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Van has finished reading…The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

2 Feb

As Rebecca Mascull’s last book, Song Of The Sea Maid, almost made it into my top five reads of 2016 you can imagine how excited I was to read her new book, The Wild Air. That excitement was well-met from the first page. A short prologue introduces us to Della Dobbs, and in the process does everything a prologue should. We get a goodly flavour of Della’s character but because the language is tight and clear and visual we get atmosphere too, and jeopardy, right from the first line. But above all we get questions. The who and the how and the why abound so that there was nothing I wanted more than to rip into the next chapter and find the answers.

If you’re of a writerly persuasion it’s a lesson in how to do prologues well.

Like Dawnay Price from Song Of The Sea Maid, as a character Della Dobbs is a winner. Though there are undeniable similarities between the two, Della is no carbon copy. Hers is not the blistering intelligence, not the thrusting presence of Dawnay. She is no less capable, no less driven once she understands her goal but Della’s is the quiet determination, the steady faith in her ability, her practicality. Where Dawnay tended to stand out, Della is likely to feel like someone you already know. Where Dawnay would not be bound by her orphan status, Della is shaped in the bosom of the family. And where Dawnay was so much a woman out of time, Della is unmistakably a woman of her time. Dawnay and Aunt Betty would be a house on fire (and woe betide anyone who’d stand in their path!) but I suspect Della would be cowed to silence by Dawnay’s forthright manner – at least until they got around to discussing the science of flight. Regardless, Della is without doubt a protagonist to get behind and cheer all the way, through battles big and small.

The story itself is – for want of a better term – grounded. Belief is never stretched, either in terms of plot or character, and this has to be down to the extensive research that supports the book. If I were to pinpoint a particular skill in the writing I would say that Rebecca Mascull’s has a gift for hiding the research. All the detail, all the intricacy around the early days of flight, the science of it, the mechanics of it, the many descriptions of being in the air in various planes never gets dull because we see it all through the eyes of those in the moment. The exhilaration, or fear, or crippling fatigue – whatever it is the pilot feels becomes the lens through which the technicalities are filtered. At the heart of it all it allows the book to remain what it must be: a thoroughly engaging and very human story.


How sad both Della and Dawnay would be to witness 2017 – a hundred years beyond Della’s story and a full 270 beyond Dawnay’s – and discover that history’s extraordinary women still await their rightful place in the light, or that just 3% of pilots internationally are women. As much as we like to look at these characters and empathise with them as they flex against their constraints, and cheer them when they win through, and nod knowingly and commiserate when they don’t, it’s a falsehood to imagine things are different now. These times are not nearly as enlightened as we like to think. I see it in my own thoughts sometimes, those sentences that begin, ‘how amazing that she…’ Would I have found it as amazing if it were a he? How much of this constraint do we perpetuate ourselves? Luckily, we have writers and books to show us these things, to stop us and force us to think. Both Song Of the Sea Maid and The Wild Air gave me more than just a good story, they also took my thoughts beyond the last page. I recommend them both. See if they can do the same for you.

The Wild Air is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6th April 2017 ISBN:9781473604438

You can find Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaMascull and on the web at

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

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

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.



Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

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 has finished reading…Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

7 Dec

Okay, so this isn’t what I’d normally do but I think Murakami’s reputation can withstand it. The truth is I’ve found it difficult to get something down for this review. Sorry, Haruki, didn’t quite seem sufficient and I’ve found myself in a place where I’m trying to justify my lack of engagement. It’s a problem I’ve had before when faced with isolated characters like Watanabe and Naoko, a situation where I find myself resistant to their ways. I become that insensitive person who just wants to shake them, that intolerable idiot who wants to tell them to get out and do something, that things aren’t nearly as bad as they think. That they’ll look back on all this and laugh someday about how serious they used to be, if only they could get over it (although he doesn’t, does he). Look how erudite Watanabe is, look how easy-going, a young man who can find a conversation with a voiceless old man in a hospital, who can bring the joy of eating cucumbers to a sad hospital bedside.

