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Van has finished reading… The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell

11 Dec

There can’t be many of us who haven’t seen that clip of a housemaid begging for help as she clings to the outside of a building seven floors up. The fact there’s a clip of it speaks volumes but the true impact comes with the realisation that it’s the employer who is not helping but filming. The nationalities and location involved may be different but this is very much the world Fiona Mitchell’s The Maid’s Room addresses.

There’s a good cross-section of characters in both the ex-pat employers and the Filipina person for hire factions of the cast – both areas where it would’ve been easy to pick something off-the-peg. In each case Fiona Mitchell plays those expectations against each other well to draw out her themes of identity and value but where The Maid’s Room shines for me is in the story itself. The sense of cause and effect is really nicely balanced and as the story rolls on the tension keeps you turning the pages. Just what you want from a piece of fiction.

Then read the author’s note and see just how much of this story is effectively reportage – that this could almost be narrative non-fiction. I can’t think of a single instance of exploitation where the lowest crime has to be the passivity of those around it, the unwillingness to see it for what it is that enables it, even when to do so requires no bravery. We readily applaud the bravery of the people who inspired Tala but we should also recognise our complicity in the fact that they exist, that they’re necessary though every ounce of sense and humanity says they shouldn’t be.


The Maid’s Room was published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 16th November 2017 ISBN:9781473659568

You can find Fiona on Twitter @FionaMoMitchell or at her website


My thanks to Ruby Mitchell at Hodder for allowing me to review this book


Van has finished reading… Histories by Sam Guglani

22 Nov

It’s not so surprising really that going to a hospital is such a solipsistic experience. Is it just the building you think of when someone says hospital, or all the equipment it contains too, all the paraphernalia, the people as though they’re fixtures and fittings? It’s easily done; everyone is called Doctor or Nurse after all. Everyone you meet is there to check you in or check you out, take your blood pressure, your oxygen levels, your history. It’s a machine that exists to tell us what’s wrong, and why, and how it’s going to fix us. That’s what we want, to be fixed.

Then something happens that cuts through the veneer. It reminds us that they’re human, these parts of the machine. The smallest thing. I remember seeing a woman walking on Great Ormond Street, her back straight, her arms rigid at her sides and her face lined as though it had been carved. Such rage and fear in the knots beneath her eyebrows, the clenched jaw, such love in the tears flowing unabashed down her cheeks – anywhere else someone might have stopped and offered a word, a tissue, some comfort. But who could impinge on those emotions here; she must have come from the Children’s Hospital. And my own throat clogged to see it.

I’ve watched a consultant hold a patient’s damaged hand with such tenderness that onlookers would’ve thought them lovers, that I found myself on the brink of embarrassment at this intimacy. Warmth and thanks parted the scene, though the conversation was an explanation of ‘irreparable’.

Sam Guglani’s Histories is a collection of such moments. Whether patient or practitioner, believer or doubter, each story is a step through the veneer. The characters are really well drawn, diverse and honest (to the point that I’m sure I’ve met one or two of them). I liked the Chaplain especially. The writing is spare and effective, revealing unhindered all the facets of humanity that so often pass unseen (I’m reminded of Maylis de Kerangal’s excellent Mend The Living). It’s often said that a good story is one that makes you look at a situation differently. With Sam Guglani’s Histories we have a book that helps us simply to see. It’s a powerful book indeed.


Histories was published by riverrun on the 2nd November 2017 ISBN: 9781786483805

You can find Sam on Twitter @samirguglani


My thanks to Elizabeth Masters a Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

7 Nov

With Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden following on the heels of Laura Carlin’s exquisite The Wicked Cometh, Mrs Van might just have found her current niche in the Victorian Gothic. Though you’ll have to wait until early next year for The Wicked Cometh, you can feast on The Crow Garden now.

Not just a well-paced and highly readable Victorian Gothic novel, Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is exceptionally pleasing in its construction. The counterpoint of those very Victorian frontiers, Medicine and the esoteric arts, is employed to good effect, and the modern eye through which we look on events and opinions lends an interesting focus to proceedings. Albeit the likes of phrenology and mesmerism were at the cutting edge in those days, and we might well look on them now as scarcely associated with science, the zeal with which they were – and still are in some quarters – pursued fits superbly with the setting and the story. The use of myth and poetry is excellent too, but for my money the real joy is in Littlewood’s clever portrayal of a soul’s grip on reality slipping away. It’s really nicely done, and there’s a moment of realisation towards the end that’s an absolute delight.

The Crow Garden wears its research really well, using it to embellish events and character interaction, provide tense, intriguing situations and generally enrich the atmosphere. What it also does is inform without getting in the reader’s way, commenting not just on the vagaries and practices of science and medicine at that time but also those of class and gender. The characterisation is pleasing too, the author turning certain perceptions really nicely to keep you guessing about motive and intention. Personally, I really like Peg. Where she could so easily have been an incidental character, she arrives with flair and treads her path with unstinting gusto.


