Archive | July, 2015

Van has finished reading…The Summer Of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

29 Jul

I’m sitting back and I’m thinking hard about this. I’m doing so because, were it not for the fact that this is the first book of the new term of #CBBookgroup reads, I’d be saying, ‘sorry, Sarah’ (my response when a book doesn’t work for me). As it is a Curtis Brown Book Group read, I’m endeavouring to pick apart my thoughts a little.

There’s nothing wrong with the writing. The premise is sound and the characters are varied and distinct. The teenagers, particularly, are teenagers: at turns capricious or needy or wary or even cruel. The story is told from a single point of view, albeit separated into two parts: past and present. The past being told in third person and the present in first is a good distinction; it reminds me of LP Hartley’s ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ from The Go-Between. There’s a good sense too of how blaming oneself – misplaced or otherwise – blights everything that follows.

I didn’t feel I knew present-day Helen as well as past-Helen, although events suggest that may be deliberate and it adds to the building sense of catastrophe as the story progresses. I do have a problem with the lead-up to the catastrophe. For me there is a point I couldn’t buy in to, although I’m equally aware that, had I bought into the story earlier it likely would have passed unnoticed.

Looking at the evidence, there’s nothing wrong with the book. So I have to conclude that it’s me. But you can’t love everything. And this is why from time to time you’ll see a review that simply says, ‘sorry, writer,’ because it’s a very difficult thing to write a book, any book. And who am I to push a pin through so fragile and hard-won a dream? I’m sure other members of the CB Book Group, and indeed readers everywhere will love it. Don’t let me make your mind up. Try it for yourself.

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon is published by Black Swan on 13th August 2015 ISBN 978552779975

You can find Sarah on twitter @sarahontheboat and at her website


Van has finished reading…Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin

22 Jul

Oh, my! Where to begin? Perhaps I should start simply: READ THIS BOOK!

Diana’s boyfriend, Simon, is leaving for Cairo in the morning. Their evening hasn’t gone according to plan. As he leaves Simon pleads with her to talk about it but Diana is compelled to open old wounds in private. What is it in Diana’s life that keeps her from the intimacy she craves? And what happened to Diana in Cairo at the age of fifteen that could prevent her from even travelling abroad for the next thirty years of her life?

In psychology lecturer Dr Diana Dodsworth, Anne Goodwin presents us with a remarkable protagonist. Anne leads us expertly through Diana’s dilemma, from the terror of her own day-to-day indecision to the memories and reminiscences of the past that shaped the person she is today. As a character she’s hard to stay close to, though that’s no criticism. That’s just Diana! At times you might want to shake her, as frustrated with her as she is with herself, but make no mistake you’ll be rooting for her by the end.

There’s some very neatly laid foreshadowing too. Entirely unobtrusive when you first meet it, there comes that moment when you think, Oh, really? I wonder!

It’s a very touching story, not least I think because Anne Goodwin doesn’t allow Diana to feel sorry for herself. There’s little sympathy in there, and when it does rear its head Diana’s response feels wholly characteristic. The family interaction is perfect and presented through the prism of Diana’s view, often very moving without the taint of sentimentality.

Oh, and the title – not out-and-out strange or eye-catching, but almost ordinary enough to make you wonder – is spot on.

We’re encouraged to sometimes read outside of our comfort zone, which always strikes me as an interesting thing to say. Fiction, after all, is fiction. What can it ‘do’ to us that we should have a sense of a line that it is somehow daring to cross? This book has brought me to a different understanding of that phrase. A book well-written is to an extent a life experienced. If it gets you under the skin of its characters you can come out the other side in some small way changed. The way it does this is by making us think, making us question. There are likely millions of us who think we’re pretty well-rounded, fairly okay people with a healthy respect for other people’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings, proclivities. But how much of that is a barrier to actually understanding something of those beliefs, thoughts etc? This book did more than bring me subjects on which I have little or no direct experience. It made me think about them, made me question them. What if I…what would I…And if someone I knew, how would I…? This makes it more than just a good book. It makes it an important book.

