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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

The #CBBookGroupie playlist

9 Feb

I don’t recall how it came about – some happy conjunction of two of my favourite things, music and books – but whatever prompted it occurred as I was welcomed into the fold of the Curtis Brown Book Group, the result being tweets attributing theme songs to characters in Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship (our first read for the Book Group). It was fun trying to pin down a song that captured a particular character’s demeanour or struggle so when the next book came around I found I was already thinking about the soundtrack that would accompany the story. And so the #CBBookGroupie playlist was born.

Some choices were obvious and instant, others took a little pondering. I think those characters with whom I engaged more readily proved not necessarily the easiest to find a theme for but certainly the most enjoyable. Indeed, where I felt the layers of a particular person it often proved more challenging to find the right tune. And then of course there are as many good songs as there are good stories. I’m convinced there are more pertinent choices out there, if only I had the time to track them down.

What did prove really interesting was the response from the authors when I tweeted the choices (I think only one response amounted to ‘meh!’ but that was for just one track and I suspect more about the song than anything else). It seems some writers compile playlists to assist in the writing of their books – certainly an interesting element of research for more recently historical fiction!

Having attributed the songs, the next step is to apply some listenable order. If you’ve read high Fidelity, or made your own compilations you’ll know that there are rules to doing it properly.

So here it is, in full: The #CBBookGroupie playlist. I don’t confess to have mastered the art of compiling but I do think I’ve managed something listenable. I’ve not included links to all the songs as it would prove a bit link-heavy (and one or two you might not find on t’internet!) but there are links to my reviews of the books.


#CBBookGroupie playlist, side 1:

1      Introduction by Nick Drake

Ivo & Mia’s Theme, The A to Z of You & Me

2      He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother by The Hollies

Jonathan & Roger’s Theme, The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

3      Night And Day by Tony Bennett

Dan & Stella’s Theme, Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey*

4      Summer (The First Time) by Booby Goldsboro

Charlie’s Theme, The Rocks by Peter Nicholls

5      Secret Heart by Feist

Jess’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

6      It’ll Never Happen Again by Tim Hardin

Gerald & Lulu’s Theme, The Rocks

7      Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush

Harry’s Theme, The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

8      It Pays To Belong by The Blow Monkeys

Phillip’s Theme, Barbarians by Tim Glencross

9      Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode

Michael’s Theme, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

10     Houses Of The Holy by Led Zeppelin

Lalla’s Theme, The Ship

11     Bad As Me by Tom Waits

Sheridan’s Theme, Barbarians

12     I Know by Dionne Farriss

Asha’s Theme, The Weightless World

13     In The Sun by Joseph Arthur

Tarik’s Theme, The Weightless World

14     Tu Silencio by Bebe

Luc & Aegina’s Theme, The Rocks

15     Trouble by Ray Lamontagne

Sergio’s Theme, The Museum Of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

16     Vapour Trail by Conrad Vingoe

Steven’s Theme, The Weightless World

17     Half In Love And Half In Hate by Morten Harkett

Ivo & Laura’s Theme, the A To Z Of You & Me

18     How Little We Know by Hoagy Carmichael & Lauren Bacall

Nancy’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

19     Cuidandote by Bebe

Rabbit’s Theme, The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

20     A Good Day To Die by Sunhouse

Mal & Ivo’s Theme, The A To Z Of You & Me

21     Middle Cyclone by Neko Case

Buzzy’s Theme, Barbarians

22     Eyes On the Prize by M Ward

Will’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

23     Drawn From Memory by Embrace

Greg’s Theme, Alice And the Fly by James Rice

24     Time (Clock Of The Heart) by Culture Club

Tom’s Theme, The Ship

25     Stand Your Ground by Robbie Williams

Raymond’s Theme, The Weightless World

26     Burn Down Love by Conrad Vingoe

Ivo’s Theme, The A to Z Of You & Me

27     At The Chime Of A City Clock by Nick Drake

Sophie’s Theme, The Weightless World**


*Bennett’s version is later than the period in the book but it is, in my opinion, the best version

**Sophie’s not in the Weightless World but was a member of the Book Group. To quote, ‘Nick knows.’ And any reason to get some Nick Drake in is a good reason!


