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Van has finished reading… Jott by Sam Thompson

9 Jul

jottMen are idiots.

Which is to say good grief, am I really like Arthur?

Okay, I’m not really like Arthur, not really really but it’s a mite unsettling when you find yourself (mentally) shouting at the book you’re reading and you suddenly realise (which is never suddenly at all but in fact a blossoming of the subconscious into the conscious, if you will a state of oblivion – of knowing but ignoring or denying that knowing) oh God, I do that. That’s what I do.

Sam Thompson’s Jott looks at the relationship – sometimes friendship, sometimes not – between two young men at the start of their careers. Louis is worldly and gregarious, a writer wrestling with a novel. Arthur is quiet and contained, a doctor branching into psychoanalysis.


Sam Thompson’s novel stems from his grandfather, Geoffrey Thompson, and his friendship with a man named Beckett. Geoffrey was a junior psychiatrist who allowed his writer friend Samuel (yes, that Beckett) to see life on the wards. You don’t have to know Beckett’s life or works to enjoy Sam Thompson’s Jott (I don’t and I did) but there may well be layers within that that level of knowledge unlocks.

For my money it’s a smart move to tell things from Arthur’s point of view. Right away it circumvents all that writers-writing-about-writers-writing-or-not-writing which surely only writers enjoy, and even then only when they’ve written it themselves. It also takes away the need to make Louis more or less Beckett-like, something that’s bound to divide opinion among those who know enough to judge, and either way would detract from the telling of the tale. Arthur is the fixed point, the mirror in which we see not only Arthur but also Louis, and then there’s the ever-present threat – or perhaps lure – of madness, of what it is to be understood and to understand.


Sam Thompson’s Jott is a quiet book – always a good thing – that might just get you looking inwards. It’s sharp and sometimes funny too, and in its own way deeply emotional. Maybe it’s a short straw draw as to who you’ll be rooting for but I guarantee you’ll be rooting for someone.


Jott was published by John Murrays on 14th June 2018 ISBN:9781473675056

I don’t know where Sam is on social media but if you do let me know and I’ll add it in

My particular thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book


Van has finished reading… The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr

7 Jun

the hope fault


Blessed be the quiet ones, those books that whisper rather than parade or shout, those books that make us feel like conspirators rather than voyeurs, those books that don’t hail us, ‘come on in’, with a pat on the back but simply leave the door ajar, maybe cast a follow me glance over the shoulder. If, like me, you like the quiet ones you’ll like Tracey Farr’s The Hope Fault.

The book follows events over a long weekend as an extended family come to pack up the summer house they’ve just sold. In picking through the house, through finding objects lost or forgotten, through retelling stories long left untold the threads that bind them are pulled ever tighter. Only time will tell if they’re strong enough to hold.

It feels strange to consider the characters in Tracy Farr’s The Hope Fault separately. Don’t get me wrong, they are each separate and distinct, characters in their own right but the manner in which this tale is told, the vantage point the reader occupies lends them a sense of wholeness that lifts things out of time or distance. It’s a strange magic, as though there could have been a line in there somewhere that places the reader as a watching spirit, a departed relative, or even as the house itself. What they do feel like above all else is a gathering of real people. You can care about them, feel for them, and in this Tracy Farr leaves all the schmaltz and syrup aside so their souls can breathe and that’s a beautiful thing.

Where that magic comes from, undoubtedly, is the lull of the writing. There are two books within The Hope Fault – one a book of fairy, or faery tales, the other a slim collection of poetry with the language of geology at its heart – and the skill with which Tracy Farr weaves these books into the fabric of this family’s history is sublime. The recurring images are beautifully placed, echoing and reflecting with precision and not a heavy hand in sight. And then there’s the central section which tells Rosa’s story, the author of the faery stories and matriarch to many of the family members. Told with a canny twist, this is where that weaving really comes alive, filigree connections like feeder roots spreading into the soil, holding all together and making the trunk strong.

A change of pace for your holiday reading, something for the book club to chew over, or maybe you just like the quiet ones (who doesn’t like the quiet ones!); whatever the reason Tracy Farr’s The Hope Fault is well worth looking out for.


The Hope Fault is published by Aardvark Bureau in July 2018 ISBN:9781910709436

You can find Tracy on Twitter @hissingswan or at her website,


My thanks to Jimena at Gallic Books for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… The Summer House by Philip Teir

18 May


Never judge a book by its cover, or indeed its country. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Philip Teir’s The Summer House – not the book I read, that’s for sure. Having said that, the cover is perfect: that cold palette, the rocks and the water, the distance.

The Summer House by Philip Teir (translated by Tiina Nunnally) follows Julia and Erik as they take their children, Alice and Anton to Mjőlkviken to stay at the family’s old summer house by the sea. Leaving Helsinki behind, it’s a chance to forget the worries of work and the city’s pressure, to spend time together, to reconnect as a family.