It’s not the writing. The writing’s focused, tidy. It’s not the supporting cast either. Midori and Reiko are there to be rooted for, bringing all the freshness and optimism you need. Can it really all be down to Watanabe? It’s not as if the warning signs aren’t there in the books he reads (I can’t help thinking he’d have had a more favourable trajectory if he’d picked up Steppenwolf instead of Beneath The Wheel).

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s a little too close, or a little too what-might-have-been. Whatever the echoes, they’re echoes I don’t want to hear. Sorry, Haruki.


Norwegian Wood (translated by Jay Rubin) was published in the UK in 2000 by Harvill. My copy was published by Vintage ISBN:9780099490784

You can find Haruki on Twitter @harukimurakami_

Van has finished reading… The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford

22 Nov



As famous trials go you might think that this one wouldn’t be so high on the list of interesting ones to report on. Okay, it was ground-breaking and important and we’re all shaped in some small way by its outcome but, interesting?

Well, actually, yes!

Set aside the fact that the defendant is not a person but an object. Set aside the fact that this case was the first to test the newly drawn-up obscenity laws. Set aside even the fact that the Defence drew on any number of eminent persons to form its phalanx of witnesses. All these things are interesting in their own right, but set them aside because at the very heart of this trial reportage – that’s essentially what this book is – is the wondrous theatre of social history. It’s nothing less than the broadening division in the class system that’s on display. Not on trial in the dock – at least not entirely, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all, which is much more about Class than the goings-on in the undergrowth – but on display in the manner of the Prosecution, and the measure of the Defence. There’s a great line early on (yes, it almost feels it could be fiction it’s so telling) where the Prosecution asks, “…Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?” This is 1960. It sets the tone of the Prosecution’s case. In such a pantomime we’d readily boo Mr Griffith-Jones as the villain of the piece but, as in all good literature, at the end of things I felt something akin to sadness and pity for him, having watched him fall so far: screaming obscenities in the courtroom as though that’s what Lawrence’s repetition was all about; inviting – with no small measure of smugness – a Senior Lecturer in English to straighten him out about his misapprehension of the word puritanical, and being summarily straightened out; reverting again and again, and each time seeming more petulant, to the only real line of defence he could muster, that it was all about the sex and nothing else.

Against this, Defence witness after Defence witness offers their understanding of the book, of what it is about and what Lawrence was trying to achieve in the writing of it. Of Lawrence’s place in Literature, of his ability, of Lady Chatterley’s worthiness as literature. Witnesses drawn from universities, schools, publishing houses, even churches, come to state their view, and it’s hard to imagine now how the Prosecution could’ve stood against all this without the certain understanding that they were in the wrong.


Through all this Sybille Bedford, who was commissioned to report on the trial, guides us with fairness and clarity. Being an author, we can easily guess which side of the argument she came down on, and Thomas Grant’s introduction to this edition confirms her stance. It is testament to her skill indeed that she remains as impartial as she does in the rendering of the proceedings. What stands out most for me is the apparent warmth with which she greets some of the witnesses, notably the aforementioned Senior Lecturer, a rather feisty Classics Mistress from a Grammar school, and a ‘most smartly dressed’ editor of, no, ‘Not a Ladies’ page. It hasn’t been called that since 1912.’ You can almost feel Sybille Bedford’s relish in Miss Scott-James’s small victories. Though, plus ça change, one might think some 55 years on.


It’s a striking thing to be so sure of the fallacy you’re opposing, to be so confident of the outcome that it seems the height of unreasonableness that anyone would even hold such a position. And to us now – certainly to me – it seems obscenity itself that such a prosecution could ever have taken place, but in these uncertain times, these days of political division, it is surely possible to read Sybille Bedford’s account of this famous trial and imagine, before the verdict comes down, what it would’ve been like to sit and wait, not knowing which way the jury would swing.


This edition of The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in October 2016 by Daunt Books ISBN:9781907970979

My sincere thanks to Daunt Books (and to Angela Carter) for allowing me to read this book.

