with things and grows by degrees, yet there’s a sense of withdrawal with each expanding horizon, an ebb and flow.
There’s just one point which stuck with me and I found it hard to correlate with Lalla’s character. There is a question that bothers her, the answer to which I doubt will be lost on any readers and it surprised me that it took Lalla so long to figure it out. There are of course extenuating circumstances and it may be we can reconcile the misunderstanding, or perhaps more likely the unwillingness to understand, accordingly. It was simply that for me Lalla doesn’t appear either unintelligent or gauche enough to have taken so long to catch up with the rest of us.
It could well serve as a lesson in how what happens shapes and drives your characters rather than your characters contriving the plot. With the exception of the previous paragraph, there wasn’t a page of this book that made me think the author had shoe-horned a scene to get a point across. Given the scope Antonia Honeywell had in the middle section that’s quite a feat; the sheer aimlessness of a mass of people herding from one thing to the next really underlined the surreal nature of it all. By the middle of the book I knew how it was going to end, but in a way that I think is most pleasing (not least because it allows me to think that I’m there on a wavelength with the writer) because it was the only ending that made perfect sense – at least to me, and I guess to Antonia Honeywell too.
It’s one of those books that has the ability to hold a mirror up to you and ask ‘what would you do?’ The test of this, then, is being able to look past the initial response and see the gap between what you’d like to think you’d do and what you actually might.
It’s a gripping read with a broad appeal. The writing is, I think, very nice indeed, with some truly deft imagery. Above all, it’s a story that has the power to stay with you, to ask questions beyond the last word, and that’s no easy accomplishment. Try it. You’ll not regret it.

The Ship was published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson on 19th February 2015, ISBN:9780297871491
You can find Antonia on Twitter @Antonia_writes and on her website,

Van has finished reading…The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker

14 Jan

Voice is one of those difficult to pin down concepts in writing. It’s the kind of thing you start trying to explain but then realise it covers so many things you end up saying, well, it’s their voice, you know? Their voice. The Boy Who Kicked Pigs might just be my new method of explaining it. Watch some old episodes of Dr Who (yes, it’s that Tom Baker). Listen to the overdubs on the episodes of Little Britain. Get used to Tom’s delivery, his speech patterns, his ever so slightly unhinged (or is it, really) manner. Then read The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. You can hear him. It’s unmistakeable. Imagine him sitting there reading this to your kids. See how terrified, but at the same time utterly enthralled they’ll be, wondering whether this is just a story about a boy who kicked some pigs, or whether it’s a lesson about how the world really works. See them trying to work out whether he is friend or foe, where that line between safety and fun tips into keep smiling and back away slowly.
And if your kids – or indeed you – are fond of a tale that takes an unexpectedly dark turn, you should definitely seek this book out. The pictures are every bit as captivating as the text. Get it. Read it.

Van has finished reading…Cambridge by Caryl Phillips

13 Jan

Having read Graham Swift’s excellent Making An Elephant recently, which features an interview with Caryl Phillips, I was delighted to come across a pristine hardback of Cambridge in a charity shop. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down the right word to describe the experience of reading a book. Enjoyable, while pertinent on a sort of technical level, simply doesn’t fit the overriding experience. The fact is it’s a distasteful read. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a distasteful read because it’s so eloquent, so honest, so accurate in its representation of the players involved in the story. I can’t even begin to unpick how difficult Emily might have been to write.
Here we have a lynchpin of historical fiction: a young woman on the cusp of entering what amounts to the pinnacle of her life, the sentence that is brokered marriage to a suitable husband. Before this happens she undertakes a voyage, and of course we understand this will expand her experience, her understanding of the World and of herself in many ways. Very early on we are aware this is a book about bondage, be it social, hierarchical or the actual trafficking and captivity of people.
With the microcosm of plantation life presented through the eyes of the daughter of plantation owner it’s easy to imagine how this book could have become a lean diatribe against the evils of slavery. In fact what we get is a finely balanced presentation of the ‘facts’ of that life through this young woman’s eyes. There was a question posed during the interview I read in Making An Elephant as to whether Caryl Phillips liked his protagonist. Having read the book I can understand the hesitancy that accompanied the answer. How can one like this protagonist given the views that she holds? Albeit these views are something to an extent bequeathed to her by the distance she has from them, by the lack of experience or relation to them. The things she says are abhorrent – I found it hard not to grit my teeth through sections of this book – and yet something works on you. Something lingers and above all else I found myself hoping for her, wanting for her something like that knowing Hollywood epiphany that would of course have utterly ruined the story. I think perhaps deep down it’s the questioning she was prepared to undertake; the fact that she held utterly to the belief that the owners should at the very least be responsible for the things (yes, I believe that’s how she would have thought of the people in her father’s ‘employ’) they owned.
The sadness of Cambridge’s tale is unrelenting, the lesson true in that no matter how he tried he was ultimately doomed. By far the most disturbing section is that which seems to constitute an ‘official opinion’ on what came to pass. What is presented is so clearly a convenient interpretation that it even descends to the level of descriptions of the moon and the scenery in a place where only one man – a man who is no longer in a position to confirm or deny matters – is reported to be waiting alone. Who is there to witness such testimony but that blindest of judges, self-interest?
In the end there is no-one who can escape unscathed, except for those who kept themselves at arm’s length from it all and reclined on the distant profits.