Side 2


1      The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret by Queens Of the Stone Age

Katie’s Theme, Only We Know by Karen Perry

2      Glittering Prize by Simple Minds

Alexias & Lysis’s Theme, The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

3      Prince Charming by Adam Ant

Derek’s Theme, What A Way To Go by Julia Forster

4      Angel Eyes (Home & Away) by Wet Wet Wet

Zac’s Theme, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

5      Magpie To The Morning by Neko Case

Emily’s Theme, The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore

6      In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins

MacKenzie’s Theme, Only We Know

7      Strange And Beautiful by Aqualung

Adam’s Theme, A Better Man by Leah McLaren

8      Archangel Tale by M Ward

Edward’s Theme, the Glass Painter’s Daughter

9      And Dream Of Sheep by Kate Bush

Kit’s Theme, What A Way To Go

10     Freedom Flies by Conrad Vingoe

Isabel’s Theme, the Silent Tide

11     Church Of The Poison Mind by Culture Club

Victoria’s Theme, The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

12     Second To None by Phoenix

Joel’s Theme, the Silent Tide

13     Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin

Theme for The Last of the Wine

14     What’s the Colour Of Money by Hollywood Beyond

Mary’s Theme, What A Way To Go

15     Burning Bridges by Remy Shand

Nick’s Theme, A Better Man

16     Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson

Pete’s Theme, What A Way To Go

17     Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

Maya’s Theme, A Better Man

18     Forgetful by Chet Baker

Nick’s Theme, Only We Know

19     Bleeder by Emiliana Torrini

Laura & Phillip’s Theme, The Glass Painter’s Daughter

20     I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt

Jacqueline’s Theme, The Silent Tide

21     Recovery Position by Headswim

Beth’s Theme, the Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer*

22     After All by the Cardigans

Helen’s Theme, The Summer Of Secrets

23     True Colours by Cyndi Lauper

Harper’s Theme, What A Way To Go


*I originally had Nina Simone’s Sinnerman in the mix for Grandad from the Girl in The Red Coat, too, but the ten-minute version unbalanced the flow.


Whilst I’m not likely to pick songs I don’t like, and even though I say it myself, they’re not bad playlists if you’re after a couple of hours of uninterrupted listening. I’m always on the lookout for another great book to read, or another great song to listen to, so if you’ve got a killer theme for a cracking character, or even a better choice for one of the above, why not leave a comment and share it with us all!

Van has finished reading…What A Way To Go by Julia Forster

20 Jan

The end of term two of the Curtis Brown Book Group brings us Julia Forster’s What A Way to Go. Twelve-year-old Harper Richardson is navigating life, cuddling gerbils, managing her divorced parents and avoiding baked beans. And as it’s 1988, she never misses the Radio 1 Top 40 show, she barters down the price of a shell-suit at the local market and she rushes to check the second post before Mum. Second post – can you imagine! It’s a heart-warming story that is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always true to its time.
I wanted to connect with Harper more strongly than I did but something held me off (maybe the Chambers dictionary, I never would’ve trusted a twelve-year-old with a dictionary). She’s a funny kid in her way, and she’s feisty, though not overly-so. And Thank Morten Harkett, she’s sensible enough to know what’s good for her parents and that might not be each other. In fact it was in those more desperate moments that I felt for her, and felt closer to her. It didn’t bring a tear to my eye – though it was close a couple of times – and I think that’s all about that early impression. In essence this is how we judge a book, any book: how connected to the characters did I feel? For me, there’s something in Harper’s humour that held me off.
The cast are well-drawn and varied and I suspect recognisable to anyone old enough to remember. Although it’s Harper’s view of the world I think I took to Derek most of all and I’m now looking forward (Julia, hint-hint) to Derek’s Early-Nineties Vidal Adventure.

