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Van has finished reading… Hoffer by Tim Glencross

3 Mar

In William Hoffer Tim Glencross presents that trickiest of propositions: an unpleasant protagonist. Or is he? The fact of the matter is that, with Hoffer, it’s all about the appearance. He is studied in the ways of London Society as only a hunter can be, in but not of his surroundings. He’s accepted as an established figure although he’s not really one of them. Though you might not know it to see him, he is a working man and London Society is his office. His tastes are lavish, his manners impeccable and his past is not open to discussion – until it turns up, unexpectedly, in his living room.

Everything about Hoffer is contradiction, though he is always and unmistakeably Hoffer, even down to his thoroughly ‘English’ respect for the well-made umbrella. He takes great pride in his appearance and his reputation, and it’s nothing short of very hard work appearing to be so at ease with the world and in showing us all this Tim Glencross’s characterisation is perfect. What you first think of as an unpleasant protagonist is actually… likeable. And if that’s a bit of a stretch for you there’s no shortage of likely candidates to compare him to. Indeed, there are far more unpleasant entities to be found in the supporting cast and there is, I think, a detectable delight in the way the author draws them. As with Glencross’s debut, Barbarians, there’s a sense that it’s the ugliness in his characters that attracts him the most.

Whether you like William Hoffer or not, there’s plenty going on here to keep you wondering whether he’s going to sink or swim.

If I had to pick one thing as my abiding memory of the aforementioned Barbarians, it would be the very dry and quite pointed humour of it (still one of my favourite comic lines in a novel is the one from Barbarians directed at Tony Blair about how the Middle East isn’t his forte). With Hoffer I find myself far more aware of the teeth lurking in the grass. Not to say that Hoffer doesn’t have its lighter moments, it’s just that the points are that much sharper.

The prose itself chimes a note familiar to Barbarians too, making me think of Evelyn Waugh (with a little tweaking of the cultural references I could easily see this cast of characters feeling perfectly at home in the Twenties, though not necessarily with the unfortunate Mr Pennyfeather), though in this instance you can add a large dose of Patricia Highsmith to the mix. The everyday cut-and-thrust of Tim Glencross’s characters is very aptly couched in that phrase. It’s witty, razor-sharp and finely-observed and the story itself unfolds at a very pleasing pace. The impression is that there’s no particular rush, although of course that is just an impression because at the heart of things there’s that dark understanding that keeps you on edge, that keeps you wondering what’s next, and when is it going to happen, and who’s going to come out of it with something rather unsavoury beneath their fingernails.

 

With Barbarians, Tim Glencross arrived with much – and well-deserved in my opinion – fanfare. In letting Hoffer loose on us he’s set out his stall in a very enticing manner. Hoffer is a pleasure to read – a slightly grubby pleasure, but that is I think part of its charm. Already I’m wondering what the author is dreaming up to present to us next!

 

Hoffer is published by John Murray on the 23rd March 2017 ISBN: 9781444797596

You can find Tim Glencross at his website timglencross.com

Van has finished reading… On Writing by A L Kennedy

22 Feb

A L Kennedy’s On Writing sort of is and isn’t a how to… book. If you’re looking for a book that gives you points and takes you through exercises and shows you how you’re going to be J K Rowling in six months’ time you’re looking in the wrong place. (If that’s the book you’re looking for stop looking; you’re just going to spend money and I can tell you now for free that the J K Rowlingness is very unlikely to follow that spending). If you’re looking for a book that gives you an idea of what it’s like to be a writer you’re getting closer to the truth. If you want to know what it’s like to be A L Kennedy you’re pretty much spot on because what you get in the two parts of this book are collected entries from the blog she ran at The Guardian, or from material on her own website, wherein she talks about her writing – the act of it and the fact of it and how being a writer makes her happy and also makes her ill, and how because of it she has to do things that scare the wits out of her, like get on planes, and that sometimes she likes to assist a gannet from one place to the next – and I don’t mean geographically. Then there are the essays and show transcripts where she talks about how powerful words can be, and her first-hand experience of seeing that power in action, whether it’s the application or the withholding of it. She talks about things that she feels very deeply and she talks very honestly. It’s moving stuff. And none of it sounds particularly like a how to book. Unless you look at those exhortations to keep at it. And to question. To try, and quite possibly fail but then to question, and to try again, and to keep trying because that’s what’s important. Because without that there is only silence, and there are so many things out there that can silence you. It’s like a little piece of you falling off and turning to dust and blowing away when you’re silenced. And for some silence can be a truly terrible thing.

