Archive | May, 2016

Van has finished reading…How To Be Both by Ali Smith

27 May

I scarcely know where to start with this. Reading Ali Smith is like literary acupuncture. There’s so much going on with the words and the story and the characters that I find myself going ‘oh’ every other minute because there’s something else that’s just brilliant about what’s on the page. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want at times to applaud.

There are two narratives in the book, woven together in a really inventive way. In the version I have it’s the voice of Francesco Del Cossa that comes first, though apparently you may pick up a copy with George’s narrative coming first instead. Such is Ali Smith’s ability that a dual narrative presents a challenge only when the story is written to stand being read in either order. For my part I think I’m glad I lucked on the story this way round. There’s a sheer playfulness about Francesco’s story (a playfulness that belies a certain amount of bitterness and also a deep remorse) that set me up for what was to come. Where playfulness is the watchword with Francesco, we’re in far darker territory with George. Ali Smith plays on the idea – or one might even suggest the myth – of duality really beautifully, time and again underlining the idea. Supposedly opposing states are examined and exposed, even to the notion of grief and optimism inhabiting the same space.

That makes it three times since September that George has laughed in an undeniable present tense.

These are currently my four favourite words in the English language: an undeniable present tense.


As I’ve comes to expect with Ali Smith, this is a book to revel in. There is such a sense of joy in the wielding of language I couldn’t help but smile even while my heart was breaking. The two stories complement wonderfully. The characters reveal themselves in everything they do and say. Even the level of research that likely went into this book is presented seamlessly. I suspect one could run a writing course on this text alone.

It’s wonderful. Read it.


How To Be Both was published by Penguin on 28 August 2014 ISBN:9780141025209

I didn’t find Ali Smith on Twitter. She’s obviously too busy writing fantastic books! (note to self: spend less time on Twitter).

Van has finished reading…Paradise Alley by Sylvester Stallone

23 May

Yes. That Sylvester Stallone. No, don’t make that face.

I first read Paradise Alley over twenty years ago on a recommendation from Mrs Van. Of course I made that face and dithered but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the intervening years it’s that there’s a look Mrs Van has that brooks no prevarication. Don’t judge, she said, just read it. And that’s good advice.

The fact of the matter is that it’s a great story. It breaks no moulds in what it sets out to do. It’s not prose to stop you in your tracks so you can marvel at its construction. It’s not setting out to win prizes or change your view of the world. It just wants to show you post-war Hell’s Kitchen. It talks in simple language that fits the station of the defined characters (that you might well end up rooting for despite yourself), and it gives you a story arc that could’ve been pulled from the pages of a history book. Okay, there are one or two affectations in the writing that, for my money, would’ve been better edited out. There’s a tendency every now and then to break a sentence over three lines that lifts you right out of the scene. There’s a tendency to overuse names, too where at times a simple he or she wouldn’t have left any doubt about who it referred to. The strange thing about this one though is that after a time I felt it added to the sense of claustrophobia, the sense of helplessness that pervades the book. And just about everybody is helpless in this book, though it’s not through want of trying. The sense of time and place is strong and Stallone’s scene-setting is solid. There are also moments where a single sentence paints the clearest image.


…a bum sitting in the gutter trying to find out where he dropped his future.
It’s at once descriptive and emotional. It’s wholly in keeping with the voices of the characters in the scene, and it’s a line beneath the unwritten, ‘there but for the grace of God…’ As a writer, those are the lines you work for. And when it comes to Big Glory’s swan-song, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep a dry eye there I suspect.


I try not to be snobby about books. I am now old enough to know better on that score. Books should be given a chance. Someone went to a lot of trouble to write what you hold in your hand. If you’ve ever tried to write one you’ll have an idea just how much trouble. If you’ve ever tried to write anything halfway decent you’ll know. To dismiss that effort out-of-hand, to bypass it because of the general consensus or what others might think is to diminish that. Give it a go. That’s the price of admission. With your summer holidays coming up it’s an ideal book to add to the pile. And if having tried it you find it’s not for you, well, fair enough. But you might just find yourself surprised.
Paradise Alley was published by WH Allen in the UK in 1978 ISBN: 0491022549


You can find Sylvester Stallone on Twitter @TheSlyStallone, though he’s more widely-known for things other than his novel.

Van has finished reading…Everything Love Is by Claire King

12 May


On his houseboat on the edge of Toulouse, quiet, careful Baptiste Molino helps his clients to be happy. For himself he maintains a calm existence and is content with his life, despite Sophie, the young waitress in his local bar, urging him to rediscover passion. But new client Amandine Rousseau is a puzzle he finds hard to unlock. Elegant, enigmatic – can he help her to find what she’s looking for without his own life capsizing?


