Tag Archives: Alison Jean Lester

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… 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 alisonjeanlester.com


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