Tag Archives: “book review”

Van has finished reading… Jott by Sam Thompson

9 Jul

jottMen are idiots.

Which is to say good grief, am I really like Arthur?

Okay, I’m not really like Arthur, not really really but it’s a mite unsettling when you find yourself (mentally) shouting at the book you’re reading and you suddenly realise (which is never suddenly at all but in fact a blossoming of the subconscious into the conscious, if you will a state of oblivion – of knowing but ignoring or denying that knowing) oh God, I do that. That’s what I do.

Sam Thompson’s Jott looks at the relationship – sometimes friendship, sometimes not – between two young men at the start of their careers. Louis is worldly and gregarious, a writer wrestling with a novel. Arthur is quiet and contained, a doctor branching into psychoanalysis.


Sam Thompson’s novel stems from his grandfather, Geoffrey Thompson, and his friendship with a man named Beckett. Geoffrey was a junior psychiatrist who allowed his writer friend Samuel (yes, that Beckett) to see life on the wards. You don’t have to know Beckett’s life or works to enjoy Sam Thompson’s Jott (I don’t and I did) but there may well be layers within that that level of knowledge unlocks.

For my money it’s a smart move to tell things from Arthur’s point of view. Right away it circumvents all that writers-writing-about-writers-writing-or-not-writing which surely only writers enjoy, and even then only when they’ve written it themselves. It also takes away the need to make Louis more or less Beckett-like, something that’s bound to divide opinion among those who know enough to judge, and either way would detract from the telling of the tale. Arthur is the fixed point, the mirror in which we see not only Arthur but also Louis, and then there’s the ever-present threat – or perhaps lure – of madness, of what it is to be understood and to understand.


Sam Thompson’s Jott is a quiet book – always a good thing – that might just get you looking inwards. It’s sharp and sometimes funny too, and in its own way deeply emotional. Maybe it’s a short straw draw as to who you’ll be rooting for but I guarantee you’ll be rooting for someone.


Jott was published by John Murrays on 14th June 2018 ISBN:9781473675056

I don’t know where Sam is on social media but if you do let me know and I’ll add it in

My particular thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book


Van has finished reading… Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

18 Apr

speak no evil

There are copious novels about what it’s like to be other – as indeed there are many ways to be other – but there’s something different about Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil, something almost counter to the usual run of things. There’s the ‘good life’ the protagonist, Niru, has – growing up in a good neighbourhood in Washington state, attending a good school, enjoying the luxury of an early admission to Harvard. Set against that the fact that Niru is a black boy in a white man’s world, a point that is ever-present and subtly conveyed. It’s rarely the brash glare of racism but rather the protagonist’s perspective on how his white peers view black culture, and how homogenous that view is. One of my favourite lines this year rises from this point. During a class discussing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the teacher leaves the classroom in a silent rage. When his all-white classmates look to Niru he says, ‘don’t look at me. I’m invisible.’

Then there is the fact that Niru is gay. Coming from a conservative Nigerian family, this is a big deal indeed – and this is where the something different comes in because it seems to me that, rather than being set against his father, despite the homophobia, despite the zeal with which that hatred is applied Niru would love nothing more than to be the image of his father: a strong, proud Nigerian man. It’s not America’s freedoms that Niru clings to. Not the new culture, the culture of his surroundings but those of a country he doesn’t call home – indeed, a country as a gay man it would now be dangerous for him to call home. And therein lies the heart of Speak No Evil: What are you true to; what do you sacrifice?

With father and son there’s some really nice character work going on. Niru comes across as a good boy, a dutiful son despite the force of his resentment and yet at times I found him a good deal less that sympathetic, even selfish. And then there’s his father, a man so well-rendered I feel quite confident I’ve actually met him. His is a huge presence, domineering and physical, proud of his appearance, and yet those principles of his, so rooted in the family and even in the face of his enemies appear to spring from a place of protection. His refrain: Do your parents know you’re here? No? I’ll call you a taxi.

