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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

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



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.

Van has finished reading… Runemarks by Joanne Harris

21 Nov

Okay, so this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Honestly, it’s not. When I first started thinking that I’d like to be a writer I was in junior school. I couldn’t tell you what it was particularly about being a writer that made me think I wanted to be one but I suspect it had a bit to do with my teacher. He was good at everything and good with us kids and he played guitar and he knew how to tell a story. On a school trip, just after lights-out he’d come into the dorm and flick a torch on under his chin – did he have a beard? I think he had a beard – and the atmosphere and the torch and his voice would scare the bejeesus out of me. Not that I’d admit it to my classmates, of course. Anyway, one day in class I’d obviously declared my intention to be a writer so he gave me an exercise book and a pencil and a sharpener and challenged me to do it. So I did. I was so proud of my joined-up handwriting, all slanty on the page, and before long that page became pages. Every now and then I’d stop and shake my hand because it hurt, what with all the writing. And being that age there was a hero, and a woman was trapped somewhere up a mountain, with danger and dragons and… things. I invented some names. And I can distinctly remember the point at which I stopped: my hero was half way up, imprisoned by a cone of fire (I can even remember what I called the cone of fire, and no, I’m not going to tell you). I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to get him out. And I realise now that in stopping here I found my teacher’s one weakness. He liked to see us do well and he liked us to know we were doing well. He gave me gold stars beneath the words ‘half-time report’. The sad thing was that I never finished it because I’d got my reward, my gold stars, and the incentive seemed to fizzle entirely out. It was probably only about a thousand words, looking back, though at the time it felt epic. And I’ll bet my last money it was truly awful. And this is why said at the start of this review that this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Because reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks brought all this back to me.

It did this because it tapped straight into those things that you already know, even in primary school, about fantastical stories. Your hero must be a loner. That said, your hero is going to have to trust someone or something that probably shouldn’t be trusted because your hero cannot do what they must do on their own. Because your hero is about to go on a quest. This quest will be dangerous and probably some people and definitely some animals will die. It will get harder and more dangerous and there will come a time where it simply isn’t feasible it’s all going to work out. But your hero is a hero, so… What it tapped into was the sheer joy of invention, the unadulterated bliss of feeling these people you read about – or as I was then, write about – inhabit a wondrous and untouchable place in your mind’s eye where the rules are different, where the unexpected not only can but will happen, where it’s the law, where power is at your fingertips, where the small are not cowed by the weak, where you, whoever you are, are able to win.

I have to say I loved it. It simply made me smile. It’s somewhat relentless in pace and a tad irreverent in voice, which suits the inhabitants right down to the ground. There’s a delightfully threaded message in there too if you care to ponder the weave a little, but if you don’t, no matter. You’re still going to take a crash-course careen through the nine worlds – or a good part of them anyway. You’re going to boo at the villains when you know they’re villains and you’re going to cheer the heroes in the same way. You’re going to smile when dignity besmirched is stood upon and you’re going to look wryly at the world on these pages and see the ways in which it’s not so different from our own.

You can thank Marvel for two disconcerting things. Firstly, it’s really hard to picture Loki without a certain Hiddlestoneness about the twisted grin, and secondly, the familial relation is a generation shifted in Runemarks. Of course if the source material were set in stone it’d be history rather than legend. And legend has a much more appealing ring to it!

Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to be sniffy about reading. We get bogged down by that word literature and we start saying things like, fantasy, you know, it’s really not my bag. The trouble with that is that we limit ourselves, limit our intake and our experience. And remember too that genres are really only there to sell books. Oh, you like that? Try this. But what’s the harm, once in a while, of picking up something unexpected? Okay, if you pick a book up and you don’t like it, move on. No harm done. Every work of fiction you read is fantasy, after all. None of it’s real except in yours and the author’s imagination. And if you find one you really like, tell your friends. Share it and then you can talk about it with them and relive it. There’s immense power in words if only we allow them in and who knows, that next book, that unexpected read might just have the power to change your life. It happens you know. Books really can do that.

Runemarks was published on the 2nd August 2007 by Doubleday ISBN:9780385611305


You can (and should – she says wise things and sometimes tells stories) find Joanne on Twitter @Joannechocolat, or on her website

Van has finished reading…We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

14 Nov

Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the writing is exquisite, a tale told with a deserving level of complexity, not just the use of language but the pace of it, the precision of the vocabulary, and perhaps above all the grace notes, those crystal chimes that cast you back to what would’ve appeared earlier as a throwaway line, a funny aside or a strange departure from expectation. Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the story it tells is so vivid, so believable – regardless of the fact you might mutter, ‘unbelievable,’ in that surprised way, so extraordinary that you start to look at what’s around you in a different way. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is that rare conjunction of both these things. What a fantastic book!

