Van has finished reading…Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

20 Feb

devils day

I do like it when a book turns out not to be what you thought it would be – at least not entirely anyway. The opening chapter of Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is good old-fashioned atmosphere all the way, pushing all the buttons the ominous-looking cover has already tweaked. But then it turns in the next chapter, it settles into the longer story, into what at times feels almost like a social history and I start to wonder what this book really is. Of course those buttons then get pushed all over again and by now I’m starting to wonder where the bad apple will be found. It’s all rather pleasing!

The writing itself fits nicely together, with that storyteller voice from the first chapter surfacing again and again, weaving the lesser fictions into the greater one and above all else it reminded me just how much stories are histories in their own way, and that history is just as much a fiction sometimes as anything Granny revealed in words at the fireside.

If you’re of a writerly persuasion yourself you’ll be particularly interested in the second chapter, which is a peach of a lesson on showing-not-telling.


There’s some lovely character work going on too with the central family, whose surname, Pentecost, is a nice touch. The dynamics are excellent and really draw you in, and there’s not a little delight in how your view of each of them subtly (and possibly not-so-subtly at times) shifts. I particularly like the way the narration alters. There’s a point where you suddenly feel as though you’ve been led into a place from which there is no escape, and being on the inside, being in the know is really uncomfortable. Of course it also underlines the protagonist’s early admission that he’s ‘acquired a reputation for telling stories just like the Gaffer’, his grandfather. If that’s not code for ‘trust at your peril’.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is an ideal winter read. A joyous blending of small community everyday struggles and super creepy atmosphere. Pull up the duvet, ignore the creeping shadows and immerse yourself in the murk and mystery.


Devil’s Day was published by John Murray on 19th October 2017 ISBN:9781473619869

I couldn’t find Andrew on Twitter, or at his website. Perhaps he’s up on the moor, looking for a stray, or down at Far Lodge tap tap tapping out a tale just like The Gaffer used to tell.


My thanks to Emma Petfield at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.


Van has finished reading… All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

24 Jan

All rivers run free

What an excellent way to start the year! Two great books in a row, and both with a superb sense of place and landscape. Natasha Carthew’s All Rivers Run Free needs to be on your Reading List.

All Rivers Run Free tells the story of Ia Pendilly. Living in a caravan on the coast of Cornwall with her common-law husband, Ia’s life at Twenty-five is not what she imagined it would be. She is childless and lonely. When one day she finds a young girl washed up on the shore Ia rescues her, and in doing so sets in motion a change that will take her into a world she barely knows, and to a place she can only dare to remember.

Natasha Carthew’s writing is lyrical despite the starkness of the story and Ia’s voice really shines through. The sparseness of commas might throw you at first but trust me, give the first page a second read if you need to because the atmosphere is all in the effect of those extra tacked-on clauses. The isolation, the mistrust, the second-guessing – you can almost feel the struggle Ia is having, hear it as a conversation with herself. I was strongly reminded of Jess Richards’ City of Circles, and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, all books with at their heart a young woman adrift in her own world and trying to make sense of life.

You could almost count the main cast of All Rivers Run Free on the fingers of one hand, though this only deepens the sense of anxiety in Ia’s situation and temperament. There’s a likeness in all these characters too, though don’t mistake that for similarity. They each stand in their own skins, vividly rendered and distinguishable in their action and motivation. It’s location and situation that ties them so strongly together.

The storyline is really compelling, Natasha Carthew sticking rigidly to Ia’s point of view so I found myself always wondering about the goings-on in that elusive wider world. This, along with that excellent characterisation meant I had no trouble rooting for Ia all the way. I could begrudge her nothing, nor hold anything against her. And with the sharp-focus description of the landscape she passes through I found myself wishing it were genuinely possible to make a film that’s as good as the book. river run

All Rivers Run Free will be published by riverrun on the 19th April 2018 ISBN:9781786488626

You can find Natasha on Twitter @natashacarthew or in person where Cornwall is at its wildest.


My particular thanks to Corinna Zifko and Elizabeth Masters at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

17 Jan

two houses

I’ve been excited about The Two Houses ever since I heard that Fran Cooper’s second novel was on the horizon. Her debut, These Dividing Walls was one of my top five reads of 2016 and I was eager to see what her second book had to offer. I was not disappointed. Kicking 2018 off in the best possible way, Fran Cooper’s The Two Houses is a cracking read.

Recovering from a breakdown, acclaimed ceramicist, Jay, and her architect husband, Simon are looking for a weekend escape property. They find The Two Houses on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, a property whose central rooms were reputedly so haunted a previous owner had them cut out. But as work starts to put The Two Houses back together, Jay and Simon discover that Two Houses casts a dark shadow across the whole village.


