Archive | March, 2015

Van has finished reading…Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

30 Mar

Polly Samson’s short story collection, Perfect Lives (no, don’t get distracted by the idea it’s some kind of hybrid novel – it’s not) is a quiet delight. The stories share location and a cast of characters and the recurring sense of the cracks beneath the surface, but that’s not enough to make it a novel. Actually that’s something I’m rather glad of. Each of these stories work on their own (as any short story should) but there’s a flourish that comes with knowing a little bit more about these people as they appear each time. Each voice is freed too, allowed to be its distinct self, where a novel would have needed a finer focus, a far less disparate point of view to carry it successfully through.

The seaside town setting gives a definite ambience to the lives we are presented with. From the get-go there’s a sense of better times in the past; it’s hard to hear the words ‘seaside town’ without wanting to coin the cliché with ‘faded glamour of’. The characters are, like the town itself, clinging to an image from the past. Even when we see the world through the eyes of a child there is a hankering after that perfect moment, a looking forward to finding again the bliss of contact with his beloved babysitter. ‘Perfect’ is different things to different people and herein lies a good deal of the bitter-sweetness to be found. For many of the transactions are one-sided so none of the lives we see are really perfect, but rather there are moments where the light separates from the dark, revealing just how closely they edge one another. Rose Before The Vine stands out for me. The evident fractious history between mother and daughter is like spice in the air. Add to that a secret knowledge that must be shared and the reappearance of a character from an earlier story and you have a tapestry of emotion. Three characters in a blissful moment just waiting to be shattered. It’s this sense of swinging from zenith to nadir, or vice versa, that lends the stories such emotional charge. A Regular Cherub is another example. There’s an ending to bring a tear to the driest of eyes!


Van has finished reading…Barbarians by Tim Glencross

24 Mar

With thanks to the Curtis Brown Book Group, my March read is Barbarians by Tim Glencross. At the end of each month we have an hour’s online discussion with the author. My first thought on finishing the book was an ambivalent one: An hour? There’s not enough time; this could provoke an eerie, tumbleweed hour of silence! Of course the latter is highly unlikely, given past discussion with my fellow Book Groupies…

Perhaps it says more about our own engagement with the process these days, and the level of access we are granted, that makes us feel we are truly living the age of the Professional Politician. Do we imagine that it was more of a calling in days past? That self-aggrandisement and the clutching of power to the breast are new inventions? Part-way through the book I mused on how Tim Glencross feels about these people – whether he loves or hates them. The sense I’m left with is that it’s their ugliness that attracts, that’s there’s a sort of horrified creeping respect for how far they are prepared to go, and perhaps more so for their ability to dress it up as sacrifice for the greater good.

Interesting too, I think, for the fact that if you took all political reference out of the story you’d be hard pressed to nail down which Party these characters favour. Has the Barbarian; Philistine; Populace delineation ever been so blurred – and so stark?

It’s been said before that it’s a hard task to get people to buy in to your story if your main character is essentially unlikeable. Well, where do I start…Odious characters fair abound in this tale. But don’t let me wrong-foot you. I really enjoyed the book. I think that fascination with plumbing the depths pulls through so that you find you’re as keen to discover where it’s all going to end. And just how messy it’s going to be.

Nor is art what it once was. Pity the poor girl from Orpington who in ignorance downs the most expensive bottle of beer she’ll ever know. There’s a keen eye for the zeitgeist here. You can imagine how Sherard’s skin would crawl at the words ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like’. ‘You’ll find Monet’s lilies on a postcard in the gift shop,’ he’d likely respond – if he responded at all. That said, I can’t help but hold the thought that Sherard might just have cracked the lid and drunk it himself before then.

What holds the attention with this story is the people (odious as they are) and the quintessentially old-school search for love. Could you substitute a Bennett sister for a Buzzy? I almost think you could. Take out the modern setting and it’s all fish-out-of-water, love unrequited and the searching-out of fortunes (or at least a place in the world that makes sense). I confess that I’ve not read a great deal of classic English literature, but if you have I think you’re going to see parallels all over the place, and likely mine a richer vein of reference within it.

It’s in the second half of the book that the focus shifts more steadily to the main characters and their journey; while this might initially seem a criticism, for me it felt appropriate given the intervening political shift. With so many morally compromised characters it’s a case of take your choice and stand by it: I was surprised to find myself rooting for Henry in the end, but that I think has more to do with the vector of his aspirations. Perhaps that says more about me and my place in the old Frost Report sketch: I look up to him because…

I should add, in case I’ve made it sound like a trudge, that while it’s not easy reading it’s not difficult either. It’s also very funny in places. With the election looming large you certainly won’t view glimpses of barbarians…sorry, politicians, in the same light.

