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Van has finished reading… Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

19 Feb

reservoir 13


What an ominous title. Obviously it had to be the unluckily numbered one, and that together with the opening paragraphs set a tense tone that never really lets you go, even after the last page has been turned. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is the story of the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, a teenager who goes missing while on holiday with her family in the peak district. Except it’s not. To be writerly about it, Rebecca’s disappearance is the inciting incident. It’s already happened as we read the first words and what follows is – not unlike If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things – everything else that happens in the vicinity of that terrible event.

It feels like reportage at first, the prose clipped to the bone, almost telling rather than showing, detail kept strictly to the need-to-know. The village where it happened, its inhabitants and their lives begin to peek through the blanket of fear, of loss, and time begins to assert itself. There’s repetition, chapter by chapter, the seasonal pattern of rural life. The cycle of village life imposes itself on the narrative, and it’s quite the master stroke. The more you learn of the village, the landscape and the people who live there, the more you wonder who knows what, who’s done what…

And to be a little writerly again, Jon McGregor has a true understanding of the power of molossus; I lost count of the number of paragraphs that ended with three stressed words.

(See what I did there).

There’s a lot said about genres of fiction and the desire to subvert them but there don’t appear to be that many novels that genuinely do. As I sit here I’m umming-and-aahing about Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. On the one hand, it sets out in the vein of a mystery or a whodunit: A girl has gone missing and immediately we’re invested either in finding and saving her just in time, or discovering who did what dreadful thing and bringing them to book. On the other hand, it’s Jon McGregor, and that’s not what you tend to think of when you think about his books. Either way, what is evident is that he understands these expectations intimately, and plays the reader every step of the way, hanging us on a hook as he takes a tour through grief and loss in all its quotidian glory. It’s superbly done.


Reservoir 13 was published by 4th Estate on the 6th April 2017 ISBN:9780008204891

You can find Jon on Twitter @jon_mcgregor


Van has finished reading… Folk by Zoe Gilbert

21 Jan


It’s taken me a while to get to Zoe Gilbert’s debut novel, Folk, and the only thing that stops me saying it was well worth the wait is the realisation that I could’ve been re-reading it by now. The title is wonderfully pertinent. The Folk of fairy tales, of stories handed down through generations; in the craft of it too, the feel that these are homespun skills; and then in the tales themselves – as with the very best of folk tales – it’s not the supernatural or otherworldly that takes precedence but the folk who inhabit Zoe Gilbert’s words. It’s wonderfully immersive, the sights, sounds and smells of Neverness are rich and vivid from the off, the driving rhythm of Prick Song dragging the reader headlong into a paganish ceremony of turning seasons, death and rebirth.

Zoe Gilbert’s Costa Short Story Award-winning Fishskin, Hareskin has been one of my favourite short stories since I first read it, and there are now chapters from Folk that I can add to the list. Sticks Are For Fire and The Water Bull Bride, along with Fishskin, Hareskin best illustrate, for me, what Zoe Gilbert does so well. There’s the sumptuous lyricism of her prose, the precision of her imagery, the cadence of the narrative that makes an eager, listening child of you, and particularly, though there may be other-worldly elements threading through these stories it’s the human element, the ever-present and recognisable dangers of our own world, our own actions that precipitate a coup-de-grace. (And Sticks Are For Fire gets extra points not simply for using ‘widdershins’, which is quite possibly my favourite word, but for using it very much in context). It’s our inherent fallibility as humans which brings us down. After all this time, the local village signpost might easily have worn away to Everness.

I mention short stories here but don’t get caught up in thinking this is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. While it is possible to read these chapters in isolation, and some of them have been published in the form of short stories, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a novel. The sense of place, of both time and timelessness, and of the inhabitants of Neverness shifts and deepens with each chapter. Characters’ appearance are never incidental, albeit they may not be centre-stage for that chapter, and they each carry the inflections of their various histories – just as you’d expect in a novel.