As a reader I love that moment when you realise the full import of what earlier seemed a throwaway line or an incidental detail. Louise Doughty did the throwaway line perfectly in Apple Tree Yard and in Speak No Evil Uzodinma Iweala slips an incidental detail by us with consummate ease. When that moment of realisation comes it’s an absolute joy, affording that glimpse of foreknowledge that ratchets the tension while the tight writing keeps you glued to the page. It’s very nicely done.

Tight writing is an apt phrase for Speak No Evil, a novel that punches well above its word count. If you’re a quick reader you’ll probably devour it in a couple of sittings but fast or slow the impact is there, and the fallout is such that you’ll probably be thinking about it for days afterwards.


Speak No Evil was published by John Murrays on 8th March 2018 ISBN:9780719523700

My thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading…Sight by Jessie Greengrass

28 Mar


I do like the way Jessie Greengrass writes. So tightly-controlled and yet ruminative, I could almost liken it to the telling of a good joke in the way her words build so you feel the weight of each sentence coming to bear, focusing the attention, fining everything down to a sharp point, and when it comes it comes like a punchline, succinct and precise so you sit up and never fail to appreciate just how apposite the choice of words is. And how the bluntness of the delivery can heighten the emotional impact!

Jessie Greengrass’ debut novel, Sight, is a delightful thing.

It’s not a light read, which is not to say that it’s a difficult read but that there’s so much packed into it: the intertwining of the discovery of X-Rays, the birth of Freudian analysis, The Lumiere’s first screenings and the brothers Hunter and Van Rymsdyk documenting the late stages of pregnancy with the narrator’s recollections of childhood, her mother’s death and her own progress toward motherhood. It’s easy to feel like you’ve missed something. And then the questions it will pose. Do we understand a thing because we’ve seen it? What can we know of it without that sight? And in the seeing, what mystery do we lose? Though so many of the reference points are historical there’s no doubting how timely and relevant the work is. Sometimes it feels as though we’re a more visual society than we’ve ever been, yet we trust what we see less and less, and feel all the more isolated for it.


There’s a real sense of distance in the writing that feels very much like an extension of the tone of the stories in the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It. It lends the narrator’s voice a kind of numbed sensibility and leads me down a chicken-and-egg thought process: does the voice make the narrator or the narrator the voice; is it the nature of Jessie Greengrass’ writing that dictates her literary themes, or the themes that set the tone? And that sense of control – I wonder what it would look like if one of Jessie’s narrators completely lost it. It feels like that possibility is always there, just below the surface, out of sight.

I really like the conclusion of the novel – not an end as such but merely the last written page. There is life beyond it and that’s all to the good. It is a beautifully-fashioned bow to hold the first of those pages neatly together with the last.


Whether you pick up Jessie Greengrass’ Sight because of the beautiful, sensuous cover or for the excellent writing it really doesn’t matter. The thing you need to know is that it’s well worth the effort. Enjoy the cover, revel in the writing and then ponder at great length the many questions it poses.


Sight was published by John Murrays on the 22nd February 2018 ISBN:9781473652378


You can find Jessie on Twitter @JessGreengrass

My thanks to Alice Herbert at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

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, a-l-kennedy.co.uk

Van has finished reading… A History Of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

17 Aug


METAL! Hand in the air giving the horns. Guitar face, nod the head – though not too violently. The title of this book makes me smile. The iconography of the cover makes me smile. It’s all there in the wider consciousness, all Wayne’s World and Spinal Tap. A History of Heavy Metal. But if it were a line from Phoneshop, that other great Sutton export, it would be followed by brackets proclaiming, ‘yeah, I said it. What!’ This is no cold history, no sermon on how this is the true path nor apology for all the face paint and leather. This is brazen and unashamed, a fan laying down his love for and knowledge of his subject.

This is an invitation.


