Archive | March, 2016

Van has finished reading…Vigilante by Shelley Harris

31 Mar

Shelley Harris’s Vigilante is a deeply serious book masquerading as entertainment. There’s rich humour in there, genuinely funny moments as well as those which will prompt a wry smile from anyone who has pondered their self-image even a little bit, or found themselves staving off life’s drudgery with a flight of fancy. It’s the seriousness that lingers after the last page though. It’s those crushing moments that are a mix of fear and rage and relief and sadness that bring tears to the eyes. Whether it’s your own kids or those of friends and relatives, whether it’s loved ones that you think of the response is unavoidable: fear that it could happen to them; rage that it might; relief that this is fiction; sadness that we live in a world where this possibility exists. And it’s between that rage and that sadness that the Vigilante lurks in each of us. It’s a credit to the pace of Harris’s prose and the veracity of her characterisation that I really wanted to hurt him, that I was right there in the midst towards the end of the book, and that I felt genuinely angry for a good hour after finishing it. Because we all know someone…

Vigilante is a thoroughly believable book, nothing out of place, nothing extraordinary in the representation. I particularly liked the rendering of the Hero’s (yes, let’s not beat around the bush with a meagre ‘protagonist’) moments of conflict. If you’ve ever practised martial arts, either for self-defence or as a sport, you know how little they can actually protect you. Hollywood miss-sells combat so enormously these days (compare the old musketeers films, circa Finlay, Reid and York with anything recent involving swords and it’s ludicrous – everyone’s born a ninja now) but for it to be effective in a situation it needs to be so entrenched in the muscle memory it needs to have been there for years because it has to get past that debilitating flash of fear that blitzes every sense you have. Or you need to be lucky. It was Judo with me and I did do it for years but I’d been running longer so that usually took precedence. I was lucky once (and my God did I feel alive afterwards!) That said, I’d sign up for Mac’s one-to-one training any day, shouting and all.

One of the things I really love about the characterisation in this book is watching Martha through Jenny’s eyes. All the wanting to ask, the wanting to say but worrying about how and about getting it wrong. And knowing her just by the tilt of her head – beautiful. For me, it feels like that’s where the gold is. That’s where I found that sense of uplifting that meant I could smile once I’d closed the covers, despite all the fear and the anger. Because we all know someone…


The word hero gets thrown around like confetti these days. If you’re a soldier you’re a hero, if you work in medicine you’re a hero, Fire Service, Ambulance, Police, Teacher and so on. There’s no doubt these are all worthy professions with their own distinct challenges and opportunities to make a difference. Ask any one of these people and they’ll tell you they’re just doing their job but that doesn’t diminish the importance of or the pride in what they do. And who doesn’t want to be thought of in some small way as a hero? If you’re a Mother…? Those words, profession, job, suddenly jar. They don’t seem right yet the dedication to the task is so much greater. Vocation, duty, honour? Now try the word Vigilante…not quite the same. There’s something dark about it, something furtive. More a rule-breaker than an upholder of law and order. Imagine seeing every mother as a vigilante. The trouble is that we still think in distinct terms when we think Mother or Father. Times are changing, I think, but there’s rarely a day goes by where a woman isn’t belittled in some way because she’s a woman. You only have to look at press coverage of female politicians to see how far away parity is. And the sadness is that most of it is changeable. It’s a simple case of becoming aware. Making jokes about the colour of someone’s skin, or their sexual orientation is rightly and roundly frowned upon these days, where twenty or even ten years ago people would have found it funny (which might be read as ‘people laughed because that’s what everyone else did’). Hounding someone, openly attacking them because of these things would be scandalous. How long before laughing and pointing, hounding and attacking women ceases to be acceptable?

Now imagine seeing every mother as a hero.

Books like Shelley Harris’s Vigilante aren’t just entertaining, they make a difference too. Vigilante is out now. Find it before it finds you!

Vigilante was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (in paperback) on 3rd March 2016 ISBN:9780735829398

You can find Shelley Harris on Twitter @shelleywriter and on her website,

My thanks to Virginia Woolstencroft at W & N for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons

23 Mar

Composer Harry Fox-Talbot cannot write music anymore. His beloved wife, Edie, has died and without her the music doesn’t make sense. Despite fending off his daughters’ suggestion of finding a hobby and making time to play, the notes will not come. Then, one day, left alone with his troublesome grandson he resorts to what he knows and discovers the child is a piano prodigy.

Harry’s world begins to turn again as he seeks to connect with what he has lost. The Song Collector is the story of Harry’s life and love, of passion, loss, belonging and forgiveness.


