Tag Archives: “book review”

Van has finished reading… A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley

15 Oct

a different drummer


What a book William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is, marching to its own beat not only in name but in nature too! Set in a fictional southern state, described by means of a snippet from ‘The Thumb-Nail Almanac’ from 1961 – a device that effectively stands it in the stead of any southern state built on slavery – the important line is the one presented as a footnote of recent history, as something of a curiosity: Today, it is unique in being the only state in the Union that cannot count even one member of the negro race among its citizens.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the story of how that came to be.


The thing I find most incredible about A Different Drummer is that it’s 2018 and it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Okay, it’s not like I’ve been an enormous book nerd since birth who knows everything that’s ever been written but equally, when you begin to read in a particular vein it’s inevitable that connections will be made, and recommendations offered. It’s a travesty that A Different Drummer, first published a mere 10 years after Ralph Ellison’s exquisite Invisible Man, doesn’t share that book’s reach. Especially since I could well imagine Invisible Man’s detractors holding up William Melvin Kelley’s novel as an alternative.


I love the structure of A Different Drummer, beginning with that scene-setting excerpt from the almanac and shifting to the spinning of a tale on a store front porch as the area’s white farmers watch the trickle of the town’s black inhabitants leaving. The telling of the tale titillates with its tendency toward the unbelievable, hyperbole that alludes to the savagery and strength of the first slaves, even unto the name one slave family inherits, Caliban (yet there is the presenting later of a little white stone…).

The structure centres then on the Willsons, the richest and most influential land-owners in the area. Their ways may be more progressive and they may be beginning to seek a route out of their situation, but they are still essentially a white family entrenched by their own privilege and tradition. It’s through successive members of this family that the story unfolds – the story of a black man, Tucker Caliban, seen through white eyes – until the ominously titled final chapter.

And what a finale it is, too, the last word given to the optimism (or oblivion) of a white boy in a white man’s world; no-one else in the book could share that viewpoint at that moment. Genius.


How apt it is that all that noble-savage imagery is distilled into the strength and conviction of the slightest character in the novel. Stronger than all the well-meaning and progressiveness, all the lobbying you can imagine, it’s the making up of a mind that starts a movement. There’s a big difference between wanting change and being the change. That takes a Different Drummer!


Some books you think you might come back to. William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is one I know I will come back to. It’ll be on my shelf alongside Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Caryl Phillip’s Cambridge. You should make a space for it on yours.


A Different Drummer will be published by riverrun on the 1st November 2018 ISBN:9781787478039

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this wonderful book.


Van has finished reading… Mr Doubler Begins Again by Seni Glaister

5 Oct


A connoisseur of the potato and its many applications, Mr Doubler doesn’t find people so easy to understand. Living a reclusive life, his farm, his potatoes and visits from his housekeeper, Mrs Millwood are all Mr Doubler needs to get by. So when Mrs Millwood doesn’t show one day, Mr Doubler’s routine, his work, his very way of life threatens to unravel. Can the kindness of strangers draw Mr Doubler out of his retreat?

Seni Glaister’s Mr Doubler Begins Again is a delight. From the very first page there’s humour. A character’s quirky name, and their manner of being that tells you straight away you’re going to find them funny, and probably a little heart-warming. But that catch in the breath, that febrile something in the flow of the words – no, there will not be plain sailing, no mere frivolity.

But there will be tea, and the tea will be perfect.

I suspect this may prove to be the author’s oeuvre: telling the tale simply, with charm and wit yet without the sentimentality; and it’s a little later, when you think back over what you’ve read that the seriousness of it emerges, that you see the application of it in your own interactions. Although it is a tale told simply, an eminently readable book, don’t imagine that makes it mere fluff. Its very readability is testament to the skill and work that’s gone into the writing. It all brings back lovely memories of Seni Glaister’s debut, The Museum Of Things Left Behind.

The author tackles the notions of friendship and family, of kindness and second chances, and particularly of what it is to be older and alone with delicacy. It won’t be the author wagging her finger at you but rather your own conscience when you ponder the odd opportunity missed here or there. And as for Mr Doubler himself, God help me I can’t help thinking that if that pedantic streak I have really takes root… He’s a gem of a character and I particularly like the swing of his moods, the deftness with which Seni Glaister portrays them. It’s that visual I found myself starting to think about who might play him if someone has the good sense to option it for TV! When he’s on his ground and in full flow he is a sight to behold indeed. The overall feeling these characters are like to leave you with is that you know people like them, or at the very least know of people like them, and if it’s the latter then the hope that springs from this book is that before too long you will know them.

