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Van has finished reading… Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

13 Sep


dark water

Floundering on his first voyage on the USS Orbis, Ship’s doctor Hiram Carver meets William Borden, a captivating presence, a legend among sailors, hero of The Providence. But every ship faces terror from the deep, and what happens on the Orbis will bind Carver and Borden together forever. When Carver recovers and takes up a role at Boston’s Asylum for the Insane, he will meet Borden again. Carver devotes himself to Borden’s cure, sure it depends on drawing out the truth of events on The Providence. But can he find the truth? Can he reconcile the man and the myth and bring them up into the light, out of the dark water?


Let me confess my ignorance up-front: I’ve not read Moby Dick (I did once try a Herman Melville book and it succeeded in putting me off trying any others). That said, and given the contemporary time period and the fact that Melville sailed these same waters, I could well imagine there ensuing some debate as to whether there’s a whale out there for each of us, and what particular shape it might take. More familiar for me was the feeling that Hiram Carver might’ve stepped complete from the pages of a Henry James; and there’s that strange synchronicity that I notice sometimes in the books I read – Elizabeth Lowry’s very Jamesian tale following James Baldwin’s equally Jamesian Giovanni’s Room (and to extend the theme further I’m now on to Beryl Bainbridge’s the Bottle Factory Outing where, as in Dark Water, an episode of cheek-biting ensues!).

I think it might be Elizabeth Lowry’s writing that I enjoyed the most in Dark Water. The story in itself is not so surprising (if it’s nautical shocks you’re after from your historical fiction you should also take a look at Ian MacGuire’s The North Water), though in lesser hands it would’ve been just that, a closed shell of a story. What Elizabeth Lowry does is present this world through the lens that is Hiram Carver. Or should that be the mirror. Though it’s Hiram telling the tale, and therefore his view of events and characters, it’s really Hiram’s story and it’s with a very deft hand that Elizabeth Lowry reflects and reveals, shucking the shell so we see the man within. I particularly enjoyed the vein of pomposity that runs through Hiram which gave rise to some unexpected but delightfully dry humour.

The scene-setting is excellent, too and never more so than on the Orbis. Elizabeth Lowry’s awareness of the space and the people who occupy it makes it vivid, almost real enough to taste. It’s very nicely done.


Elizabeth Lowry’s Dark Water is a cracking read. As the nights grow longer and the winter winds make your house creak and groan like a ship’s rigging, light a fire, pour a snifter of brandy and sink in.


Dark Water was published by riverrun on the 6th September 2018 ISBN:9781786485625

You can find Elizabeth Lowry on Twitter @MElizabethLowry

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin (@AnaBooks) for allowing me to review this book


Van has finished rereading… Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

30 Aug

giovannis room

That glorious moment when you read a sentence and it seems to encapsulate the whole story.

She smelled of the wind and the sea and of space and I felt in her marvellously living body the possibility of legitimate surrender.

She rather than he – Giovanni – and the wind and sea and space, the freedom; her marvellously living body as oppose to the narrator’s not dead but somehow outside of or denied existence, and that all-too-telling ‘legitimate’.

I tend to get this more with older books, or perhaps it’s that the older books tend to be those you come back to, those that have stood the test of time. And there’s the pressure these days to have that killer first sentence that keys everything in – I wonder how many novels end up robbed of the chance to have their ‘Baldwin’ moment through focusing so exclusively on the first line.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, for all it’s a short book – just 150-odd pages – is a giant of a story. David, a white American living in Paris, recounts the story of the time he spent living with an Italian barman, Giovanni. Baldwin covers self-loathing and shame, homophobia, racism and even a dab of what it is to be American, and all in a manner that could well be Henry James. Exquisite.