This is a novel that aches. It’s a minor key, the sort of thing you reach for because you know the sadness of it will resonate. The way the two timelines counterpoint serves to strengthen that sense; we know Edie’s end at the beginning, so there’s plenty that simply can’t end well when we first meet her. It’s not just about the story though. There’s the writing too. It’s emotional prose in the best way, a story lovingly-written, and that really comes to the fore in the musical descriptions (in both senses). You don’t need to be a lover of music to enjoy this book but if you are I think it’ll only heighten that enjoyment.

Natasha Solomons is an astute observer of character. I particularly enjoyed the many facets of Little Fox. The subtlety in the difference between older and younger Harry is hard to pin down but quite apparent. Perhaps it’s the general jauntiness of youth that shines through in the earlier timeline, or the naivety. Whatever it is it works splendidly (a Foxish utterance if ever I heard one) but is not limited to Harry. Regardless of era the players in Harry’s life stand distinct and vivid, and the interaction with his daughters is wonderfully pitched. It goes back to that minor key – we don’t so much see Harry as feel him.

And then there’s Robin, a child with a prodigious talent and a complete dearth of social graces. How wonderfully refreshing he is (on the page!). Through Robin Natasha Solomons brings us the best kind of humour, allowing us to laugh knowingly from the outside while this key unlocks a story, a person, a history that sings to be told.


The Song Collector is a fabulous book, a quiet story. It’s true, vivid, comfortable and yet urgent too. It might make you laugh, it’ll probably make you cry but I’m certain that come the coda it will leave you with a smile.


The Song Collector is published by Sceptre on 24th march 2016 ISBN: 9781444736410

You can find Natasha Solomons on Twitter @natashasolomons and at her website,

You can also join in the song collecting at Discover a map of the country in songs, listen in and even upload your own. Follow on twitter @GB_Songmap.


My thanks to Ruby Mitchell at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.

A Q & A with Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship

18 Mar

You know you’ve come across a good book when it stays with you after you’ve finished it. Whether that’s in the way you look at things with a new understanding or whether you find yourself speculating beyond the last page you know that for a time it will be there. Rarely have I come across a book that haunted me like The Ship. Long past that normal period of recalling and reflecting I found it drifting into my consciousness. I read it to Mrs Van and it was the same with her. Months after finishing, we were watching the news one night and a particular bulletin resulted in us turning to each other, eyebrows raised, saying, ‘The Ship!’ It’s no surprise that this book was among my top 5 of 2015, and I don’t need to tell you what an endorsement it is that it was in Mrs Van’s top 3, so I am delighted to be involved in the blog tour for the paperback launch of Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.

Antonia kindly agreed to answer just a handful of the many questions this book gave rise to. I hope you enjoy her responses.

Antonia Honeywell copyright Chris Honeywell The Ship PB


What sparked this story in your imagination? How did it become a story you wanted to tell?

Do you read Dorothy L. Sayers at all? She is one of my go-to favourites for a good story well told, and her heroine, Harriet Vane, is a poor but fiercely independent woman who writes popular detective fiction. When she marries the wealthy Lord Peter Wimsey, she finds that her unwonted happiness and security sends her writing into darker places. That was my experience too. In my early thirties, for the first time in my life, I was able to look at someone I loved and think, ‘You love me,’ with confidence. (Politically we’re poles apart, but at least mealtimes are never boring.) It set me thinking about the terrifying prospects the human race is facing, and the responses of those with the power to effect change.


The sense of claustrophobia on board the ship is heightened by what’s either withheld from or simply not acknowledged by Lalla. Of the people that interact with her and shape her journey who was the most difficult to get right?

Michael was a tough one – in the early drafts, he was an aspiring cult leader, pure and simple. But as I began to live with him, I realised he was far more complex than that. His overriding motivation is his love and concern for his daughter, which brought him far closer to me (and I hope to the reader) than is entirely comfortable. The people’s motivation was easier – they have all suffered so badly that their critical faculties have been blunted. They’re too grateful for their sanctuary to ask questions. Michael doesn’t have that excuse – but he does want the best for his daughter. So at some point in that cycle, he has to be condemned for what he does – unless you think he’s doing the right thing. And I see that leads me straight into your next question…


One of the themes running through the Ship is the misuse of our planet’s resources. Did you undertake a lot of research around the science involved in the world you portray? What surprised you the most in what you discovered?