I both did and didn’t find this an easy read. It was easy in the sense that it’s well put together, that the language and the voices and the characters fit or clash where they should. I could meet Diana Dodsworth in the street and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover she’s an actual living person (I’d love to know what Anne Goodwin’s response will be when one of those people who says, ‘is it autobiographical, then?’ turns up!). It was easy in the sense that it drew me into a life I have no experience of. It wasn’t easy in the best possible way because after each time I sat down to read some I went away with questions. It wasn’t easy because it held a mirror up to my own prepared responses. Honestly, it asked, what would you really do?

I feel honoured to have been able to review this book and more than inviting you to pick it up for yourself, I urge you to do so. It really is worth it.

Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin is published by Inspired Quill on 23 July 2015

ISBN 9781908600479 or for Kindle here

You can find Anne on Twitter @Annecdotist and at her website

Van has finished reading…The Silk Factory by Judith Allnatt

17 Jul

Sorry, Judith

Van has finished reading…Motherland by Jo McMillan

7 Jul

I’m very grateful to BookBridgr and John Murray Press for allowing me to read this book. I think it’s really rather special. It’s a difficult book – not in its presentation or readability, but for the story it tells, for what it confronts. It feels almost paradoxical in some ways. It’s very funny in places, yet some of those moments aren’t ones I felt I could laugh at. There’s a seriousness about it, a sense of devotion almost, that underpins it, that in itself can and does sometimes appear comedic, yet it can’t be dismissed or written off. This is no mere flirtation with a nebulous sense of a fairer world. These are the lives of True Believers.

Jess is everything you could want from a coming-of-age character: she’s feisty; she’s self-aware; she keeps the names of her enemies in a black book under the bed; she knows her own mind. Or does she? And this is where that humour becomes a little more than merely funny. Because Jess is a chip off the block. Because Jess’s world has been shaped – as any child’s is – by her mother’s influence. Because Jess has grown not by her hometown Tamworth’s time, but to the regulated throb of the German Democratic Republic.

This is a historical novel in one sense, Germany now being a unified country. I would guess that for most readers – me included – mention of the GDR conjures, if anything, words like communism, oppression, Stasi. Jo McMillan’s story stands starkly against those isolated responses. This is fiction, but it’s fiction born of experience, and that rings through the novel. If you are familiar with the world of the Socialist Struggle I think you’ll get even more out of this book, though that knowledge is no prerequisite to enjoying it. I get the impression that talking to Jo would sound like talking to Jess – an older, more seasoned Jess. A wiser Jess? Only Jo could tell me that. Those shadowy impressions, the negative imagery relating to the GDR was there for a reason, and Jo doesn’t flinch from it, but there is genuine affection in her prose, a real sense of that love-hate tug as Jess does come of age. What is written most prominently through this novel is that breath between ideas and ideals, and the long exhalation which separates ideals and the people who are expected to live by them. The final scene is beautiful and poignant and heart-breaking and truly eloquent.

Motherland was published by John Murray Press on 2nd July 2015 ISBN 9781473611993

You can find Jo on twitter @JoMcMillan and at her website

The Inaugural Curtis Brown Book Group – my first six months as a #CBBookGroupie

1 Jul

My first six months with the Curtis Brown Book Group are up, the six books allotted to me all read (some of them twice!). This is the first book group I’ve belonged to but I’m sure it won’t be the last. Aside from the delights of getting the chance to read some of these books before their general release, and of discussing the books (and tartan, tea and any number of other things) with the group members, there was the chance to chat online with the author of each book.

Reading is so often a solitary practice so one real benefit of these discussions was the opportunity to look back over what I’d so recently read with fresh eyes, to pick up on nuances that I hadn’t fully focused on first time around. Questions ranged from prose techniques, tense choices and approaches to plotting all the way through to whether we (and indeed the author) liked a particular character or not, and why. The discussions were quite infectious, one point spinning off into any number of others, with fascinating insights coming to light (like the ‘actually happened’ part of the story in The Rocks, or the cup of tea that was the birth of The Museum Of Things Left Behind – yes, Seni, I’m still waiting to hear that story!).

