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Van has finished reading… The Choke by Sofie Laguna

17 Oct

the choke


Ten year old Justine is hemmed in by her circumstances. Surrounded by poverty and violence, isolated by undiagnosed dyslexia, her world is painfully small. When she hears her dad is coming home for Christmas she’s excited and also a little afraid; much like the riverbanks of her favourite hideout, The Choke, her life narrows when her dad comes home. Can she find a way to break through the barriers and find a brighter future?


The first words spoken in Sofie Laguna’s The Choke are, ‘This is going to hurt.’ Even putting aside the fact that it’s Justine’s older half-brother, Kirk, who says this to her, the reader surely understands they’ve been warned. It’s a great opening scene with a feral menace put into the mouths of children that really sparkles before dissipating into fraternal companionship, and we’re right there, willing Justine on as she holds her own in combat, and keeps a sly eye open when hostilities cease. I suspect anyone who’s grown up with brothers will sense the bite lurking in the smiles.

Where the characterisation really shines for me is in the interplay between Justine and her half-brothers, Kirk and Steve. The way they mesh and come apart is finely drawn and wholly believable, and to see Kirk and Steve through Justine’s eyes when their dad is home is genuinely heart-breaking. Writing convincing kids is always a difficult thing to do, and as with Claire King’s The Night Rainbow, Sofie Laguna gets it spot on.

Speaking of Ray, their father, I’m hard pressed to think of another character so thoroughly horrible. It feels like there’s a genuine commitment on the writer’s part to remove any hint of a redeeming feature yet his presence in the narrative is huge. You find yourself hanging on his every word, every movement in the hope that he’ll just this once take the right road.

There’s a relentless motion in Sofie Laguna’s The Choke that any thriller would kill for. To say Justine is an underdog is putting it mildly. I wonder whether there’s a single page goes by where the fact of her gender is not underlined, and undermined, in some subtle or not-so-subtle way. Even in her imagination she sees herself through the prism of the John Wayne films she watches with her dad and grandfather, films that even she can quote verbatim. Even the titular Choke, a narrowing of the river and the scene of many of Justine’s flights of fancy, for all its natural beauty carries that sense of entrapment in its description.


Not an easy read by any means but a book that will certainly reward those with courage enough to stay the course with Justine. Sofie Laguna’s The Choke will surely make you angry, it might even make you swear, but it’ll definitely fill your heart.

The Choke was published by Gallic Books on 3rd October 2019 ISBN:9781910709627

You can find Sofie at her website

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


Van has finished reading… The Ice by Laline Paull

25 Sep

the ice

The sea ice is gone and the Arctic is open for business. Tourists on a cruise, hungry for the sight of a polar bear get more than they bargained for when they witness the largest reported ‘calving’ of a glacier – and the resurfacing of the body it releases. What really happened to environmentalist and business associate Tom Harding at a remote Arctic Lodge four years earlier? Is anyone ready to tell the truth?


Laline Paull’s second novel, The Ice, is a gripping story of success, betrayal and the boundaries people are prepared to cross to get where they want to go. We follow Sean Cawson – a self-made man and old friend of Tom Harding’s – from hearing the news of Tom’s re-emergence, through the inquest into his death where Sean is a main witness, having survived the incident that killed Tom. Flashbacks into Sean’s past draw the main characters together and set their trajectories tidily, the environment on one side and business on the other, though in the courtroom it’s frequently where friendships blur those battle lines that the tension mounts. The pace picks up with the mounting tension and rushes headlong at a particularly satisfying last few chapters.


Climate change is undoubtedly the driving force of this novel – in both plot and the reason for its being – though its application is suitably subtle. The Inquest witness box allows nicely for those moments of grandstanding you might expect on both sides of the argument but aside from that there are those little things you’ve probably noticed, and that we’ll expect to become more frequent occurrences until they’re accepted as the norm. The trees greening up earlier and earlier, summer clothes even before it’s meant to be spring, that fine rust coating of Saharan dust over London. And then there’s the moment in the novel where the Northern Lights are clearly visible over London, and of course we’re all ooh and aah and can’t possibly imagine just how bad a sign that really is.


I love the character of Joe Kingsmith – what a very Arthur Miller name that is, really on the money, that one. He’s everything we want in an archetype, and just that little bit extra too. For all the work Laline Paull does to stop us making our minds up too early, there’s that sullied feeling we get in the presence of too much power and money, the prey-response unease he can’t fail to provoke. And then there’s Radiance, perhaps the other side of the Kingsmith coin: despite the power and money her shrewdness leaves us helpless when we want to dislike her.


