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Van has finished reading… Folk by Zoe Gilbert

21 Jan

folk

It’s taken me a while to get to Zoe Gilbert’s debut novel, Folk, and the only thing that stops me saying it was well worth the wait is the realisation that I could’ve been re-reading it by now. The title is wonderfully pertinent. The Folk of fairy tales, of stories handed down through generations; in the craft of it too, the feel that these are homespun skills; and then in the tales themselves – as with the very best of folk tales – it’s not the supernatural or otherworldly that takes precedence but the folk who inhabit Zoe Gilbert’s words. It’s wonderfully immersive, the sights, sounds and smells of Neverness are rich and vivid from the off, the driving rhythm of Prick Song dragging the reader headlong into a paganish ceremony of turning seasons, death and rebirth.

Zoe Gilbert’s Costa Short Story Award-winning Fishskin, Hareskin has been one of my favourite short stories since I first read it, and there are now chapters from Folk that I can add to the list. Sticks Are For Fire and The Water Bull Bride, along with Fishskin, Hareskin best illustrate, for me, what Zoe Gilbert does so well. There’s the sumptuous lyricism of her prose, the precision of her imagery, the cadence of the narrative that makes an eager, listening child of you, and particularly, though there may be other-worldly elements threading through these stories it’s the human element, the ever-present and recognisable dangers of our own world, our own actions that precipitate a coup-de-grace. (And Sticks Are For Fire gets extra points not simply for using ‘widdershins’, which is quite possibly my favourite word, but for using it very much in context). It’s our inherent fallibility as humans which brings us down. After all this time, the local village signpost might easily have worn away to Everness.

I mention short stories here but don’t get caught up in thinking this is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. While it is possible to read these chapters in isolation, and some of them have been published in the form of short stories, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a novel. The sense of place, of both time and timelessness, and of the inhabitants of Neverness shifts and deepens with each chapter. Characters’ appearance are never incidental, albeit they may not be centre-stage for that chapter, and they each carry the inflections of their various histories – just as you’d expect in a novel.

I should also say the ever-so-on-point cover – beautiful, pastoral, quite every-day, with that creeping sense of the sinister the longer you look at it – is quite perfect. A flourish that Mrs van particularly enjoyed are the little illustrations that accompany each chapter – tiny additions, but nicely done and always pertinent.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a thing of beauty, inside and out. Stories to stir your inner child, told with all the depth and subtlety a grown-up needs. Glorious.

Folk was published by Bloomsbury on the 18th February 2018 ISBN:9781408884393

You can find Zoe on Twitter @mindandlanguage or at The Word Factory, or at London Lit Lab, where she runs writing workshops with fellow writer Lily Dunn.

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Van has finished reading… Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

7 Jan

friday black

It may be a famous quote, I can’t remember, but didn’t someone once say that when you’re black everything you write is about being black, even when it’s not? If it’s not a famous quote, well, I’ve said it. A white boy in a white man’s world, talking about blackness.

Because that’s never happened before…

With Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black you get the real deal. From the overt statements that are The Finkelstein 5 and Zimmer Land to the subtler tones of How To Sell A Jacket As Told By Ice King. There’s an edgy humour in these slices of life but you cannot doubt that you’re being looked in the eye as you laugh, particularly with The Finkelstein 5. The absurdist nature of the comedy element – the defence presented at the trial of a truly heinous crime – quickly pales as the author’s punches hit home: but this is life; this kind of thing has happened; this kind of thing is not the past.

The day after I’d read The Finkelstein 5 I heard a polite ‘excuse me’ while walking in the park. Two teenagers came past on their bikes, both saying ‘thank you’ as they went. Not thanks, or cheers, or ta! or any other informal recognition you might’ve expected from a couple of teenagers out on their bikes. And I genuinely wondered, is that you or are you dialling down for the white people? I hope to God they weren’t, then I also hope to God I’m not one of those people who becomes a caricature around black teenagers, trying to be all matey and street. Yes, Mr Adjei-Brenyah’s definitely right about that. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

The range covered by the stories collected in Friday Black might at first glance make them seem somewhat disparate but there are threads not so much pulling them together as holding them in close company. The sense of the outsider is there time and again, the desire to belong. Then there’s that febrile striving for justice, not only for wanting to do the right thing but also for others to recognise their errors and see the true path. Whichever way you slice it Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black gives you twelve wonderfully immersive and deeply thought-provoking stories to enjoy. It’s well worth adding to your TBR pile.

 

Friday Black was published by riverrun on the 23rd October 2018 ISBN:9781787476011

You can find Nana Kwame on Twitter @NK_Adjei

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for allowing me to review this collection.

