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Van didn’t finish reading…The Children’s Book by A S Byatt

4 Apr

Sorry, Dame Antonia. It’s really not you, it’s me. The writing was lovely but there was so much of it.

Van has finished reading… Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

7 Mar

No need to bother with the bad sex awards this year. In Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, Balli Kaur Jaswal has the winner! Okay, maybe that’s not the praise this review should begin with but it should give you a clue to how achingly funny this book is. Intentionally achingly funny. The biggest laughs are definitely to be found in the telling of the aforementioned erotic stories, in both situation and in the language of euphemism. There are certain phrases that will, I think, live with me for a long time (I’d love to list some here but to do that would be to take away the pleasure of finding them for yourself). I read this book to Mrs Van and there were times we had to simply wait for the crying to stop before we could carry on.

Of course the laughs are just one side of the story. There was sadness too, moments of anxiety and empathy, and not a small dose of out-and-out anger (it’s always a good sign when Mrs Van starts wishing bodily harm on someone). All the things you’d expect from a well-crafted, well-layered novel.

The characters are fantastic. Albeit the world of Asians living in England may be unknown to you, the level of detail Balli Kaur Jaswal provides is excellently pitched so the experience is immersive, rather than feeling like you’re looking in from the outside – even when characters are indeed looking in from the outside. The author picks apart the various relationships with subtlety to reveal what it is to be a part of this community, what it is to be excluded as well as included, and she is never shy of showing the negatives along with the positives.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is the way your attention focuses, the way it makes you look and then look again at the characters. Consider the title: Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, and alongside the frisson of excitement the humour is apparent because, you know, old women. Dour old women, obviously, seeing as they’re widows. Except they’re not – neither all old nor all dour – and you realise that you’re starting to key into the essence of their invisibility. There is something inherently funny about the idea of old women misbehaving or doing things they shouldn’t be doing (see John Niven’s The Sunshine Cruise Company), but hang on. Who says they shouldn’t be doing these things? And why not? Let’s face it, they must have done these things – or at least something similar – for their children to be around to censure them. And if it was good why on earth wouldn’t you want to remember it fondly? And if it wasn’t, well, who could possibly begrudge you for dreaming of or imagining something better?

 

Top, middle or bottom, it really doesn’t matter where in your To Be Read pile you put Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as long as it’s on there somewhere. Holiday reading would definitely be a good bet, though there’s no reason why you should wait that long. It’s funny, it’s racy, it’s emotional and uplifting and thought-provoking, and did I mention it’s funny? And racy? It deserves to be a huge hit. I mean HUGE. Big as an aubergine.

 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is published by HarperCollins on the 9th March 2017 ISBN: 9780008209889

 

You can find Balli on Twitter @balli_jaswal, or at her website ballijaswal.com.

 

With thanks to the HarperCollins PR team, who allowed me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…The Keeper Of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

23 Jan

For all the sadness that wreathes Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper Of Lost Things, it seems to me to be a very happy book. It’s the kind of book we could really do with at the moment, given the current dizzying tilt of global politics. It’s a book to lose yourself in, and of course therein find yourself again. It’s not a surprising book in terms of staggering twists or unexpected trajectory, though there are small revelations aplenty. Being a fan of untidy endings, of mysteries left you might be surprised to hear me say that this one ended up exactly where I expected it to, and when I got there I could think of no more fitting conclusion. In fact, I’d have been disappointed if it had veered.

While it might not be a book to make you view the world entire in a new way, it may well prod you to linger at the small things a little more, to examine the whys and the wherefores of how things have arrived at your door. It’s a clever device Ruth Hogan uses, to touch on the million little back-stories that cross our paths each day, and an even smarter device she uses to allow us as readers in on the veracity of those stories. Here’s where we get to the real magic of this book: the characters are excellent (there is one, in particular who I think will steal the show for many readers), and the humour is flawlessly pitched. It’s the kind of humour that ambushes you, not overt or brash or flashy but, much like the book, quiet and steady and rather irresistible. The sly digs at the literary world are particularly good, not because there’s anything sour-grapes about them but because they recognise entirely the truth that rests on both sides of the coin. And as for the memorial finale, well let’s just say I’m looking forward to someone commissioning this book for television. That’ll be a show-stopper and no mistake!

If you’re looking for something uplifting to read, something that might well make you cry, will definitely make you laugh, and will leave feeling decidedly warm and glowy then Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper Of Lost Things should be on your reading list.

The Keeper Of Lost Things is published by Two Roads on 26th January 2017 ISBN:9781473635463

You can find Ruth on Twitter @ruthmariehogan and at Instagram.com/ruthmariehogan

My thanks to Emma Petfield at John Murray Press for allowing me to review this book.

Van didn’t finish reading…Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant

22 Dec

Sorry, Sabine

Van has finished reading… Travels With A Typewriter by Michael Frayn

21 Dec

All writers of fiction should be required by law to go out and do a bit of reporting from time to time, says Michael Frayn in his introduction to Travels With a Typewriter, a collection of travel articles he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s. Until he’s in charge the next best advice would be for all readers to read a book like this. The reason Mr Frayn gives – to remind the writer how different the world in front of their eyes is from the invented world behind them – is a valid one, but for me there’s a sort of inversion of that reasoning. If you want to make the characters in your writing feel whole, look to whole people for your inspiration. For all the Grand World History of these articles it’s the people in them that linger in the memory, their own small-h history that frames the wider politics of the day. And what’s changed, fifty-odd years on? Regimes come and go, or simply stay perhaps beyond the reasonable logic of the day. Attitudes harden or soften. The young become the old. But still there are people there, thinking their thoughts and doing the things they must to make some sense of the place they inhabit, sometimes even in the face of everyone else’s displeasure. Sometimes because of it. No, not much has changed.