But when do we ever really leave our worries behind?

The atmosphere is everything you might expect from the association of that word ‘scandi’, though it’s very cleverly couched in the characters rather than the scenery or a blockbuster body count. There’s every shade of isolation and disaffection in those characters, and they reflect the wider story perfectly. And then there’s the last line, weighted with such precision as to make the whole book seem like a long lead up to the killer punchline. In those last few words Philip Teir shines a light on us all, on those times when oblivion seems an easier option, and he shows us just how thin the veneer can be.


It’s a book of possibilities, a story that layers expectation upon expectation so that you find yourself always wondering what’s going to go wrong. It’s effectively unsettling. The perfect foil to the long hot day on the busy sandy beach you’ll be on when you read it.


The Summer House will be published by Serpent’s Tail on 12th July 2018 ISBN:9781781259276

You can find Philip on Twitter @philipteir

My especial thanks to Serpent’s Tail for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

3 May


The cover of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists poses an arresting question: if you knew the day you were going to die how would you choose to live?

Children Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya visit a fortune-teller because Daniel has heard she can tell you when you’ll die but what seemed like a good idea beforehand doesn’t appeal so much when the knowledge can’t be given back. Especially when the seemingly endless stretch of time laid out in front of a child is horribly shorter than expected.

We follow each of the siblings in turn, building each time to the cruel punchline, wondering if each of the prophesies will come true, and wondering – even dreading – how the end might come about. And here’s the cleverness of the device because time and again it questions whether the prophesy is the means or the end. it’s the choice between living while you can, or else waiting to see if it comes true. Not so much how you would choose to live as whether.

It’s really all about the characters and how well the author connects the reader with each one. Klara is a standout for me, a perfect mix of magic, verve and frailty and I particularly enjoyed the subtle touch of naming her signature stage act The Jaws of Life, rather than the more tantalising Jaws Of Death. Then there’s the solid writing that back those characters up, the neatness and control. Towards the end of the book there’s some lovely interplay that lends seemingly the blandest of lines with emotional punch. ‘Not exceptional, but steady. Solid.’

And I love the ending. It’s joyous and emotional frames the fact that while this is a book about living and not living, it’s not a book about death. Above everything else it throws that central question into the sharpest of relief in the simplest way possible – leaving it unanswered.


The Immortalists was published by Tinder Press on 8th march 2018 ISBN:9781472244987

You can find Chloe on Twitter @chloekbenjamin or at her website,


My thanks to Caitlin Raynor at Headline for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… Deeds Not Words by Helen Pankhurst