Van has finished reading… Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

18 Dec

started early took my dog

I’m introducing a new term to the blog – one that I very much hope will see repeated use: The Atkinson Experience. Not so much the Harvey Effect, where a phrase is so perfectly formed I’m apt to read it again but something that would apply to a whole book or story. It’s what I might otherwise term stealth brilliance. The writing is apt, easy, it flows as might a conversation so that these aren’t characters but people, and you could easily imagine the protagonist is sat opposite you in the snug at your local, relaying all this detail first hand. It’s not what one might describe as beautiful writing, though it is beautifully crafted. It’s just that it’s so well done you don’t notice the work that’s gone into making it so. It’s Kate Atkinson.

Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth book to feature Jackson Brodie, who is a peach of a character. Don’t worry if you’ve not read the first three (I haven’t yet either) you’ll not be left floundering for detail or backstory. As you would expect, there’s an arc that extends beyond the bounds of this book’s story, both past and future, that will leave you wanting to search the other books out.

Of the other characters I suspect I’m not alone in falling for Courtney, a tattered little waif who is ‘rescued’  by retired-copper-turned-shopping-mall-head-of-security Tracey Waterhouse. Courtney is fantastic, unmistakeably a kid at every turn and yet there’s a sense of age-old wisdom about her, an inscrutability that is as touching on the page as it would likely be infuriating in real life!

What I didn’t expect is how genuinely and knowingly funny the book is, especially given the sheer grimness of the main storyline. We see the basest of human emotion, motivation and action and yet time and again I found myself laughing along with the wry honesty on display. It’s apt to remind you of people you know. In short, it is understated brilliance. Eminently readable, thoroughly engaging, wry and astute. It is the Atkinson Experience.

 

Started Early, Took My Dog was published by Doubleday on the 19th August 2010 ISBN:9780552772464

 

You can find Kate at her website kateatkinson.co.uk

Van has finished reading… The Fourth Shore by Virginia Baily

23 Nov

the fourth shore

The trees are aflame with colour and your breath clouds before your face. For the first time this year you’ve got your hat and gloves on and you’re snuggly in your boots and autumn coat. It’s quiet, just you and a wide open space. That feeling – the anticipation of it, the awareness that things are changing yet you’re cosseted, safe and warm and ready – that’s reading Virginia Baily.

Following in, or perhaps anticipating the footsteps of the sublime Early One Morning, Virginia Baily’s new book The Fourth Shore returns to Italy to begin the story of Liliana Cattaneo, who follows her brother to Tripolitania in Libya. In this burgeoning land of opportunity Liliana is optimistic, on the cusp of life, love and adventure, though she is about to discover there is more than one side to Italy’s outpost in North Africa, and to the homeland she wants to believe in. Her dream of romance will have dire consequences for her and those closest to her.

 

You’ve got to love a writer who takes enough care over her characters and storyline, and who thinks enough of her readers to make use of all the details. It’s a delight to me – really, it actually makes me smile as I read – when the manner in which one character is debilitated become the means for insight to another. Nothing is incidental, nothing gets wasted. And then there are those ‘Harvey’ moments where the care taken over the words shines through in a perfectly weighted phrase.

Although Virginia Baily’s The Fourth Shore covers a sweep of events in the grand sense, it’s a very personal story she tells, quiet and intense. It’s through her characters’ responses to those events, and to each other that she views the wider impact of those historic events. There is a secret at the heart of the story, and its uncovering and the action that precipitate it are a perfect mirror of cause and consequence. This is how fiction at its finest works (see Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning, Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life).

Liliana is an absolute gift of a character, my view of her changing sometimes from page to page, and I loved the scenes she shares with Farida (who appears so clear to me I believe I may well have met her). The way their relationship moves is a joy to behold. And then there is Zaida, and the need to hold on to your breaking heart – make no mistake, this book is going to make you feel!

 

Virginia Baily’s The Fourth Shore is wonderful, a quiet story, though no less devastating for that. It cuts to the heart of what it is to love, to trust, to believe. To make amends. It will squeeze your heart, no doubt, but it will make it swell too.

 

The Fourth Shore will be published by Fleet on 7th March 2019 ISBN: 9780708898499

 

You can find Virginia on Twitter @VirginiaBaily or on her website, virginiabaily.com

My especial thanks to Ursula Doyle at Fleet for allowing me to review this lovely book.