People dis the 80’s. They dis the 80’s now in the way they used to dis the 70’s, which condenses the decade down to the awful fashion and the awful music. Through Harper’s eyes I’ve seen enough to concede that, at least as far as the fashion goes, the 80’s had sufficient man-made fibres to be terrible. But there was some great music in the 80’s.
Okay, so not much of it surfaces in Julia Forster’s What A Way To Go (The Primitives, Adam Ant) but that’s true to form. It’s in looking back that we often find the gems nestled among the every-day. And what else would a twelve-year-old have done than imbibe the catechism that was the Sunday night chart run-down, for better or for worse (the latter, obvs). As to the fashion, Harper has a forensic eye for her mum’s night-out wardrobe in all its terrifying glory.
There’s that undercurrent too, suitably subtle, bearing in mind we’re living through a twelve-year-old, of the teeth of Thatcherism really starting to tear the flesh. The bank manager is a necessary enemy, the landlord is Ming The Merciless and all Mary needs is a plan that will work. That desperation was real enough then and it comes through all too clearly in the novel.

I didn’t feel it to the extent of the book jacket superlatives but Julia Forster’s What a Way To Go is funny and touching and sad. It has a great cast and an engaging story with enough turns to make you feel the breadth of Harper’s journey.

What A Way To Go was published by Atlantic on 7th January 2016 ISBN:9781782397526
You can find Julia on Twitter @WriterForster and on her website,

Van’s top five reads in 2015

7 Jan

What a great year of reading it was! If you don’t know my method, I post about all the books I read. I try to tell you what I liked about those books. If I didn’t like it, I’ll simply post a ‘sorry’ (life’s too short, and the effort of writing a book too great to waste our time shooting them down). If I remember correctly, there were only 3 ‘sorry’ posts last year, and just one of those was a book I failed to finish.
I can’t help but acknowledge the Curtis Brown Book Group, who supplied a consistently high level of books through the year. I didn’t get on with every choice but it says a lot that seven of the books they supplied made the cut for consideration in my top reads of the year. When you throw into that mix the fact that we Book Group members got to chat online with the authors it makes for a very special experience (Agencies, publishers take note: it’s a great way to get your books – and your companies – talked about!). So I start with a very special thank you to Curtis Brown’s Richard and Emma for inviting me to join, and all the hard work they put into making the group work so well. Chapeau!
I’d also like mention BookBridgr here, who have put me in touch with some publicists and their new releases. Bloggers, if you’ve not yet found BookBridgr check it out. It’s a great resource.

My reading for the year divided into a 60/40 split gender-wise, with 60% by women. Only 10% of my reading came from ‘non-white’ writers (quotes due to my very unscientific decision-making over the white or non-white question). I say only because it feels low and I think a conscious effort to get a little more diversity in this year won’t go amiss.
Diversity is about more than ethnicity and there is one very special book that I’d like to mention. Though it made the cut for my top reads of the year I’m mentioning it here because it deserves the space (a debut novel from a small press on a subject about which awareness is growing). That book is Anne Goodwin’s Sugar And Snails. This is the book that made me think about that phrase, ‘reading outside your comfort zone’. It’s also one of the books I spent a lot of time thinking about after I’d finished it. Find it, read it, talk about it.
And so we come to my top five reads in 2015. It could easily have been a top ten (and then a top 7 when I’d managed to whittle a little further) but life is too short to try and get down to a top 3. When I’m ruling out Life After Life, The Girl In The Red Coat, Galina Petrovna, The Good Son and Where’d You Go, Bernadette you’ll know how hard it was to come to a final decision!

But here they are, in the order I read them.

Back in January the first of our books for the Curtis Brown Book Group arrived, and what a book it is! Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship set a very high bar. It’s testament to the power not only of the story itself but of Antonia’s writing and her irrepressible protagonist that a year later the experience is still quite vivid.

In February I was delighted to receive a copy of Harraga by Boualem Sansal (translated by Frank Wynne). If ever you needed an advertisement for broadening your reading horizons and picking up translations Harraga would fit the bill. It’s such a beautiful rambling conversation of a book, and the translation feels invisible, such is the immediacy of the main character’s voice.

I’d missed Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing on initial publication and made one of those promises to get to it ‘soon’. In March I made a trip to the library ahead of an event at Dulwich Books. Thinking I was late I ended up asking Evie, chatting with mates outside, whether the event was open yet. At least it stopped me gushing at her about how good I thought her novel was!

