Tag Archives: “book review”

Van has finished reading… Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman

15 May

I sat down to explain the story to Mrs Van. So there’s this guy… no, wait let me start with the temple, or… okay, so there’s this American magnate, and he… or, there’s a Hollywood film producer… no, no, go back to the guy – did I mention he’s in the CIA… maybe I should start with the octopus wrestling.

Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat is… well let’s go with this: it’s intricate, it’s funny, it’s sprawling in a very controlled sort of way, it’s inventive, it’s thoroughly gripping and it’s completely unbelievable, except that it’s also very clever. Simply explaining the premise of the story might be enough to raise the potential pothole in the plot:

In 1938 two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungle of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screw ball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York.

A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent embarks on a mission to exploit it as a geopolitical pawn – unaware that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have imagined.

Why didn’t they just leave? Ah, but Ned Beauman, like Harvey, has overcome not only time and space but any objections too.

There’s quite a cast involved in this epic so the characterisation is necessarily on point, even down to the small appearances (I particularly liked Atwater’s wife for that mix of humour, desperation and vitriol). But really this book is all about the journey – the narrator, Zonulet’s journey mostly, but by association everyone connected with the temple too. And once you’ve read it that also means you. I suppose at some level we all want to feel like we’re the protagonist in our own lives and whenever a writer comes to put down their ‘is he mad or not’ story (as we all eventually do – mine was short and quite bad) the success or failure therein is in realising that it’s a moot point. It’s simply a question of perspective. In Madness Is Better Than Defeat, Ned Beauman does a first class job of weighting both sides of that coin.

Structurally I suspect the book itself conforms – if such a word can be permitted in regard to such a book – to ‘the rule’, or ‘the diagram’ as well (so there’s a level of meta going on beyond the layering of Vansaska’s opinions about the narrator’s literary ability) so that as a reader we find that we too have fallen under the temple’s power, and come those telling last lines we’re left not with madness but a kind of infuriated satisfaction.

 

I enjoyed Madness Is Better Than Defeat a lot. The humour, the pace and the mystery of it all kept me turning page after page. It’s a story to get lost in, to give yourself up to and simply enjoy the journey. If you’re in a book group it’s one to put on your future reading list, as I suspect it will prove to be one of those books that generates a lot of discussion.

 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat is published by Sceptre on 24th August 2017 ISBN: 9781473613584

You can find Ned on Twitter @NedBeauman or on his website nedbeauman.co.uk.

My thanks in particular to Veronique Norton at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon

4 May

The summer of 1976 has thrown a long shadow over a generation. To look back at the figures now might be enough to make those who weren’t there wonder what all the fuss was about. We’ve had hotter days since and we’ve had a drier summer too. But numbers don’t really tell the whole story. It’s the things that live in the memory. Fruit squash ice cubes and calamine lotion, sun burn and the exquisite joy of a really big bit of skin coming off when you’re peeling. The way the heat seemed to swell in your ears. River beds cracked and gaping, once-green parks turned to stubbly brown fields of dust. My father embarrassing us all by walking down to the standpipe in his brogues and his underpants… It’s no wonder so many stories have borrowed this scenery. When it is evoked well it lives in the body’s memory as much as the mind’s eye.

And of course it always ends with rain.

 

In Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep we see that long hot summer largely through the eyes of ten-year-old Grace and her slightly younger friend, Tilly. The school holidays have just begun and what else is there to do but unravel the great mystery of the Avenue where she lives: Where has Margaret Creasy gone?

Grace and Tilly’s voices are spot on, and seeing the world through Grace’s eyes affords us the full benefit of all the laughs Tilly can provide. As characters they’re perfect, though don’t imagine that means they are bland. Grace wears her faults on her sleeve and I could feel myself nodding in recognition at my younger self on more than one occasion. She is very funny too, and in a very childlike way. It’s Grace’s charm that carries you into the story proper where the adult world proves to be a good deal less embracing. A number of the adult characters share the narrative duties and it’s in these chapters that we learn about the small secrets the Avenue harbours, and of the big secret that appears to bind them all together.

Above everything else it feels to me to be a book about redemption, how we hanker for it and how stifling it can be when we feel it is out of reach. So much of what happens turns on the smallest of moments, of choices made or avoided, and there’s barely a single character in the book who could be said to be wholly good, or wholly bad.

But isn’t that exactly the trouble with goats and sheep?

 

The writing reminds me of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. There’s that same, seemingly very English sense of wry humour, and in the expertly rendered voice of Grace I’m reminded of Claire King’s The Night Rainbow. Like both of these books I can also say that my heart was just a little bit broken along the way. For all the laughs there will be moments when you hang your head and look inside yourself and think about a choice you once made.

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one but I’d urge you to join the flock and pick up a copy of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep. It’s a very enjoyable and fulfilling read.

 

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep was published by Borough Press on 22nd October 2015 ISBN: 9780008132163

You can find Joanna Cannon on Twitter @JoannaCannon or at her website joannacannon.com

A Q and A with Fran Cooper, Author of These Dividing Walls

26 Apr

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. I say lucky because it turned out to be one of my top 5 reads of last year (you can read my review here). Amongst all the press saying how brilliant it is – it is brilliant, by the way – its release next week will garner, you can also expect the word prescient to appear a good deal.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the cover is lovely too!

dividing walls

 My luck, it seems, knows no bounds as Fran Cooper has agreed to a quick Q & A with me about These Dividing Walls, Paris and her writing. Enjoy!