I’m not a metalhead, though I do like a bit of heavy. Led Zeppelin is my go-to, and on occasion friends have accused me of thinking the world stopped turning after 1980, though I like to think of myself more as a music fan, and I take to it in many shades. I have that most useful of things when it comes to music education: an older brother. My formative years were drenched in 70’s rock, in coveting Tygers Of Pan Tang album covers, wailing away to Sabbath or Rainbow and trying to outwit the springs he took from parker pens to booby-trap his tape-deck. And of course Zeppelin (which always seems slightly slower than it should; our main record player then clearly ran a little bit faster than 331/3). I can remember our neighbour coming to the window one summer’s day and saying something or other. When we turned it down to hear what he’d said he went away…

Oh, to be Jimmy Page. To know what it feels like to play that way! It’s guitars that I’m drawn to, (I can remember being blown away by the speed of Rik Emmett’s playing on Triumph’s Rock And Roll Machine, though listening back to it now aside from the solo it could be Abba!) and that heady mix of emotion and proficiency that moves me. These days I can find that as much in flamenco as rock, and in other instruments too. But we’re never just one thing. I wonder what the author goes to when it’s not metal he needs to hear?


If you like heavy music – and bear in mind that even if you’re not aware before reading just how broad a church that can be, you will be after – you’ll have been exposed to some elements of Andrew O’Neill’s world view already, and as such you’ll get more out of it. But it’s not a prerequisite to enjoyment. O’Neill’s enthusiasm is infectious. To read him describing a particular song makes me want to listen to that song. His knowledge is extensive too, tracing the many and varied (when I say varied I mean to those who know they’re varied. Currently I’m imagining a Pantone colour chart with a hundred shades of black on it) strains of metal from roots to the present. Who knew Vegan Straightedge was actually a thing! While it is a personal take on the subject there’s room too for the bands that don’t float his boat (the Whitesnake mention made me laugh; I sent a comment to a radio station once while David Coverdale was being interviewed. They read it out and he said, ‘Bite me!’). In setting his views down the author invites you to laugh too, but with rather than at him because, like all metallers (except maybe Manowar) he understands that the irony dial doesn’t stop at eleven. It goes all the way back round to zero. That’s what makes a grown man covered in Tipp-Ex pulverising an electric guitar majestic. It’s all about the commitment.

One thing that strikes is the example Andrew O’Neill’s A History Of Heavy Metal sets. It doesn’t matter what your particular genre of music is – indeed your area of art generally – if you love it, invest in it. Tell people about it by talking to them not at them. Explore its depths and know that it won’t all be for you but that’s okay, you’re not the BBC. Own it – none of that guilty pleasures nonsense. And above all, INVEST IN IT. That’s what helps it to grow.

Funny, engaging and technical, Andrew O’Neill’s A History Of Heavy Metal will appeal not just to metalheads but also to music lovers, nerds and Insta junkies everywhere. Get it while you can. It’s on Kim Kardashian’s reading list, honest!

A History Of Heavy Metal was published by Headline on 13th July 2017 ISBN:9781472241443

You can find Andrew on Twitter @destructo9000 or on his website andrewoneill.co.uk, where you can also find a playlist to nod along to while you read


My thanks to Phoebe Swinburn at Headline for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… The Book Of Luce by LR Fredericks

9 Aug


Undoubtedly there’s a shorter way to tell this story but it wouldn’t be half as entertaining to read. L R Fredericks’ The Book of Luce is… is… interesting. Lest that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise allow me, at least a little, to elucidate. The 60’s, drugs, music, ‘characters’: the things you would expect to find in a book around this era are all there. It’s borderline caricature in places but the thing that allows it to be so, the thing that keeps the reader on side is the narrator – indeed the author of The Book Of Luce (a nice touch, the ‘by the same author’ page) – who takes us through reality and hallucination with equanimity, who meets the strange and the mundane with aplomb. We have no choice but to believe what he sees, or at the very least to take it at face value until some other explanation presents itself. You can’t help but buy into it and that makes it eminently readable.

And there, for me, is the nub of the book. Are you apt to believe? Are you drawn by the esoteric? Or is it all mumbo-jumbo to you, all the ranting of crazies? Whichever way the wind blows for you, you’ll note the echoes here. The Book Of Luce is something of a mirror in which we might see those proclivities reflected. If we choose to, we can even chuckle at ourselves along the way.