I wonder how a book like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room fares today, at a time where it feels we might be on the cusp of a sea-change in attitude. I don’t particularly warm to the distinction as a reader is a reader to me, but would gay readers find David’s attitude incomprehensible? Would straight readers wonder what the fuss is? Would it be too easy to cite ‘a different time’ and so defuse the narrative’s power? Place it alongside Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island, written in 2017, with a close point in history (1930’s Italy for Sarah Day against Baldwin’s 1950’s Paris) but much higher stakes; as James Baldwin reminds us, homosexuality is not illegal in 1950’s Paris. The thing that chimes most is that sense of being against the grain, the shame that undermines what could well be the defining relationship in a life. Indeed, these relationships do prove to be defining in both novels, though it’s the tragedy of them rather than the joy, and it seems it’s always the unashamed who become the point of tragedy. Then, you only have to look at Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil to see it’s as relevant today as it was back when Giovanni’s Room was first written.


For me, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a classic, and one I’m very likely to come back to again and again. If you’ve not read it you should definitely treat yourself. If you have, well, why not treat yourself again!

This copy of Giovanni’s Room was published in 1984 by Black Swan ISBN:9780552990363


Van has finished reading… Testament by Kim Sherwood

17 Aug

testament 2testament

Reeling from the death of her beloved grandfather, Eva Butler discovers a letter among his belongings. The letter, from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, will set her feelings of responsibility for his legacy against her desire to know the truth, her desire to understand her fractured relationship with her father and her understanding of who she is.


Kim Sherwood’s Testament is something more than a novel. There’s a level of investment in the telling of this tale that reveals just how personal, how important its telling is to the author. It’s palpable, that’s how strong the writing is. That it’s a debut novel is a statement of intent indeed and it’s no surprise it won the Bath Novel Award. Ordinarily I would be thinking about the writing and the characterisation and the plot as separate entities but there’s a seamlessness about them here that holds these elements closely together. The characters are each a product of their own story, a story shaped by events but not bounded by them, and that rings true in all they say and all they do and it’s that that is perhaps the most heart-breaking thing about it all. That’s what allows it to be optimistic in spite of everything. In short, it is a thing of beauty.


Any literature that deals with the Holocaust – at least any literature worth its salt – is going to make you feel things. You can’t help but brace for the litany of abuses so that to some extent you’re prepared, desensitised. Wisely, there’s no revelling in the detail with Kim Sherwood’s Testament. Things just happen and the depth of their grisly nature is intensified in her character’s reaction, or lack thereof, to each event. But where Kim Sherwood will really see you undone is in the small acts of kindness that are candles held against a storm. Those were the moments I had to lower the page and take a breath.


There are so many lines in this book that stay with you – not quite the Harvey Effect but rather that you can feel the weight of them and their reach. More than telling the story, these lines speak beyond the bounds of their characters. Of all of them this is the line that really struck me the most. History doesn’t happen in the past tense. It has something of an essential truth about it. Something like a key that if we only used it might just unlock some understanding. So many places in the world are a mess, so many places where the difference between life and death can be unimaginably small and in each of these places there’s history at play, unravelling still. Each side in a conflict, any conflict, stands on the hardcore of their own history and that history is never as cut-and-dried as the opposition would have you believe. If we could only see that, though we disagree we might at least be able to treat each other as humans. We might at least be able to step away from our history’s constraints and move from the present into the future.


Testament was published by riverrun on the 12th July 2018 ISBN:9781786488671

You can find Kim on Twitter @kimtsherwood

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

7 Aug

an ocean of minutes

1980, a deadly pandemic is ravaging the world. When Polly Nader’s partner, Frank falls ill there is one thing she can do to save him: time-travel 12 years into the future to work for TimeRaiser to pay for his treatment. He will be cured and they can meet and continue their life together. But will everything go to plan?


Well, it would be a much shorter book if it did, and not nearly as interesting. Thea Lim’s debut, An Ocean of Minutes is a fascinating and enthralling journey into the personal and the political. Imagine your world changing beyond recognition in a matter of days, your only thoughts focused on how to save the one you love. It’s a drastic choice to travel 12 years into the future – but not so drastic if it keeps him alive. And it’s only 12 years – not so big an age gap. You could be together again. Except the future you didn’t have time to imagine isn’t the future you find yourself in. You’re on the wrong side of the lines now, unaware of the rules, no longer a citizen. And the one thing you can’t do is allow yourself to think he might not have made it.

