Archive | April, 2015

Van has finished reading…On Writing by Stephen King

30 Apr

Many people have told me how good this book is, I suspect for differing reasons. At least one is an avid King reader, another a writer of horror fiction. Many are, I have to say, people like me – writers who are looking for ways to be better at it. Naturally, we are drawn towards these sorts of ‘insider’ guides. One of the interesting points Mr King raises is that people often turn up to writing events, or buy these kinds of books, hoping there will be some kind of magic bullet that makes it all work.

I confess, while I’m long enough in the tooth to know there isn’t one it doesn’t stop me hoping.

You’ll learn nothing you haven’t heard before about how writing works. Read a lot; write a lot. Kill your darlings, squash your adverbs. There’s comfort in that. You’ve heard it before and from other successful writers – that surely suggests there’s truth in it. What is strangely freeing about this book is Stephen King’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude. For the first time I had the sense that if I didn’t whole-heartedly agree with something I met on the page the world was not going to end. I could just move on with a shrug and pick up a different nugget instead. Neither of us would be worse off for the exchange.

There’s a very interesting section at the back of the book where Stephen presents the beginning of a story in rough draft, and then the same story with corrections. This is so often a missing piece from ‘writing manuals’. It gives you the chance to examine a piece yourself and think about what you’d do differently, then compare notes with what Mr King actually did. There’s also (horror of horrors) a retained adverb in there together with the reason why. A neat reminder that rules in writing should always be flexible so long as you know how to skirt the boundary.

This is a memoir as well and it’s interesting to see the trajectory he took to becoming the writer he is today. But the most interesting aspect of the memoir, for me at least, is that part which deals with the accident that almost killed him part-way through writing this book. How immediate it is and how emotional! The presentation is stark and factual and though we know this is the retelling of an actual occurrence as he remembers it, looking at it as though it were fiction reinforces all those lessons Mr King has presented in the earlier chapters. The main things it underlines for me is that a voice well-rendered will paint a vivid picture in a single line, that an emotional line is strengthened by the lack of adjectives or adverbs, that less is more.

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Van has finished reading…The Museum Of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

24 Apr

The latest instalment in the Curtis Brown Book Group takes me to the delights of a little-visited European enclave. Endless free education; tea on tap; truly stunning scenery: I think I want to move to Vallerosa! Of course it’s not quite as simple as that. There are issues aplenty lurking in the valley’s folds just waiting for something – or someone – to come along and usher them out into the light of day.

It’s the slightest of misunderstandings that precipitate events and push so many characters out of their comfort zones. Take a look at the cast involved, from the President and his ministers all the way down to Remi-Post (guess what he does for a living) and it’s easy to see why I was instantly reminded of those old Peter Sellers films like The Mouse That Roared where he played half the roles himself. What follows is funny and charming without meandering into the fluff of sentimentality. It’s eminently readable and I was genuinely quite annoyed when I had to get off the train with just two pages left. There are some surprising turns too, and the seeming lightness of the tale sets off some serious points quite brilliantly. Time is such an important motif, I’d urge you to allow yourself plenty of it just to think about all the little preconceptions that melt away as you read on through.

You might expect the mention of cliché to be a negative thing in a book review, but I think Seni Glaister’s been rather clever in the application of the tool with this story, for it’s as much about the effects of those preconceptions as any number of other things. A mind quickly made up in Vallerosa is a mind that barely sees the peaks of the mountains. Indeed, a mind slowly made up is as wont to be oblivious (in the true sense of the word) to the wider situation. The fact that the eponymous edifice appears infrequently in the book is clue enough to its intended wider application.

So much is taken for granted in our lives that it sometimes takes the mirror of outside influence for us to see the grand scale of such small oversights – to see the things can and really should change. And sometimes the mirror of outside influence is the last thing we should seek!

And those characters. I can well imagine an audience really getting behind cheering a hero and hissing and booing at a villain. Okay, so it’s not all as clear-cut as that, but the point is they’re so easy to engage with. You’ll want this or that to happen; you’ll be ready to shout ‘look behind you’ when you really don’t want it to. You’ll be rooting for each and every one of them at some point or other, or else shaking your head and smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. Yes, Dario and Piper, I’m talking to you!

Oh, and I might be in love with Pavel’s mother, even though she’s there for barely a page.