Van has finished reading… Runemarks by Joanne Harris

21 Nov

Okay, so this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Honestly, it’s not. When I first started thinking that I’d like to be a writer I was in junior school. I couldn’t tell you what it was particularly about being a writer that made me think I wanted to be one but I suspect it had a bit to do with my teacher. He was good at everything and good with us kids and he played guitar and he knew how to tell a story. On a school trip, just after lights-out he’d come into the dorm and flick a torch on under his chin – did he have a beard? I think he had a beard – and the atmosphere and the torch and his voice would scare the bejeesus out of me. Not that I’d admit it to my classmates, of course. Anyway, one day in class I’d obviously declared my intention to be a writer so he gave me an exercise book and a pencil and a sharpener and challenged me to do it. So I did. I was so proud of my joined-up handwriting, all slanty on the page, and before long that page became pages. Every now and then I’d stop and shake my hand because it hurt, what with all the writing. And being that age there was a hero, and a woman was trapped somewhere up a mountain, with danger and dragons and… things. I invented some names. And I can distinctly remember the point at which I stopped: my hero was half way up, imprisoned by a cone of fire (I can even remember what I called the cone of fire, and no, I’m not going to tell you). I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to get him out. And I realise now that in stopping here I found my teacher’s one weakness. He liked to see us do well and he liked us to know we were doing well. He gave me gold stars beneath the words ‘half-time report’. The sad thing was that I never finished it because I’d got my reward, my gold stars, and the incentive seemed to fizzle entirely out. It was probably only about a thousand words, looking back, though at the time it felt epic. And I’ll bet my last money it was truly awful. And this is why said at the start of this review that this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Because reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks brought all this back to me.

It did this because it tapped straight into those things that you already know, even in primary school, about fantastical stories. Your hero must be a loner. That said, your hero is going to have to trust someone or something that probably shouldn’t be trusted because your hero cannot do what they must do on their own. Because your hero is about to go on a quest. This quest will be dangerous and probably some people and definitely some animals will die. It will get harder and more dangerous and there will come a time where it simply isn’t feasible it’s all going to work out. But your hero is a hero, so… What it tapped into was the sheer joy of invention, the unadulterated bliss of feeling these people you read about – or as I was then, write about – inhabit a wondrous and untouchable place in your mind’s eye where the rules are different, where the unexpected not only can but will happen, where it’s the law, where power is at your fingertips, where the small are not cowed by the weak, where you, whoever you are, are able to win.

I have to say I loved it. It simply made me smile. It’s somewhat relentless in pace and a tad irreverent in voice, which suits the inhabitants right down to the ground. There’s a delightfully threaded message in there too if you care to ponder the weave a little, but if you don’t, no matter. You’re still going to take a crash-course careen through the nine worlds – or a good part of them anyway. You’re going to boo at the villains when you know they’re villains and you’re going to cheer the heroes in the same way. You’re going to smile when dignity besmirched is stood upon and you’re going to look wryly at the world on these pages and see the ways in which it’s not so different from our own.

You can thank Marvel for two disconcerting things. Firstly, it’s really hard to picture Loki without a certain Hiddlestoneness about the twisted grin, and secondly, the familial relation is a generation shifted in Runemarks. Of course if the source material were set in stone it’d be history rather than legend. And legend has a much more appealing ring to it!

Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to be sniffy about reading. We get bogged down by that word literature and we start saying things like, fantasy, you know, it’s really not my bag. The trouble with that is that we limit ourselves, limit our intake and our experience. And remember too that genres are really only there to sell books. Oh, you like that? Try this. But what’s the harm, once in a while, of picking up something unexpected? Okay, if you pick a book up and you don’t like it, move on. No harm done. Every work of fiction you read is fantasy, after all. None of it’s real except in yours and the author’s imagination. And if you find one you really like, tell your friends. Share it and then you can talk about it with them and relive it. There’s immense power in words if only we allow them in and who knows, that next book, that unexpected read might just have the power to change your life. It happens you know. Books really can do that.

Runemarks was published on the 2nd August 2007 by Doubleday ISBN:9780385611305


You can (and should – she says wise things and sometimes tells stories) find Joanne on Twitter @Joannechocolat, or on her website