To the library again in June, attracted by a lovely cover I spied through the window. I remembered it from The Literary Sofa’s Hot Picks (in fact four of my top five appear either in Isabel’s Hot Picks for 2015 or Summer Reads). Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans took me back to the Second World War (I think the most-visited place in the books I read this year) and brought me some of the most vivid characters I’ve met. It’s also a book that carries its heartbreak with dignity and shades of humour.

The Second World War again in October, though in Italy rather than England. Look at the cover of Early One Morning and it gives you a good hint as to what lies inside the covers. Something quiet and a little mysterious, yes, but something that begs to be explored. Something beautiful. Yes, this is one of those books that I would say is beautifully written. It’s a simple premise underpinned by flawless characterisation, and it too is heartbreaking yet dignified. You could almost read it in a whisper.

It strikes me there are two things particularly that these books all share: they all had fantastic, stylish and entirely pertinent covers; and in each case the story lives on after the last words have been read. More than the wilful dangling of a loose thread, that incompleteness acts as a sort of reflector on what you’ve read and invites, even taunts you to speculate over what might have followed. If you haven’t yet read them I invite you to give them a try. I think they’re worth seeking out and I hope you will too.

Van has finished reading…Only We Know by Karen Perry

27 Nov

The set-up for Karen Perry’s Only We Know is fine: The game has no name; the game is the game; the game is pulling and pushing and laughing; but the game ends in silence; then the screaming starts. A shocking secret forged one summer. A lifetime spent running from it. There’s a child’s kite in red set against a sky bleached grey – a suggestion of blood spilled. Something happens when Luke, Nick and Katie are children that will stay with them always.
So why didn’t I feel it? It must be something about thrillers that just doesn’t sit with me. Is it all about the big reveal? If it’s a whodunit then you’re waiting for that point where you discover you’re right, or you’re stunned at how wrong you are. It must be the same when it’s a whathappened – when characters pick apart the threads or put together the pieces of the past until finally the picture is clear. With this book I almost wish I could go back and read it without the prologue. Such a big part of the wondering what happened, for me at least, was taken out right there. The possibilities are limited and that seems like an opportunity lost.
One of the real joys of being in a book group is that you’re going to read books you would not have discovered through your own habits. Sometimes it’s a real surprise, sometimes not. But that’s why you have the group. Someone else will love it. Someone else will tell you why they love it and you can talk about how you enjoyed the landscape the story moved through; how the setting worked; how the plotting appeared quite meticulous; how when those little twists came you could appreciate their effect on the whole.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the book, it just didn’t work for me. Sorry, Karen.

Only We Know was published on 2nd July 2015 by Penguin ISBN:9780718179601

You can find Karen Perry on Twitter @KarenPerryBooks

Van has finished reading…The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore

25 Nov

There was much talk of Rachel Hore’s The Silent Tide at the Curtis Brown Book Group when we discussed The Glass Painter’s Daughter recently so it was nice to have a reason to shift it up the TBR pile. There are distinct similarities between the two: the dual timeline; the uncovering of documentation from the earlier era; the modern day protagonist trying to forge her path both emotionally and professionally. Following one so hot on the heels of the other I half expected this to clang but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, to suggest some overriding pattern would be like boiling down a library into seven identifiable plots. It would also be to miss Rachel’s adeptness in weaving her threads together; her skill in placing what is revealed precisely when it’s revealed; the depth of and interplay between her characters.
This last point is for me what I enjoyed most about The Silent Tide. The opening chapter is atmospheric and melancholic, casting a long and tantalising shadow over the rest of the book. We are as a result on side with Isabel from early on. I found it very interesting that my sympathies for the other characters wavered quite as much as they did, and all this without my feeling manipulated into it. There are no becloaked villains nor white-hatted heroes. Instead we have a finely drawn cast of humans, all damaged to some extent. Even at his most infuriating I had to remind myself that while I could allow a little rant at Hugh every now and then his behaviour, his demeanour is well within the norms of his time.
The earlier timeline would easily have stood on its own without the present-day element but what this addition gives us the lens through which we can look back and gauge what’s changed. And of course how much has not changed at all. There are some wry asides regarding the tastes of the public both then and now (how many of us groaned together at Mermaids and Zombies?) but also how much of a gamble it is to publish any book, no matter how good. Recognisable too are the cast of hopefuls and their delicate nursing of their work.