Claire King’s Everything Love Is is a beautiful thing. The cover art is glorious, David Mann’s design working not only to pick up motifs from the story but to weave into the image a sense of what’s between those lovely covers. Look at it again when you’ve finished and you’ll know what I mean!

The story itself nestles into that quiet category. You might not think it from the opening chapter, which would stand as a short story in its own right, but this is a book that whispers in your ear. It’s gentle and persuasive and the further in you get the more it hugs you close. Take my advice and give yourself some good blocks of time – though the chapters are generally short you’ll appreciate it all the more taking time to devour it in large chunks. I don’t want to say too much about the story itself because that would be to give the game away – even getting into how good the characters are – but let me say that you’ll enjoy Amandine and Baptiste easily as much as you enjoyed Pea and Margot in The Night Rainbow, Claire’s debut novel.

The title is perfect, though that’s a conclusion I come to having finished the book. As with her writing, the further into the story you get, the sharper and deeper the connotation becomes. There’s a quote I would love to have included at this point, but I fear to do so will rob the reader of a little of the magic that’s waiting to be found. Maybe I’ll come back and add it in a couple years when it’s a bestseller.

It is a very moving story, and exquisitely structured. In another life I think Claire King might have made a good magician. As with The Night Rainbow, awareness of what’s really going on dawned on me in stages. There were suspicions and suppositions but when it comes to that point – when the structure clicks irrevocably into place – it’s a hand-to-the-heart moment. As to Claire’s sleight of pen, there is a moment on which the story turns that’s so innocuous I’d defy anyone to notice it first time around. It’s really nicely done.

Summer’s not far away now. If you’re thinking about your holiday books make sure this one’s on your list. It’s a book to really settle into and take your time with. And it’ll haunt you after the last page, too. If that’s not a sure sign of a great book I don’t know what is. I won’t be surprised to find it haunting me still come the end of the year when I’m thinking about my 2016 favourites.


Everything Love Is will be published by Bloomsbury on 28th July 2016 ISBN:9781408868423

You can find Claire on Twitter @ckingwriter and on her website,


My thanks to Myfanwy at Bloomsbury for allowing me to review this lovely book.

Van has finished reading…Wise Children by Angela Carter

5 May

I’ve long held the belief that Angela Carter would have been both great fun to know and also slightly terrifying. Her novel, Wise Children has confirmed me in this belief. It’s a very funny book, though frequently in a quite brutal, almost gallows-humour fashion. Then there’s that sense that far more is going on than a reader can reasonably hold in their head. Family sagas may well be your thing but be warned, in Wise Children – as in a good many turns of Shakespeare – one can never be too sure exactly who is related to whom, and how. Threading beneath all this, when the veils are stripped away is a truly emotional story of rejection, longing and the bittersweet taste of reconciliation.

The story comes via Dora, one of the Chance twins, and is told in the voice of your nan, just at that moment where you discover she actually lived a life, and fully, before you were born. Dora and Nora are the illegitimate offspring of Shakespearian Ack-tor, Sir Melchior Hazard. Though actually it’s his twin, Peregrine who acknowledges the twins when Melchior denies them. Being mouths in need of feeding, the girls find their way to the dance hall stage rather than the Theatre Royal, and become dancers. Being a lance with which to fasten William’s words to the sticking plate, there are of course legitimate twins (fine word, ‘legitimate!’) – who aren’t quite what they seem. What occasions the telling of the tale? On the day of their seventy-fifth birthday arrives an invitation to celebrate their father’s centenary. Is this the acceptance they’ve waited so long for? Can they risk another shameful brush-off? Who will survive the poisonous air that broils between the half-sibling twin-sets, the Chances and the Hazards? Are they even related? One thing can be guaranteed: you’ll have a lot of fun finding out.


There was a little pulse of serendipity for me in that I found myself reading this book, without the prior knowledge of its subject, on the 23rd April, the very day on which the action takes place. In this anniversary year, where so many great things are being said about and done to the memory, the mythology and the works of Shakespeare, I can thoroughly recommend adding Angela Carter’s Wise Children to your obeisance to the great man, wherein you’ll discover the gamut of familial relationship from so many of his plays. I suspect Angela Carter loved a good bit of Shakespeare – I doubt someone with lukewarm feelings would’ve been able to stay the course and produce such a book. You’ll also discover a woman of prodigious talent, knowledge and insight. The only sadness is that this was her last novel. But what a novel!
Wise Children was originally published in 1991 by Chatto & Windus

I read the Vintage paperback, published in 1992 ISBN:0099981106