I should also say the ever-so-on-point cover – beautiful, pastoral, quite every-day, with that creeping sense of the sinister the longer you look at it – is quite perfect. A flourish that Mrs van particularly enjoyed are the little illustrations that accompany each chapter – tiny additions, but nicely done and always pertinent.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a thing of beauty, inside and out. Stories to stir your inner child, told with all the depth and subtlety a grown-up needs. Glorious.

Folk was published by Bloomsbury on the 18th February 2018 ISBN:9781408884393

You can find Zoe on Twitter @mindandlanguage or at The Word Factory, or at London Lit Lab, where she runs writing workshops with fellow writer Lily Dunn.

Van has finished reading… Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

7 Jan

friday black

It may be a famous quote, I can’t remember, but didn’t someone once say that when you’re black everything you write is about being black, even when it’s not? If it’s not a famous quote, well, I’ve said it. A white boy in a white man’s world, talking about blackness.

Because that’s never happened before…

With Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black you get the real deal. From the overt statements that are The Finkelstein 5 and Zimmer Land to the subtler tones of How To Sell A Jacket As Told By Ice King. There’s an edgy humour in these slices of life but you cannot doubt that you’re being looked in the eye as you laugh, particularly with The Finkelstein 5. The absurdist nature of the comedy element – the defence presented at the trial of a truly heinous crime – quickly pales as the author’s punches hit home: but this is life; this kind of thing has happened; this kind of thing is not the past.

The day after I’d read The Finkelstein 5 I heard a polite ‘excuse me’ while walking in the park. Two teenagers came past on their bikes, both saying ‘thank you’ as they went. Not thanks, or cheers, or ta! or any other informal recognition you might’ve expected from a couple of teenagers out on their bikes. And I genuinely wondered, is that you or are you dialling down for the white people? I hope to God they weren’t, then I also hope to God I’m not one of those people who becomes a caricature around black teenagers, trying to be all matey and street. Yes, Mr Adjei-Brenyah’s definitely right about that. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

The range covered by the stories collected in Friday Black might at first glance make them seem somewhat disparate but there are threads not so much pulling them together as holding them in close company. The sense of the outsider is there time and again, the desire to belong. Then there’s that febrile striving for justice, not only for wanting to do the right thing but also for others to recognise their errors and see the true path. Whichever way you slice it Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black gives you twelve wonderfully immersive and deeply thought-provoking stories to enjoy. It’s well worth adding to your TBR pile.


Friday Black was published by riverrun on the 23rd October 2018 ISBN:9781787476011

You can find Nana Kwame on Twitter @NK_Adjei

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for allowing me to review this collection.

Van has finished reading… Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

18 Dec

started early took my dog

I’m introducing a new term to the blog – one that I very much hope will see repeated use: The Atkinson Experience. Not so much the Harvey Effect, where a phrase is so perfectly formed I’m apt to read it again but something that would apply to a whole book or story. It’s what I might otherwise term stealth brilliance. The writing is apt, easy, it flows as might a conversation so that these aren’t characters but people, and you could easily imagine the protagonist is sat opposite you in the snug at your local, relaying all this detail first hand. It’s not what one might describe as beautiful writing, though it is beautifully crafted. It’s just that it’s so well done you don’t notice the work that’s gone into making it so. It’s Kate Atkinson.

Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth book to feature Jackson Brodie, who is a peach of a character. Don’t worry if you’ve not read the first three (I haven’t yet either) you’ll not be left floundering for detail or backstory. As you would expect, there’s an arc that extends beyond the bounds of this book’s story, both past and future, that will leave you wanting to search the other books out.

Of the other characters I suspect I’m not alone in falling for Courtney, a tattered little waif who is ‘rescued’  by retired-copper-turned-shopping-mall-head-of-security Tracey Waterhouse. Courtney is fantastic, unmistakeably a kid at every turn and yet there’s a sense of age-old wisdom about her, an inscrutability that is as touching on the page as it would likely be infuriating in real life!

