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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: rachelhore.co.uk

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

Van has finished reading…A Better Man by Leah McLaren

21 Aug

On the surface there’s something a little out-of-the-box about Nick and Maya and their perfect children in the @CBBookGroup August read – no, stay with me. It is the surface that Leah McLaren gives us first, the sheen that should be everything they want before revealing the depth that makes that surface reflect back to them everything that’s missing.

When Nick decides to tell his best friend, Family Lawyer Adam, that he wants out, Adam’s advice is that he’ll be taken to the cleaners unless he changes his ways – or at least appears to. So Nick becomes a better man: supportive, engaged, present.

There’s more than a hint of this perfect couple being on the brink of reaping what they sow in the moment when one of the twins bites Maya as she breastfeeds them. Little Isla, all innocence and curls, parrots back her mother’s profanity with a smile.

Maya is keenly observed. The breadth of her bewilderment at where she finds herself, at the depth of her investment in protecting her children, in doing everything she can to keep them close, the underlying desperation that swamps her is palpable. But for all that, it feels very much like Nick’s story. His little moments of epiphany are very astute, and wittily presented. It’s a really funny book – until it ceases to be funny because actually it’s desperately sad.

There’s a real sense of the romantic comedy about this book – at least in the first instance – and there are a couple of knowing references to ‘life in the movies’ that point to Leah’s awareness of the boundaries of genre. But it would be a genuine shame for readers to miss this book through thinking it’s ‘merely’ chick-lit or rom-com fluff. The investment I felt in Nick and Maya – and in Adam as well, though not in the same way – was strong enough to augur those moments where I looked at the ceiling and said, ‘no, don’t do it!’

And if ever you needed proof that you should never, NEVER trust a lawyer this book is it. Pick it up and read it so you can tell people how much better it is than the film it’ll be made into.

A Better Man was published by Corvus Books on 6th August 2015 ISBN: 9781782396345

You can find Leah on twitter @leahmclaren

Van has finished reading…Lost Horizon by James Hilton

17 Aug

The Curtis Brown Book Group sent me a lovely new copy of Lost Horizon as part of a welcome back package at the start of the second Book Group term. In fact I’ve had a copy of this waiting for me on the window sill at work that I never seemed to get around to (although this one has a nicer cover!).

The story is revealed in a format that you don’t see so much these days: Acquaintances coming together and discussing old times; a chance comment and a connection made; adjourn to an hotel/drawing room/parlour, wherein the bones of the main story are revealed. I suspect it may be frowned upon now as somewhat clichéd, though it’s interesting just how effective it is at giving the reader all the preparatory insights needed: how x feels about y; what z has managed to achieve since the last coming together; what sort of a person the hero was when they were younger.

And of course it helps if one among the group is a writer and so able to piece the whole strange debacle into something readable.

Okay, I’m being a little disingenuous there, because what you get between the covers is a fantastic story in more than one sense of the word. It’s hard to imagine how far-reaching a story it was when first published, until you realise that while most people might not recognise the title, they will certainly be familiar with the concept of Shangri-La. It’s an idea that haunts us as a species, the thought that somewhere out there is a hidden vale of perfection wherein we could eschew the world entire and all its – and our own – problems. The East was far more mysterious back when it was written and that mystery drew its fair share of devotees – This book falls between Hesse’s writing of Siddhartha, The Journey To the East and The Glass Bead Game, all of which in their own way vaunt the benefits of the higher mind and the aesthetics of the East. That said, I’ve no idea whether Hilton was a devotee at all – not a small element of Shangri-La’s success, after all, is borne in its ability to be everything – religion included – but in moderation.

Written between world wars and perhaps close enough to the start of the second world war to have been influenced by the earliest political rumblings of what was to come, it’s understandable that a preoccupation with a finer life, with peace and harmony should be so pervasive. Even if it weren’t sparked by the impending cataclysm of the second world war, in terms of the end of the war and what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the book could almost be considered prescient.

There are so many new books these days it’s impossible to be able to keep up with them all. As a blogger the focus tends to be on the new – it’s the next gripping story that people want to be interested in, the next might-just-be-my-favourite-book-ever. It almost felt like a holiday going back to Lost Horizon, returning to something written when the world was not marginally, but radically different. Something that, had it been written now, could well be classed as historical fiction. But I’m loathe to talk of it as an old book. It’s a good book, and isn’t that the great thing about good books? No matter how long ago they were written, good books are never old.

The copy I have was published by Vintage Classics in June 2015 EAN: 9780099595861

You won’t find James Hilton on Twitter (not this one, anyway)

Van has finished reading…Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin

22 Jul

Oh, my! Where to begin? Perhaps I should start simply: READ THIS BOOK!

Diana’s boyfriend, Simon, is leaving for Cairo in the morning. Their evening hasn’t gone according to plan. As he leaves Simon pleads with her to talk about it but Diana is compelled to open old wounds in private. What is it in Diana’s life that keeps her from the intimacy she craves? And what happened to Diana in Cairo at the age of fifteen that could prevent her from even travelling abroad for the next thirty years of her life?