23 Apr


Abigail Heyman   Ada Lovelace   Ada E Yonath   Alanis Morrisette   Ali Smith   Alice Walker   Alicia Stott   Alison Wolfe   Alva Myrdal   Anais Nin   Angela Carter   Angela Davis   Anne Conway   Anne Goodwin   Annie Besant   Annie Easley   Annie Kenney   Annie Liebowitz   Arabella Scott   Artemisia Gentileschi   Audre Lorde   Audrey Hepburn   Barbara Hepworth   Barbara Houlaniki   Barbara Mcclintock   Barbara Nessim   Beatrice Greig   Bebe   Bell Hooks   Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita Von Suttner   Beryl Swain   Beth Ditto   Betty Williams   Bettye Lane   Billie Holiday   Bonnie Raitt   Bridget Riley   Caitlin Moran   Carol W Greider   Carole King   Carole Shields   Caroline Herschel   Carrie Brownstein   Carrie Mae  Weems   Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin   Charlotte Despard   Charlotte Marsh   Cheryl James   Chien-Shiung Wu   Chimananda Ngoze Adichie   Christiane Nusslein-Volhard   Cindy Sherman   Claire Messud   Clara Barton   Clara Peeters   Claudia Rankine   Coco Chanel   Cyndi Lauper   Daisy Dugdale   Donna Ferrato   Dora Marsden   Doria Shafik   Doris Lessing   Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin   Dusty Springfield   Efua Dorkenoo   Elena Piscopia   Elizabeth Blackwell   Elizabeth Thompson   Elizabeth Garrett Anderson   Elizabeth H Blackburn   Ellen Johnson Sirleaf   Emilie Du Chatelet   Emily Greene Balch   Emily Wilding Davison   Emmy Noether   Ernestine Mills   Esther Lederberg   Eva Gore-Booth   Evelyn Glennie   Ewa Partum   Fahma Mohamed   Fanny Workman   Flora Drummond   Flora Sandes   Florence Nightingale   Florence Sabin   Frances Gordon   Francoise Barre-Sinousi   Frida Kahlo   Fusae Ichikawa   George Eliot   Georgia O’Keeffe   Gertrude B Elion   Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell   Gerty Cori   Grace Jones   Guerilla Girls   Han Kang   Hannah Wilke   Harriet Tubman   Harriet Taylor Mill   Helen Sharman   Henrietta Swan Leavitt   Hope Jahren   Hypatia Of Alexandria   Inge Lehmann   Irene Joliot-Curie   Iris Murdoch   Jane Addams   Jasvinder Sanghera   Jayne County   Jenni Rivera   Jessy Bulbo   Jill Lepore   Jk Rowling   Joan Armatrading   Joan Jett   Joanne Harris   Jody Williams   Joni Mitchell   Josephine Baker   Jude Kelly   Judith Resnik   Judy Chicago   K D Lang   Karen Finley   Karin Mack   Kate Bush   Katharine Hepburn   Kathleen Hanna   Kathryn Bigelow   Katsushika Oi   Kim Deal   Laura Bates   Laura Maria Caterina Bassi   Lauren Groff   Lauren Laverne   Leslie Feist   Leyla Hussain   Leymah Gbowee   Lilian Lenton   Lin Zongsu   Linda B Buck   Liora K   Lise Meitner   Lissa Evans   Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun   Lynn Hershman Leeson   Mabel Capper   Mairead Corrigan   Malala Yousefzai   Mamie Smith   Margaret Atwood   Margaret Cavendish   Margaret Harrison   Margaret Mee   Margaret Pike   Margaret Sanger   Maria Agnesi   Maria Alyokhina   Maria Goepport Mayer   Marian Anderson   Marie Curie   Marie Stopes   Marie Tharp   Marion Coates Hansen   Marion Wallace Dunlop   Mary Anning   Mary Beard   Mary Cassatt   Mary Leakey   Mary Quant   Mary Somerville   Mary Beth Edelson   Lady Mary Leigh Chudleigh   Lady Mary Wortley Montague   Maud Crofts   Maya Angelou   May-Britt Moser   Michelle Obama   Millicent Fawcett   Miriam Makeba   Missy Elliott   Molly Neuman   Mother Theresa   Muriel Lester   Nadezhda Tolokonnikova   Nancy Wake   Nimko Ali   Nina Simone   Patricia Era Bath   Pauline Black   Peggy Whitson   Poly Styrene   Prunella Clough   Quarraisha Abdool Karim   Rajaa Cherkauoi El Moursli   Rebecca Lenkiewicz   Rebecca Mascull   Renate Eisenegger   Rigoberta Menchu Tum   Rita Levi-Montalcini   Rosa Parkes   Rosalind Franklin   Rosalyn Yalow   Rose Lamartine Yates   Roxane Gay   Ruth Brown   Sainab Abdi   Sally Ride   Sarah Lucas   Sarah Maple   Sarah Waters   Sarah Jane Baines   Sheila Tobias   Shelley Harris   Shirin Ebadi   Shirin Neshat   Shirley Jackson   Simone De Beauvoir   Siouxsie Sioux   Siri Hustvedt   Sister Rosetta Tharpe   Sojourner Truth   Sophie Germain   Sophie Tucker   Soyeon Yi   Susan B Anthony   Suzanne Vega   Suzi Quattro   Svetlana Savitskaya   Tawakkol Karman   Tori Amos   Una Dugdale   Ursula Le Guin   Valentina Tereshkova   Valie Export   Vera Wentworth   Viola Desmond   Violet Bland   Violette Szabo   Virginia Apgar   Viv Albertine   Wanda Diaz-Merced   Wangari Maathai   Warsan Shire   Winifred Goldring   Yekaterina Samutsevich   Youyou Tu

And you, and you, and you


Words Not Deeds was published by Sceptre on 6th February 2018 ISBN:978147364858


You can find Helen Pankhurst on Twitter @HelenPankhurst

Van has finished reading… Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

18 Apr

speak no evil

There are copious novels about what it’s like to be other – as indeed there are many ways to be other – but there’s something different about Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil, something almost counter to the usual run of things. There’s the ‘good life’ the protagonist, Niru, has – growing up in a good neighbourhood in Washington state, attending a good school, enjoying the luxury of an early admission to Harvard. Set against that the fact that Niru is a black boy in a white man’s world, a point that is ever-present and subtly conveyed. It’s rarely the brash glare of racism but rather the protagonist’s perspective on how his white peers view black culture, and how homogenous that view is. One of my favourite lines this year rises from this point. During a class discussing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the teacher leaves the classroom in a silent rage. When his all-white classmates look to Niru he says, ‘don’t look at me. I’m invisible.’

