Archive | December, 2015

Van has finished reading…Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

29 Dec

When you consider what happens in Louise Doughty’s Whatever You Love, it’s a surprisingly quiet book. The slow deliberation of the prologue, the conscious shying away from the ranting and railing seems at odds with what one might expect, yet there’s a truth in such representation, in the detachment of remembering. There’s the thing about the quiet voices, though, they tend to make you lean in the better to hear.

Laura’s is a voice that from the off holds you at arm’s length, will not grant you access to the turmoil. As that opening paragraph has it, this is the muscle memory, the body being trusted while the mind cannot. We lean in and we listen to Laura talking through the numb bubble of her grief and we’re likely not conscious of the ever-rising tension, protected as we are by that bubble. We surely knew all along, though, when that perfect closing line of the epilogue comes, that we couldn’t escape the turmoil. It’s a reflex, unavoidable, muscle memory.


The book’s structure works really well. Aside from the prologue and epilogue there are two sets of ‘Before’ and ‘After’. What the repetition reinforces is the title: whatever you love – this is not only about the death of a child. Grief and all its attending angels are pertinent when someone is taken from us whether a death is involved or not. Again, there’s a great line to close out the first pass through Laura’s story, but the tension remains. There’s no sense of a gear change, rather a continual and inexorable loading of the already stretched elastic band so that by the time I reached the second ‘After’ I really wondered just how far Laura was prepared to go.


Laura’s is a story that plays to our most primal fears. It invites us to empathise with her, and (as with Doughty’s excellent Apple Tree Yard) it begs us to ask how far we’d be prepared to go, what we imagine we may be capable of in such extreme circumstances. It is a quiet read in its own way, but it’s also gripping.


Whatever You Love was published in 2010 by Faber & Faber ISBN:9780571254767

You can find Louise on Twitter @DoughtyLouise or on her website

Van has finished reading…Straight White Male by John Niven

22 Dec

There is something rotten in the state of Kennedy Marr. Kennedy misbehaves. He speaks to people the way we wish, sometimes, we could speak to people. He pleases himself (in more ways than one). And this is where John Niven performs a balancing act. He’s a very funny writer with a keen awareness of how situation is king in drawing out the laugh. We’re watching Kennedy and half of us is thinking, yeah, I’d love to be able to react like that and get away with it, while the other half is just waiting for him to get his comeuppance.
The problem, for me, is that Kennedy is too far beyond the pale so that when the bad behaviour repeats, and repeats, I can’t empathise so it ceases to be funny. In fact this came really close to being a Sorry, John. What stayed my hand in the end is that I stuck with the book and regardless of my feelings toward Kennedy, it’s still a readable story. I suspect there’s a lot of truth about Kennedy’s kind of lifestyle in there though the blunt instrument that is Kennedy tended to obscure it for me.
I wonder if it’s one of those books that you really like or you simply don’t find funny (or perhaps funny enough). I think it’s certainly worth seeing for yourself (though if it’s funny you’re looking for I’d wholeheartedly steer you towards The Sunshine Cruise Company instead).

Straight White Male was published on 15th August 2013 by William Heinemann ISBN:9780434022861
You can find John on twitter @NivenJ1

Van has finished reading…Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

18 Dec

I doubt there’s a person alive who hasn’t wondered how different things could’ve been if only they’d turned left instead of right, caught the train they’d missed, turned down what looked like the dream job. What’s it trying to tell you when you get that tingle down the spine and a sense – a certain sense – that this has happened before and you somehow know what’s going to happen next? It’s telling Ursula Todd that she really has been there before and that things aren’t going to change unless she makes them.

It’s a deceptively simple premise: Take a single life and start it over each time it ends, adjusting one thing or another on each pass. Looked at in that way, 600-odd pages might seem like a few too many. But what Kate Atkinson brings to those 600-odd pages carries no fat. What’s fascinating about it, and I think what makes it work so well is the way each layer builds on the others, so that the characters do the same. At one point Ursula explains that time is like a palimpsest and as a reader I had the sense that it’s not just the action or the place but Ursula too. Though small things may change each time there is a larger understanding, almost a trust that she’ll be Ursula still in all her many incarnations.