The Silent Tide is a really engaging read, easy to lose yourself in and increasingly harder to put down towards the end. Despite that first chapter foreshadowing the end, and thus a deal of the story heading where you’d expect it to, it’s the investment in the characters that truly carries the tale. Not that there isn’t a surprise or two thrown in to boot! This is one to save for those moments when you can squeeze in some good, uninterrupted reading time.

The Silent Tide was originally published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. ISBN:9781849832908
You can find Rachel Hore on Twitter @RachelHore or at her website:

Van has finished reading…The Last Of The Wine by Mary Renault

6 Nov

‘I saw death reach out for you; and I had no philosophy.’

Fixing the voice of a character is something that any strives to do. Getting it right is a tricky business indeed but as reader you just know when it’s right. It goes beyond the words chosen and the way they’re delivered. Instead you’re left almost feeling that you could’ve felt in that character the very thought that brought them to the lips. In a book of many good lines the one above stopped me in my tracks (though not in a bad way). Lovers Alexias and Lysis, having lately quarrelled, like petulant children fall to rashness. On seeing Alexias nearly lose his life, Lysis delivers the line above. So much more than ‘I thought you were going to die’, it frames their lives, couches the very core of all they strive to be as modern Athenians, and so stamps indelibly the depth of their relationship. This is a writer inhabiting the world on her page by inhabiting her cast.

This is historical fiction, both in a grand sense and in small scale. It’s possible to date the period quite specifically (the plague during which Alexias was born around 429BC; Alkibiades at Phrygia around 404BC) and I’m sure many a classical scholar would have picked over the bones of this novel to either confirm or deny the detail it contains (I’ve seen no evidence of denial anywhere). I’m no classical scholar but a lack of knowledge around the period didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Indeed, I suspect that any knowledge of the period would only have served to heighten the enjoyment of reading. Mary Renault’s knack, it seems to me, lies in mapping the grand sweep of history through the minutiae of the lives she portrays. I can well imagine that classical scholars, excited as they are by the cold hard facts they study, can only feel the blood quicken at how vivid these lives are.
No wonder there’s a phalanx of writers ready to praise the stories Mary Renault has left with us. Thanks to The Curtis Brown Book Group, I’ll be seeking out more of her books in the future.

The Last Of The Wine was reissued by Virago Modern Classic on 6th August 2015 ISBN: 9781844089611

Van has finished reading…The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

24 Sep

That thing where you want to bang people’s heads together. That.

I found a healthy amount of frustration in reading Rachel Hore’s The Glass Painter’s Daughter. I say healthy because although it was a genuine sense of frustration that these people can’t seem to see what’s right in front of them, it made me realise that I cared that they couldn’t. We’ve all known people like that. At some point we’ve probably been someone like that and that’s a key to why this book works. It’s a book that’s invested in the ordinariness of its characters: normal people doing normal things, reacting wholeheartedly within the constraints of their circumstances. Too-beautiful-to-be-true Ben is the prime example, his handsomeness shaping the way he interacts and proving to be (how could it not!) the petard by which he will be hoisted time and again.

There’s a dual narrative here which works well, each strand mirroring the other though they’re a hundred years apart. For all our progress, it seems to say, we are still facing the same dilemmas, still seeing the same injustices, suffering the all-too-familiar prejudices. Life’s eternal struggles. How fitting then that so much of what occurs should stem from the presence of angels.

One thing that is pleasing is the lack of religiosity. Where talk of church and angels and characters of faith abound it would’ve been easy to get bogged down in patterns of behaviour and even speech that would ultimately ring hollow. Rather, Rachel Hore presents us with a well-rounded modern clergyman, choral society members with sharp-edged handbags and a church organist who is far more about the music than any particular devotion to the Lord. Then there’s Amber’s sure, unwavering and peculiarly secular belief in angels.

Even with that past timeline there’s a means of expression in the characters (I’m thinking particularly of Philip Russell) that seeks to understand, not to challenge but to root that faith in the context of their own lives.

There’s a neatness to the conclusion of the book that I will admit left me wanting thought it’s the tidiness that rankles rather than any concerns about plausibility. Hey, that’s just me! It’s an enjoyable book to read and while it may not surprise you in its conclusion you should know by now that with any book it’s really more about the journey. And in the journey there are delights aplenty.