Then there is the fact that Niru is gay. Coming from a conservative Nigerian family, this is a big deal indeed – and this is where the something different comes in because it seems to me that, rather than being set against his father, despite the homophobia, despite the zeal with which that hatred is applied Niru would love nothing more than to be the image of his father: a strong, proud Nigerian man. It’s not America’s freedoms that Niru clings to. Not the new culture, the culture of his surroundings but those of a country he doesn’t call home – indeed, a country as a gay man it would now be dangerous for him to call home. And therein lies the heart of Speak No Evil: What are you true to; what do you sacrifice?

With father and son there’s some really nice character work going on. Niru comes across as a good boy, a dutiful son despite the force of his resentment and yet at times I found him a good deal less that sympathetic, even selfish. And then there’s his father, a man so well-rendered I feel quite confident I’ve actually met him. His is a huge presence, domineering and physical, proud of his appearance, and yet those principles of his, so rooted in the family and even in the face of his enemies appear to spring from a place of protection. His refrain: Do your parents know you’re here? No? I’ll call you a taxi.

As a reader I love that moment when you realise the full import of what earlier seemed a throwaway line or an incidental detail. Louise Doughty did the throwaway line perfectly in Apple Tree Yard and in Speak No Evil Uzodinma Iweala slips an incidental detail by us with consummate ease. When that moment of realisation comes it’s an absolute joy, affording that glimpse of foreknowledge that ratchets the tension while the tight writing keeps you glued to the page. It’s very nicely done.

Tight writing is an apt phrase for Speak No Evil, a novel that punches well above its word count. If you’re a quick reader you’ll probably devour it in a couple of sittings but fast or slow the impact is there, and the fallout is such that you’ll probably be thinking about it for days afterwards.


Speak No Evil was published by John Murrays on 8th March 2018 ISBN:9780719523700

My thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

9 Apr

lab girl 1

I do like a good nature documentary. I’m not alone in this, I know. That heady mix of weird and wonderful creatures with their little niches of behaviour and brilliance is captivating. Add a certain Mr Attenborough’s elucidating commentary and I’m apt to learn a thing or two along the way.


In our house the cries of ‘ooh, look at that’, ‘I wonder if that’s a …’, ‘wow, what a beautiful …’ tend to be reserved for the background. Let’s face it, even if it’s a sloth climbing along a branch it still moves more than the foliage it travels past. I’m fascinated by orchids. There are over 25,000 species of orchid, with flowers so different you wouldn’t believe they’re part of the same family. There are whole plants that will balance on your finger and plants that can grow taller than a house. There are evolutionary developments that are so niche it’s a wonder they’re still alive, there’s heady perfume and rank stench, there’s stunningly beautiful and really quite ugly too and in all of them there’s the sheer wonder that they’ve grown from seeds so small you need magnification to see them. So where is the nature documentary about this family of plants? What do the commissioners of nature documentaries say?

Well, the trouble is they don’t really ‘do’ much, do they.

And I give you, commissioners of nature documentaries, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, because plants do ‘do’ much and Professor Jahren has the proof.


The cover of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren says it’s a story of trees, science and love but you don’t have to be into trees or science to enjoy it because I think primarily this is a story of love. That love comes in many forms, the most enduring – and perhaps the most endearing too – is that shared with Bill. It’s the one that at the same time makes the least and the most sense. Perhaps it’s that while they both spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find out why certain things are, when it comes to their relationship they are interested only in the fact that it is. After all, if it ain’t broke…

Don’t let all that sciencey stuff give you the wrong impression either. Although there is research in there (the Sitka Willows I found particularly fascinating, the telling thereof taking me back to Eucalyptus-lined streams in Andalucia) Professor Jahren writes with feeling. Chapter 8 in part three is perhaps the most moving description of incipient motherhood I’ve read. At once it’s both spare and emotional, which packs quite a punch.

There’s another thing I love about this book which really shouldn’t be a thing at all. It should appear so small and normal as to go by not unnoticed but accepted, unchallenged. It’s the designation Professor Jahren uses when talking in general terms: ‘when a scientist does this or that she…’; ‘when a professor says this or that she…’, ‘…but she finally did turn into a tiger.’

It makes me smile, but still a little sadly. That it’s there is a good thing; that it still needs to be there is not.

And then there’s quite possibly the loveliest thing I’ve read so far this year, shortly after that tiger line. ‘This house is full of people who love you’.

Whoever you are, may there always be someone who is ready to say this to you!



Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a captivating, funny and uplifting view into the scientific life. It’s also wise and warm and erudite on the gift of living. But please, Professor Jahren, I’d love to know – the orchids in the glasshouse where you grew the sweet potato, and the orchids that line the big tree at the roundabout in Hawaii, what genus?


Lab Girl was published by Fleet on 5th April 2016 ISBN:9780349006208

You can find Professor Jahren on Twitter @HopeJahren.


My particular thanks to Fleet for allowing me to review me this book.