Van has finished reading… The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson

2 Nov

last words of madeleine anderson

Twenty years after the publication of her only novel – a book hailed as a work of genius – Gabrielle Price’s literary star has dimmed. Now living an unremarkable life in the village she grew up in, Gabrielle is middle-aged, working as a housekeeper for the local vicar, surrounded by memories of her best friend Madeleine, who died young in tragic and mysterious circumstances. When Gabrielle receives a letter from a fan she has no idea that her responding on a whim will turn her quiet life inside out.

 

How does your self-portrait look? In the he-said-she-said retelling of the major points in your life how do you come across? We can’t help being the hero in our own story, though if we were more honest with ourselves we might better settle for the term protagonist. I’ve never been a fan of the term unreliable narrator. To me it’s more suggestive of a habitual or flagrant liar when the truth of the character generally proves to be far more human – someone who is prone to bend the truth to fit their worldview. For the subterfuge to work we as the reader need to buy in to the fiction so it helps a great deal if the character is likeable, someone we want to believe. The testament to how well-written The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson is rests in the fact that Gabrielle Price, while not necessarily likeable, is whole-heartedly believable. There’s a level of honesty that’s brutal, almost self-destructive, and the glow of that openness spreads over everything we see. It’s beautifully done. No big pointy arrows or cabaret cloaks, just room for all these little doubts to grow in.

I love the make-up of the cast in Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson. It’s a cast that’s as spare as the writing, but each character pulls their weight and if you’ve ever spent any time around writers, readers or book groups I’m sure there’ll be a flicker or two of the eyebrows as you recognise some old acquaintances! If you’re a fan of Barbara Pym I think you’ll tap into an extra layer of understanding as there’s a good deal of Pym referenced. If you’re not, I suspect you’ll be off to the library or bookshop to rustle up a copy of Excellent Women, as I’m about to.

Helen Kitson’s The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson is a tense and claustrophobic study of obsession, isolation, blame and retribution. It’s a quiet explosion of a story, contained mayhem that unravels through cause and effect, with an ending that’ll leave you gasping for air.

 

The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson will be published by Louise Walters Books on the 7th march 2019 ISBN:9781999780951

You can find Helen on Twitter @Jemima_Mae_7

My thanks to Louise Walters for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

25 Oct

underground railroad

 

Imagine all the human race left behind were certain books, and the aliens that come to investigate the used-up husk that was Earth have only these as indicators of our existence, so they’d have to wonder: is this history or entertainment? Which shelf would your favourite books go on? As far as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad goes, I’d bet the mortgage they’d go for history. In fact, forget aliens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see current readers googling it and finding themselves disappointed by the book’s subterfuge. Yes, it is that good.

The Underground Railroad tells Cora’s story. Born into slavery, abandoned by her mother at a young age and treated as an outcast on the plantation, as Cora comes of age she faces a stark choice: stay (and probably die), or run (and possibly die). And that’s where the fiction kicks in and The Underground Railroad sets itself apart in the ranks of novels centred on slavery in America. The reality of plantation life is there; the jeopardy inherent not only in running away but in simply being black in America is there; the range of responses from white people, from zealous application of the laws to rank indifference, is there (what a harrowing scene the plantation garden party presents!); but the Underground Railroad, that’s something else. With actual stations and engines and rails, it opens up the American south in a way the metaphorical railroad never could. And the chase is on, as we journey through various States, and their equally various laws and dispositions.

The characterisation is superb, with everything happening to a purpose, and while there are inevitably horrors in the portrayal of plantation life and the treatment of black people in the slave states, that purpose lends power to their presentation rather than their inclusion feeling gratuitous. No danger here of the reader maintaining an over-exposed distance from the narrative. And then there are the ads posting rewards for runaway slaves – real ads – to quietly underline that, while this is fiction, the facts of this history are not so distant, are close enough for the reader to feel the possibility held between the covers. Such is the power of the wrong done, of the will to escape, and the testament it speaks of those souls that such a feat really does feel possible. There’s an excellent refrain running through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a joke written in the darkest ink, about looking out as you speed through, and finding the true face of America. And its punchline chimes with William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. For all the necessary action, whether hidden or in plain sight, illegal or not, taken to bring a slave to liberty, it always comes down to one person. And freedom is never a thing that’s given. Freedom is a thing that must be claimed.

It’s an astonishing book that could find fans for many reasons – the quality of the writing, the historical and political context, the straight-up adrenalin of the chase – but the why is not so important. Just make sure you do pick it up. Read it, and then pass it along to the next station.