Given her (repeated) birth in 1910 it’s not surprising that a large part of the novel covers the Second World War. ‘We must all bear witness,’ Miss Woolf says to Ursula and in the moment I read those words it struck me that it’s an exhortation not just to her but to us as readers, and indeed writers too. They are compelling chapters that cover this period, devastating and fascinating, dreadful and yet somehow hopeful too. Like other books I’ve read on this period this year (Crooked Heart; Early One Morning) they don’t approach the war as a thing in itself, an occurrence outside of life but as what it was: minutes and hours, days and weeks, months, years of people living and dying. It needs no embellishment; the simple act of bearing witness to these events is its power.

It’s a very English book, which is to say it’s a very English cast – could indeed be a book about being English. Through the incarnations I grew to dislike Sylvie, Ursula’s mother (except for one moment of fierceness in which it was possible to love her), and grew to admire Izzie, Ursula’s Aunt. Izzie is that relentless forward-facing spirit embodied, with pros and cons aplenty. Ursula’s father, Hugh, I also grew to admire. His gradual softening, almost unfurling to emotional honesty was touching.

I get wary around books that saw a lot of hype that the experience won’t meet the expectation. The difference with this one appears to be that it’s almost entirely reader-driven hype, and the experience most definitely does meet the expectation. By the end I was wishing for more pages.

Life After Life was published by Black Swan in 2013 ISBN:9780552776639

You can find Kate at her website,

Van has finished reading…Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

9 Dec

It’s nearly Christmas, which means the weekday market where I work becomes a Christmas market (same tat but with tinsel and Santa hats). I only needed to get a few things but there were the crowds of people all gawping and dawdling and stopping unexpectedly, the stench of the poor beleaguered donkey with the guy dressed as Joseph and holding a swaddled dolly and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a single thing I needed to do, only for the love of Mike, get me out of here! Yes, Bernadette, I’m with you there.
Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is something of a deceptive read, and in the best possible way. Bee, Bernadette’s daughter is our guide, the only voice that speaks to us directly, and the compiler of the story. She sets the scene for us and where necessary links the various correspondence that otherwise unfold the action. There are emails, letters, notes, faxes, FBI files (really!), transcripts. The material is superbly handled, revealing Bernadette both at her strongest and her weakest; revealing her as she sees herself and also as viewed by others; revealing too how broad the road can be that leads a person to who they become. Make no mistake, it is a wickedly funny book, underlined with a truly heavy sadness.
The characters are a real triumph. In almost every case what you think of each one when you first meet them is unlikely to be what you think of them at the end, yet the honesty with which they conduct themselves (as characters, I mean, not that they’re particularly honest people) is perfect. I guarantee you’ve met someone like Audrey. You might even be someone like Audrey!
But let’s talk about Bernadette. She’s such a beacon of a character I’m surprised no-one’s made the film yet. Stylish, quirky, a genius: what more could you want in a female lead? But isn’t that half the trouble. Take those traits and make your lead male and you have a very different trajectory. Off the top of my head, I think the only main character who is male is husband, Elgin – his own kind of genius who is, natch, running a major project at Microsoft. These would be things to be lauded all together but for a woman there’s that single additional ingredient that makes her unapproachable: distant. She can’t conform to the type, can’t involve herself in school life or neighbourhood life or any other kind of life society presents her with as a woman. She can’t conform so she escapes. What she doesn’t realise is that the women around her are escaping their own particular bettes noirs, sometimes by conforming.
There’s a line right at the start of the book that sums the whole thing up: ‘…just because you think you can’t know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.’
How many times in our own lives have we felt slighted for want of a little understanding, a little effort on someone else’s part? ‘Just because it’s complicated,’ Bee says, ‘It doesn’t mean I can’t try.’
Now there’s good advice.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette was published in 2012 by Phoenix ISBN:9781780221243
You can find Maria on her website