Rosemary Cooke, in the short prologue, is looking back, watching her two-year-old self’s garrulousness on a silent cine reel, telling us she used to a talker, telling how those who now her now would be surprised. She offers a hint of fairy tale conjured by what she sees, and the fairy tale flavour endures as she follows her father’s advice – given in those garrulous days when he was trying to stem the flow a little – to begin in the middle. What follows is the unpicking of a strange and broken family, the uncovering of secrets and not a small pinch of sleight-of-hand. Until about page 77. Then, in what is paradoxically the most bizarre admission in the book, everything begins to make sense.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a character off the top of my head who’s quite so clearly a product of their situation as Rosemary. Of course it takes a little time to realise this because that situation is not apparent until post page 77. Look back at the behaviour in the opening chapter post page 77 and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

It’s one of those interesting things with reading, deciding how much you can trust your narrator – of course it’s something of a dilemma when you decide you can’t because to keep reading, to keep enjoying, you have to trust, at least to a certain extent. What’s most pleasing about the construction of Rosemary is not so much the establishment of that level but the reasoning behind it. You get to that moment and it ceases to be a question of trust and becomes something else entirely. Every reaction, every word, every step, every expression makes sense and it can only break your heart to hold that world in your mind’s eye. As the book progresses that understanding deepens and deepens as Karen Joy Fowler unpicks not just Rosemary’s troubled existence but what it really means to be family. It’s only fair to say that there are moments in this book that might just sicken you, and there are many many more that will make your heart ache. I can’t tell you the relief I felt towards the end of the book as I came to realise the many possibilities I came to fear weren’t going to be realised. About three quarters through I came close to a bout of borderline ugly crying while reading on the train, which is never a good look!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is above all things a book about love, and that’s a joyous thing to cling to. It’s about family and what it means to be connected to another being. It’s also about the lengths we’re prepared to go to to understand who we are, and how sometimes that needle doesn’t point in a positive direction. If you haven’t read this book I’d urge you to find. It really is masterful. I only hope that you’ll have the benefit of approaching it without having come across any spoilers.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 19th June 2014 ISBN:9781846689666

You can find Karen on her website

Van has finished reading… These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

19 Oct

There’s a treat coming your way in the shape of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. In her own introduction, Fran says that she wanted to write about the real Paris rather than the image so many of us hold. I’ve never been to Paris but, having lived abroad for a time I can appreciate the distinction. I can also say that the Paris Fran Cooper shows us feels entirely real to me. It’s as much a character as the people who inhabit these pages, not dressed in her finery (or at least not always) but quotidian and vivid, and wholeheartedly laissez-faire.

The Walls of the book’s title are those that separate the inhabitants of number 37, a property made of two buildings – one a little (but only a little) more sheeshy than the other. There’s not much that escapes the attention of these proximate neighbours, though there’s plenty to distance them personally. And no matter how inquisitive they are there’s always a little secret to be kept here and there.

As to the characters themselves, they are superb. You will of course like some more than others – as you’re meant to. Perhaps you will, like me, give a little ‘yesss!’ when something happens that you’ve been hoping will happen to one or two of them (good or bad I won’t say but, if you’re wondering Fran & Emma, p183 of this proof!). Some may even feel like people you’ve actually met. I wish I could go through each one and tell you what it is I liked about them, what I hoped or feared – that’s how close I felt to them – but that would be to give the game away.

Although Fran Cooper tells us in her introduction that elements of These Dividing Walls started life as vignettes read at a Paris spoken-word club, don’t imagine this is one of those linked-short-story-collections-thinly-disguised-as-a-novel novels. This is a proper, layered start-to-finish novel with characters in action, evolving storylines and emotional journeys. There’s nothing unnecessary or incidental about events and interactions.

Any writer will be familiar with the exhortation to show-not-tell but in These Dividing Walls Fran Cooper gives us a perfect example of how an almost-telling style of writing can work. It verges on the conspiratorial, inviting the reader over to the wall with a glass in hand to listen in, points to certain things with a whispered ‘would you believe it?’ It makes a resident of us, and in so doing we’re invested in every drama, be they small or large.

Beyond the fact of the book’s location, beyond the premise that frames the characters we meet I think Fran Cooper has a lot to say about the way we live today, about the things that scare us and how we react to them. It makes the point, too, that events are never as far beyond us as we imagine, that the things happening around are often made up of ordinary people, and that people are never really all that ordinary.

Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. It transported me to a sultry Paris arrondissement in the summer. It made me laugh, it made me smile, it brought a lump to my throat more than once and even made me cheer quietly. I really hope you’ll give it the chance to do the same for you. Make a note in your diary for April 2017.


These Dividing Walls will be published by Hodder in April 2017 ISBN:9781473641532

You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My thanks particularly and especially to Emma Herdman at Hodder for knowing I’d love this book and allowing me to review it.