My own experience doesn’t fall into the truly terrible category but for me it is still as vivid today. I was thirteen years old and silenced as I held that thin sheet of ruled A4 paper with the ‘F’ scored into it and circled in red pen.  I’d written a story for my English class under the title we’d been given: The Handicap. I imagined a boy in a wheelchair stuck on the sidelines at a football match, his wheels only ever leaving tracks in the dewy grass up to the edge of the pitch and never onto it. He was referred to as ‘the handicap’ right up to the end of the story, where surgery had given him the gift of his legs back and he could look at his footsteps as he crossed the line onto the pitch. And finally he had a name. I’d lay good money it was awful though at the time I was immensely proud of it. And the teacher carved an ‘F’ on my page. And perhaps because that didn’t quite convey the depth of her feeling about it she circled it to make it stand out a little bit more.

She added a note: the idea that a handicapped person should not have a name is obscene.

Exactly!

I should have said it, should have shouted it, should have railed, how can you give me an F when you understood the very reason I wrote it? But I didn’t. I sat there silently and shook because with that F she took my voice away. That’s the day a little part of me fell off and turned to dust and blew away. That’s the day I stopped listening. That’s why I got moved from the top to the middle class a few weeks later.

 

A L Kennedy talks a lot about voice. I should say writes a lot about voice but you see what happened there? Because I’ve seen A L Kennedy at a reading and there is absolutely no way it could be any other voice playing in my head while reading On Writing than A L Kennedy’s. The writing sounds like the author. It’s written in her voice.

When the voice is good, when it really works you know it, you fall into it instinctively as a reader. There’s something in the pattern or the rhythm or an idiosyncrasy in the words themselves that clues you in and the voice you hear in your head isn’t your own voice but that of someone else entirely. That’s the magic and the mystery of that elusive x-factor that is Voice. And putting it like that makes it seem so small! But try it. As a new-to-the-task writer or an aspiring writer or a seasoned writer, as any kind of writer, this is knowledge like water that runs in beads off the back of your hand and leaves no trace. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s not even easy to explain to someone who’s been told to ‘find their voice’ as a writer, or that they need a unique voice to get anywhere, or any of the other myriad little smoke bombs that you then have to peer through to try and get near to some kind of understanding of what it is these Gatekeepers of the Land of Authors are trying to baffle you with.

What A L Kennedy says about voice in this book makes enormous sense because it goes right back to that basic question of what a voice is. All the smoke we blow around that question gets wafted away.

It reminded me of Paul McVeigh and his fabulous novel, The Good Son. When I read it I heard a young Irish lad and his Irish family and friends in my head because all the clues were there for me. And I loved it. It’s a great book, funny and touching and wise. I was lucky enough to be at the launch of the book, where Paul read the opening chapter and all the playfulness, the cavernous depths of cheeky little boy humour came tumbling out. It wasn’t quite as funny as that to me when I first read it but when I go back to it I know now I’ll be laughing my arse off because now it’ll be not just an Irish voice but Paul’s voice I hear telling me Paul’s words in my head.

Writing tip: you are your own voice so be you. It’s not the end of the search but it is a great place to start.

 

A L Kennedy’s On Writing is all honesty. Her humour, fervour and sometimes anger shines as we read into what it’s like to be an committed obsessive workaholic writer. I know that doesn’t sound much like one but it really is a good read.