You don’t need outlandish events, extravagant locations and larger-than-life characters to tell a good story. In Mr Doubler Begins Again Seni Glaister takes a wholeheartedly everyday-story, full of everyday-people, and tells it perfectly. I guarantee it will make you smile. It might even make you laugh out loud.


Mr Doubler Begins Again will be published by HQ on the 24th January 2019 ISBN:9780008284985

You can find Seni on Twitter @SeniGlaister

My thanks to Seni for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

21 Sep

bottle factory outing

Well, that didn’t end up where I thought it might! Freda and Brenda work in an Italian-owned wine factory. One pursuing and the other pursued, they each anticipate the Company outing with fear and excitement. A day out in the English countryside, in winter – what could possibly go wrong?

Of course the short answer to that is anything and everything from the hilarious to the excruciating, though I wouldn’t have expected the sinister to be on the list.

Published in 1974 which is I think, though I’m no political historian, just before the Government of the day took us into the EU, Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing throws up some interesting parallels as we prepare to exit the EU in the near future. The Italians are presented almost as caricature – the young desirable male, the grabby boss, the tea-leaf-reading old woman, the huddled mass of peasantry – which serves to highlight the depth of the two English women’s understanding of their colleagues. While it would be nice to think we’re beyond this in 2018 the sad fact is that I could well imagine such characters being contemporary, the only difference now being that such limited experience and understanding of ‘foreigns’ would likely pigeonhole social status and class more precisely.


The dialogue is bristling – if you’re not sure what I mean by that, try reading Brenda and Freda’s interactions through gritted teeth. It brings out the malevolence that is latent in each exchange. And the subtlety by which the author tweaks your understanding is sublime. I remember AL Kennedy, in her On Writing, talking about arguing the merits of a book as part of a judging panel because of the amount of work it takes to make a piece of writing appear so simple. Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing might well be a case in point. Brenda’s mirroring of Patrick’s vowels to underline her conciliatory nature, and the books down the middle of the bed – not that they’re uncomfortable but that Freda doesn’t understand the preference of their presence over intimacy because she’s never been married. Add to that the fact that neither Freda nor Brenda are particularly sympathetic characters, making it hard for the reader to feel especially sorry for their plight. The genius of this, of course, is that we can laugh at as well as with them and yet appreciate the enormity of events at the close from a cool distance, thus feeling its impact on all sides.


Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing is a short slice of brilliance. If you like your reading witty, your horror funny, or your humour pitch dark this is definitely the book for you. I’m surprised it hasn’t made it onto film yet!


The Bottle Factory Outing was originally published by Duckworth in 1974 ISBN:9780349123714

Van has finished reading… Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

13 Sep


dark water

Floundering on his first voyage on the USS Orbis, Ship’s doctor Hiram Carver meets William Borden, a captivating presence, a legend among sailors, hero of The Providence. But every ship faces terror from the deep, and what happens on the Orbis will bind Carver and Borden together forever. When Carver recovers and takes up a role at Boston’s Asylum for the Insane, he will meet Borden again. Carver devotes himself to Borden’s cure, sure it depends on drawing out the truth of events on The Providence. But can he find the truth? Can he reconcile the man and the myth and bring them up into the light, out of the dark water?


Let me confess my ignorance up-front: I’ve not read Moby Dick (I did once try a Herman Melville book and it succeeded in putting me off trying any others). That said, and given the contemporary time period and the fact that Melville sailed these same waters, I could well imagine there ensuing some debate as to whether there’s a whale out there for each of us, and what particular shape it might take. More familiar for me was the feeling that Hiram Carver might’ve stepped complete from the pages of a Henry James; and there’s that strange synchronicity that I notice sometimes in the books I read – Elizabeth Lowry’s very Jamesian tale following James Baldwin’s equally Jamesian Giovanni’s Room (and to extend the theme further I’m now on to Beryl Bainbridge’s the Bottle Factory Outing where, as in Dark Water, an episode of cheek-biting ensues!).