Rather than a good book, perhaps it’s truer to say this is an angry and desperately sad book. You should make space on your shelf for it, nonetheless. It’s a captivating read.

Van has finished reading…Alice And The Fly by James Rice

7 Jan

I read a book once in which the author had systematically bracketed the use of the word and. (and). There was something about trains and a tunnel and I’ve a feeling it might have been written by Susan Sontag. I guess that’s not a good advert from me, so I apologise if it’s not Susan Sontag’s work. In any case it possibly says more to my powers as a reader. What this story did give me is the (and) test. It applies when you get a book with some kind of punctuational or typographical quirk. Why is it there? What does it add? Is it the only thing I’m going to remember?
In Alice And The Fly, it’s Them. It jumps out at you. You can’t not notice it. But it’s very effective and cleverly done. When we think about heights or clowns or snakes or whatever it is that gives us the heebie-jeebies I think we tend to over-egg things a little. As humans it suits our desire to be vulnerable, though only a little vulnerable, in the eyes of others. There are things I don’t like, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a phobia about them. Them is the difference, that feeling it gives you. You can’t ignore it, no matter how much you want to. It’s insidious and threatening all at once though it’s just four little letters that are darker than the others. It’s irrational.
It’s a very nice touch in what is a very good book. More to the point, it would read very differently without it.

I guess the standard position will be that Greg is an unreliable narrator, but I wonder how accurate that assumption is. As a reader you’ll recognise that sense of things-not-quite-being-what-they-seem. You’ll be required to work out what’s ‘really’ going on, but does that make Greg unreliable? Is he misleading us wilfully? As unreliable characters go I’d say Greg’s mum (who is presented quite expertly) is nearer the mark. If it were my choice, I’d say rather that Greg is a Compromised Narrator. It’s mostly Greg’s story that we hear in Greg’s own words, though interposed there is a more…reliable…window on events. Very early on you get that sense that something terrible is going to happen and by the end I found myself hoping for reprieve.

James Rice raises an eyebrow at a number of things in this book, but the thing that lingered with me was one word: understanding. As writers (and I’m talking generally here) we’re expected to be good at it. We’re expected to be able to communicate our thoughts and our feelings clearly. In this book James Rice gives us a character who, if you put it all together, probably doesn’t have enough actual dialogue to fill one whole page. Still he speaks to us. He speaks to us through what he writes and as readers we can bridge the gap. We can do what the other characters in the story, for whatever reason, can’t. We can understand. In our own lives, every day, how often that transaction fails. We can all feel for Greg. We all have so much to say, yet sometimes lack the words or the breath or the means or the courage to say them.

I suspect you’ll hear a lot about this book in the coming months. Trust the hype. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

PS: I must offer thanks to The Curtis Brown Book Group (@CBBookGroup) for sending me a copy over Christmas. For this I am in your debt.

Van has finished reading…A Little In Love by Susan Fletcher

5 Jan

I’ve not read Les Miserables. I’ve not been tempted by Mr Mackintosh’s spectacular stage presentation. I’ve not even seen any of the films. It’s a thing I’m merely aware of in a general sense. (Courtesy of the Curtis Brown Book Group and the lovely limited edition copy they sent me) I come to Susan Fletcher’s A Little In Love cold, as it were. I have no preconceptions about the characters I’m going to meet, other than that they’re French and likely to suffer. I’m under no illusion that this means there’s a whole layer of relevance that passes me by, both technically and emotionally. Of course this could be drawback or advantage: I don’t know these characters; on the other hand, I don’t know them! What if I’d read it and loved it and formed such a sure vision of these characters only to discover Susan’s presentation of them jarred? It’s a brave move, in my view, to take on a story like this.
On the face on things Eponine shouldn’t be a likeable character. Born of truly horrid parents she is raised in deceit and treachery. At such a young age she is adept in various forms of plunder. She’s the kind of child you warn your own young ones to steer clear of. Yet from this rough clay Susan Fletcher shows us the essence of her life, shows us the little girl beneath the veneer, her yearning for love and how it battles with her longing to be good. You find yourself rooting for little ‘Ponine, feeling the Great Injustices of the World that are hidden in each tender slight she suffers, or indeed inflicts. It’s a tragic story indeed and builds to a climax it’s hard not to feel.
It seemed tailor-made, too, for this time of year – the silver embossing and the shiny red cover glinting in the fire-light at Christmas-time. Perfect Festive holiday reading. Put it on your present list. Give it to your teens. But don’t forget to read it yourself too!