Tag Archives: “book reviews”

Van has finished reading… The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

17 Jan

two houses

I’ve been excited about The Two Houses ever since I heard that Fran Cooper’s second novel was on the horizon. Her debut, These Dividing Walls was one of my top five reads of 2016 and I was eager to see what her second book had to offer. I was not disappointed. Kicking 2018 off in the best possible way, Fran Cooper’s The Two Houses is a cracking read.

Recovering from a breakdown, acclaimed ceramicist, Jay, and her architect husband, Simon are looking for a weekend escape property. They find The Two Houses on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, a property whose central rooms were reputedly so haunted a previous owner had them cut out. But as work starts to put The Two Houses back together, Jay and Simon discover that Two Houses casts a dark shadow across the whole village.

 

Right from the off the atmosphere is perfect, malevolent and brooding, that sense of place that was so apparent in These Dividing Walls fully evident in the setting of the scene for The Two Houses. As the point of view shifts so does the appreciation of the landscape and I think it’s this that underpins the atmosphere as the story moves on. I love the way Fran Cooper uses language, too. Little touches that frame each character in their own thinking –Jay’s pottery terms and Tom’s farming phrases – it’s really effective, and importantly not overdone.

As with These Dividing Walls, the characters are superbly rendered. The way each clique fits together, be it London or Yorkshire village, is good but then each individual within those groups is distinguishable, each with their own drama, their own history, their own concerns about the future. And then there’s the village itself. Its setting, its location, even its weather make it feel as much a part of the cast as Jay or Simon or Tom.

It’s amazing how small a drama the story actually is when you think about it, which is testament to Fran Cooper’s skill in really getting under the skin of things. The plotting is lean and really finely tuned, nothing out of place or wasted. The language feels apt and precise, well thought out – at one point even down to a syllable. It frequently left me with a smile on my face, the Harvey effect kicking in. It’s lovely when you get a book that does that, gives you an appreciation of the craft that’s gone into its making without pulling you out of the flow or getting in the way of the story.

There is a mystery at the heart of The Two Houses but a mystery alone is rarely enough to make a great story. The lovely thing about Fran Cooper’s work is that it’s the humans caught up in that mystery that interest her more. You might pick it up for the puzzle but I guarantee it’ll be what the people around it are going to do next that’ll keep you turning the pages; it’ll be the fate that awaits them, and even the fate of those Two Houses that’ll have you caught up until the final page.

 

 

The Two Houses will be published by Hodder on the 22nd March 2018 ISBN:9781473641570

 

You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

 

My particular thanks to Veronique Norton at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

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My top 5 reads of 2017

10 Jan

It feels like 2017 was a strange year of reading for me. Having set out at the start with the intention of reading more I ended up reading fewer books than I did in 2016. I gave up on more books this year too and I wonder whether this was as a result of an awareness of reading time being more precious. That said, there were still books aplenty to enjoy, and a clutch I got really excited about. There were a couple of real standout titles in 2017 that I knew would be in my top five the moment I’d read them but, as ever, whittling the favourites down to five is not easy. Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat almost made it (I still can’t see an octopus without remembering…), and Jess Richards’ wonderfully lyrical City of Circles whose opening chapter is like a breath you can’t release. Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island was a pleasure, sensitive and melancholy, and opening up a chapter of history that is little known. And then there was The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon, which Mrs Van loved as much as I did. I defy anyone not to fall for Tilly!

 

But down to business: March, the promise of spring and the first of my top five, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. One of Mrs Van’s favourites too, you really can’t beat a book that can make you laugh out loud, and Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows will do it over and over. Add to that excellent characters and a storyline that will make you look, and then look again at life and you’ve got a real winner on your hands.

 

The next of my top five came to me in June. A book that had been on my radar for a while, though I knew little about it beyond the title and the lovely cover, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected because I didn’t know before reading that it was a memoir, and also that it was so uplifting, its lyrical beauty a welcome counterpoint to that febrile sense that necessitated the writing of the book in the first place. Little wonder it won the Wainwright Prize in 2016.

 

From the Orkney Islands in June to South Africa in July and Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose blew me away. It’s not a big book – just 150 pages – but its punch is mighty! It’s interesting for me to realise that I read this the month following The Outrun too as these books feel similar in some ways, visceral and honest, spare and lyrical. There has to be a sense of truth in any book for it to really work but some books bear more truth than others. The truth in Evening Primrose is almost too much to bear. A stunning piece of work.

 

The international flavour continues in September, and it’s Japan this time for Alison Jean Lester’s Yuki Means Happiness. I can’t help but smile, remembering this book and the extraordinarily vivid rendering of little Yuki. It’s like going back to the adorable photos of the little ones in your own life. It’s that characterisation that really makes this book, connecting like a mainline straight to the heart so you feel everything that happens. This was another one that Mrs Van loved too, our favourites coinciding a lot more than in previous years.