An Ocean Of Minutes is the second book in a row in my reading that stands on the excellence of its world-building (the first being Laura Laakso’s Fallible Justice). Thea Lim’s image of Polly’s future is chilling and its impact, like The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, is all in just how close a possibility that future feels. It’s in the everyday details that we see this (the cost of a toothbrush, the things people value), and it’s in the exercising of power, the withholding of knowledge that we feel it. Misinformation is as enslaving as the bond the time-travellers sign up to and there’s always someone looking for a way around the system. Thea Lim makes some tidy points about race, refugees and politics – there’s a very nicely-put point about assisting international neighbours for one’s own benefit, and you can’t help but draw similarities about America and the situation regarding Healthcare Insurance. Yet despite all this I never felt preached at. It’s all incidental because the heart of the matter is Polly and whether she’s going to find who she’s looking for.

The writing is clean and succinct, allowing the narrative to do its work. Thea Lim doesn’t fuss over scenery or unnecessary backstory but letting the characters work in the moment to show us their nature and their impetus. I particularly like the effect of the shift in tenses between Polly’s past – often told in a mix of present and future – and her present, told using past tenses. It highlights the shift in expectation beautifully so it’s the future that appears black-and-white, the past bright and vibrant.

For all the bleakness of Thea Lim’s subject matter An Ocean of Minutes is quietly hopeful, though you won’t fail to feel the thread of desperation that weaves through all the TimeRaiser travellers’ stories. And when all’s said and done, there but for the grace of God…

An Ocean of Minutes was published by Quercus on the 20th June 2018 ISBN:9781786487919

You can find Thea on Twitter @thea_lim


My particular thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.



Van has finished reading… Fallible Justice by Laura Laakso

31 Jul

fallible justice

In Old London, where paranormal races co-exist with humans, criminal verdicts delivered by the all-seeing Heralds Of Justice are infallible. After a man charged with murder is declared guilty and sentenced to death his daughter asks private investigator Yannia Wilde to do the impossible and prove the Heralds wrong. But time is short. With just days to prove the impossible, can Yannia save a man who has been judged infallibly?


Laura Laasko’s debut novel, Fallible Justice is the first signed to new indie imprint Louise Walters Books. And what a book to have as your first. From the get-go Laura Laakso’s prose had me in safe hands, and let me know this was going to be a pacy and intriguing ride. Yes, it’s a murder-mystery-detective-story. There are threads aplenty as Yannia tries to pick apart an impossible case, and to the author’s credit none of it is far-fetched or implausible, despite the proximity of magic and all that could invoke. Yes, it’s a magic-laden paranormal fantasy. But rather than shaping the story the magic is finely woven, ever-present but never overpowering, an integral part of the scenery. More than these things, it’s also a book about class and duty, about belonging and standing alone. It’s about the wielding of power, and there is nothing more human than the desire for it and how that desire shapes and misshapes us.

Fallible Justice’s core strength is in the exquisite world-building. It’s in the characters that that world-building really comes through, a perfect mix of the everyday and the extraordinary. Though there are myriad levels of power and schools of magic there’s nothing stale or trite about the depictions, and each person feels very much a product of their school, their clan, their station – the sheer joy of the opening chapter is enough to get you rooting for Yannia straight away. When it comes to the magic it’s a really smart move on Laura Laakso’s part to focus not on the ritual or minutiae but on the effect it has both on those wielding and those on the receiving end. It strengthens the sense of social hierarchy, shows us where characters are weak or strong, and above all saves the bells and whistles of seeing the magic being done for when the stakes, and therefore the tension couldn’t possibly be any higher.