Right from the off the atmosphere is perfect, malevolent and brooding, that sense of place that was so apparent in These Dividing Walls fully evident in the setting of the scene for The Two Houses. As the point of view shifts so does the appreciation of the landscape and I think it’s this that underpins the atmosphere as the story moves on. I love the way Fran Cooper uses language, too. Little touches that frame each character in their own thinking –Jay’s pottery terms and Tom’s farming phrases – it’s really effective, and importantly not overdone.

As with These Dividing Walls, the characters are superbly rendered. The way each clique fits together, be it London or Yorkshire village, is good but then each individual within those groups is distinguishable, each with their own drama, their own history, their own concerns about the future. And then there’s the village itself. Its setting, its location, even its weather make it feel as much a part of the cast as Jay or Simon or Tom.

It’s amazing how small a drama the story actually is when you think about it, which is testament to Fran Cooper’s skill in really getting under the skin of things. The plotting is lean and really finely tuned, nothing out of place or wasted. The language feels apt and precise, well thought out – at one point even down to a syllable. It frequently left me with a smile on my face, the Harvey effect kicking in. It’s lovely when you get a book that does that, gives you an appreciation of the craft that’s gone into its making without pulling you out of the flow or getting in the way of the story.

There is a mystery at the heart of The Two Houses but a mystery alone is rarely enough to make a great story. The lovely thing about Fran Cooper’s work is that it’s the humans caught up in that mystery that interest her more. You might pick it up for the puzzle but I guarantee it’ll be what the people around it are going to do next that’ll keep you turning the pages; it’ll be the fate that awaits them, and even the fate of those Two Houses that’ll have you caught up until the final page.



The Two Houses will be published by Hodder on the 22nd March 2018 ISBN:9781473641570


You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop


My particular thanks to Veronique Norton at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

My top 5 reads of 2017

10 Jan

It feels like 2017 was a strange year of reading for me. Having set out at the start with the intention of reading more I ended up reading fewer books than I did in 2016. I gave up on more books this year too and I wonder whether this was as a result of an awareness of reading time being more precious. That said, there were still books aplenty to enjoy, and a clutch I got really excited about. There were a couple of real standout titles in 2017 that I knew would be in my top five the moment I’d read them but, as ever, whittling the favourites down to five is not easy. Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat almost made it (I still can’t see an octopus without remembering…), and Jess Richards’ wonderfully lyrical City of Circles whose opening chapter is like a breath you can’t release. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island was a pleasure, sensitive and melancholy, and opening up a chapter of history that is little known. And then there was The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon, which Mrs Van loved as much as I did. I defy anyone not to fall for Tilly!


But down to business: March, the promise of spring and the first of my top five, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. One of Mrs Van’s favourites too, you really can’t beat a book that can make you laugh out loud, and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will do it over and over. Add to that excellent characters and a storyline that will make you look, and then look again at life and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.


The next of my top five came to me in June. A book that had been on my radar for a while, though I knew little about it beyond the title and the lovely cover, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected because I didn’t know before reading that it was a memoir, and also that it was so uplifting, its lyrical beauty a welcome counterpoint to that febrile sense that necessitated the writing of the book in the first place. Little wonder it won the Wainwright Prize in 2016.


From the Orkney Islands in June to South Africa in July and Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose blew me away. It’s not a big book – just 150 pages – but its punch is mighty! It’s interesting for me to realise that I read this the month following The Outrun too as these books feel similar in some ways, visceral and honest, spare and lyrical. There has to be a sense of truth in any book for it to really work but some books bear more truth than others. The truth in Evening Primrose is almost too much to bear. A stunning piece of work.


The international flavour continues in September, and it’s Japan this time for Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. I can’t help but smile, remembering this book and the extraordinarily vivid rendering of little Yuki. It’s like going back to the adorable photos of the little ones in your own life. It’s that characterisation that really makes this book, connecting like a mainline straight to the heart so you feel everything that happens. This was another one that Mrs Van loved too, our favourites coinciding a lot more than in previous years.


Finally, November brought Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. I think I would’ve known this would be in my top five even if I’d read it back in January. A lush and pretty proof with its purple velvet and gold lettering, it’s a treat and no mistake. Hands down, this is up there as Mrs Van’s favourite of the year – I started reading this one to Mrs Van and didn’t get a chance to finish it first. We raced through it in a single weekend. It’s absolutely gripping, an assault on the senses that I’d urge you to get your hands on, and you’ve not got long to wait now!


As for 2018, well things are looking pretty good already. After all, you’ve got the absolute delight that is The Wicked Cometh on its way, and there are second books from Fran Cooper (a review of which will follow shortly) and Anthony Trevelyan, both of whom produced stunning debuts (Fran’s excellent These Dividing Walls and Anthony’s sublime The Weightless World, both of which deserve to be very widely read). So here’s wishing you all health and happiness in 2018, and as much joy, heartbreak, adventure, fantasy and truth as you can find between the covers of the books you read.


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.