Having the writers along for these talks was a genuine pleasure and they certainly seemed to enjoy them as much as we did. So I’d like to express my thanks to Antonia Honeywell, Stuart Prebble, Tim Glencross, Seni Glaister, Peter Nichols and Anthony Trevelyan for being so enthused, open and honest about their inspiration, their work and their words. And of course for their books too!

Without Richard and Emma it wouldn’t have happened at all. They have been hosts supreme, providing books of the highest quality, guiding our monthly discussions with the gentlest of hands and filling those days between reading and discussing with tweets and blog-posts to keep us going. Thank you both for all your efforts.

Here are links to my reviews of the books we read.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Published by W & N in Feb 2015 ISBN 9780297871521

You can find Antonia on twitter @antonia_writes and at her blog

The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

Published by Alma Books in March 2015 ISBN 9781846883545

You can find Stuart on twitter @stuartprebble and at his website

Barbarians by Tim Glencross

Published by John Murray in May 2014 ISBN 9781444788525

You can find Tim on twitter @ and at his website

The Museum Of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

Published by 4th Estate in May 2015 ISBN 9780008118952

You can find Seni on twitter @BookPeopleSeni

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Published by Heron Books in Jan 2015 ISBN 9781848666368

You can find Peter on twitter @NicholsRocks

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

Published by Galley Beggar Press in June 2015 ISBN 9781910296417

You can find Anthony on twitter @agmtrevelyan

Just because they’re those kind of people, as if being invited to join the Curtis Brown Book Group wasn’t enough, they also sent me three books as a welcome present.

Alice And The Fly by James Rice

Published by Hodder & Stoughton in Jan 2015 ISBN 9781444790108

You can find James on twitter @James_D_Rice

The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

Published by Transworld in Oct 2014 ISBN 9780857522450

You can find Rachel on twitter @QueenieHennessy and at her website

The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

Published by Black Swan in Jan 2015 ISBN 9780552773744

You can find Anna on twitter @Annamcpartlin and at her website

And then there were those books also came my way through the good offices of the CB Book Group and the kindness of other members (thanks, Jo!)

Letters To The Lost by Iona Grey

Published by Simon & Schuster in Apr 2015 ISBN 9781471139826

You can find Iona on twitter @Iona_Grey

The A to Z Of You And Me by James Hannah

Published by Doubleday in Mar 2015 ISBN 9780857522641

You can find James on twitter @Jameshannah and on his website

I did have a mind to come to the end of the six months and tell you which book was my favourite. How naïve! Instead I’m going to wrestle it down to a top three. Before I do that, I will hand on heart tell you that I don’t believe there’s a bad one among them. This is akin to picking a best-in-show from a bunch of Chelsea Golds.

But here we go. My top three, in the order I read them:

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

It’s such a great read, compelling enough to be with me six months on (I recently ditched a short I was writing when I realised where I’d nicked the plot from). Lalla is a fantastic protagonist, a teenager all the way so you really do want to shake her and give her a hug at the same time. And the world Antonia Honeywell has built around her is minutely thought-out, all the more unsettling for how convincing it is, how possible.

The A To Z Of You And Me by James Hannah

This one’s a beautiful read. Of the three I think the most emotional. Also the funniest, which is what lends it that surprisingly uplifting edge. I particularly love that the premise of the book, the a to z game, is superbly unobtrusive, lending the story structure rather than shaping it. Ivo is messy and complicated and bitter too, but also kind and thoughtful and aware that it’s a bed of his own making he’s lying in. It’s what gets us rooting for him despite the odds.

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

One of the very few books that I started reading again shortly after finishing it. It’s possible there is some kind of wormhole going on between the pages as it doesn’t seem possible there can be so much in there. Again, the characters are fantastic, superbly drawn and very distinct. The provision of back story is I think among the best I’ve read – no hint of a judder anywhere – and the unfolding story keeps you guessing all the way. This is another book that’s going to be with me for a good while after the last page is read.