I did indeed. I’ve got files full of the stuff. Not just the misuse of the planets’ resources, but the amount of tinned tuna it would take to feed 500 people for 20 years and the biggest bags of rice you can buy and how long cooking oil keeps for and whether you can power a freezer from a solar panel. What surprised me most about the resources question is just how much we know about the damage we’re doing to the planet. It’s no mystery; the information’s all there, researched and proven. We know we are sitting on finite resources, and yet we buy strawberries in December and fly our green beans in from Kenya. We know the cost of cheap clothes, both for the environment and for those who are paid slave wages for making them, and yet Oxford Street is packed every Saturday. And I’m as bad. I have my car and my gas central heating, and although I don’t buy many clothes that’s only because I hate shopping. On the other hand, I don’t fly to Antarctica to personally inspect the impact of global aviation on the environment either. At what point do we stop and tell ourselves that what we’re doing is wrong?


Of those resources it’s arguably food that plays the most important part. Was it always your intention to have this focus or was there a process that led to its prominence in the story?

I think food is where it’s at, ultimately. We have to eat. The way we organise housing and education, the role of technology in our lives, how we travel will change, but if we don’t eat we’ll die. And in the western world at least, food has become increasingly separated from its source. Industrial farming is a long, long way from the pretty pictures on the sanitised packages in which we buy our meat. Food storage is an advanced science; it’s completely possible to eat a full diet using stored food. Tinned vegetables and fruit often contain more nutrients than the fresh ones we buy in the supermarket. By living in such isolation from our food sources, we’re depriving ourselves of the chance to understand them. I feel that we’re understanding less and less about more and more of the things we rely on for survival.


I understand your short story, The Time Being is included in the paperback. Which came first, the novel or the short? Have you thought about writing beyond the last page and doing a sequel?

The novel came before the short story. The publication process for The Ship was already underway when W.F. Howes, who did the audiobook, requested the story. At first I was rather nervous, but the chance to explore Lalla’s pre-ship life was irresistible and in the end I loved writing it. As for writing beyond the last page – well, twelve years ago I was never going to marry or have children and here I am with a husband and four incubii. Having said that, The Ship was written as a complete story.


You are a year on from the initial publication of The Ship – your debut novel. What’s changed since then in your writing, your expectations and the expectations of others?

The Ship was my first published novel, but it wasn’t the first novel I’d ever written. I served a long apprenticeship of failure, during which I learned that the only way to be a writer is to write. And write. And write. I always thought that publication would magically create writing time, so I strove for it, creating time where none existed. Then I got published, and whoever or whatever was going to give me all that time obviously didn’t get the memo. The children still need feeding, meals still need putting on the table, bills still have to be paid… So I’ve learned, really, that nothing changes. Except everything has. I’m still writing surrounded by chaos, making the most of the gaps, but now I’m writing this, for you, because my paperback’s coming out. And that brings a sense of deep contentment.


There’s some really nice imagery in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of the inverted Adam and Eve moment in the middle. Were you aware early in the process that you wanted the religious parallels or is this something that emerged during the writing?

I wanted them but wasn’t sure how to get them in. But as I wrote and redrafted, I realised that they were there naturally. I just had to give them a bit of space.


There seems to be a wealth of young adult protagonists in literature at the moment and dystopias of many flavours abound. The future vision of the Ship is particularly stark, though scarily, not that far-fetched. Do you think literature (and by association, writers) has a valid role in waving a warning flag to the younger generations?

Yes. Yes, I do. I remember reading Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land when I was twelve or thirteen and having my world turned upside down by it. After all, it’s the younger generations who have to live with what we leave behind, just as we had to live with the world our parents and grandparents created. It’s a formative life stage – are you going to continue down the same route as your parents, or challenge it? Literature speculates to entertain, but it also speculates to explore.


What’s the best editorial advice you had for the Ship?

The absolute best? It was terrifying. Brace yourself – my editor told me to change the ending. I was horrified – the ending was the one fixed point, the thing I’d been sure of throughout the writing process. That advice taught me two things – firstly, that nothing you’ve written is sacred. Nothing. Secondly, that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the part that’s been identified as the problem. I didn’t change the ending, but I did change almost everything else. It was the right ending, but I’d been so sure of it myself that I hadn’t written up to it effectively. I’m grateful for everything my editor did, but that stands out for me.


With a growing sense of disconnection, Lalla makes her own little Museum to keep important things in. What would you put in your museum?

The value of Lalla’s museum is that the things in it are only valuable insofar as they relate to her story. No gold, no diamonds, no artefacts of exquisite workmanship. What would be in mine? The poem James wrote when he proposed. The cork from the champagne we drank when our first child was born. A paper of seeds from the guerrilla sunflowers the children and I planted all over the garden a couple of years ago. Or this – last week, I took my father to the theatre. The last time we went out together was when he took me to see The Empire Strikes Back when I was nine. I don’t know how you put that in a glass case. Maybe that’s why I write.


