Archive | September, 2015

Van has finished reading…The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

24 Sep

That thing where you want to bang people’s heads together. That.

I found a healthy amount of frustration in reading Rachel Hore’s The Glass Painter’s Daughter. I say healthy because although it was a genuine sense of frustration that these people can’t seem to see what’s right in front of them, it made me realise that I cared that they couldn’t. We’ve all known people like that. At some point we’ve probably been someone like that and that’s a key to why this book works. It’s a book that’s invested in the ordinariness of its characters: normal people doing normal things, reacting wholeheartedly within the constraints of their circumstances. Too-beautiful-to-be-true Ben is the prime example, his handsomeness shaping the way he interacts and proving to be (how could it not!) the petard by which he will be hoisted time and again.

There’s a dual narrative here which works well, each strand mirroring the other though they’re a hundred years apart. For all our progress, it seems to say, we are still facing the same dilemmas, still seeing the same injustices, suffering the all-too-familiar prejudices. Life’s eternal struggles. How fitting then that so much of what occurs should stem from the presence of angels.

One thing that is pleasing is the lack of religiosity. Where talk of church and angels and characters of faith abound it would’ve been easy to get bogged down in patterns of behaviour and even speech that would ultimately ring hollow. Rather, Rachel Hore presents us with a well-rounded modern clergyman, choral society members with sharp-edged handbags and a church organist who is far more about the music than any particular devotion to the Lord. Then there’s Amber’s sure, unwavering and peculiarly secular belief in angels.

Even with that past timeline there’s a means of expression in the characters (I’m thinking particularly of Philip Russell) that seeks to understand, not to challenge but to root that faith in the context of their own lives.

There’s a neatness to the conclusion of the book that I will admit left me wanting thought it’s the tidiness that rankles rather than any concerns about plausibility. Hey, that’s just me! It’s an enjoyable book to read and while it may not surprise you in its conclusion you should know by now that with any book it’s really more about the journey. And in the journey there are delights aplenty.

The Glass Painter’s Daughter was re-issued by Simon & Schuster on 10th September 2015 ISBN: 9781471151880

You can find Rachel Hore on Twitter @RachelHore or at her website:

Van has finished reading…If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

14 Sep

I wonder how many people saw me reading this book, on the train to work, on the train home again. Oh, it’s that one by that bloke, they might have said. Or perhaps they didn’t notice a change from the week before, were aware only of a man reading, who could have been reading and re-reading the same book, endlessly, turning the back page to the front and beginning over again. Squinting at the sunlight on the page, and then blinking, looking away and back to reclaim my place when the rushing trees dapple the light like faint words overlaid. Or the violence of a sideways glance when the school-kids shattered my concentration with their searching through three seconds of video clip after video clip on their phone for the one with the idiot drunk girl throwing up all over herself and then laughing all desolate and shrill.

Did they notice?

Did anyone see the moment when the strange magic a book holds took over, when I stopped wondering if I was going to enjoy it, if it was more than just a gimmicky throwing together of words and felt the form of it, the solidity that says, yes, there’s more to it, there’s a point to all this and if you just hold on, just keep going I promise you it’ll be worth it. Was there anyone there to notice, as all the characters talked around and around this thing that happened, this thing that becomes more and more momentous the less anyone is prepared to mention it, became apparent and my breathing quickened. And when it came, that moment, when it came and I had no idea which station we’d just passed but I couldn’t possibly look up to check because, because… When that moment came and it was what I thought it was until suddenly and unexpectedly it wasn’t, did anyone see my hand, that seemed a part of another me, a different me, did anyone see it lift up to hide my open mouth?

And what was it I saw, staring out the window after those last words? Light leaving the sky. People, hunched and hurried, watching their own feet find a way home. Trees changing from silver to green as the breeze pushed by.

Even now, typing these words, the story still alive, still vivid after three days, does anyone see the change, how the weight of those words has shifted my centre of gravity?

It’s remarkable, how a good book can do that. Just words, but they can do that.

