Archive | April, 2017

Van has finished reading… The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

11 Apr

Well, this one definitely didn’t end up anywhere I would have guessed at the outset. Okay, maybe in general terms it did (though by about three quarters of the way through, frankly, it could have gone anywhere) but the specifics! Just look at the marketing pigeon-holes it could cover: surrealist dystopian sci-fi political espionage jailbreak farce thriller. Believe me, it’s all in there.


Now it’s all done and dusted and I’ve had a moment to breathe, it strikes me the set-up is a bit Toytown. Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Dimple Robotics, Consilience and its TV Evangelist-style pitch. Doris Day and primary colours, the way the residents are herded and infantilised. Charmaine with her chirpy outlook and relentless non-swearing seems made for it. There’s a cynical sheen over it all that creeps up on the reader and as you’d expect with Margaret Atwood, where there is a garden rosy you know there’ll be thorns aplenty.

And what thorns! I guess when you’ve done Dystopia, and done it as well as Atwood, and as often, you really do need to up the game in some department. I could almost believe this is a game of Top Trumps the author played against herself.

Oh, they’ll never believe that!

Let’s do it.

Okay, but the next one’s gotta be even weirder.

You’re on!

It’s the lack of baggage, I think, that wins that reader buy-in. It may well be the strangest idea you’ve ever come across in fiction but the author believes it, and because the author believes it she has simply stated that that’s what it is, so take it or leave it. It’s an object lesson for scribblers everywhere: it might be the oddest thing you’ve ever dreamed up but in the world of your story it’s as every day as death and taxes, and who wants to hear either of those explained in detail?

It serves to make it a really funny book, too, though not underminingly so. It’s never gratuitous enough to derail the tension, and where it does stray close to that line, Atwood is there to drive the thorn home and nip that laugh in the bud. You find the idea of the Elvis robots funny? Well, how about the kid robots… Hmm, not chuckling now.

It’s a book to go along with for the ride. Laugh with it but feel the excitement too, the anxiety over Stan and Charmaine’s fate and the ever increasing tension as every thread is drawn tighter and tighter toward the climax. And when it’s all over maybe have a think about where your own prison walls are, and what’s on the other side should you choose to try and scale them.


The Heart Goes Last was published by Bloomsbury on 24th September 2015 ISBN: 9781408867785


You can find Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood and on her website

Van has finished reading… Revolutionary Ride: On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran by Lois Pryce

7 Apr

Iran. Saying the name is likely to conjure particular images in the mind, dependent on your proclivities. Its state of isolation is wont to invite hyperbole, be that in terms of revulsion or attraction, and the shadows of both its ancient and recent history loom large on the world stage. Names like Persia, Isfahan and Shiraz conjure all the poetry and mystique of the middle east, while events in 1979 feature heavily in our darkest ruminations on modern day Iran. But how much do we really know? Revolutionary Ride is a travelogue of what Lois Pryce experienced after receiving an unusual invitation to visit Iran and find out.

On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran is the book’s subtitle, though if you’re expecting some kind of touristy guide to the sights you’ll be disappointed. While Lois does take in the country’s landscape and visit the major cities and attractions what comes through – and surely this is true of anywhere in the world – is that the real Iran is discovered in its people, in the things they love and what they have to offer. And they are never afraid to offer. As far as Iranians are concerned, hospitality is in their blood. Of course this is enshrined in Islam and is, I think, considered as something of a right rather than a gift to bestow, though it never comes across as an obligation. Even so, to my Western sensibilities it can only be seen as a beautiful thing and one we’d do well to learn from. I love the gesture Middle-Easterners have where they raise their hand to touch the heart when greeting friends. It speaks to the openness of expression that I’ve seen countless times in Morocco and Tunisia. It’s as though you really are taken to heart when a friendship is forged.

Offers of hospitality abound for Lois, though of all her encounters in the book I think it’s in Mr Yazdani that we see something of an ideal of the real Iran. Named for his birthplace of Yazd, the ‘home’ of Zoroastrianism, Mr Yazdani seems to have taken that oldest of religion’s basic tenets – good words, good thoughts, good deeds – to heart. Ideals we’d recognise from any of today’s global faiths, it seems Persia (as it then was) has been sharing with the world for a very long time indeed. If only more of us were like Mr Yazdani.


I got the sense that Lois found it hard to ignore the weight of all the negativity talk of her trip attracted, though perhaps that’s all too understandable. I can remember our own reactions to the sight of the Guardia Civil when Mrs Van and I lived in Spain. None of our Spanish friends had a good word to say about them, and when your number plate is conspicuous it can attract the wrong kind of attention. Being tailed by the authorities on a motorway isn’t fun. When you’re travelling at just under the speed limit, and everyone else is flying past as if jet-propelled, and you check your mirror at every off-ramp and they’re still there after a hundred miles it can unsettle the nerves somewhat. Factor into that the extent of the Iranian authorities’ power, their reputation and the ever-ready negative connotations our media connect with Iran and you have a sure-fire recipe for paranoia.

But how that serves to highlight all the unexpected kindnesses she met. Of course bad things happen. There are some hairy moments, close shaves and lucky escapes but isn’t it true that the good is always stronger than the bad? The things you choose to remember, when it comes down to it, are the things that make you smile. Lois Pryce went in search of the real Iran and in each one of those happy encounters she found it.


It’s a hard call to make to wish something so potentially toxic as tourism on a place. If it were possible to go and meet the people Lois met and enjoy their company I think there’d be far more people cueing up for tickets. Of course it’s not likely you’ll meet the same people but the law of averages suggest that the welcome, at least, the sense of hospitality is prevalent. This is the overriding response that Lois Pryce met. But there’s still all the other stuff too and while it’s easy for me to sit in my chair and see the sadness of that doubt that haunts Lois’s journey, I can’t deny the many levels of control the she was subject to (in many cases levels I wouldn’t be). I would love it if the world could open up to Iran, and Iran to the world, though that would have to go hand in hand with a strong hope that in doing so the Iranian people would see the benefit.

Perhaps at this point the best we can hope for them is that one day soon they do get the government they deserve.


Revolutionary Ride: On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran was published by Nicholas Brealey on 12th January 2017 ISBN:9781857886573

You can find Lois on Twitter @LoisPryce or at her website


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

Van didn’t finish reading…The Children’s Book by A S Byatt

4 Apr

Sorry, Dame Antonia. It’s really not you, it’s me. The writing was lovely but there was so much of it.