 

Finally, November brought Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh. I think I would’ve known this would be in my top five even if I’d read it back in January. A lush and pretty proof with its purple velvet and gold lettering, it’s a treat and no mistake. Hands down, this is up there as Mrs Van’s favourite of the year – I started reading this one to Mrs Van and didn’t get a chance to finish it first. We raced through it in a single weekend. It’s absolutely gripping, an assault on the senses that I’d urge you to get your hands on, and you’ve not got long to wait now!

 

As for 2018, well things are looking pretty good already. After all, you’ve got the absolute delight that is The Wicked Cometh on its way, and there are second books from Fran Cooper (a review of which will follow shortly) and Anthony Trevelyan, both of whom produced stunning debuts (Fran’s excellent These Dividing Walls and Anthony’s sublime The Weightless World, both of which deserve to be very widely read). So here’s wishing you all health and happiness in 2018, and as much joy, heartbreak, adventure, fantasy and truth as you can find between the covers of the books you read.

 

Van has finished reading… The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell

11 Dec

There can’t be many of us who haven’t seen that clip of a housemaid begging for help as she clings to the outside of a building seven floors up. The fact there’s a clip of it speaks volumes but the true impact comes with the realisation that it’s the employer who is not helping but filming. The nationalities and location involved may be different but this is very much the world Fiona Mitchell’s The Maid’s Room addresses.

There’s a good cross-section of characters in both the ex-pat employers and the Filipina person for hire factions of the cast – both areas where it would’ve been easy to pick something off-the-peg. In each case Fiona Mitchell plays those expectations against each other well to draw out her themes of identity and value but where The Maid’s Room shines for me is in the story itself. The sense of cause and effect is really nicely balanced and as the story rolls on the tension keeps you turning the pages. Just what you want from a piece of fiction.

Then read the author’s note and see just how much of this story is effectively reportage – that this could almost be narrative non-fiction. I can’t think of a single instance of exploitation where the lowest crime has to be the passivity of those around it, the unwillingness to see it for what it is that enables it, even when to do so requires no bravery. We readily applaud the bravery of the people who inspired Tala but we should also recognise our complicity in the fact that they exist, that they’re necessary though every ounce of sense and humanity says they shouldn’t be.

 

The Maid’s Room was published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 16th November 2017 ISBN:9781473659568

You can find Fiona on Twitter @FionaMoMitchell or at her website fionamitchell.org

 

My thanks to Ruby Mitchell at Hodder for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… Histories by Sam Guglani

22 Nov

It’s not so surprising really that going to a hospital is such a solipsistic experience. Is it just the building you think of when someone says hospital, or all the equipment it contains too, all the paraphernalia, the people as though they’re fixtures and fittings? It’s easily done; everyone is called Doctor or Nurse after all. Everyone you meet is there to check you in or check you out, take your blood pressure, your oxygen levels, your history. It’s a machine that exists to tell us what’s wrong, and why, and how it’s going to fix us. That’s what we want, to be fixed.

Then something happens that cuts through the veneer. It reminds us that they’re human, these parts of the machine. The smallest thing. I remember seeing a woman walking on Great Ormond Street, her back straight, her arms rigid at her sides and her face lined as though it had been carved. Such rage and fear in the knots beneath her eyebrows, the clenched jaw, such love in the tears flowing unabashed down her cheeks – anywhere else someone might have stopped and offered a word, a tissue, some comfort. But who could impinge on those emotions here; she must have come from the Children’s Hospital. And my own throat clogged to see it.

I’ve watched a consultant hold a patient’s damaged hand with such tenderness that onlookers would’ve thought them lovers, that I found myself on the brink of embarrassment at this intimacy. Warmth and thanks parted the scene, though the conversation was an explanation of ‘irreparable’.

Sam Guglani’s Histories is a collection of such moments. Whether patient or practitioner, believer or doubter, each story is a step through the veneer. The characters are really well drawn, diverse and honest (to the point that I’m sure I’ve met one or two of them). I liked the Chaplain especially. The writing is spare and effective, revealing unhindered all the facets of humanity that so often pass unseen (I’m reminded of Maylis de Kerangal’s excellent Mend The Living). It’s often said that a good story is one that makes you look at a situation differently. With Sam Guglani’s Histories we have a book that helps us simply to see. It’s a powerful book indeed.