The Underground Railroad was published by Fleet in June 2017 ISBN:9780708898406

You can find Colson on Twitter @colsonwhitehead or at his website colsonwhitehead.com

A Q&A with Laura Laakso, author of Fallible Justice

17 Oct

I haven’t been at all surprised to see great review after great review for Laura Laakso’s debut novel, Fallible Justice. It’s a pacey and absorbing introduction to the world of Yannia Wilde, and the first in the Wilde Investigations series. You can read my review here, and I am delighted to say that Laura has agreed to answer some questions about her novel, and writing generally. I hope they will illuminate Yannia’s world, and add to the enjoyment you’ll undoubtedly get from reading Fallible Justice.

Fallible Justice cover

 

Which came first, the idea for the story, or the idea for the world it happens in? How did each develop to become Fallible Justice?

The story came first. I was bored one day and idly wondered how one could fool a justice system based on a celestial being looking into a person’s soul to determine guilt or innocence. As soon as I figured it out, I knew I had to write the book. Everything else developed from there. I took a very mechanical approach to the plot and built it piece by piece; red herring, complication, motive, the mechanics of the crime, and so on. It was an interesting process, especially given that I had no experience in writing crime, and I can still remember the thrill of the pieces falling together to form a picture far more intricate than I had originally planned. The world I built grew organically around Fallible Justice and later expanded when I realised that this wasn’t just going to be one book.

The world-building in Fallible Justice is particularly strong. How did you go about researching the magical world of Old London? Did you make any discoveries that shaped or changed your thoughts about the world you were building? What’s the most surprising thing you learned?

In the very beginning, each element of the world served a purpose in Fallible Justice and they soon developed stories of their own. Each race had its own complications and agenda, which I think helped give depth to the characters from those races. With the main character, I was very clear about wanting a female PI as a protagonist, but one that wasn’t a Mage. I had an image of Yannia running on a beach, channelling all of nature, and that was it. She chose me, I suppose, and that initial image later became the opening chapter of the book.

I also wanted there to be a separate area of London for the magical races to live in and the City of London borough seemed like a perfect fit. It’s a wonderful mix of Wren architecture and modern skyscrapers, and that seemed like an apt reflection of the people living in Old London; smartphones and CCTV go hand in hand with ancient traditions and archaic social structure. I live fairly close to London and I’ve done several trips just to walk around the “Old London”. Every time I do, I see some detail that blossoms into a plot idea or setting. I didn’t do a great deal of research for the first two books in the series, but the thing that will stay with me is the sheer joy of building this exciting world that combines real places and buildings with a magical element. Writing the Wilde Investigations series hardly feels like work!

I’m interested in the terminology you use in your magical world – heralds, shamans and paladins. How did you come to choose the names?

I’ve been gaming and reading fantasy since my early teens, so I had a vast array of terms to choose from. The Heralds were named thus because I wanted a clear separation from Christian mythology. Although they are arguably celestial beings, I didn’t want them to be thought of as angels. When it came to upholding peace in Old London, I liked the idea of knights instead of police. It made sense to combine peacekeeping with the Heralds, and thus Paladins seemed like an appropriate term, although they are not quite as lawful good as in most fantasy literature. With Shamans, I liked the idea of a tangible connection with nature but wanted to make it animal specific. This was partly because by then, Karrion had wandered into my head to complain at length about pigeons. In fact, Karrion is to blame for the whole Shaman race! The Eldermen of the Wild Folk conclaves are a variation on the term alderman. I liked the idea of crusty old men, removed from the modern world, sitting around a campfire deciding the future of each conclave.

What’s the best editorial advice you had in writing Fallible Justice?

Patience, patience, patience. I have a tendency to get carried away and rush the first draft, and my first reader is forever reminding me to take my time and let the scenes develop at a gradual pace. That’s not to say there the plot isn’t constantly moving forward, but I have to remember not to gloss over descriptions and conversations that are vital to the story. I think by book 3 in the series, I was finally getting the hang of being patient.

Your route to publication doesn’t appear to follow the more familiar pattern of submissions to agents, and then to publishers. Had you submitted Fallible Justice, or other work, to anyone before? What is the impact for you of Retreat West’s involvement, and the approach from Louise Walters Books?

About two years ago, I made a Plan. At that point, I’d written two novels and was well into writing Fallible Justice. I was going to spend 2017 building a writing CV by taking part in lots of competitions, all the while editing my novels. Once I had a few writing credits to my name, I was going to start looking for an agent in the hopes of getting the usual agent + publisher deal. The Retreat West First Chapter Competition changed everything! Fallible Justice was chosen as a runner up and the literary agent who judged the short list asked to see the full manuscript. She liked it, but ultimately decided that she didn’t know enough about fantasy to represent me. My first (and to date only) agent rejection. Around the same time, a Retreat West newsletter mentioned a new indie publisher looking for submissions. I had a look at the website, saw the strict genre criteria and sent Louise the opening to my first novel. She replied almost straight away asking for Fallible Justice instead. Despite her website saying no to fantasy, crime and thrillers, she loved Fallible Justice and here we are! My publication journey is a classic example of no matter how good the Plan is, things will always happen along the way that change it. As it is, I couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out.