The Glass Painter’s Daughter was re-issued by Simon & Schuster on 10th September 2015 ISBN: 9781471151880

You can find Rachel Hore on Twitter @RachelHore or at her website:

Van has finished reading…The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven

4 Sep

I think this is the funniest book I’ve read. And when I say funny I mean hilarious. I mean giggling like a loon on the train. I mean suddenly laughing in the cereal aisle whilst doing the shopping an hour after reading. Even now, typing this out, there’s a smirk hovering as I’m trying to push away that image of Ethel in her balaclava. It never gets old.

The characters are superb (particularly Ethel, I bet she was a dream to write!) – as readers we get deluged with characters that fit their situation and situations that fit the characters, even when they’re being pushed out of their comfort zone. But sexagenarians robbing a bank… Comfort zone doesn’t come into it. What I found enlightening about this aspect of the story is that I’m convinced I’d have found it a good deal less believable had I read it ten years ago. What can I say; we’re all only getting older, aren’t we!

And how interesting that the two funniest books I’ve read recently have older protagonists (the other book being Andrea Bennett’s Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged-Dog Story).

It’s all too easy with a book like this – where the story drives so forcefully along, where the characters live their parts fully, where the humour is relentless – for the craft to slip by unnoticed. There’s some slick use of what I’m aware of (thanks to the Writers’ Workshop Self-Edit-Your-Novel course) as psychic distance to link locations and place characters. There’s also a lot of nicely-handled transition between different points of view, often with just a line bridging between one character and the next, yet there was never a sense of disorientation or of not knowing whose head I was in.

It’s really, really funny. It has its touching moments too, but mostly it’s achingly funny. I think everyone should read this because, let’s face it, everybody laughing can’t be a bad thing. Also, once everyone’s read it there’ll be enough of us to pressure the BBC into putting on the telly.

And just to get the ball rolling, here’s a hand with the cast (this is who me and Mrs. Van saw in our heads, anyway).

Susan – Helen Mirren

Julie – Julie Walters

Jill – Penelope Wilton

Ethel – Brenda Blethyn

Nails – well, Terrence Stamp, obviously

Boscombe – Mark Addy

Wesley – Martin Compston

The Sunshine Cruise Company was published on 13th August 2015 by Cornerstone ISBN No: 9780434023189

You can find John Niven on twitter @NivenJ1

Van has finished reading…The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer

4 Sep

It’s thanks to the Curtis Brown Book Group, who sent me this as part of my welcome bundle, that I’ve finally read this; I’ve been aware of it and meaning to pick it up for a while. I’ve often seen reviews of books, or comments about books where people say, ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ I’m not necessarily that kind of reader. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in the lives on the page, all that, but I’m sometimes more inclined to slow down so it doesn’t end too quickly. I think this is the first time I can confidently say I simply had to finish the book as soon as I could; I just HAD to know!

There’s something of a fairy tale feeling that weaves through this book, all the way from the Red Riding Hood visuals and the early frenzied search in the maze, through Beth’s superstitious hopefulness and her later reasoning around universal balance, to Gramps and his whole way of life. What’s powerful about it is how reasonable and grounded all these reactions appear. They’re wholly relevant to each of the characters at each stage of the story, leaving a breadcrumb trajectory for each character arc. There’s also a really nice, subtle shift in the pattern of Carmel’s speech about halfway through that neatly underlines the passage of time.

It’s a really nicely-written book, often feeling very dreamy and loose, belying Kate Hamer’s tight control of events and what we know when. The various voices are distinct but contained and the emotional exploration unflinching. Things that seem incidental at the time re-emerge with renewed significance later and the massing of tension toward the conclusion is palpable (I think Mrs Van caught me chewing a finger – I am not a chewer!). There’s no denying that it’s an emotive story – just the ‘what if’ of this scenario is enough to stop you in your tracks and get you thinking, but what Kate Hamer has done with it is really quite special.

The Girl In The Red Coat was published on 26th February 2015 by Faber & Faber ISBN No: 9780571313242

You can find Kate Hamer on Twitter @kate_hamer