Interspersed between chapters are snippets from various historic Arctic Journals that begin by showing us something of the hardship and extremity of the polar region. What I found most interesting about them is how, used in this way, they’re seen as the early-warning flare. Men (inevitably, it’s men) who want to face these extremities and chart these uncharted places, and the men who want to read about it and then go and do their own charting, and seemingly ubiquitous writing-off of the communities who live there already so as to highlight rather than undermine each author’s endeavours. What’s undeniable in all this is that we as a species can’t bear the blank space on the map. And hot on the heels of those blazers of the blank-space trail is the money and the ruin.


Laline Paull’s The Ice is a prescient and gripping read. Big characters to test your allegiances, a taut plot to test your nerves, and stakes that couldn’t be higher. Well, what else would you expect from the author of The Bees?

Read it now, before it becomes fact!


The Ice was published by 4th Estate on the 4th May 2017 ISBN:9780007557752

You can find Laline on Twitter @ and at her website, 4th Estate


Van has finished reading… Don’t Think A Single Thought by Diana Cambridge

3 Sep

don't think a single thought


It’s the 1960’s and New York is the only place to be. Success, style and glamour is what everybody wants and Emma Bowden has it all: the writing career, the Manhattan apartment, the successful husband – a renowned surgeon, the holiday home in The Hamptons. In the words of Patricia Neal – in the city and draped in Trigere, levelling that cut-glass demeanour at George Peppard – she is a very stylish girl.

So why is she not content?

While on vacation in The Hamptons, a child drowns in the sea, and suspicion falls on Emma. Her perfect life begins to spiral out of control, and the past threatens to destroy everything she has worked for.

Diana Cambridge’s Don’t Think A Single Thought is a precise and gripping descent into the heart and mind of a troubled woman. And what a superb character Emma Bowden is. I love the way that even on the first page you find yourself judging and then re-evaluating as each detail emerges. There’s a sense of playing with the stereotype, luring us in but then shifting the light slightly. That sense of her superficiality lingers well into the story too, forcing that readjustment time and time again, heightening the tension as you consider what’s already happened, and where things might be heading.

It would be a stretch, I think, to say the protagonist is a nice person, though that doesn’t mean the character is not sympathetic. Not so much an unreliable narrator as a compromised one and that’s a delicious niche to fall into. The more we learn the more we question motive and action, and the more we question the façade of this perfect life, too. As with any marriage, there are two people there and it’s interesting to examine the level of what appears to be acceptable on both sides of this relationship.

You hear a lot about opening lines and scene-setting, and also about writing rules. It takes Diana Cambridge nine words to both break a rule and put you on notice that things are not going to go smoothly. If you think this book’s a little slim to hold your attention, bear in mind that most of what we read takes at least a couple of paragraphs to do that. The writing is lean but undeniably skilful. The sense of place, character interplay and particularly Emma’s emotional state is never in doubt. Whether you like her or not, trust her or not, you’ll be there with Emma all the way to the finale. It’s excellent!


Don’t Think A Single Thought is published by Louise Walters Books on the 26th September 2019 ISBN:9781999780999

You can find Diana on Twitter @DianaCambridge on her website,


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

Van has finished reading… The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger

23 Aug

The Dragon Lady

I wonder how much the title of Louisa Treger’s second novel, The Dragon Lady, colours expectation of who you’re going to meet inside. The Lady in question is Virginia Courtauld – a real Lady with a capital L, Ginie to those who knew her – who had a tattoo of a snake running the length of her leg. Not so unusual now, perhaps, but in 1920’s high society?

The novel is set mostly in 1950’s Rhodesia. Having moved from Europe to escape the shadow of the Second World War, Ginie and her husband, the soon-to-be-Sir Stephen Courtauld find their African idyll isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Struggling with the inherent inequality they seek to quietly use their position and wealth to improve the situation for the Africans, and in doing so find resistance from their peers and danger from unexpected quarters.

The structure of the novel works really well, setting the scene and the tension in 1950’s Rhodesia, before jumping back to post World War I Europe to show us how Ginie became the person she is. For my part I didn’t find her a particularly sympathetic character. She is hard at times and undoubtedly calculating but the interesting thing for me is that I had to be reminded of these facts. She is gloriously complicated, and that’s the golden key that lets us love at one moment and dislike the next; shake our head at the action and yet nod ruefully at the cause of it.

For all that the book covers a broad expanse geographically and spans the two world wars, it’s something of a close, quiet affair. There’s a sense of looking in on not just a world very few of us would recognise but also a very private world, of peering into Ginie’s heart. It is Ginie’s story, after all, and this is something I found myself coming back to again and again – what moves and motivates her, what hurts and what heals, who she loves and how.