Pick it up for your holiday read (the quirky title, the pastel-coloured cover must surely beckon the airport browsers). Pick it up for your commute to work, for your bedside table, for wherever. Just so long as you pick it up!

Van has finished reading…The Ladies Of The House by Molly McGrann

23 Apr

Ladies of the house

Let’s start with the cover. I have to say the cover is fantastic – suburban suggestion in 50’s pulp-book-cover tones, anonymous and also just obvious enough. It’s quite perfect. And that ambiguous title, ‘Ladies’. Though it could be applied to the marital home in Kettering or the house in Primrose Hill – the locations of the two quite different houses that title could apply to – it’s in the association, in the context, in the cover image that you find the connotation.

The houses in question were both once the property of Arthur Gillies, businessman, and are now managed in accordance with Arthur’s Will by his punctilious solicitor, Mr Wye. The two houses are miles apart in so many ways, as are the women who occupy them. And yet…

Arthur Gillies spends his weeks in London on business and his weekends at home in Kettering. Even as the book begins, though Arthur is by then long gone, his wife and daughter are unaware just what that business was, and how successfully he ran it. Arthur was studious to keep his two worlds very separate, even after his death. It’s only when Arthur’s daughter makes a discovery and takes her first tentative steps out from under his shadow that the fates of the ladies of these houses are drawn inevitably together.

There’s a studious avoidance of cliché with the presentation of the ladies so that what we’re presented with are lives shaped by circumstance, rather than circumstances made to fit a story. There’s heartbreak and wretchedness aplenty, as you might expect. There’s the falling into the profession, the niche of post-war recovery that seems almost a license for the business to flourish. There’s the need to survive, the strength or courage or even belligerence that flavours the concept of a work ethic, that allows the compartmentalising of a service provided. That feels almost like a sense of pride in a job well done at times. And there’s society’s strict bounds that provide an inevitable frame to the Ladies’ reception in the wider world, and to the outcome. There’s uncommon violence, all the more impactful in its simple reporting, and there’s love too. Not just the act or the assumption of, not simply the thing we name it for want of a better word but deep-down and heartfelt love.

There’s something very quiet about this book, something very unassuming that is wont to get right under the skin. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy read but it’s a worthwhile read.

With thanks to Katie Green at Picador for sending me a review copy.

Van has finished reading…The A To Z Of You And Me by James Hannah

16 Apr

Without the Curtis Brown Book Group I’m not sure I’d have gone for James Hannah’s The A To Z Of You And Me. I’m very glad I did. I’d say this is up near the top of the list of books Curtis Brown have so far sent my way – and that’s a strong list. The title is apposite. Regardless of the type of book it might suggest, having read it I’d defy you to come up with a better one.

That central premise. Ivo is dying (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by telling you this). He’s been given a task to distract him: work through the alphabet and think of a part of the body and then link a memory to it. What James Hannah has managed is to keep the story prominent, to keep it always stepping forwards, to use that structure in the best possible way. It never felt to me like the shoehorn had come out to make something fit, or that a letter had been filled in because it had to be. And let’s go back to that title. Here’s where its power lies because we are as much made of our memories as we are our flesh and blood. And of course our memories range well beyond the scope of our own bodies. Listen to any couple talking about themselves and it’s plain to see that first person plural doesn’t really feel like plural. It’s the anatomy of a family that we see laid bare, the anatomy of friendships, the anatomy love – all the things that make Ivo who he is. Sometimes a pair separated leaves less than half behind.

Ivo gives no excuses for the course his life took and that’s refreshing too. Though I could feel the shaping of the person he became in his childhood recollections there was no sense of ‘this happened and was inevitable because of that’. Decisions are, or perhaps at least sometimes feel close to arbitrary (although James Hannah’s control over the action is anything but). It’s refreshingly dry too where it could well have been bogged down with soggy sentimentality. Don’t get me wrong, there may well be tears when you read it – I had a couple of moments, though I think Rabbit Hayes may have hardened me for a while yet.

I think, really, you’ve got to read this one. The characters are vivid, the story captivating and the delivery is quite something. There’s a good chance it’ll be in my top three for the year and unless it’s an exceptional second half it’s a shoe-in for top five.