 

On Writing was published by Vintage in 2013 ISBN: 9780099575238

 

You can find A L on Twitter @Writerer or at her website http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/

Van has finished reading…The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

2 Feb

As Rebecca Mascull’s last book, Song Of The Sea Maid, almost made it into my top five reads of 2016 you can imagine how excited I was to read her new book, The Wild Air. That excitement was well-met from the first page. A short prologue introduces us to Della Dobbs, and in the process does everything a prologue should. We get a goodly flavour of Della’s character but because the language is tight and clear and visual we get atmosphere too, and jeopardy, right from the first line. But above all we get questions. The who and the how and the why abound so that there was nothing I wanted more than to rip into the next chapter and find the answers.

If you’re of a writerly persuasion it’s a lesson in how to do prologues well.

Like Dawnay Price from Song Of The Sea Maid, as a character Della Dobbs is a winner. Though there are undeniable similarities between the two, Della is no carbon copy. Hers is not the blistering intelligence, not the thrusting presence of Dawnay. She is no less capable, no less driven once she understands her goal but Della’s is the quiet determination, the steady faith in her ability, her practicality. Where Dawnay tended to stand out, Della is likely to feel like someone you already know. Where Dawnay would not be bound by her orphan status, Della is shaped in the bosom of the family. And where Dawnay was so much a woman out of time, Della is unmistakably a woman of her time. Dawnay and Aunt Betty would be a house on fire (and woe betide anyone who’d stand in their path!) but I suspect Della would be cowed to silence by Dawnay’s forthright manner – at least until they got around to discussing the science of flight. Regardless, Della is without doubt a protagonist to get behind and cheer all the way, through battles big and small.

The story itself is – for want of a better term – grounded. Belief is never stretched, either in terms of plot or character, and this has to be down to the extensive research that supports the book. If I were to pinpoint a particular skill in the writing I would say that Rebecca Mascull’s has a gift for hiding the research. All the detail, all the intricacy around the early days of flight, the science of it, the mechanics of it, the many descriptions of being in the air in various planes never gets dull because we see it all through the eyes of those in the moment. The exhilaration, or fear, or crippling fatigue – whatever it is the pilot feels becomes the lens through which the technicalities are filtered. At the heart of it all it allows the book to remain what it must be: a thoroughly engaging and very human story.

 

How sad both Della and Dawnay would be to witness 2017 – a hundred years beyond Della’s story and a full 270 beyond Dawnay’s – and discover that history’s extraordinary women still await their rightful place in the light, or that just 3% of pilots internationally are women. As much as we like to look at these characters and empathise with them as they flex against their constraints, and cheer them when they win through, and nod knowingly and commiserate when they don’t, it’s a falsehood to imagine things are different now. These times are not nearly as enlightened as we like to think. I see it in my own thoughts sometimes, those sentences that begin, ‘how amazing that she…’ Would I have found it as amazing if it were a he? How much of this constraint do we perpetuate ourselves? Luckily, we have writers and books to show us these things, to stop us and force us to think. Both Song Of the Sea Maid and The Wild Air gave me more than just a good story, they also took my thoughts beyond the last page. I recommend them both. See if they can do the same for you.

The Wild Air is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6th April 2017 ISBN:9781473604438

You can find Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaMascull and on the web at rebeccamascull.tumblr.com

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.

 

 

Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

Van has finished reading…Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

7 Dec

Okay, so this isn’t what I’d normally do but I think Murakami’s reputation can withstand it. The truth is I’ve found it difficult to get something down for this review. Sorry, Haruki, didn’t quite seem sufficient and I’ve found myself in a place where I’m trying to justify my lack of engagement. It’s a problem I’ve had before when faced with isolated characters like Watanabe and Naoko, a situation where I find myself resistant to their ways. I become that insensitive person who just wants to shake them, that intolerable idiot who wants to tell them to get out and do something, that things aren’t nearly as bad as they think. That they’ll look back on all this and laugh someday about how serious they used to be, if only they could get over it (although he doesn’t, does he). Look how erudite Watanabe is, look how easy-going, a young man who can find a conversation with a voiceless old man in a hospital, who can bring the joy of eating cucumbers to a sad hospital bedside.