What I didn’t expect is how genuinely and knowingly funny the book is, especially given the sheer grimness of the main storyline. We see the basest of human emotion, motivation and action and yet time and again I found myself laughing along with the wry honesty on display. It’s apt to remind you of people you know. In short, it is understated brilliance. Eminently readable, thoroughly engaging, wry and astute. It is the Atkinson Experience.


Started Early, Took My Dog was published by Doubleday on the 19th August 2010 ISBN:9780552772464


You can find Kate at her website

Van has finished reading… The Fourth Shore by Virginia Baily

23 Nov

the fourth shore

The trees are aflame with colour and your breath clouds before your face. For the first time this year you’ve got your hat and gloves on and you’re snuggly in your boots and autumn coat. It’s quiet, just you and a wide open space. That feeling – the anticipation of it, the awareness that things are changing yet you’re cosseted, safe and warm and ready – that’s reading Virginia Baily.

Following in, or perhaps anticipating the footsteps of the sublime Early One Morning, Virginia Baily’s new book The Fourth Shore returns to Italy to begin the story of Liliana Cattaneo, who follows her brother to Tripolitania in Libya. In this burgeoning land of opportunity Liliana is optimistic, on the cusp of life, love and adventure, though she is about to discover there is more than one side to Italy’s outpost in North Africa, and to the homeland she wants to believe in. Her dream of romance will have dire consequences for her and those closest to her.


You’ve got to love a writer who takes enough care over her characters and storyline, and who thinks enough of her readers to make use of all the details. It’s a delight to me – really, it actually makes me smile as I read – when the manner in which one character is debilitated become the means for insight to another. Nothing is incidental, nothing gets wasted. And then there are those ‘Harvey’ moments where the care taken over the words shines through in a perfectly weighted phrase.

Although Virginia Baily’s The Fourth Shore covers a sweep of events in the grand sense, it’s a very personal story she tells, quiet and intense. It’s through her characters’ responses to those events, and to each other that she views the wider impact of those historic events. There is a secret at the heart of the story, and its uncovering and the action that precipitate it are a perfect mirror of cause and consequence. This is how fiction at its finest works (see Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning, Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life).

Liliana is an absolute gift of a character, my view of her changing sometimes from page to page, and I loved the scenes she shares with Farida (who appears so clear to me I believe I may well have met her). The way their relationship moves is a joy to behold. And then there is Zaida, and the need to hold on to your breaking heart – make no mistake, this book is going to make you feel!


Virginia Baily’s The Fourth Shore is wonderful, a quiet story, though no less devastating for that. It cuts to the heart of what it is to love, to trust, to believe. To make amends. It will squeeze your heart, no doubt, but it will make it swell too.


The Fourth Shore will be published by Fleet on 7th March 2019 ISBN: 9780708898499


You can find Virginia on Twitter @VirginiaBaily or on her website,

My especial thanks to Ursula Doyle at Fleet for allowing me to review this lovely book.

Van has finished reading… The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson by Helen Kitson

2 Nov

last words of madeleine anderson

Twenty years after the publication of her only novel – a book hailed as a work of genius – Gabrielle Price’s literary star has dimmed. Now living an unremarkable life in the village she grew up in, Gabrielle is middle-aged, working as a housekeeper for the local vicar, surrounded by memories of her best friend Madeleine, who died young in tragic and mysterious circumstances. When Gabrielle receives a letter from a fan she has no idea that her responding on a whim will turn her quiet life inside out.


