Van has finished reading… The Comfort Of Others by Kay Langdale

26 Apr

Quiet books. There’s something settling about quiet books, something soothing. Despite the events that unfold in Kay Langdale’s The Comfort Of Others, that sense of quietness, that control is there. In Minnie’s case there’s a distance in the telling – not from the character as I felt closer to Minnie in the reading than I did to Max – that enhances that quietness. And that in turn tightens the focus of events and emotions. The compounding of injustice, of what happened and of the response to it, and then the years of living with it are palpable in the stark present tense rendering of Minnie’s recollection. It’s really nicely done.

I particularly liked the mirroring between Max and Minnie. Whether reflecting similarities or differences in their situations, whether as obvious as recognising their shared activity as they sit by their windows, or a more obscure drawing of parallels between family situations, those moments serve to tie the characters together well. The writing is nice and clean, never overworked, and the particular attention to all those non-verbal signals in both Max and Minnie’s stories is nicely underplayed, never explaining them but leaving the reader to make that leap of understanding. It serves to make the scenes quite visual too. I could easily see this story making the leap to television (in which case Clara at the piano, both times: not a dry eye in the house).

The characterisation is solid. I’d be surprised if anyone came out of this book liking the wrong people – even in a grudging sort good-to-be-bad kind of way. Of the two main characters it’s Minnie who shines for me. With Max at a transitional age he often feels older than his years, which is of course right for him but makes him a little harder to pin down. With Minnie it’s her sensitivity that appeals to me, the way she delicately takes matters in hand, distracts and then refocuses. When difficult times come, everyone should have a Minnie on hand with a Tazza to allow that space to breathe and look at something beautiful.

Are quiet books good for holiday reading? I never know. Reading is reading to me but if they are the Kay Langdale’s The Comfort Of Others is worth adding to your holiday list. If not, add it to your post-holiday reading list.

 

The Comfort Of Others was published in paperback on the 6th April 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton ISBN:9781473618428

You can find Kay on Twitter @kaylangdale or at her website kaylangdale.com

 

My thanks to Karen Geary at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

 

Van has finished reading… The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

11 Apr

Well, this one definitely didn’t end up anywhere I would have guessed at the outset. Okay, maybe in general terms it did (though by about three quarters of the way through, frankly, it could have gone anywhere) but the specifics! Just look at the marketing pigeon-holes it could cover: surrealist dystopian sci-fi political espionage jailbreak farce thriller. Believe me, it’s all in there.

 

Now it’s all done and dusted and I’ve had a moment to breathe, it strikes me the set-up is a bit Toytown. Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Dimple Robotics, Consilience and its TV Evangelist-style pitch. Doris Day and primary colours, the way the residents are herded and infantilised. Charmaine with her chirpy outlook and relentless non-swearing seems made for it. There’s a cynical sheen over it all that creeps up on the reader and as you’d expect with Margaret Atwood, where there is a garden rosy you know there’ll be thorns aplenty.

And what thorns! I guess when you’ve done Dystopia, and done it as well as Atwood, and as often, you really do need to up the game in some department. I could almost believe this is a game of Top Trumps the author played against herself.

Oh, they’ll never believe that!

Let’s do it.

Okay, but the next one’s gotta be even weirder.

You’re on!

It’s the lack of baggage, I think, that wins that reader buy-in. It may well be the strangest idea you’ve ever come across in fiction but the author believes it, and because the author believes it she has simply stated that that’s what it is, so take it or leave it. It’s an object lesson for scribblers everywhere: it might be the oddest thing you’ve ever dreamed up but in the world of your story it’s as every day as death and taxes, and who wants to hear either of those explained in detail?

It serves to make it a really funny book, too, though not underminingly so. It’s never gratuitous enough to derail the tension, and where it does stray close to that line, Atwood is there to drive the thorn home and nip that laugh in the bud. You find the idea of the Elvis robots funny? Well, how about the kid robots… Hmm, not chuckling now.

It’s a book to go along with for the ride. Laugh with it but feel the excitement too, the anxiety over Stan and Charmaine’s fate and the ever increasing tension as every thread is drawn tighter and tighter toward the climax. And when it’s all over maybe have a think about where your own prison walls are, and what’s on the other side should you choose to try and scale them.

 

The Heart Goes Last was published by Bloomsbury on 24th September 2015 ISBN: 9781408867785

 

You can find Margaret Atwood on Twitter @MargaretAtwood and on her website margaretatwood.ca

Van has finished reading… Revolutionary Ride: On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran by Lois Pryce

7 Apr

Iran. Saying the name is likely to conjure particular images in the mind, dependent on your proclivities. Its state of isolation is wont to invite hyperbole, be that in terms of revulsion or attraction, and the shadows of both its ancient and recent history loom large on the world stage. Names like Persia, Isfahan and Shiraz conjure all the poetry and mystique of the middle east, while events in 1979 feature heavily in our darkest ruminations on modern day Iran. But how much do we really know? Revolutionary Ride is a travelogue of what Lois Pryce experienced after receiving an unusual invitation to visit Iran and find out.

On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran is the book’s subtitle, though if you’re expecting some kind of touristy guide to the sights you’ll be disappointed. While Lois does take in the country’s landscape and visit the major cities and attractions what comes through – and surely this is true of anywhere in the world – is that the real Iran is discovered in its people, in the things they love and what they have to offer. And they are never afraid to offer. As far as Iranians are concerned, hospitality is in their blood. Of course this is enshrined in Islam and is, I think, considered as something of a right rather than a gift to bestow, though it never comes across as an obligation. Even so, to my Western sensibilities it can only be seen as a beautiful thing and one we’d do well to learn from. I love the gesture Middle-Easterners have where they raise their hand to touch the heart when greeting friends. It speaks to the openness of expression that I’ve seen countless times in Morocco and Tunisia. It’s as though you really are taken to heart when a friendship is forged.