Though the research must have been extensive the writing wears it very lightly, those nuggets of information that tie the fiction to the fact brought out through characters in action rather than unwieldy info-dumps so you get these lovely little moments where you remember that it’s not just on the page that these people lived and breathed.

I do like the subtlety that is the fact of Catherine’s narrative, the question that it poses to those of us who would be horrified to realise that, regardless of our inclination, we would have been viewed as part of the problem: what’s changed?


The Dragon Lady was published by Bloomsbury on the 13th June 2019 ISBN:9781448217267

You can find Louisa on Twitter @louisatreger and at her website

Ansellia Africana 1


Van has finished reading… A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

25 Jul

A God In Ruins

Did everybody feel that sense of trepidation when picking up A God In Ruins, the follow-up to Life After Life? I wanted it to be as good, and maybe more of the same, or possibly a little different but not too much.

But this is Kate Atkinson we’re talking about. I don’t what I was worrying for!

A God In Ruins picks up the threads of the Family Todd, centring this time on much-loved Teddy. Although we do remain in one lifetime we see a fuller span of events, reaching into the lives of Teddy’s grandchildren, as well as revisiting some of the cast, and indeed referencing some of the events that captivated us in Life After Life. Rather than a linear retelling, the author skips to and fro in Teddy’s lifetime, and I found myself not so much a reader as a viewer of some collective memory. Recollections lead on to recollections, and with that distant knowledge of Life After Life in the background it’s almost as though you’re there with them all, willing each person to make that vital connection. It’s strangely comforting and yet a little harrowing at the same time.

As you’d expect the attention to detail, especially during the war chapters, is exquisite. Spare and yet vital, the prose is chillingly evocative. It’s the matter-of-factness of it all that shines through, the unspoken awareness of each passing moment and the triumph it represents. And the cost – that image Teddy returns to of throwing birds against a wall until it breaks – how can one account for it with mere numbers?

If I had to pick out one character it would be Teddy’s daughter, Viola, who is a triumph. My God, she’s horrible. Unremittingly, and to just about everyone but mostly and entirely consistently to her father, and you’ve got to admire Kate Atkinson’s commitment to such a character. And then. And then. Because there’s a reason but the author is going to make you wait for it all the way up to the point where you really weigh up whether it’s enough to render Viola redeemable. Viola is the queen of reinvention too, spinning out snippets of her life in a string of media interviews (she finds herself a novelist in later life – cue some wry writerly humour there – in a way that can’t help but raise a smile with this reader, feeling in this foible the echo of Life After Life’s essential premise.


If you’re familiar with Kate Atkinson you know you’re in very safe hands. If you’re not familiar with Kate Atkinson then you’re in for a special treat working your way through the catalogue. A God in Ruins is a must-read, either way. Put it together with Life After Life and you’re holding some of the finest World-War-era fiction there is.

A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday on the 5th May 2015 ISBN:9780522776646

You can find Kate at her website

A Q & A with Polly Clark, author of Tiger

5 Jul

Polly Clark

Every now and then I find myself reeling in the wake of a book. A certain mannerism I see in the street, or a turn of phrase or an accent overheard echoes a character, or in the midst of some daydream a scene returns to play out in the mind, and then all the attendant emotion experienced in the reading comes and clings to the moment. A string of little explosions ensues, other characters, other moments, other scenes then coming to mind and then the questions begin to chatter. What if… Why that… How on earth…

When that happens you know you’ve read something quite glorious, and it happened to me recently in the shape of Polly Clark’s Tiger. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t do yourself a favour and go get it now. It will be one of the best books you read this year, I’m sure. I absolutely loved it, as you can tell from my review.

I’m delighted to say that Polly kindly agreed to answer a handful of questions relating to Tiger. I hope you enjoy her responses.


I’m interested to ask how the story evolved during the writing. What was the seed that first inspired the story? Did you have the characters and trajectories early on, or did they develop along the way?

I was always interested in tigers, since my zookeeping days, and had written about them in poems. I had Frieda in mind and the zoo early on and then I became interested in the Siberian Tiger, because of its specific grudge-holding characteristic. Going on the trip to Siberia transformed the novel by bringing in the other human characters, the men in the camp and Edit the Udeghe huntress and her daughter, and also the Russian forest as a character in a way.

Of your main characters who was the most fun to write? Who was the hardest to get right?

I felt very close to Frieda, and very sorry for her. And I found her way of looking at the world and arguing with Gabriel very spirited and funny. But as I was writing each character I was absolutely immersed. I cried a lot over Edit and Valery.