Van has finished reading…The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

15 Apr

The Troubles. Everyone knows what that means – or at least everyone knows enough to know they’re not going to dig too deeply into what that means or how much they understand it. And the little joke between Mickey and his Ma – how perfectly it trivialises it. I don’t mean that disparagingly. You can’t fail to understand that for these characters life is the Troubles, that they’ve known nothing else. There’s so much context in that little joke. Would anyone not living at the heart of such a raw wound even risk the humour? How it frames the relationship between mother and son, too. The gentle affection that binds them, and the attentive edge of neediness in Mickey’s response. It’s a great opening. In just a couple of sentences we know exactly where we are.

Mickey’s the worst kind of ten-year-old you can imagine (if you’re a ten-year-old). He’s smart. He’s a bit of a dreamer. His best friend’s his little sister. He’s the kind of kid that makes adults smile indulgently. The kind of kid that gets called gay by all the other kids. Life is not easy for Mickey. Life is a series of challenges that Mickey needs to win. But he’s no flincher. It’s worth remembering that good is a relative term, and Mickey is prepared to do what it takes to win. And who’s to judge? Is it the method or the motive that’s more important, the steps along the way or the result? Isn’t it right to want to make someone happy?

Voice is a canny thing in writing – some say the hardest thing to define, and one of the hardest to get right. Some books you pick up and you’re right there with the main character from the first word. I wouldn’t pretend to make any claim about the authenticity of the diction and turns of phrase in The Good Son – it sounded fine to me, and Paul McVeigh is far better placed to know the difference. But I didn’t find it an easy voice, at least not at first. It took me a few pages to get into Mickey’s rhythm. If you find it the same I’d urge you to stick with it because the rewards are well worth it.

Given the setting, the characters and everything that happens this could have been a really grim tale. In certain lights I think it is a really grim tale. It’s definitely the kind of history that could cast a long shadow through a life. But Mickey is relentless. He’s buoyant and optimistic and, yes, good! And it’s precisely this that truly breaks the heart. For when it all kicks off at the end, as indeed it must, it’s Mickey’s mother who sticks in my mind just as much as Mickey himself. When she looks at his hands – it’s enough to bring a lump to the throat recalling it.

Try it. The Good Son is most definitely a Good Read. My thanks to Tabitha at Salt for the advanced copy.

The Good Son was published by Salt on 15th April 2015, ISBN:9781784630232

You can find Paul on twitter @paul_mc_veigh and on his website paulmcveigh.blogspot.com

Van has finished reading…The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

8 Apr

I’ve been waiting to read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist for a while. It’s a title that you can’t have avoided in the book world – the story behind the story the sort of tale that gives hope to all those waiting to secure their debut release (as long as you’re prepared to put the work in, seventeen drafts and all!). I’d waited that long (not purposefully, it just happened that way) that there was almost a hint of trepidation in my fingers…unfounded, I can assure you. It should have been a sign of reassurance that the assistant in the shop held the book for a few seconds more than was comfortable before handing it over. Ooh, she said, the cover feels so nice.

The cast of characters is really quite superbly drawn. There’s no anxiety to sound Olde Worlde in speech patterns and this in itself lends that easy authenticity to the dialogue. They sound like people rather than roles. There is care too in the presentation of that era’s mores – how easy it would have been to hem a more modern and enlightened viewpoint around those antiquated views. Rather Jessie Burton lets them stand in the truth of each character and so leaves the reader to make up their own mind. Each person has a reason to be there, and none were surplus to requirements.

Though this is Nella’s story to tell for me it felt so much more like Marin’s tale to inhabit. We see through Nella’s eyes and hear Nella’s thoughts, though it’s no surprise that it’s Marin who fills much of that space. Of all the characters she was the one who really shone out for me. I’d heard Jessie Burton speak about the book prior to reading it and so was aware of her Cate-Blanchettesque writing of Marin, though interestingly for me it was Janet McTeer that I saw in my head almost straight away. Either way, for a writer or an actor (and I don’t doubt for a second that we’ll see this book adapted for the screen, be it large or small) Marin is a character to dream of. She’s such a finely wrought jumble of contradictions it makes her a joy to read, and more than that, to feel for.

If, judging by the sales figures, you’re one of the few people who’ve not read it, don’t delay. Don’t let yourself be daunted by the hype. Don’t let yourself think it might not live up to expectation. Dive in. For Marin and Nella and Cordelia (Yes, I think the women in this book shine, particularly) are people who are likely to stay with you well after the nice-feeling cover is closed. It’s well worth all seventeen drafts.