Fallible Justice is a great read, and one I’d have no qualms about recommending to fans of crime fiction, fantasy fiction, commercial or literary. Or simply those who love a good read. The Young Adult market should be all over this one, too. I can’t see any way Yannia and her world wouldn’t appeal! And then there’s the added bonus: there are still two more books in the series to come! I can’t wait.

Fallible Justice is published by Louise Walters Books on the 8th November 2018 ISBN: 9781999780937

You can find Laura on Twitter @LLaaksoWriter

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


A Q & A with Tamar Hodes

25 Jul


water and the wine

It is the 1960s and a group of young writers and artists gather on the Greek island of Hydra. Leonard Cohen is at the start of his career and in love with Marianne, who is also muse to her ex-husband, Axel. Australian authors George Johnston and Charmian Clift write, drink and fight. It is a hedonistic time of love, sex and new ideas. As the island hums with excitement, Jack and Frieda Silver join the community, hoping to mend their broken marriage. However, Greece is overtaken by a military junta and the artistic idyll is threatened.


The Water And The Wine by Tamar Hodes is an engaging journey into life in and around this artistic community. What it is to live, love, to create and to understand oneself surrounds the inhabitants of Hydra’s creative enclave. But in the search for identity and meaning, are some more worthy than others? In the discarding of tradition and hierarchy can the unacknowledged voices find equal standing? How long can the idyll resist the pressures of the wider world?


I’m pleased to say the author, Tamar Hodes has answered some questions about the writing of this most summery of reads. I hope you enjoy them, and the light they cast on Tamar’s novel, The Water And The Wine.



What led you to want to tell this story?

This is a story which I wanted to write for many years. I lived on Hydra when I was three (I had my fourth birthday there) and my parents often talked about that time. It sounded fascinating to me, the way the artists met in the taverna in the evenings and discussed their work and ideas. Also, there was the added interest of Leonard Cohen who was part of that community. My father passed away in 2013; my mother in 2014 and Leonard and Marianne in 2016. My father left me his journal about Hydra, my mother left me her first edition of Flowers for Hitler signed by Cohen and all these events made me feel that now was the time to write this novel. I felt that there was a groundswell lifting me there.


Although you say at the start of the book that you’ve fictionalised events, a large proportion of the cast are real people. What obligation to them did you feel in the writing of this novel? Did you find you had to handle them differently to fictional characters?

I felt a huge responsibility to the characters who are real. There are many Leonard Cohen fans (I am one of them) and there are factual books/biographies about Leonard and Marianne and also about George Johnston and Charmian Clift. This is why the main facts and events in the novel are true. I have fabricated the food, conversations, clothes, letters, but I have tried to retain the essence of these people. Fiction is a passport which allows one to slip into the lives of others. Some of the local Greek characters are invented but some are real. Yes, there was an obligation to the real-life ones that I didn’t feel with the fictional characters but in some ways the former were easier to write, as the plot and events were already provided and did not need to be invented.


How did writing this story affect your relationship with the characters? Were your opinions of them changed in any way?

I felt much more sympathetic towards them once I had entered their lives. They went to the island to focus on their art and, although others might find that self-indulgent, no harm was intended. It is through fiction that we see through others’ eyes and so this process enabled me to do that. I think some damage was done, particularly to the children of these artists but it was not deliberate.


Who did you find easiest to write, and who was the most difficult to get right? Were either of these the most satisfying?

Leonard Cohen said that it would take a novel to understand his and Marianne’s relationship which was a spur if ever there was one! My family, fictionalised as the Silver family, was the trickiest as, like many writers, I was torn between two strong impulses: the desire to tell my story but also the desire to protect the family that I love. Those two wishes are often in conflict with each other. I was very worried about being disloyal and that is why I have changed their names but also not all the events in the novel did actually happen to us. Therefore, I have hidden the truth in the fiction.


You introduce the Silver Family to events on the island. Did you feel the need to have a purely fictional set of characters? How did their presence help in telling the story you wanted to tell?