Offers of hospitality abound for Lois, though of all her encounters in the book I think it’s in Mr Yazdani that we see something of an ideal of the real Iran. Named for his birthplace of Yazd, the ‘home’ of Zoroastrianism, Mr Yazdani seems to have taken that oldest of religion’s basic tenets – good words, good thoughts, good deeds – to heart. Ideals we’d recognise from any of today’s global faiths, it seems Persia (as it then was) has been sharing with the world for a very long time indeed. If only more of us were like Mr Yazdani.

 

I got the sense that Lois found it hard to ignore the weight of all the negativity talk of her trip attracted, though perhaps that’s all too understandable. I can remember our own reactions to the sight of the Guardia Civil when Mrs Van and I lived in Spain. None of our Spanish friends had a good word to say about them, and when your number plate is conspicuous it can attract the wrong kind of attention. Being tailed by the authorities on a motorway isn’t fun. When you’re travelling at just under the speed limit, and everyone else is flying past as if jet-propelled, and you check your mirror at every off-ramp and they’re still there after a hundred miles it can unsettle the nerves somewhat. Factor into that the extent of the Iranian authorities’ power, their reputation and the ever-ready negative connotations our media connect with Iran and you have a sure-fire recipe for paranoia.

But how that serves to highlight all the unexpected kindnesses she met. Of course bad things happen. There are some hairy moments, close shaves and lucky escapes but isn’t it true that the good is always stronger than the bad? The things you choose to remember, when it comes down to it, are the things that make you smile. Lois Pryce went in search of the real Iran and in each one of those happy encounters she found it.

 

It’s a hard call to make to wish something so potentially toxic as tourism on a place. If it were possible to go and meet the people Lois met and enjoy their company I think there’d be far more people cueing up for tickets. Of course it’s not likely you’ll meet the same people but the law of averages suggest that the welcome, at least, the sense of hospitality is prevalent. This is the overriding response that Lois Pryce met. But there’s still all the other stuff too and while it’s easy for me to sit in my chair and see the sadness of that doubt that haunts Lois’s journey, I can’t deny the many levels of control the she was subject to (in many cases levels I wouldn’t be). I would love it if the world could open up to Iran, and Iran to the world, though that would have to go hand in hand with a strong hope that in doing so the Iranian people would see the benefit.

Perhaps at this point the best we can hope for them is that one day soon they do get the government they deserve.

 

Revolutionary Ride: On The Road In Search Of The Real Iran was published by Nicholas Brealey on 12th January 2017 ISBN:9781857886573

You can find Lois on Twitter @LoisPryce or at her website loisontheloose.com

 

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

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… Hoffer by Tim Glencross

3 Mar

In William Hoffer Tim Glencross presents that trickiest of propositions: an unpleasant protagonist. Or is he? The fact of the matter is that, with Hoffer, it’s all about the appearance. He is studied in the ways of London Society as only a hunter can be, in but not of his surroundings. He’s accepted as an established figure although he’s not really one of them. Though you might not know it to see him, he is a working man and London Society is his office. His tastes are lavish, his manners impeccable and his past is not open to discussion – until it turns up, unexpectedly, in his living room.

Everything about Hoffer is contradiction, though he is always and unmistakeably Hoffer, even down to his thoroughly ‘English’ respect for the well-made umbrella. He takes great pride in his appearance and his reputation, and it’s nothing short of very hard work appearing to be so at ease with the world and in showing us all this Tim Glencross’s characterisation is perfect. What you first think of as an unpleasant protagonist is actually… likeable. And if that’s a bit of a stretch for you there’s no shortage of likely candidates to compare him to. Indeed, there are far more unpleasant entities to be found in the supporting cast and there is, I think, a detectable delight in the way the author draws them. As with Glencross’s debut, Barbarians, there’s a sense that it’s the ugliness in his characters that attracts him the most.

Whether you like William Hoffer or not, there’s plenty going on here to keep you wondering whether he’s going to sink or swim.

If I had to pick one thing as my abiding memory of the aforementioned Barbarians, it would be the very dry and quite pointed humour of it (still one of my favourite comic lines in a novel is the one from Barbarians directed at Tony Blair about how the Middle East isn’t his forte). With Hoffer I find myself far more aware of the teeth lurking in the grass. Not to say that Hoffer doesn’t have its lighter moments, it’s just that the points are that much sharper.

The prose itself chimes a note familiar to Barbarians too, making me think of Evelyn Waugh (with a little tweaking of the cultural references I could easily see this cast of characters feeling perfectly at home in the Twenties, though not necessarily with the unfortunate Mr Pennyfeather), though in this instance you can add a large dose of Patricia Highsmith to the mix. The everyday cut-and-thrust of Tim Glencross’s characters is very aptly couched in that phrase. It’s witty, razor-sharp and finely-observed and the story itself unfolds at a very pleasing pace. The impression is that there’s no particular rush, although of course that is just an impression because at the heart of things there’s that dark understanding that keeps you on edge, that keeps you wondering what’s next, and when is it going to happen, and who’s going to come out of it with something rather unsavoury beneath their fingernails.

 

With Barbarians, Tim Glencross arrived with much – and well-deserved in my opinion – fanfare. In letting Hoffer loose on us he’s set out his stall in a very enticing manner. Hoffer is a pleasure to read – a slightly grubby pleasure, but that is I think part of its charm. Already I’m wondering what the author is dreaming up to present to us next!

 

Hoffer is published by John Murray on the 23rd March 2017 ISBN: 9781444797596

You can find Tim Glencross at his website timglencross.com