I believe your research for the book was quite immersive. What was the most fascinating thing you learned that didn’t make it into the book? What real events or experiences did?

I love to read novels that have real information in them, and my trip to Siberia enabled me to have a lot of authentic detail. One wonderful experience I had – that of shooting a Kalashnikov rifle and brushing the bullseye at 30m – makes it in. I gave it to Frieda. I can’t think of anything I didn’t transmute into the book in some way. I gave it everything!

There is some lovely imagery in your writing, vivid and lyrical. Does your approach to poetry and prose differ, or are they the same?

Louis de Bernieres says that the novel is such a capacious form that it can contain all your poetry, all your thoughts, feelings, dreams. I agree with this. I bring my ‘poet’s eye’ to my novels because I have no other way of seeing, but novels are about narrative and stories and are a completely different form of labour.

I love the fact that survival and independence are so interwoven for your female characters (including the tiger). This feels especially true of Frieda, who really gets put through the ringer. It feels like a subtle current of feminism rather than an overt show and I wonder how much Frieda’s story being the beginning of things shaped that in later chapters.

I am very interested in female experience and I wanted to take to the limit and beyond every way of being female (whether human or tiger): girl, mother, childless, motherless, menopause, and the relationship between female and male. Frieda has many problems being a female and I loved watching her find a way to be happy in her way of being a woman.

With Frieda, Edit and Tomas we have characters who have to some extent chosen isolation. I wonder how big an effect the sense of the tigers’ way of life had on you when considering each of your protagonists?

Yes, the tiger, throughout is an echo of their struggle, an example of a way of life. The novel is about trying to connect beyond one’s isolation and the different ways this is possible, and also how the characters can learn from the tiger, the supreme master of independence.

What’s the best piece of editorial advice you received when writing tiger?

The prologue was suggested at the very last, and I think makes such a difference to the experience of the book.

Did you always want to be a writer? Who were the writers who shaped or influenced the way you write?

I have always been a writer, as in always writing. My influences are from all over the place as I haven’t come to writing through a traditional route. The first novel to blow me away was Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, an absolutely enormous epistolary novel and the first novel written in English. It wasn’t on the reading list for my degree course but I was completely hooked, spent six months reading it to exclusion of everything else and scored very badly in my exams. Don’t regret it at all. The poet who has had the greatest impact on me is Ted Hughes.

Reading a great book often leaves an impact with the reader. Did you find yourself changed in any way through writing the book?

Absolutely. I have much more of a sense of my place in a bigger natural world, and of myself as an animal. I think I am also more hopeful about the possibilities for the relationship between men and women and between people and endangered animals.

What’s next for you? Do you have a project waiting in the wings?

Novel three. Early days, but it features the ocean and I will have to make a transatlantic sailing voyage…


I hope you enjoyed these questions and answers, and I hope particularly they’ll make you want to go and read Tiger. It’s definitely worth it!

My especial thanks to Polly for taking the time to answer my questions (and for writing Tiger in the first place), and to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for making it possible.

Author photo by Murdo McLeod





Van has finished reading… The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

3 Jul

the italian teacher

What a piece of work Bear Bavinsky is. Yet we’re drawn. Why is it we’re like moths to the flame, that we condone the behaviour as quirks, or worse encourage it by our pandering? Why do we elevate our heroes above the normal bounds of decency? Art, music, literature, sport – whatever the arena that word ‘genius’ is wont to procure all manner of excuses.

What a piece of work Bear Bavinsky is. From the first words we see the long shadow this man is going to cast. Tom Rachman gives us a picture-perfect set-up of what is to come as Bear’s son, Pinch, stands by, towel at the ready while Bear exits the bath, his hand on his son’s head for support. It’s an excruciating read at times, the reader able to see so clearly what Pinch can’t, and the author leads us ever deeper into the horror that is a son devoted to a father who knows it. Unfortunately for Pinch, Bear is an Artist before he is a father, and an artist perhaps whose greatest gift is his understanding of the art world. Artists, dealers, buyers, galleries, critics and hangers-on – nobody comes out covered in glory as the author slices through the very idea of what constitutes art, and indeed what makes an artist a genius. Though it’s Pinch’s story we’re reading in The Italian Teacher, we still come out if it talking about Bear. Then again, when you consider the exquisite denouement Tom Rachman presents us at the close, you can’t help thinking that’s as it should be.


Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a fantastic read. It’s witty, scathing and heart-breaking too. There are Great Characters and great characters and I’m quite sure that, as I was, you’ll be rooting for Pinch all the way.


The Italian Teacher was published by riverrun on the 20th March 2018 ISBN:9781786482594

You can find Tom at his website,


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