 

1       Although These Dividing Walls finds its origin in short stories you’d written about the inhabitants of an apartment block, it’s very much a complete and rounded novel rather than a collection of linked stories. How did this become the bigger story you wanted to tell?

In 2014 I applied for and was accepted onto the Womentoring Project. Lisa O’Donnell (author of The Death of Bees and Closed Doors) became my mentor, and she was the first person to convince me I could write a novel. Or rather, tell me I should write a novel. Her confidence was infectious, so I just thought why not? I had so many characters already floating around in my head, so I took the plunge and started weaving their stories together.

 

2       There’s a broad range of characters in your book. Who did you find the hardest to get right? Who was the most enjoyable to write?

Ooh, such a good question. Funnily enough, César Vincent flowed most easily for me – he just appeared fully formed one night, and I think he probably needed the least editing, even though I’d never really written a character like him before. It was really important to me to get the character of Anaïs right; to give her her own story and space without her becoming just another clichéd new mother. She probably changed the most between drafts one and two!

 

3       What’s the best editorial advice you were given when writing These Dividing Walls?

To not go from 0 to 100mph over the space of a single chapter! That was the most useful advice for me – it gave me the freedom to give each of the characters the space they needed and deserved.

 

4       There’s something a little conspiratorial about the style of the writing, a feeling at times of things being whispered over fences. How conscious were you of your reader in the process of writing? Is this something you enhanced in the drafting or a more organic occurrence borne out of the story’s set-up?

I’m not sure I thought about a “reader” in the abstract sense of it while I was writing! I was living in Paris when I started the book and performing short pieces from it at open mic nights in sweaty bars and basements, so I suspect that conspiratorial sense may have come from that – the fact that, in the early stages, I was sharing these snippets with people, whispering the characters’ secrets as if they were real secrets. But, looking back, it’s also the way I’ve always written. I love the idea that you, as a reader, get to know more about characters than they do themselves. I’ve always enjoyed reading work like that myself.

 

5       Your love of Paris as a city is evident in the writing, a sense of joy in the depiction even of the less salubrious quarters. Were there places you simply knew you wanted to include in the narrative? Are there any off-the-beaten-track places in the book that you’d advise a tourist to seek out? 

Paris was a very magical city for me – truly the place I feel I came of age, became my “real” self as it were. And there are certainly some very magical and off the beaten track places that I had in mind writing. The rue des Thermopyles might be one of the prettiest streets in the world. The Arènes de Lutèce blow my mind – you’re walking around the 5th arrondissement and suddenly stumble across a Roman arena with kids smoking and old men playing pétanque. And the Petite Ceinture (an abandoned railroad that runs a ring around the whole city) is an extraordinary, otherworldly place to explore (though you have to hop a fence in order to get onto it!).

 

6       Although it feels to some extent like Edward and Frédérique’s story, there are many lives running through this book. Were they intended to be the nucleus around which everything else revolves?

To me, the building is the nucleus. It’s what – physically and metaphorically – holds everyone together. Certainly, Frédérique and Edward were there from the beginning, but I didn’t think of them first and then add everyone else around them.

 

7       It’s interesting that Edward provides a foreigner’s experience of events. Was it always your intention to have, specifically, an English perspective?

Yes, absolutely. I wanted a fresh pair of eyes through which to see everything – and, for myself, I wanted the caveat that much of the book was seen through an outsider’s eyes. He remarks on things that I’m sure a French person wouldn’t bat an eyelid over. Edward’s arrival was not only a catalyst for much of the book’s action, but he was also a way to capture some of the joy and befuddlement I myself have felt as an expat!

 

8       You were mentored as part of the WoMentoring Project. How much of a difference did this make to your writing? If you were to pick one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?

See no. 1! This was a game-changer for me. It gave me the confidence to just go for it. When you’re not in this world and don’t know how it works, it can be very daunting. Having someone who’s done it before point you in the right direction is an absolute godsend, even if they’re just telling you that it’s important not to sound nutty in your cover letter. That’s my biggest piece of advice to people now – don’t write a nutty cover letter when submitting your book! You hear about some real corkers…

 

9       The possibilities for the residents of Number 37 to appear in their own stories are endless. Have you considered taking any of the characters further on their journeys? Or are you working on something completely new? Is there anything you can tell me about it?

Ahh, I haven’t really thought of doing that, though I wouldn’t want to say definitively that I’m done with all these characters and their individual stories. I’m in the process of editing my second book now, which is, in some ways, very different. But I think the themes of community and secrets are probably just as strong.

 

10     There’s often something of an overnight feel around a debut novel, though of course there are years of writing behind it. What has the path to publication been like for you? What are you looking forward to, or perhaps viewing with trepidation, for the months to come?

I’ve been enormously lucky. I have a wonderful agent and a wonderful editor (who was the person who actually signed me, back when she was working as an agent!) so my path to publication has been guided by very diligent, careful and caring hands. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the idea of your book actually being in the shops though. I wrote the vast majority of These Dividing Walls at home, in my pyjamas. Writing is an enormously intimate process. And then suddenly, it’s off, out in the world… I think it’ll take me a good long while to get my head around that.

 

Finally, I’d just like to say congratulations. I enjoyed These Dividing Walls immensely. It was one of my top 5 books last year, and I’m sure it’s going to win you many fans!

— Thank you so much for your kind words! As I say above, you spend so many hours alone writing these things thinking “god, am I talking complete rubbish? will anyone get this?” so to hear such a lovely, enthusiastic response is enormously heart-warming!

 

 

These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 4th May 2017 ISBN: 9781473641532

 

You can find Fran on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My especial thanks to Veronique Norton for arranging this Q & A.

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 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.