It’s not the writing. The writing’s focused, tidy. It’s not the supporting cast either. Midori and Reiko are there to be rooted for, bringing all the freshness and optimism you need. Can it really all be down to Watanabe? It’s not as if the warning signs aren’t there in the books he reads (I can’t help thinking he’d have had a more favourable trajectory if he’d picked up Steppenwolf instead of Beneath The Wheel).

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s a little too close, or a little too what-might-have-been. Whatever the echoes, they’re echoes I don’t want to hear. Sorry, Haruki.

 

Norwegian Wood (translated by Jay Rubin) was published in the UK in 2000 by Harvill. My copy was published by Vintage ISBN:9780099490784

You can find Haruki on Twitter @harukimurakami_

Van has finished reading… The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford

22 Nov

 

lady-c

As famous trials go you might think that this one wouldn’t be so high on the list of interesting ones to report on. Okay, it was ground-breaking and important and we’re all shaped in some small way by its outcome but, interesting?

Well, actually, yes!

Set aside the fact that the defendant is not a person but an object. Set aside the fact that this case was the first to test the newly drawn-up obscenity laws. Set aside even the fact that the Defence drew on any number of eminent persons to form its phalanx of witnesses. All these things are interesting in their own right, but set them aside because at the very heart of this trial reportage – that’s essentially what this book is – is the wondrous theatre of social history. It’s nothing less than the broadening division in the class system that’s on display. Not on trial in the dock – at least not entirely, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all, which is much more about Class than the goings-on in the undergrowth – but on display in the manner of the Prosecution, and the measure of the Defence. There’s a great line early on (yes, it almost feels it could be fiction it’s so telling) where the Prosecution asks, “…Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?” This is 1960. It sets the tone of the Prosecution’s case. In such a pantomime we’d readily boo Mr Griffith-Jones as the villain of the piece but, as in all good literature, at the end of things I felt something akin to sadness and pity for him, having watched him fall so far: screaming obscenities in the courtroom as though that’s what Lawrence’s repetition was all about; inviting – with no small measure of smugness – a Senior Lecturer in English to straighten him out about his misapprehension of the word puritanical, and being summarily straightened out; reverting again and again, and each time seeming more petulant, to the only real line of defence he could muster, that it was all about the sex and nothing else.

Against this, Defence witness after Defence witness offers their understanding of the book, of what it is about and what Lawrence was trying to achieve in the writing of it. Of Lawrence’s place in Literature, of his ability, of Lady Chatterley’s worthiness as literature. Witnesses drawn from universities, schools, publishing houses, even churches, come to state their view, and it’s hard to imagine now how the Prosecution could’ve stood against all this without the certain understanding that they were in the wrong.

 

Through all this Sybille Bedford, who was commissioned to report on the trial, guides us with fairness and clarity. Being an author, we can easily guess which side of the argument she came down on, and Thomas Grant’s introduction to this edition confirms her stance. It is testament to her skill indeed that she remains as impartial as she does in the rendering of the proceedings. What stands out most for me is the apparent warmth with which she greets some of the witnesses, notably the aforementioned Senior Lecturer, a rather feisty Classics Mistress from a Grammar school, and a ‘most smartly dressed’ editor of, no, ‘Not a Ladies’ page. It hasn’t been called that since 1912.’ You can almost feel Sybille Bedford’s relish in Miss Scott-James’s small victories. Though, plus ça change, one might think some 55 years on.

 

It’s a striking thing to be so sure of the fallacy you’re opposing, to be so confident of the outcome that it seems the height of unreasonableness that anyone would even hold such a position. And to us now – certainly to me – it seems obscenity itself that such a prosecution could ever have taken place, but in these uncertain times, these days of political division, it is surely possible to read Sybille Bedford’s account of this famous trial and imagine, before the verdict comes down, what it would’ve been like to sit and wait, not knowing which way the jury would swing.

 

This edition of The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in October 2016 by Daunt Books ISBN:9781907970979

My sincere thanks to Daunt Books (and to Angela Carter) for allowing me to read this book.