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things was published by Bloomsbury in 2002 ISBN: 9780747561576

You can find Jon on Twitter @jon_mcgregor and at his website

Van has finished reading…The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven

4 Sep

I think this is the funniest book I’ve read. And when I say funny I mean hilarious. I mean giggling like a loon on the train. I mean suddenly laughing in the cereal aisle whilst doing the shopping an hour after reading. Even now, typing this out, there’s a smirk hovering as I’m trying to push away that image of Ethel in her balaclava. It never gets old.

The characters are superb (particularly Ethel, I bet she was a dream to write!) – as readers we get deluged with characters that fit their situation and situations that fit the characters, even when they’re being pushed out of their comfort zone. But sexagenarians robbing a bank… Comfort zone doesn’t come into it. What I found enlightening about this aspect of the story is that I’m convinced I’d have found it a good deal less believable had I read it ten years ago. What can I say; we’re all only getting older, aren’t we!

And how interesting that the two funniest books I’ve read recently have older protagonists (the other book being Andrea Bennett’s Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged-Dog Story).

It’s all too easy with a book like this – where the story drives so forcefully along, where the characters live their parts fully, where the humour is relentless – for the craft to slip by unnoticed. There’s some slick use of what I’m aware of (thanks to the Writers’ Workshop Self-Edit-Your-Novel course) as psychic distance to link locations and place characters. There’s also a lot of nicely-handled transition between different points of view, often with just a line bridging between one character and the next, yet there was never a sense of disorientation or of not knowing whose head I was in.

It’s really, really funny. It has its touching moments too, but mostly it’s achingly funny. I think everyone should read this because, let’s face it, everybody laughing can’t be a bad thing. Also, once everyone’s read it there’ll be enough of us to pressure the BBC into putting on the telly.

And just to get the ball rolling, here’s a hand with the cast (this is who me and Mrs. Van saw in our heads, anyway).

Susan – Helen Mirren

Julie – Julie Walters

Jill – Penelope Wilton

Ethel – Brenda Blethyn

Nails – well, Terrence Stamp, obviously

Boscombe – Mark Addy

Wesley – Martin Compston

The Sunshine Cruise Company was published on 13th August 2015 by Cornerstone ISBN No: 9780434023189

You can find John Niven on twitter @NivenJ1

Van has finished reading…The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer

4 Sep

It’s thanks to the Curtis Brown Book Group, who sent me this as part of my welcome bundle, that I’ve finally read this; I’ve been aware of it and meaning to pick it up for a while. I’ve often seen reviews of books, or comments about books where people say, ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ I’m not necessarily that kind of reader. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in the lives on the page, all that, but I’m sometimes more inclined to slow down so it doesn’t end too quickly. I think this is the first time I can confidently say I simply had to finish the book as soon as I could; I just HAD to know!

There’s something of a fairy tale feeling that weaves through this book, all the way from the Red Riding Hood visuals and the early frenzied search in the maze, through Beth’s superstitious hopefulness and her later reasoning around universal balance, to Gramps and his whole way of life. What’s powerful about it is how reasonable and grounded all these reactions appear. They’re wholly relevant to each of the characters at each stage of the story, leaving a breadcrumb trajectory for each character arc. There’s also a really nice, subtle shift in the pattern of Carmel’s speech about halfway through that neatly underlines the passage of time.

It’s a really nicely-written book, often feeling very dreamy and loose, belying Kate Hamer’s tight control of events and what we know when. The various voices are distinct but contained and the emotional exploration unflinching. Things that seem incidental at the time re-emerge with renewed significance later and the massing of tension toward the conclusion is palpable (I think Mrs Van caught me chewing a finger – I am not a chewer!). There’s no denying that it’s an emotive story – just the ‘what if’ of this scenario is enough to stop you in your tracks and get you thinking, but what Kate Hamer has done with it is really quite special.

The Girl In The Red Coat was published on 26th February 2015 by Faber & Faber ISBN No: 9780571313242

You can find Kate Hamer on Twitter @kate_hamer