As I have said above, they are not purely fictional. My family did live on Hydra from spring 1964 until spring 1965 and therefore that structure seemed a useful frame to me. I liked the idea of the family getting to know the island and meeting the islanders and expats as the reader did, like learning together.


What’s the best piece of editorial advice you had in relation to this novel?

One of my writing weaknesses in writing is wanting to explain and tell too much. I think that might come from my day job as a school teacher where one is always explaining and deconstructing. My editor at Hookline was very good in telling me to trust the reader more and not spell everything out.


It’s interesting whether the setting is somehow complicit in the way in which events unfold in your story. Do you think the character trajectories would be the same without the relative isolation?

I am really interested in islands, in the way that they seem to be an escape but actually they are places of no escape. You have to face reality there as there is nowhere to run to. This is why I quote Charmian Clift at the front of the novel: ‘On an island, eventually, you are bound to meet yourself.’ I was thinking about The Tempest when I wrote this novel. Prospero may feel that he has run away from his life and his past but actually it is on this island where he is forced to confront the truth and all his history is revealed. When he says to Caliban, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ he is eventually admitting that he was also partly to blame for what happened. My husband and I love visiting Mediterranean islands and I really enjoyed describing Hydra – the birds, food, flowers and goats. It felt to me as if Hydra was a character in the novel.


What’s next for you. Are you working on something new?

I have four short stories being published in the next few months and I am always working on a short story. I have an idea for a new novel but am finding it quite hard to immerse myself in it. I am still on Hydra!


Torn over your holiday destination? Never fear. Wherever you go, you can take the Greek Islands with you, and immerse yourself in the lives and loves of a mid-nineteen-sixties creative community and an enduring story of love to boot.


The Water And The Wine was published by Hookline Books in May 2018 ISBN:9780995623545

You can find Tamar on Twitter @HodesTamar


My thanks to Tamar for allowing me to read this book, and for agreeing to answer my questions about it.

Van has finished reading… The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

19 Jul

wasted vigil

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a book set in post-9/11 Afghanistan to be a quiet affair, or perhaps a particularly beautiful one but with Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil you should be thinking more Michael Ondaatje than Michael Crichton. It is a rare thing indeed, quiet and beautiful.

In truth it’s a book to break the heart, the story of a Russian woman looking for signs of her brother – a conscript of the 1980’s invasion, an English doctor, a convert to Islam who mourns the loss of his wife and daughter, and an American gem merchant. Absence rules this tale, never more so than in the shape of Zameen, the doctor’s daughter, who may have known the Russian soldier, who was for a time the gem merchant’s lover, and whose son the doctor and the gem merchant are still searching for. Though these threads invariably draw together, this seems always to happen by some coincidence or sleight of hand so the reader is keenly aware of just how much is at stake, and at times just how close at hand that sense of peace each person desires is.

It’s a story that could not be told without attendant atrocities both great and small, and these abound, yet each time we are presented with these scenes the author gives us deeper history, wider context, and always the irony, the language and beauty of art or literature to offset it. In the months before her death the doctor’s wife, having lost her reason, proceeded to nail their extensive library to ceilings of each room in the house so the books would not be burned by the Taliban. It’s an effective image – the brutalising of art and intellect, though both endure.

The characterisation is superb, each person so obviously a result of the circumstances that bring them to this juncture, and the place too seems to carry itself with a sense of stoic dignity. It’s as though these erstwhile bit-players have been drawn together as witnesses to what gone before, each of them able to recognise their homeland’s role in what now unfolds, none of them able to drape themselves in glory.


The Wasted Vigil is by no means an easy read though I don’t believe it’s contradictory to say the writing is accessible. The story flows with grace and subtlety, the language genuinely beautiful. And where many great novels will leave you thinking beyond the last page, Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil has the singular honour of leaving you feeling beyond the last page.


The Wasted Vigil was published by Faber & Faber in 2008 ISBN:9780571238774