 

Histories was published by riverrun on the 2nd November 2017 ISBN: 9781786483805

You can find Sam on Twitter @samirguglani

 

My thanks to Elizabeth Masters a Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

7 Nov

With Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden following on the heels of Laura Carlin’s exquisite The Wicked Cometh, Mrs Van might just have found her current niche in the Victorian Gothic. Though you’ll have to wait until early next year for The Wicked Cometh, you can feast on The Crow Garden now.

Not just a well-paced and highly readable Victorian Gothic novel, Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is exceptionally pleasing in its construction. The counterpoint of those very Victorian frontiers, Medicine and the esoteric arts, is employed to good effect, and the modern eye through which we look on events and opinions lends an interesting focus to proceedings. Albeit the likes of phrenology and mesmerism were at the cutting edge in those days, and we might well look on them now as scarcely associated with science, the zeal with which they were – and still are in some quarters – pursued fits superbly with the setting and the story. The use of myth and poetry is excellent too, but for my money the real joy is in Littlewood’s clever portrayal of a soul’s grip on reality slipping away. It’s really nicely done, and there’s a moment of realisation towards the end that’s an absolute delight.

The Crow Garden wears its research really well, using it to embellish events and character interaction, provide tense, intriguing situations and generally enrich the atmosphere. What it also does is inform without getting in the reader’s way, commenting not just on the vagaries and practices of science and medicine at that time but also those of class and gender. The characterisation is pleasing too, the author turning certain perceptions really nicely to keep you guessing about motive and intention. Personally, I really like Peg. Where she could so easily have been an incidental character, she arrives with flair and treads her path with unstinting gusto.

 

With the nights drawing in and the trees shedding their leaves it’s the perfect time to get gothic, and Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden is a great place to start.

 

The Crow Garden was published by Jo Fletcher books on 5th October 2017 ISBN:9781786485250

 

You can find Alison on Twitter @Ali_L, and on her website alisonlittlewood.co.uk

My thanks to Olivia Mead at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading… The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

3 Nov

the wicked

Oh my God, I love this book. The cover, the contents the characters – just in case it’s not clear, let me be unequivocal: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! It can say a lot about a novel when the publishers invest in something special for the proofs, and the proofs of Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh are definitely something special. Delivered in a shiny golden envelope, it’s a thing of purple velvet beauty. Mrs Van liked the inside cover design so much the postcard of it is now part of the gallery on the wall. William Speed’s (@wrmspeed) artwork is, as ever, right on the money (he also did the cover for City of Circles).

But does the story live up to the expectation? Let me be clear: OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK! I can’t remember what I’d been reading to Mrs Van when The Wicked Cometh arrived but we left it behind. Read me that one, she said. One more chapter, she said. One more. One more. I had to beg for a tea break. The writing is really nice – a fair few moments where the Harvey effect kicked in, although our need to know what happens next kept me reading on. This one will definitely be on the re-read shelf.

Class distinction is a common factor in fiction that deals with this era and the Wicked Cometh is no different, though like Rebecca Mascull’s excellent Song Of The Sea Maid or Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook the lesson is hidden very nicely in the sensory detail and the turn of events (though in terms of trajectory The Wicked Cometh is definitely more Ellis than Mascull). And let’s dwell for a moment on that sensory detail. Make no mistake, we’re not dealing with a pleasant stroll through a summery meadow with a frilly parasol. On a number of occasions we were surprised to discover that things really could get worse. Then, even after all that, there was chapter 15.

Then there was chapter 16.

There are scenes in the book that linger in the mind, and I’d really rather they didn’t.

But OHMYGODILOVETHISBOOK!

The characters are excellent: distinct, well-rounded and true to their station. And often thoroughly deplorable. It’s a wonderful thing when you get a riveting story that also provides a free ride to the edge of a moral quandary and with this cast Laura Carlin does exactly that, because you can be in no doubt that there is a basis in fact for the events that pass on The Wicked Cometh’s pages.

I should also give a nod to my favourite character name this year, the wonderfully Dickensian Mr Frederick Blister. That’s a peach.

 

You’ll have to wait a little while for this one but it’s worth putting a note in your diary. Everything about this book says it’s going to be big next year. It deserves to be big. It’s a beautiful thing inside and out and for my money it’s got costume drama written all over it (though the book will, of course, be better). And let’s not forget that this is Laura Carlin’s debut. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Remember the name, remember the title, remember the date. I guarantee it’ll darken your February days in the best possible way. I bet that OH MY GOD YOU’LL LOVE IT too.

 

The Wicked Cometh will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 8th February 2018 ISBN:9781473661370

 

When I find out where you can find Laura I’ll let you know. In the meantime ORDER HER BOOK.

My especial thanks to Melissa Cox and Veronique Norton at Hodder, William Speed for the design, Laura MacDougall at United Agents and everyone else involved in the production of this book. And thanks particularly and above all to Laura Carlin for writing it.

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