I think it might be Elizabeth Lowry’s writing that I enjoyed the most in Dark Water. The story in itself is not so surprising (if it’s nautical shocks you’re after from your historical fiction you should also take a look at Ian MacGuire’s The North Water), though in lesser hands it would’ve been just that, a closed shell of a story. What Elizabeth Lowry does is present this world through the lens that is Hiram Carver. Or should that be the mirror. Though it’s Hiram telling the tale, and therefore his view of events and characters, it’s really Hiram’s story and it’s with a very deft hand that Elizabeth Lowry reflects and reveals, shucking the shell so we see the man within. I particularly enjoyed the vein of pomposity that runs through Hiram which gave rise to some unexpected but delightfully dry humour.

The scene-setting is excellent, too and never more so than on the Orbis. Elizabeth Lowry’s awareness of the space and the people who occupy it makes it vivid, almost real enough to taste. It’s very nicely done.


Elizabeth Lowry’s Dark Water is a cracking read. As the nights grow longer and the winter winds make your house creak and groan like a ship’s rigging, light a fire, pour a snifter of brandy and sink in.


Dark Water was published by riverrun on the 6th September 2018 ISBN:9781786485625

You can find Elizabeth Lowry on Twitter @MElizabethLowry

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin (@AnaBooks) for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… Testament by Kim Sherwood

17 Aug

testament 2testament

Reeling from the death of her beloved grandfather, Eva Butler discovers a letter among his belongings. The letter, from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, will set her feelings of responsibility for his legacy against her desire to know the truth, her desire to understand her fractured relationship with her father and her understanding of who she is.


Kim Sherwood’s Testament is something more than a novel. There’s a level of investment in the telling of this tale that reveals just how personal, how important its telling is to the author. It’s palpable, that’s how strong the writing is. That it’s a debut novel is a statement of intent indeed and it’s no surprise it won the Bath Novel Award. Ordinarily I would be thinking about the writing and the characterisation and the plot as separate entities but there’s a seamlessness about them here that holds these elements closely together. The characters are each a product of their own story, a story shaped by events but not bounded by them, and that rings true in all they say and all they do and it’s that that is perhaps the most heart-breaking thing about it all. That’s what allows it to be optimistic in spite of everything. In short, it is a thing of beauty.


Any literature that deals with the Holocaust – at least any literature worth its salt – is going to make you feel things. You can’t help but brace for the litany of abuses so that to some extent you’re prepared, desensitised. Wisely, there’s no revelling in the detail with Kim Sherwood’s Testament. Things just happen and the depth of their grisly nature is intensified in her character’s reaction, or lack thereof, to each event. But where Kim Sherwood will really see you undone is in the small acts of kindness that are candles held against a storm. Those were the moments I had to lower the page and take a breath.


There are so many lines in this book that stay with you – not quite the Harvey Effect but rather that you can feel the weight of them and their reach. More than telling the story, these lines speak beyond the bounds of their characters. Of all of them this is the line that really struck me the most. History doesn’t happen in the past tense. It has something of an essential truth about it. Something like a key that if we only used it might just unlock some understanding. So many places in the world are a mess, so many places where the difference between life and death can be unimaginably small and in each of these places there’s history at play, unravelling still. Each side in a conflict, any conflict, stands on the hardcore of their own history and that history is never as cut-and-dried as the opposition would have you believe. If we could only see that, though we disagree we might at least be able to treat each other as humans. We might at least be able to step away from our history’s constraints and move from the present into the future.


Testament was published by riverrun on the 12th July 2018 ISBN:9781786488671

You can find Kim on Twitter @kimtsherwood

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

7 Aug

an ocean of minutes

1980, a deadly pandemic is ravaging the world. When Polly Nader’s partner, Frank falls ill there is one thing she can do to save him: time-travel 12 years into the future to work for TimeRaiser to pay for his treatment. He will be cured and they can meet and continue their life together. But will everything go to plan?


Well, it would be a much shorter book if it did, and not nearly as interesting. Thea Lim’s debut, An Ocean of Minutes is a fascinating and enthralling journey into the personal and the political. Imagine your world changing beyond recognition in a matter of days, your only thoughts focused on how to save the one you love. It’s a drastic choice to travel 12 years into the future – but not so drastic if it keeps him alive. And it’s only 12 years – not so big an age gap. You could be together again. Except the future you didn’t have time to imagine isn’t the future you find yourself in. You’re on the wrong side of the lines now, unaware of the rules, no longer a citizen. And the one thing you can’t do is allow yourself to think he might not have made it.