How does your self-portrait look? In the he-said-she-said retelling of the major points in your life how do you come across? We can’t help being the hero in our own story, though if we were more honest with ourselves we might better settle for the term protagonist. I’ve never been a fan of the term unreliable narrator. To me it’s more suggestive of a habitual or flagrant liar when the truth of the character generally proves to be far more human – someone who is prone to bend the truth to fit their worldview. For the subterfuge to work we as the reader need to buy in to the fiction so it helps a great deal if the character is likeable, someone we want to believe. The testament to how well-written The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson is rests in the fact that Gabrielle Price, while not necessarily likeable, is whole-heartedly believable. There’s a level of honesty that’s brutal, almost self-destructive, and the glow of that openness spreads over everything we see. It’s beautifully done. No big pointy arrows or cabaret cloaks, just room for all these little doubts to grow in.

I love the make-up of the cast in Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson. It’s a cast that’s as spare as the writing, but each character pulls their weight and if you’ve ever spent any time around writers, readers or book groups I’m sure there’ll be a flicker or two of the eyebrows as you recognise some old acquaintances! If you’re a fan of Barbara Pym I think you’ll tap into an extra layer of understanding as there’s a good deal of Pym referenced. If you’re not, I suspect you’ll be off to the library or bookshop to rustle up a copy of Excellent Women, as I’m about to.

Helen Kitson’s The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson is a tense and claustrophobic study of obsession, isolation, blame and retribution. It’s a quiet explosion of a story, contained mayhem that unravels through cause and effect, with an ending that’ll leave you gasping for air.


The Last Words Of Madeleine Anderson will be published by Louise Walters Books on the 7th march 2019 ISBN:9781999780951

You can find Helen on Twitter @Jemima_Mae_7

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

Van has finished reading… The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

25 Oct

underground railroad


Imagine all the human race left behind were certain books, and the aliens that come to investigate the used-up husk that was Earth have only these as indicators of our existence, so they’d have to wonder: is this history or entertainment? Which shelf would your favourite books go on? As far as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad goes, I’d bet the mortgage they’d go for history. In fact, forget aliens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see current readers googling it and finding themselves disappointed by the book’s subterfuge. Yes, it is that good.

The Underground Railroad tells Cora’s story. Born into slavery, abandoned by her mother at a young age and treated as an outcast on the plantation, as Cora comes of age she faces a stark choice: stay (and probably die), or run (and possibly die). And that’s where the fiction kicks in and The Underground Railroad sets itself apart in the ranks of novels centred on slavery in America. The reality of plantation life is there; the jeopardy inherent not only in running away but in simply being black in America is there; the range of responses from white people, from zealous application of the laws to rank indifference, is there (what a harrowing scene the plantation garden party presents!); but the Underground Railroad, that’s something else. With actual stations and engines and rails, it opens up the American south in a way the metaphorical railroad never could. And the chase is on, as we journey through various States, and their equally various laws and dispositions.

The characterisation is superb, with everything happening to a purpose, and while there are inevitably horrors in the portrayal of plantation life and the treatment of black people in the slave states, that purpose lends power to their presentation rather than their inclusion feeling gratuitous. No danger here of the reader maintaining an over-exposed distance from the narrative. And then there are the ads posting rewards for runaway slaves – real ads – to quietly underline that, while this is fiction, the facts of this history are not so distant, are close enough for the reader to feel the possibility held between the covers. Such is the power of the wrong done, of the will to escape, and the testament it speaks of those souls that such a feat really does feel possible. There’s an excellent refrain running through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a joke written in the darkest ink, about looking out as you speed through, and finding the true face of America. And its punchline chimes with William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. For all the necessary action, whether hidden or in plain sight, illegal or not, taken to bring a slave to liberty, it always comes down to one person. And freedom is never a thing that’s given. Freedom is a thing that must be claimed.

It’s an astonishing book that could find fans for many reasons – the quality of the writing, the historical and political context, the straight-up adrenalin of the chase – but the why is not so important. Just make sure you do pick it up. Read it, and then pass it along to the next station.

The Underground Railroad was published by Fleet in June 2017 ISBN:9780708898406

You can find Colson on Twitter @colsonwhitehead or at his website