Although this is a quest and we trip from one clue to the next as the trope dictates don’t let the wordiness fool you. The narrator’s voice is finely tuned – a hint of that received pronunciation that could open doors back then, and allied to that a sense of a mind succumbing to the effects of all those drugs, though you’re never quite sure just how lucid he is. The planning is very tight and while there is an amount of coincidence to the turn of events the very nature of those occurrences is brought into question. Is it happenstance or serendipity, cause or effect?

The press blurb cites David Mitchell meets David Bowie though for me it’s far more Herman Hesse meets Salman Rushdie: the acceptance and presentation of what’s beyond the veil as part of everyday life coupled with a scholarly grasp of the subject matter. There’s an extensive bibliography supplied to go with the many quotes in the book and I strongly suspect a good deal of it is genuine.


That there is something more, something better, something beyond the life we live is the oldest of stories. And surely it’s a good thing that we’ve looked, that we continue to do so. Surely it speaks to our better nature that we believe we are capable of more. Will The Book Of Luce change your mind, or open it up to that possibility? I don’t know, but you might well enjoy the journey to finding out and that can never be a bad thing.


The Book of Luce is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 10th August 2017 ISBN: 9781848543348

You can find L R on Twitter @LRFredericks or at her website, lrfredericks.com

My thanks to Jenni Leech at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading…Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day

1 Aug


There is something very powerful about a quiet rendering of the suffering people can inflict on one another. For all the weight of stories told about and around the second world war, for all the bravery and degradation, the great suffering and little hard-won joys it’s the quiet ones that linger in the memory. Not just for its period and location I’m reminded of Virginia Baily’s superb Early One Morning, and Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island is one of the quiet ones.

1939. Catania’s streets are quiet. Even before the knock at the door, he knows. For Francesco there is no escape as the police run him down, the disgust on their voices clear as he is taken. ‘Arrusu’, they call him, the word all sneer and spittle. But Francesco is not the only one. All over the city young homosexuals are being rounded up. Someone has betrayed them, but who? Once interned together on San Domino, the hunt begins for the mole while the authorities seek the perpetrator of another crime. While Francesco feels he has lost everything there is more at stake than he can imagine.

Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island is a sensitive, thought-provoking and wholly unsentimental story of love, loss and betrayal.


I love the characterisation in this book. The author’s restraint is impeccable and it’s this, I think that allows so many individuals to stand alone in what is quite a crowded cast. Impressions build over time to form a picture and this gives the imagination room to fill in around the descriptions. Nothing feels out of place, no action introduced simply to aid the plot or build a scene and, while it may not be a complete surprise come the end of the book for me it’s all the more satisfying that the journey is such a complete one. It’s this, too that allows the reader to feel not just for Francesco and his companions but for Elena too and, yes, even Pirelli at times. There’s an honesty in the rendering of these people that is truly touching.

Sarah Day sets the scene on San Domino exquisitely. She uses all her characters’ senses to paint a vivid landscape, and beyond that too the flavour of what it’s like for the island’s inhabitants to live there. Islanders and prisoners alike are hemmed by a fatalistic mien, and the shadow of fascism looms over everyone, fuelling their paranoia. War rages in Europe. Everybody counts the days until Italy will join the fray, though the ghost of defeat at Caporetto in the First World War haunts both those who were there and those who were not. Claustrophobia stalks Day’s prose.


It’s easy sometimes to look at stories like this with a knowing eye – to feel their power, yes, to empathise with those who suffered, but from a safe distance and through the filter of fiction. But these were real people. Okay, yes, as Sarah Day says in her author’s note, all but two of the characters are invented, but ‘confino’ is not. The idea that homosexuality could be contracted like a disease really was there. People were rounded up, beaten, interned and much worse because of their sexuality. And before we get all holier than thou about it let’s remember that homosexuality was a criminal offence in this country too, that it would be another 28 years before it was even partially decriminalised here.

But look at Day’s description of Francesco’s feelings, his fears and desires. One of the real joys of this book is his coming to terms with what he feels and how right it is, how it couldn’t be anything else, anyone else.

How is that any different to you or me?


Mussolini’s Island was published by Tinder Press on 23rd February 2017 ISBN:9781472238191

You can find Sarah Day on Twitter @geowriter or at her website, sarah-day.com


My thanks to Millie Seaward at Headline for allowing me to review this book