Archive | March, 2019

Van has finished reading… The Office Of Gardens And Ponds by Didier Decoin

27 Mar

gardens and ponds

When master carp-catcher Katsuro drowns in his beloved river the fate of his entire village is cast into doubt. Who will deliver the prized fish ordered by The Office of Gardens And Ponds at the Imperial Palace? Only Miyuki, Katsuro’s grief-stricken widow, knows anything about the fish. Can she complete the arduous journey and save the village?

So begins Didier Decoin’s captivating novel, The Office Of Gardens And Ponds (translated from the French by Euan Cameron). I love the subtlety with which the author draws us closer to Miyuki. In undertaking the journey to carry these fish – the last vestige of her dead husband – she seeks to move with his spirit, see what he saw and feel what he felt. A quiet man by nature, she seeks out where she can connections to the aspects of his life she wasn’t party to. The deft hand in the writing is evident when she stays at the Inn of Just Retribution and she at turns hopes and then fears her husband stayed there on his journeys; as readers we wonder how much of his life, of the man, she really knew. It’s a motif that surfaces again and again.

Miyuki is a perfect foil to the studied exuberance of the Imperial Palace, as unwilling to relinquish the grubbiness inflicted by her journey as the courtiers are to sully their appearance or persons by some slight deviation from the pervading protocol or the current vogue. The balance between Miyuki and the Director of the Office Of Gardens And Ponds, Nagusa Watanabe, is especially good, and what Didier Decoin never fails to show us in these two polar opposites is the people they are beneath the veneer.

The Office Of Gardens And Ponds is something of an immersive experience. Inside the gorgeously decorated covers (chapeau to Andrew Smith for the design), Didier Decoin’s focus on the senses draws us into the narrative, particularly during Miyuki’s journey. I could almost feel myself conjured into any number of prints from Hiroshige’s 69 Stations Of the Kido Kaiso, and it makes a refreshing change to appreciate the landscape from a rural point of view rather than a courtly one. The ephemeral nature of beauty at court is reflected against the ephemeral beauty of nature, and the one inevitability of life we are presented with is death.


Perhaps it’s no surprise that so much of historical fiction tends towards the intricacies of courtly life, whether eastern or western. In Didier Decoin’s subtle and enthralling The Office Of Gardens And Ponds we get to glimpse beyond the veil. We see the artifice of striving for natural, unaffected perfection, and we see the perfection of unaffected nature. Above all we see people, far removed though they may be by time and station and culture, doing the very same thing we all still do today: searching for meaning in the blink of an eye that is life.


The Office Of Gardens And Ponds is published by MacLehose Press on the 2nd May 2019 ISBN:9781529402438

You can find Didier on Twitter @DecoinDidier

If I find out where you can find Euan I’ll let you know.

My particular thanks to Corrina Zifko at MacLehose for allowing me to review this lovely book

Van has finished reading… When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt

25 Mar

when death

It’s no surprise that death is such a big part of literature. An inescapable event that touches everyone at some time, it cannot help but shape us, and in good fiction it’s a short road to an emotional response (I’m thinking Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, or The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes). But there’s a tidiness about fiction that real life simply doesn’t afford. All the things, all the people you have to deal with that you really don’t want to, that you don’t feel prepared or even qualified to deal with. Even at the end of a long life, when it comes it comes too quickly and you’re not ready. You’re never ready. Untimely death. Always.

Words fail us in real life. Words fail Naja Marie Aidt too in her memoir, When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back. Her — memoir: There’s a superlative out there somewhere that fits but it’s none of the usual ones. I almost want to say numbing memoir (though it’s hardly a superlative) because that’s the echo her words found in me, that senselessness, the not knowing what to do and the knowing there’s nothing you can do. It’s an incredible book. Let’s go with that.

Words fail Naja Marie Aidt in two ways. Firstly, she is a writer, and yet this experience is a thing that she now knows can’t be written. Not truly. Not precisely. You can imitate, yes. You can place one word after another and you can change their order, you can build a scene and you can describe but that feeling, that loss, hole, absence; it knows no grammar. She unfolds events through repetition, recollection, outburst, and also silence. The white space on these pages speaks too.

Secondly, it’s the most painful of medicines to recite, recall, remember and yet it’s necessary because it’s the closest you can get and for a fleeting moment you’ll be there. Almost there before that word insists. Never.


Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back is a beautiful thing, a tragic thing, eloquent and touching and desperate. A work that one could only wish should not have been so necessary.


When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back was published by Quercus on the 21st March 2019 ISBN:9781787475366

You can find Naja on Twitter @nmaidt

My particular thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this rather special memoir.

Van has finished reading… Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary

12 Mar

someone elses skin

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction. I suspect it’s down to a few poor choices early on – something I grabbed on holiday or in a waiting room or because the cover caught my eye – that proved to be cast in the mould of every police procedural you’ve ever seen, and decipherable within the first chapter. However, I do like to push the comfort zone every now and then. In the case of Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin I’m glad I dipped my toe back in the pool.

Actually it wasn’t the cover or the title but the name that drew me to this book (Writing-Community-Twitter, it’s one of the best things about Twitter, I think), a name I’d come across and for some reason associated with cat-woman (see Twitter comment above). The copy I picked up is also a World Book Night copy, so that’s a good endorsement too.

The opening scene is a peach: All the hard prose and atmospheric shadow you’d expect from a crime scene in a crime novel, except that the scene we’re introduced to is the protagonist lead-detective’s parents’ home. The house she grew up in, washed in waves of blue light, cordoned off with chittering blue tape, overrun with colleagues in forensic suits. And they really don’t want to let her in.

What follows is a journey into what it is to be a victim expertly disguised as a cracking novel. As I got to know DI Marnie Rome, hook after hook drew me ever deeper into the story until there was no possibility I was going to put it down. And though it might’ve been somewhere between a third and half the way through that my suspicions were piqued as to what was really happening, by then the need to know if they were going to get away with it had taken over everything else. The character interaction between Rome and her DS, Jake Noah is nicely pitched. It really doesn’t matter what your genre is when your characters work this well, and it’s exactly this understanding of the character dynamics that means there’s no shoe-horning a point in. The twists, the quirks, all the little throwaway lines that weave back in later are merely part of the pattern that makes the whole. By any measure that’s a sure sign of quality and craft.


The front cover of my World Book Night 2015 copy of Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin states ‘this book is a gift.’ They’re absolutely right.


Someone Else’s Skin was published by Headline on 27th February 2014 ISBN:9781472207715

You can find Sarah on Twitter @sarah_hilary