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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.

 

 

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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

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, tracyfarrauthor.com

 

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

summerhouse2

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.