Have you always written? Did you always want to be a novelist?

I’ve wanted to be a lot of things along the way, including a dolphin trainer by day and a mad scientist by night, spaceship designer and a female Indiana Jones! More seriously, becoming a novelist is a relatively recent aspiration of mine. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of bookworms, so reading and storytelling have always been a big part of my life. In primary school, when we had to write stories based on pictures we were given, I was the insufferable kid who wrote five pages more than anyone else and then asked for extra pictures as homework. Later on, much of the writing related to roleplaying campaigns I was running, but gradually I moved more into fanfiction and later original fiction. Turning 30 caused me to take stock of my life, and I realised that becoming a published author was a dream I wanted to pursue more seriously. All the hard work over the last few years has paid off big time.

Your protagonist, Yannia, suffers from a debilitating disease, which I might add she handles with a very real and affirming attitude. What led you to choose Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?

When I was developing Yannia, I wanted her to have a flaw, some complication that no amount of magic could fix. So I gave her my pain, and straight away the life she’d been born to lead became unsustainable. Old London isn’t a complete solution either. No matter how successful she becomes as a PI and even if she can sort the rest of her life out, EDS is never going to go away. It’s her reality and something she must always bear in mind, but I wanted to show that being sick doesn’t mean she can’t be successful or make difficult life choices. Giving her a condition I have meant that I could offer an authentic, but a compassionate depiction of the illness. On a more selfish note, I’m not terribly good at talking about what living with constant pain is like, but through Yannia, I have expressed things that would otherwise have remained unsaid.

There’s quite a range of characters in Fallible Justice. Who was the most fun to write? Who was hardest to get right?

Although I’ve never really considered myself a character-led writer, I’ve had so much fun with the characters in Fallible Justice (and the later books). Wishearth is a firm favourite, as is Lady Bergamon, and writing them has been simply wonderful. I also loved the interaction between Yannia and Karrion. Their friendship really grows through the series, but I love how they tease and argue like siblings. Fria was difficult to write because her mindset is so different from mine and it took me a long while to “get” her. And while I love to hate Lord Ellensthorne, in the long run it’s been challenging to strike a balance between him being a thoroughly unpleasant man and not turning him into a caricature antagonist.

Fallible Justice stands as the first in a series, Wilde Investigations. How many books do you have planned? Do you already know what’s going to happen in each, or are the stories yet to develop? And what about after Yannia. Do you think you’ll stay in the world of paranormal crime, or have you projects in different genres waiting in the wings?

At the moment, I’m editing book 3 in the series and planning book 4. I have clear ideas for books 5-8, plus another one that will come a little later, and various random ideas and thoughts floating around. While there are long-term plot lines I’ve been setting up since Fallible Justice, I don’t want to make too many firm plans too far in advance because every book brings up side plots I wasn’t expecting. Book 3 had a huge impact on the future stories and I’m still getting my head around all the implications. It feels like I’m only just getting comfortable in the series and I hope I get to write these books for some time to come!

Outside Wilde Investigations, I have an idea for a YA novel set in the same world I’d like to explore at some point, a paranormal thriller that’s completely separate, a paranormal romance (though I’m so hopelessly cynical I’m not sure I could ever write a romance novel), a psychological thriller, and a literary fiction novel waiting to be developed. And those are just the more tangible plots I’ve written down in a “Random ideas” document on my computer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be short of ideas! At the moment, all I can say is that with Wilde Investigations, I feel as though I’ve found my voice and no matter what happens in the future, writing is always going to be an integral part of my life.

Finally, if you were a character in Yannia’s world what would your magical ability be?

While my dogs no doubt expect the answer to be a Dog Shaman, I think I’d probably be one of the Wild Folk. Growing up in Finland, wilderness and nature played a big role in my life and I appreciate the Wild Folk way of living. Their world is by no means perfect, but their connection with nature makes sense to me.

Laura Laakso

 

My thanks to Laura Laakso for answering my questions so fully, and to Louise Walters for facilitating so smoothly.

Fallible Justice is published by Louise Walters Books on the 8th November, though you can order it now from Louise Walters Books direct, and you’ll get a signed copy and an exclusive flash fiction written by Laura to accompany the book! What are you waiting for!