Thank you so much for your support for The Ship, and for having me on your blog, Van. It’s been a real pleasure.

The Ship blog tour banner


If you haven’t yet read The Ship (why ever not?) you can find it at your local (Independent or otherwise) book shop. If you have read it, find a friend who hasn’t!

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published in paperback by W&N (Imprint of the Year, 2015 at the Bookseller Industry Awards) and is out now

Van has finished reading…The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

14 Mar

Recently retired, Judge Yun Ling Teoh is losing her memory. Returning to the highlands of Malaya and The Garden of Evening Mists, she recounts the promise she made to her sister, killed by the Japanese during the Occupation, and how it first brought her to the garden; how she became apprenticed to Aritomo, the garden’s creator and once gardener to the Emperor of Japan; how her history nestles in the secrets that shroud those of her country during that brutal time.

The effect incarceration had on Yun Ling is tangible. After what happened to her and her sister, her hatred of her captors is as vibrant as her anger at the politicians, the latter handicapping her in her quest for justice as effectively as the former in taming her during captivity. Seeing the story through the prism of age is the right choice, too, allowing room around the choices she made rather than scrabbling in the moment to try and explain them. It’s feels like a very graceful novel, quite spacious in its telling, and it’s as much about obfuscation as it is revelation. Truly terrible things happened in this history and Tan Twan Eng proves again that the giving of lurid detail is not necessary to convey the burden such experiences place on those involved.


The truth is I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. What I had in the end was closer to an appreciation of it. Like Aritomo’s garden, there are many points that echo or reflect others, themes weave through the understory, and there are moments that are lost to the descending mists. It’s not a thing I can be definite about but I do wonder whether Yun Ling’s closed-off nature (though understandably so) also affected to hold her distant from me as a reader. The Garden of Evening Mists is, for me, an engaging and immersive read. I can only hope that you’ll get that glimpse through to its secret heart that will make it shine.


The Garden of Evening Mists was published by Myrmidon in January 2012 ISBN 9781782110187

You can find Tan Twan Eng on his website,

Van has finished reading…The Bees by Laline Paull

8 Mar

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I picked this book up. The gold-inlayed bees on the boards under the jacket are lovely, and with a name like The Bees I knew it had to have something to do with bees, but perhaps it says more about my highfaluting tendencies that I was interested to see how said bees were going to work as metaphor or cypher in the grand scheme of a life laid bare. Turns out it’s a story about bees. As in a story told from the point of view of a bee. No, no, don’t look like that. That’s the kind of attitude that makes the reading of a book like this an obstacle. The simple fact is that it’s a fascinating, gripping, intense, wholly emotional and thoroughly wonderful book.

Okay, if you’re the sort of person who can’t give yourself up wholly to a book you may struggle with the idea of living as a bee. I can only advise you to give in to it. Laline Paull has done all the work for you – I feel like I know how a hive works, like I could do an exam on it there’s so much information in there.

The characterisation is excellent, serving not only to separate the distinct influences on Flora’s journey but also laying out the strata that form the life of the hive. Formed into kinships, the bees of each sisterhood share their common and distinct behaviour and voice, yet there’s room in there to recognise the individual too, where a threat rises or a concession is made. Each character feels as real as any person you might meet in a novel about people, each affected by the things that speak to their particular station, each behaving according to their duty, their desires and their station.

Don’t get the idea this is a data-heavy block of tedium, however. In fact it’s something of a lesson in suspense writing. Before we even know what Flora’s life is she is dragged out of her comfort zone and thrust into danger. Flora is the heroine and could easily stand for an archetype: born to a lowly station, yet with talents beyond the usual, she is destined to transcend the confines and conventions of expectation. Every single chapter is either the culmination of or the auguring in of some new peril. There is trust and deception, love and duty, power and fear. And, speaking frankly, if you don’t think twice about using pesticides in your garden after reading this there’s something wrong with you.


I can hand-on-heart predict that this will be one of Mrs Van’s books of the year come December. Not only because she is a secret stroker of bees but for all the reasons given above. We’re about halfway through now and she keeps asking me in a small voice whether it all works out in the end for Flora (we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we!). She also bought some extra flowers for the garden at the weekend when she heard about their pollen and nectar-producing qualities.

This book genuinely has made me look at the world differently. Okay, I like my garden and enjoy plants and flowers but I can honestly say I’ve never been so happy to see our little magnolia opening her buds up to the early foragers. It is a truly fantastic read.


The Bees was published by Fourth Estate on 8th May 2014 ISBN:9780007557721

You can find Laline Paull on Twitter @lalinepaull and on her website