With the nights drawing in and the trees shedding their leaves it’s the perfect time to get gothic, and Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is a great place to start.


The Crow Garden was published by Jo Fletcher books on 5th October 2017 ISBN:9781786485250


You can find Alison on Twitter @Ali_L, and on her website

My thanks to Olivia Mead at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

3 Nov

the wicked

Oh my God, I love this book. The cover, the contents the characters – just in case it’s not clear, let me be unequivocal: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! It can say a lot about a novel when the publishers invest in something special for the proofs, and the proofs of Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh are definitely something special. Delivered in a shiny golden envelope, it’s a thing of purple velvet beauty. Mrs Van liked the inside cover design so much the postcard of it is now part of the gallery on the wall. William Speed’s (@wrmspeed) artwork is, as ever, right on the money (he also did the cover for City of Circles).

But does the story live up to the expectation? Let me be clear: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! I can’t remember what I’d been reading to Mrs Van when The Wicked Cometh arrived but we left it behind. Read me that one, she said. One more chapter, she said. One more. One more. I had to beg for a tea break. The writing is really nice – a fair few moments where the Harvey effect kicked in, although our need to know what happens next kept me reading on. This one will definitely be on the re-read shelf.

Class distinction is a common factor in fiction that deals with this era and the Wicked Cometh is no different, though like Rebecca Mascull’s excellent Song Of The Sea Maid or Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook the lesson is hidden very nicely in the sensory detail and the turn of events (though in terms of trajectory The Wicked Cometh is definitely more Ellis than Mascull). And let’s dwell for a moment on that sensory detail. Make no mistake, we’re not dealing with a pleasant stroll through a summery meadow with a frilly parasol. On a number of occasions we were surprised to discover that things really could get worse. Then, even after all that, there was chapter 15.

Then there was chapter 16.

There are scenes in the book that linger in the mind, and I’d really rather they didn’t.


The characters are excellent: distinct, well-rounded and true to their station. And often thoroughly deplorable. It’s a wonderful thing when you get a riveting story that also provides a free ride to the edge of a moral quandary and with this cast Laura Carlin does exactly that, because you can be in no doubt that there is a basis in fact for the events that pass on The Wicked Cometh’s pages.

I should also give a nod to my favourite character name this year, the wonderfully Dickensian Mr Frederick Blister. That’s a peach.


You’ll have to wait a little while for this one but it’s worth putting a note in your diary. Everything about this book says it’s going to be big next year. It deserves to be big. It’s a beautiful thing inside and out and for my money it’s got costume drama written all over it (though the book will, of course, be better). And let’s not forget that this is Laura Carlin’s debut. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Remember the name, remember the title, remember the date. I guarantee it’ll darken your February days in the best possible way. I bet that OH MY GOD YOU’LL LOVE IT too.


The Wicked Cometh will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 8th February 2018 ISBN:9781473661370


When I find out where you can find Laura I’ll let you know. In the meantime ORDER HER BOOK.

My especial thanks to Melissa Cox and Veronique Norton at Hodder, William Speed for the design, Laura MacDougall at United Agents and everyone else involved in the production of this book. And thanks particularly and above all to Laura Carlin for writing it.

Van has finished reading… Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

9 Oct

There’s something very satisfying about the beginning of A.L Kennedy’s Paradise. Albeit we are unsure of our surroundings, of who we are or what’s happened, there’s that realisation that you’re in very safe hands, that you should go with it, that this apparent lack of control is anything but. It’s funny too, in that barbed but also self-deprecating way. It’s a little bit dangerous. A safe sort of dangerous. Doing no real harm. At least not to us.

There’s something equally satisfying about the rest of the book too. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an enjoyable story; the sense of immersion and the play of events simply can’t allow it. The enjoyment to be had is in the crafting, in the way you laugh at things and yet sense how brittle that laughter is, in the way you hope when you know deep down how likely it is that hope will go unspent. The easy-going, fun-night-out farce has to give way to the wrenching realisation that this may not be doing any real harm to us but it is definitely doing harm. Whether you start by laughing at, or laughing with, by the end you’ll be laughing because if you don’t, well…

I love Hannah’s mother and father. They are perfect. Of course I don’t mean they’re actually perfect (although in Hannah’s eyes her mother is) but as characters they’re perfect. The sense of the roads they’ve travelled with their daughter, the opportunities taken, or missed, or wasted drips from their every move, their every word. And two scenes particularly stuck in my mind: of Hannah with her mother in the presence of the new neighbour; and Hannah with her father, taking the bus home. If I could scoop them up at those points and tell them it’ll all be okay. But I can’t, and there’s the rub.