I wasn’t alive when half these articles were written, and with the other half hailing from the early seventies it can seem like ancient history at times. It certainly would have felt like that had I read these at half the age I am now but there’s that strange elastic phrase, in my lifetime, that comes to mind with a few of the pieces here. How prescient that I should pick up Travels With A Typewriter so shortly after Fidel Castro’s ultimate surrender; not even he could beat time, though he had a damn good try. In 1969 the numbers were always large in Cuba, though most observers suspected the truth to be larger. What will happen there now, I wonder? Do the populace dare to tend a frail green blade of hope for better things or does that air of suspicion linger still? One thing I can be sure of is that true joy will still be found in the paseo. Israel, too. The ever-present rubbing of such close enemies that be nothing but a salt sting on either side. In my lifetime. Will that be true for the next generation? In a hundred years will the words Gaza, West Bank, Hebron still conjure the same images? And to Berlin, where things surely have changed. I can still remember watching the footage of the wall coming down in ’89. The open-mouthed gawping that became wide-eyed staring and smiling. In my lifetime. And America, where there is talk – though surely nobody believes it – of a new wall. There’s an interesting passage in Frayn’s American article that talks about politics as being part of the theatrical convention. People interested in politics aren’t surprised by politicians’ uncharacteristic behaviour any more than would a theatregoer shout impostor at an actor on the stage playing a role. He thought most political observers he’s met would be bored by ‘visible politics’, where men (these days he would not have omitted women from the statement) ‘said frankly and plainly what they thought’. And now we have President-Elect Trump, who a large proportion of us surely believe doesn’t even bother thinking before he speaks. How did that happen? Is it the politicians who have gone so wrong that we’ve lost faith in them, or is it us who have detached ourselves and our small h’s from that Grand World History that so shapes us whether we like it or not.

There’s no denying it’s been a rough year. It feels like a dark line we’ve drawn, and that made all the more pressing by The Reaper’s antics who has taken so many of those who were able to bring a little light to our lives. But one thing I am glad of is books like Michael Frayn’s Travels With A Typewriter. If nothing else it shows me that my small h counts. In some small way it counts. And if the biggest thing I have to worry about is how quickly or whether at all the UK leaves the European Union then things are really not so bad. And if a Cuban family can walk out on a balmy Sunday evening in 1969, knowing in that most secret part of their own minds all the fear and uncertainty that awaited the sunrise, and meet friends and shake hands and smile, then surely I must be able to find a way to be kinder, to be more tolerant, to make someone else’s way a little lighter. And then 2017 really can’t be all that bad.

Merry Christmas

 

Travels With A Typewriter was published by Faber & Faber in 2009 ISBN:9780571240890

Van hasn’t finished reading…Philip Larkin: Letters To Monica (Edited by Anthony Thwaite)

4 Oct

You can imagine the premise for the novel: an emerging writer in the early stages of his career; the turmoil of an almost-wedding behind him and the lingering desire for the recipient of his correspondence stretching into the future. There are disasters ahead – some to keep them apart and at least one that will bring them together. As a novel it would be enticing and delicate, the prose gradually peeling away the layers to reveal the man inside, the character that carries the weight of this conflict, and how that carrying shapes him. It would be precise and whole and the change over time gratifying.

Except of course this isn’t fiction. This is real. This is life, and the trouble therein is that we don’t get to pick and choose whether or how those traits unfold. Yes, there is delicacy there. Yes, there is the central desire, and all the many things – self-inflicted or not – that stand in its way. But there’s the man at the centre too and the undeniable fact that he is often small and mean, that his circle of allowable humans is not wide, that the change he seems to be heading for over time is an entrenchment rather than a rising up to the tide of humanity. Then, there is nothing more real than that, and if fiction were genuinely that realistic we probably wouldn’t read it.

I’m making this book sound dreadful and it’s really not. It’s interesting in more than a merely voyeuristic way. Yes, if you’re a fan of Philip Larkin there are depths that will no doubt keep you tuned in. If you’re a writer, or interested in how writing works there are keen lessons on the way character shines out of prose. If you’re into recent history there’s a first-hand view of mid-twentieth century living – though it can only speak from the author’s unique perspective. And that character is very interesting too, a person who it’s sometimes hard to reconcile with the general idea of a poet. Is there a tendency to sweep away the unpleasant tang of his being ‘nice to a nigger’ because it’s Labour Day in the dubious belief that the language is a symptom of the period? But there’s all that downward-looking stuff about the Irish too. And there are his colleagues and contemporaries. Not a great many people get off lightly. We mention the word poet and so often imagine a deeply sensitive soul, and the alliteration leads us into soft-focus landscapes and middle-distance staring. Which is piffle. He’s a person like any other. He just happens to be a person who writes. This is very much the private face, these letters only ever intended for the recipient. How many of us would shudder to think of our emails or personal conversations being made public? All the tenderness, the delicacy, the fear and pain and hatred, they’re all there because a person felt them. And finding them in these letters makes those feelings real all over again.

If it were fiction this would’ve been a ‘Sorry, Philip.’ The fact of it is that I’ve found it hard to take so much of the character all at once. It’s too relentless, and knowing it not to be fiction kind of makes that harder to bear. But I really do want to be there to see if there’s a change in the end, whether there’s a wistful appreciation of inevitability, or a burning regret that time’s past and it’s too late in the day.

So, not a sorry, Philip, but a see you later.

 

Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica was published by Faber & Faber in 2010, ISBN:9780571239092