An Ocean Of Minutes is the second book in a row in my reading that stands on the excellence of its world-building (the first being Laura Laakso’s Fallible Justice). Thea Lim’s image of Polly’s future is chilling and its impact, like The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, is all in just how close a possibility that future feels. It’s in the everyday details that we see this (the cost of a toothbrush, the things people value), and it’s in the exercising of power, the withholding of knowledge that we feel it. Misinformation is as enslaving as the bond the time-travellers sign up to and there’s always someone looking for a way around the system. Thea Lim makes some tidy points about race, refugees and politics – there’s a very nicely-put point about assisting international neighbours for one’s own benefit, and you can’t help but draw similarities about America and the situation regarding Healthcare Insurance. Yet despite all this I never felt preached at. It’s all incidental because the heart of the matter is Polly and whether she’s going to find who she’s looking for.

The writing is clean and succinct, allowing the narrative to do its work. Thea Lim doesn’t fuss over scenery or unnecessary backstory but letting the characters work in the moment to show us their nature and their impetus. I particularly like the effect of the shift in tenses between Polly’s past – often told in a mix of present and future – and her present, told using past tenses. It highlights the shift in expectation beautifully so it’s the future that appears black-and-white, the past bright and vibrant.

For all the bleakness of Thea Lim’s subject matter An Ocean of Minutes is quietly hopeful, though you won’t fail to feel the thread of desperation that weaves through all the TimeRaiser travellers’ stories. And when all’s said and done, there but for the grace of God…

An Ocean of Minutes was published by Quercus on the 20th June 2018 ISBN:9781786487919

You can find Thea on Twitter @thea_lim


My particular thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.



Van has finished reading… Fallible Justice by Laura Laakso

31 Jul

fallible justice

In Old London, where paranormal races co-exist with humans, criminal verdicts delivered by the all-seeing Heralds Of Justice are infallible. After a man charged with murder is declared guilty and sentenced to death his daughter asks private investigator Yannia Wilde to do the impossible and prove the Heralds wrong. But time is short. With just days to prove the impossible, can Yannia save a man who has been judged infallibly?


Laura Laasko’s debut novel, Fallible Justice is the first signed to new indie imprint Louise Walters Books. And what a book to have as your first. From the get-go Laura Laakso’s prose had me in safe hands, and let me know this was going to be a pacy and intriguing ride. Yes, it’s a murder-mystery-detective-story. There are threads aplenty as Yannia tries to pick apart an impossible case, and to the author’s credit none of it is far-fetched or implausible, despite the proximity of magic and all that could invoke. Yes, it’s a magic-laden paranormal fantasy. But rather than shaping the story the magic is finely woven, ever-present but never overpowering, an integral part of the scenery. More than these things, it’s also a book about class and duty, about belonging and standing alone. It’s about the wielding of power, and there is nothing more human than the desire for it and how that desire shapes and misshapes us.

Fallible Justice’s core strength is in the exquisite world-building. It’s in the characters that that world-building really comes through, a perfect mix of the everyday and the extraordinary. Though there are myriad levels of power and schools of magic there’s nothing stale or trite about the depictions, and each person feels very much a product of their school, their clan, their station – the sheer joy of the opening chapter is enough to get you rooting for Yannia straight away. When it comes to the magic it’s a really smart move on Laura Laakso’s part to focus not on the ritual or minutiae but on the effect it has both on those wielding and those on the receiving end. It strengthens the sense of social hierarchy, shows us where characters are weak or strong, and above all saves the bells and whistles of seeing the magic being done for when the stakes, and therefore the tension couldn’t possibly be any higher.

Fallible Justice is a great read, and one I’d have no qualms about recommending to fans of crime fiction, fantasy fiction, commercial or literary. Or simply those who love a good read. The Young Adult market should be all over this one, too. I can’t see any way Yannia and her world wouldn’t appeal! And then there’s the added bonus: there are still two more books in the series to come! I can’t wait.

Fallible Justice is published by Louise Walters Books on the 8th November 2018 ISBN: 9781999780937

You can find Laura on Twitter @LLaaksoWriter

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