Archive | November, 2017

Van has finished reading… Histories by Sam Guglani

22 Nov

It’s not so surprising really that going to a hospital is such a solipsistic experience. Is it just the building you think of when someone says hospital, or all the equipment it contains too, all the paraphernalia, the people as though they’re fixtures and fittings? It’s easily done; everyone is called Doctor or Nurse after all. Everyone you meet is there to check you in or check you out, take your blood pressure, your oxygen levels, your history. It’s a machine that exists to tell us what’s wrong, and why, and how it’s going to fix us. That’s what we want, to be fixed.

Then something happens that cuts through the veneer. It reminds us that they’re human, these parts of the machine. The smallest thing. I remember seeing a woman walking on Great Ormond Street, her back straight, her arms rigid at her sides and her face lined as though it had been carved. Such rage and fear in the knots beneath her eyebrows, the clenched jaw, such love in the tears flowing unabashed down her cheeks – anywhere else someone might have stopped and offered a word, a tissue, some comfort. But who could impinge on those emotions here; she must have come from the Children’s Hospital. And my own throat clogged to see it.

I’ve watched a consultant hold a patient’s damaged hand with such tenderness that onlookers would’ve thought them lovers, that I found myself on the brink of embarrassment at this intimacy. Warmth and thanks parted the scene, though the conversation was an explanation of ‘irreparable’.

Sam Guglani’s Histories is a collection of such moments. Whether patient or practitioner, believer or doubter, each story is a step through the veneer. The characters are really well drawn, diverse and honest (to the point that I’m sure I’ve met one or two of them). I liked the Chaplain especially. The writing is spare and effective, revealing unhindered all the facets of humanity that so often pass unseen (I’m reminded of Maylis de Kerangal’s excellent Mend The Living). It’s often said that a good story is one that makes you look at a situation differently. With Sam Guglani’s Histories we have a book that helps us simply to see. It’s a powerful book indeed.

 

Histories was published by riverrun on the 2nd November 2017 ISBN: 9781786483805

You can find Sam on Twitter @samirguglani

 

My thanks to Elizabeth Masters a Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

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Van has finished reading… The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

7 Nov

With Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden following on the heels of Laura Carlin’s exquisite The Wicked Cometh, Mrs Van might just have found her current niche in the Victorian Gothic. Though you’ll have to wait until early next year for The Wicked Cometh, you can feast on The Crow Garden now.

Not just a well-paced and highly readable Victorian Gothic novel, Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is exceptionally pleasing in its construction. The counterpoint of those very Victorian frontiers, Medicine and the esoteric arts, is employed to good effect, and the modern eye through which we look on events and opinions lends an interesting focus to proceedings. Albeit the likes of phrenology and mesmerism were at the cutting edge in those days, and we might well look on them now as scarcely associated with science, the zeal with which they were – and still are in some quarters – pursued fits superbly with the setting and the story. The use of myth and poetry is excellent too, but for my money the real joy is in Littlewood’s clever portrayal of a soul’s grip on reality slipping away. It’s really nicely done, and there’s a moment of realisation towards the end that’s an absolute delight.

The Crow Garden wears its research really well, using it to embellish events and character interaction, provide tense, intriguing situations and generally enrich the atmosphere. What it also does is inform without getting in the reader’s way, commenting not just on the vagaries and practices of science and medicine at that time but also those of class and gender. The characterisation is pleasing too, the author turning certain perceptions really nicely to keep you guessing about motive and intention. Personally, I really like Peg. Where she could so easily have been an incidental character, she arrives with flair and treads her path with unstinting gusto.

 

With the nights drawing in and the trees shedding their leaves it’s the perfect time to get gothic, and Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is a great place to start.

 

The Crow Garden was published by Jo Fletcher books on 5th October 2017 ISBN:9781786485250

 

You can find Alison on Twitter @Ali_L, and on her website alisonlittlewood.co.uk

My thanks to Olivia Mead at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

3 Nov

the wicked

Oh my God, I love this book. The cover, the contents the characters – just in case it’s not clear, let me be unequivocal: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! It can say a lot about a novel when the publishers invest in something special for the proofs, and the proofs of Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh are definitely something special. Delivered in a shiny golden envelope, it’s a thing of purple velvet beauty. Mrs Van liked the inside cover design so much the postcard of it is now part of the gallery on the wall. William Speed’s (@wrmspeed) artwork is, as ever, right on the money (he also did the cover for City of Circles).

But does the story live up to the expectation? Let me be clear: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! I can’t remember what I’d been reading to Mrs Van when The Wicked Cometh arrived but we left it behind. Read me that one, she said. One more chapter, she said. One more. One more. I had to beg for a tea break. The writing is really nice – a fair few moments where the Harvey effect kicked in, although our need to know what happens next kept me reading on. This one will definitely be on the re-read shelf.

Class distinction is a common factor in fiction that deals with this era and the Wicked Cometh is no different, though like Rebecca Mascull’s excellent Song Of The Sea Maid or Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook the lesson is hidden very nicely in the sensory detail and the turn of events (though in terms of trajectory The Wicked Cometh is definitely more Ellis than Mascull). And let’s dwell for a moment on that sensory detail. Make no mistake, we’re not dealing with a pleasant stroll through a summery meadow with a frilly parasol. On a number of occasions we were surprised to discover that things really could get worse. Then, even after all that, there was chapter 15.

Then there was chapter 16.

There are scenes in the book that linger in the mind, and I’d really rather they didn’t.

But OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK!

The characters are excellent: distinct, well-rounded and true to their station. And often thoroughly deplorable. It’s a wonderful thing when you get a riveting story that also provides a free ride to the edge of a moral quandary and with this cast Laura Carlin does exactly that, because you can be in no doubt that there is a basis in fact for the events that pass on The Wicked Cometh’s pages.

I should also give a nod to my favourite character name this year, the wonderfully Dickensian Mr Frederick Blister. That’s a peach.

 

You’ll have to wait a little while for this one but it’s worth putting a note in your diary. Everything about this book says it’s going to be big next year. It deserves to be big. It’s a beautiful thing inside and out and for my money it’s got costume drama written all over it (though the book will, of course, be better). And let’s not forget that this is Laura Carlin’s debut. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Remember the name, remember the title, remember the date. I guarantee it’ll darken your February days in the best possible way. I bet that OH MY GOD YOU’LL LOVE IT too.

 

The Wicked Cometh will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 8th February 2018 ISBN:9781473661370

 

When I find out where you can find Laura I’ll let you know. In the meantime ORDER HER BOOK.

My especial thanks to Melissa Cox and Veronique Norton at Hodder, William Speed for the design, Laura MacDougall at United Agents and everyone else involved in the production of this book. And thanks particularly and above all to Laura Carlin for writing it.