In psychology lecturer Dr Diana Dodsworth, Anne Goodwin presents us with a remarkable protagonist. Anne leads us expertly through Diana’s dilemma, from the terror of her own day-to-day indecision to the memories and reminiscences of the past that shaped the person she is today. As a character she’s hard to stay close to, though that’s no criticism. That’s just Diana! At times you might want to shake her, as frustrated with her as she is with herself, but make no mistake you’ll be rooting for her by the end.

There’s some very neatly laid foreshadowing too. Entirely unobtrusive when you first meet it, there comes that moment when you think, Oh, really? I wonder!

It’s a very touching story, not least I think because Anne Goodwin doesn’t allow Diana to feel sorry for herself. There’s little sympathy in there, and when it does rear its head Diana’s response feels wholly characteristic. The family interaction is perfect and presented through the prism of Diana’s view, often very moving without the taint of sentimentality.

Oh, and the title – not out-and-out strange or eye-catching, but almost ordinary enough to make you wonder – is spot on.

We’re encouraged to sometimes read outside of our comfort zone, which always strikes me as an interesting thing to say. Fiction, after all, is fiction. What can it ‘do’ to us that we should have a sense of a line that it is somehow daring to cross? This book has brought me to a different understanding of that phrase. A book well-written is to an extent a life experienced. If it gets you under the skin of its characters you can come out the other side in some small way changed. The way it does this is by making us think, making us question. There are likely millions of us who think we’re pretty well-rounded, fairly okay people with a healthy respect for other people’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings, proclivities. But how much of that is a barrier to actually understanding something of those beliefs, thoughts etc? This book did more than bring me subjects on which I have little or no direct experience. It made me think about them, made me question them. What if I…what would I…And if someone I knew, how would I…? This makes it more than just a good book. It makes it an important book.

I both did and didn’t find this an easy read. It was easy in the sense that it’s well put together, that the language and the voices and the characters fit or clash where they should. I could meet Diana Dodsworth in the street and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover she’s an actual living person (I’d love to know what Anne Goodwin’s response will be when one of those people who says, ‘is it autobiographical, then?’ turns up!). It was easy in the sense that it drew me into a life I have no experience of. It wasn’t easy in the best possible way because after each time I sat down to read some I went away with questions. It wasn’t easy because it held a mirror up to my own prepared responses. Honestly, it asked, what would you really do?

I feel honoured to have been able to review this book and more than inviting you to pick it up for yourself, I urge you to do so. It really is worth it.

Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin is published by Inspired Quill on 23 July 2015

ISBN 9781908600479 or for Kindle here

You can find Anne on Twitter @Annecdotist and at her website annegoodwin.weebly.com

Van has finished reading…Motherland by Jo McMillan

7 Jul

I’m very grateful to BookBridgr and John Murray Press for allowing me to read this book. I think it’s really rather special. It’s a difficult book – not in its presentation or readability, but for the story it tells, for what it confronts. It feels almost paradoxical in some ways. It’s very funny in places, yet some of those moments aren’t ones I felt I could laugh at. There’s a seriousness about it, a sense of devotion almost, that underpins it, that in itself can and does sometimes appear comedic, yet it can’t be dismissed or written off. This is no mere flirtation with a nebulous sense of a fairer world. These are the lives of True Believers.

Jess is everything you could want from a coming-of-age character: she’s feisty; she’s self-aware; she keeps the names of her enemies in a black book under the bed; she knows her own mind. Or does she? And this is where that humour becomes a little more than merely funny. Because Jess is a chip off the block. Because Jess’s world has been shaped – as any child’s is – by her mother’s influence. Because Jess has grown not by her hometown Tamworth’s time, but to the regulated throb of the German Democratic Republic.

This is a historical novel in one sense, Germany now being a unified country. I would guess that for most readers – me included – mention of the GDR conjures, if anything, words like communism, oppression, Stasi. Jo McMillan’s story stands starkly against those isolated responses. This is fiction, but it’s fiction born of experience, and that rings through the novel. If you are familiar with the world of the Socialist Struggle I think you’ll get even more out of this book, though that knowledge is no prerequisite to enjoying it. I get the impression that talking to Jo would sound like talking to Jess – an older, more seasoned Jess. A wiser Jess? Only Jo could tell me that. Those shadowy impressions, the negative imagery relating to the GDR was there for a reason, and Jo doesn’t flinch from it, but there is genuine affection in her prose, a real sense of that love-hate tug as Jess does come of age. What is written most prominently through this novel is that breath between ideas and ideals, and the long exhalation which separates ideals and the people who are expected to live by them. The final scene is beautiful and poignant and heart-breaking and truly eloquent.

Motherland was published by John Murray Press on 2nd July 2015 ISBN 9781473611993

You can find Jo on twitter @JoMcMillan and at her website www.jomcmillan.com