Tag Archives: “book review”

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

Van has finished reading… Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa

7 Jul

evening primrose

The prosaic title, the soft pink background and the lush green foliage of the cover give nothing away. It’s a book that makes you smile to look at it. But, oh, how there are teeth in the grass. Nothing prepared me for what was between the boards.

Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose tells the story of Masechaba. Inflicted with health issues at a young age she undergoes drastic surgery to rectify the problem and fosters the dream of becoming a doctor. When she achieves her dream the reality of being a junior Doctor in South Africa’s beleaguered state health care system proves to be very different from what she imagined. And when she takes a stand the attention she receives is very different from what she might have expected.

The story unfolds through a succession of undated journal entries, an excellent device to bring us right up close to Masechaba. It’s almost a conversation with God and it really pays off as events take turn and turn again, her faith is tested and the singular nature of her thoughts, prayers and confessions recede in the face of events. It actually left me breathless at times, stunned. I could only shake my head at things that, for so many reasons, I am never likely to have to deal with. Politics, social disparity, organised religion and deep-rooted folklore all come into focus as Masechaba talks to God, and sometimes doesn’t talk to God, and sometimes shouts at God, setting down her thoughts and feelings, examining what is ceded to a higher power.

Unstintingly honest, time and again the motive for her actions is a personal one first, with the benefit or consequence to others coming as a secondary realisation. The characterisation is perfect, with motivation and action always in harmony, and it’s impossible not to feel for Masechaba as she faces what life throws at her, albeit those motivations are so consistently inward-looking. There’s something irresistible in that voice; perhaps it’s the honesty of purpose we should all see in ourselves…

And what of hope, at the close of the story? Is this a cycle set to repeat with each generation, or is it hope that is the gift of the future?


It’s not a long book – just 150 pages – but the writing is excellent, spare and yet flowing and vociferous. Witness phrases like ‘Our people’. When that phrase arises you’re never in any doubt as to who ‘our people’ are. Two little words that say so much, can encompass so much but it’s always about the restriction, always about who’s not included, the focus always on the ‘our’ and never on the people. That’s good writing.

Some books you can read and feel their power and understand that they are fiction. Some you can read and feel their power and their possibility and think, thank God they are fiction. And then there are books like this. You read and you feel their power but you don’t think, Thank God it’s fiction because it’s not their possibility but their probability that you feel. Although they are fiction they are born of fact. This thing you’ve read has happened, happens, is happening and will continue to happen. And all its power increases.

Press this book into people’s hands. Tell everybody you know. It needs to be read.


Evening Primrose is published by Sceptre on the 27th July 2017 ISBN: 9781473662261

Kopano can be found on Twitter @kopanomabaso

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

Van has finished reading… An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

4 Jul

The Author’s note at the back of my copy of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music begins with the line, ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech’. I read this after finishing the book and it made me wonder whether Vikram Seth actually talks like this, and that in turn made me wonder about Michael and Julia and Piers and Billy and Helen. Would they talk like this?

Of course it’s a moot point because Vikram Seth chose to write that line. His words, composed to convey his feelings. Yet to me it sounded like an echo. That could so easily have been Michael or Piers. Julia? Maybe (Helen or Billy I think not). What it underlined – and I know it’s a little off-piste for this blog to look at the negative side of things, but indulge me – having read the whole book is that the characters didn’t quite ring true for me. Perhaps it’s that they spent so much time in each other’s company. Perhaps it’s that their life really is so much about music that there’s room for little else. Perhaps it’s that the music they spend so much time with is at least a century removed but in the end they felt to me a little like shades of the same character, and that they’d all be quite at home in a Dickensian parlour.

Where the story really does work for me is in its relationship to music. If you know classical music, and particularly the pieces mentioned in the book then I think you’ll get a great deal more out of it (If you don’t there is apparently a cd available so you can bone up). I’m at that level where I was able to recognise the joke about the string quartet looking like Beethoven’s famous opening to the fifth. I do make a noise with a guitar though, and love listening to music and that’s enough to connect with the quartet and how they feel when they’re playing. Take the music out of the story and the story is strong enough to stand on its own. Take the music aspect and the author attempt to convey something of that mystery that is experiencing listening to, playing, performing music and it’s an admirable attempt to put words in place of notes. In the early pages I had the sense that it might be a kindred read with Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes, though that really is the highest of bars where both writing and writing about music is concerned; the fact that I made that connection is suggestion enough that An Equal Music is readable, understandable and enjoyable.


An Equal Music was published by Phoenix in 1999 ISBN:9780753807736

Van has finished reading… The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

15 Jun


I thought this was a novel. I’m not sure where in all the flurry of tweets around its release I missed the memo that it’s a memoir but a part of me wishes you could meet it without any foreknowledge too. There’s something very forceful in the realisation that a life you read on the page – a place where you come to expect extremes of one kind or another – is not well-crafted to appear so, but actually real. Add to that the reason why we like some books more than others, the fact that we tend to read more closely when we identify with a character in some way and you begin to see what good writing really does. And Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is good writing. Let’s not call it brave. That would be to demean it in some way, to miss the point. Necessary is what this memoir is.

The Outrun chronicles Amy Liptrot’s association with alcohol from zenith to nadir, her flight from and return to The Orkney Islands and how this uncompromising landscape shaped her journey into recovery.

The writing is really sharp, unflinching without sensationalising, and in the descriptions of the landscape, wildlife and weather around The Orkneys vivid and precise. It’s no surprise The Outrun won the Wainwright Prize in 2016, an award giving for writing on the outdoors (though likely to cause a raised eyebrow given it’s the Wainwright Golden Beer Prize). Through the course of the memoir Amy Liptrot picks at the knot of her life, questioning her past without blame or recrimination, and the mark her birthplace has made on her is clear, likening London’s tower block flats and offices to the rock stacks of Orkney. The thing that really struck me about it is the tension. I don’t know what it is in us to make us lean towards the broken. We love to claim we’re obsessed by something or addicted to something with a dismissive wave and a smile. Harmless things like a pop group or chocolate or shopping, sometimes even things that aren’t so harmless. But there’s a hum that runs through this book, like a plucked string vibrating, always there, urgent though not overtly apparent. It’s the thing on every page that’s not said, the thing that’s in all of us, that great yawning chasm that even if you’ve only ever been on the periphery of real addiction you’ll know is just waiting for that moment when you’re at your lowest ebb so you might turn around and look. All the way to the bottom.

All this might give you the impression of bleakness. If, like me (and I would guess many of us) you’ve never been to the Orkneys you might well have the same impression but, like her beloved islands, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is anything but bleak. Tough it may be but there is life here and plenty of it and that can only lift the heart.


The Outrun was published by Canongate on 14th January 2016 ISBN: 9781782115472

You can find Amy on Twitter @amy_may