Van has finished reading…All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

4 Mar

It’s a poetic title for a poetic book. My first thought was how extraordinary it is; my second was how quickly it sped by. The writing is so sparse yet there’s never a sense that detail is lacking anywhere – at least not accidentally. Because there’s lots of detail that hasn’t been included. And this is the real feat of this book, I think. The control that Evie Wyld has exerted over her narrative is consummate. The fact is I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, not only because of the good reports it’s garnered, but to see what the author did with this polar dual narrative (I’ve been trying to write a story with a similar timeline for about four years – and I now I can see more holes in what I’ve got than before). The way we follow Jake both backwards and forwards, through the running and the hiding to arrive at places which seem to close the circle yet are so distinct is a thing of rare beauty. And always bouncing off that past narrative is the awareness that we know what followed so the mystery is in what preceded. How that informs the close of the present narrative, how it poses questions beyond the last words, how it throws it into perspective is delightful.
The natural world is ever-present in this book. Birds are unreadable spectators, ever-present commentators on events. A sense of menace lurks with them, something that is wonderfully underlined when a school of sharks are described as flying when seen from below. Nature is danger, unrelenting, inhuman, unforgiving. It can only be glimpsed and it certainly can’t be tamed, no matter how we try. Even the protagonist, Jake, is abstracted; physically strong and capable, yet psychologically mauled and barely communicative, she is closer to animal than is comfortable. The sense of place is palpable too – or perhaps more accurately it’s the sense of no-place. We move alternately from the claustrophobia of a tiny cottage and the hemming English weather to the heat and flat expanse of Australia. Where you’d think the juxtaposition might offer something boundless in the latter, it simply serves to underline the sense of isolation, provide a different kind of closed-in. All that uncrossable space is just as intimidating as the impenetrable fog.
In words, in conception and in execution, this book is a thing of beauty.

All The Birds, Singing was published by Random House in 2013, ISBN:9781742757308
You can find Evie on Twitter @eviewyld and on her website,

Van has finished reading…The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

2 Mar

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. To talk about how very, very funny it is is to give the wrong impression entirely. There again, though unremitting in its portrayal of what it is to suffer, and also of what it is to be helpless in the face of the suffering of someone you love, that’s not nearly the whole story. To talk about how well drawn the characters are is to reduce it to something akin to a technical exercise. To talk about it in any way seems almost to talk around it rather than address it head on. But that’s how we tend to deal with things, isn’t it?

Rabbit Hayes is dying – I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that – and her family are gathered around her, trying to do everything and anything they can. To fix it. To get through it. To understand it. Perhaps even to ignore it entirely, at least for a time. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how quickly this book took the breath from my mouth. Four pages in and I couldn’t see. And I don’t mean that oh-I’ve-just-got-something-in-my-eye moment. I mean proper fat tears rolling out. And it did it to me again and again. Make no mistake, this is a book to break the heart.
But you’d expect that to an extent, given the title and the subject matter. What’s so formidable about this book, I think, is the honing-in on those little private moments that make the characters more than mere characters. When you’ve caught your breath, sit back and see just how studied those little moments are: Jack holding it in for Molly on the roadside; the instant of cold silence after Molly’s said the wrong thing – again; Grace and the mug; Davey’s split-second decision; Grace’s kids and the way they are with their mother – I’m welling up just remembering it! It connected with me in a quite visceral way. Its power I think is in how recognisable, how relatable it is – these hundred tiny things that we do daily become suddenly freighted with a power to push us beyond, or outside of ourselves, and we think – yes, I’ve done that, I’ve reacted in that way; or perhaps, if only I’d…

Did I mention how funny this book is? It’d take a far more knowing cultural commentator than I to explain why, but as soon as I’m with an Irish family there’s a sense of comfort about the voices that rise up. Their authenticity seems almost implicit, though I’ve no reason why this should be the case. I’m not sure I could tell quality Irish patter from not. Suffice it to say that what Anna McPartlin gives us here is sparkling, and sparky dialogue that frames her players superbly. If this isn’t what an Irish family sounds like the World is a sadder place than I care to admit. And I’m sure I’ve met a Molly or two in my time – women who’ve lived long enough to always know the right thing to say, though not necessarily the right way to say it, and that everyone swears blind have been like that since birth. Ah, but they’re the people you want on your side and no mistake!

Despite the subject matter’s suggestion, it’s a wonderfully uplifting book. There is love in abundance on its pages, and not a small pinch of worldly wisdom to go with it. Nothing lasts forever, but I guarantee you’ll not forget reading this book in a hurry. It’s a truly beautiful thing. But get tissues. Lots of tissues.

I must say thanks to the Curtis Brown Book Group for sending me this as a welcome gift back in December. They really do have impeccable taste. And one more thing. I actually know someone called Mia Hayes.