Paradise by A.L Kennedy is a piece of work indeed, most definitely worthy of your time. Pull up a chair and nice cup of tea, and appreciate it in all its glory.


Paradise was published by Vintage in 2004 ISBN:9780099433491


You can find A.L. on Twitter @Writerer or at her website,

Van has finished reading… Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

20 Sep


In moving from America to Tokyo to be two-year-old Yuki’s nanny, Diana is as aware that she’s running away from a burgeoning relationship as she is of the obvious adventure that awaits. But all is not quite as it seems in the Yoshimura household. As Diana’s connection with Yuki grows she faces challenges both cultural and emotional, knowing that each decision she makes has consequences, and that some may be far-reaching.


Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness tells the story of a young woman’s blossoming, of her looking for a place of understanding, and finding her fit. And what a thing of beauty it is, what an absolute delight!


Albeit the book is mostly set in Japan it wouldn’t be as a gateway to the oriental experience that I would advise picking this book up. The kind of everyday differences Diana experiences are exactly that so they’re already fairly well represented in the wider consciousness. Rather, it’s Diana’s reaction, her resistance to or assimilation of them that marks her progress. It really is all about Yuki though, and the way we see her through Diana’s eyes. It’s truly remarkable just how real she feels and the relationship between Diana and Yuki is exquisitely observed; there are moments from the book that linger vividly in my mind. It is achingly tender. If you follow my reviews you’ll be familiar with The Harvey Effect, and Alison Jean Lester conjures it up a few times. No need for prolix or flowery effusions, she simply chooses the appropriate words and lets them work their magic. This is I think the first time I’ve encountered the Harvey Effect with a whole character though. Right from the off Porter appeared to me, fully clothed in the guise of a young Jimmy Stewart, and it suited him very well. I couldn’t help but sit and wait and hope on his behalf. Honestly, I don’t see how any reader could fail to connect with Yuki, or Diana (if not because of Diana then at least because of Yuki through Diana) or Porter, if not all three. Be prepared to have your heart filled, and also squeezed because once you have connected won’t be able to help yourself feeling for them.


I can well imagine coming back to re-read this book in the future. It makes me smile just thinking about how much I like it. And the really great thing – children will insist on growing up but here there is a place where Yuki will always be two years old, full of love and promise and as cute as anything you can imagine. Add her to your reading list. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.


Yuki Means Happiness was published on 27th July 2017 by John Murray ISBN: 9781848549623


You can find Alison on Twitter @A_J_Lester or at her website


My very special thanks to Emma Petfield at John Murray for bringing Yuki into my life

Van has finished reading… City Of Circles by Jess Richards

28 Aug


A circus troupe, a magical city and a secret in a locket. Really, what more could you want? Jess Richards’ City Of Circles is a glorious tale of otherness, outsiders, connection and belonging. A quiet one (and you know how much I like those!), it’s tense and heart-breaking, deeply emotional. There’s a dark beauty to it, exquisitely echoed in the gorgeous cover design by William Speed (@wrmspeed).


One thing I found refreshing about City Of Circles is that it takes its time. Sometimes fiction seems overly focused on coming into a scene late and getting out early, but Jess Richards lets her story dwell. Yes, it could be shorter, and I think it could be shorter without losing impact but there’s nothing flabby about this book. A treat is what it is, simply a little more of what you fancy, the writing sumptuous and sensual.

  The world of City Of Circles feels more inhabited than imagined with a wise blend of the extraordinary and the quotidian. Its quirkiness is never overstated nor explained, and certainly never excused with such trivialities as odd or archaic spellings. What I’m left with is a sense of something layered, far deeper than mere location, something that doesn’t necessarily carry a meaning but that suggests possibilities. Something I can (and will) think about after that final page.

  The atmosphere Jess Richards invokes, particularly in the first chapter is exceptional. It’s quite breathless. The writing holds you and the sense of proximity is almost claustrophobic – a lesson to anyone who thinks you need a first person narrative to really feel close to a character. As to the cast, it’s surprising to realise just how few main characters the whole thing hangs on. The emotional connection the author invokes with Danu, the protagonist, is exceptional. I simply can’t imagine someone picking up this book and not feeling for her, rooting for her.

  I don’t think I’ve ever been so torn about an ending. Do I love it? Yes, and no. For me, it could have stopped three pages early and it would’ve been perfect. But there’s no mania for tidiness in those last words. There are still questions left hanging, and a life beyond the end to ponder.


Strange, poetic, gripping and emotional, it’s hard not to see Jess Richards’ City Of Circles ending up on prize shortlists, and a good many top tens come the end of the year. There’s a very good chance it’ll be on mine.



City Of Circles was published by Sceptre on 10th august 2017 isbn: 9781473656680


You can find Jess on Twitter @jessgrrl or at her website


My thanks to Ruby Mitchell for allowing me to review this book