Tag Archives: “reviews”

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

outrun

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

Vanya Demalovich has finished reading… Two Cousins Of Azov by Andrea Bennett

8 Jun

azov

How nice it is to be back in Azov. How nice to involve oneself in the everyday of post-soviet, pre-Putin Russia. The eagle-eyed among you might recognise a certain Mr Goryoun Tigranovich Papasyan, co-protagonist of Andrea Bennett’s latest instalment on life in Azov (can we hope this will one day bloom into a Barsetshire-sized chronicle?), as the neighbour whose absence lays the first steps of Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story.

Things are not going well for the Two Cousins Of Azov. The aforementioned Gor finds himself plagued by inexplicable events, while his cousin Tolya is at the local sanatorium with no idea how he got there, lost in folklore and memory. Dry, sceptical Gor and artistic, impressionable Tolya each seek a route into their past to try and unpick the mystery of the things that haunt them in the present. A vivid and varied cast attend to help or hinder the search, including an appearance from a character from Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story that will delight fans of Andrea Bennett’s debut. I particularly liked Albina. She is unmistakably and infuriatingly teenaged, but also wonderfully and heart-warmingly teenaged. And she lisps, which never fails to make Mrs Van smile when I read it to her.

The author’s eye for the comedic scene remains sharp as ever. There’s a dryness to the humour that certainly suits me, and sits very well with the characters. Not being overplayed, it also serves to set up those necessary moments of pathos well. These are characters to feel for and identify with, and while the distance between them and us, and now and then may be great, the beauty of the book is that their problems are not so different to our problems. These are things that could happen anywhere. Who knows, you might even know someone like them!

Andrea Bennett’s Two Cousins Of Azov is ideal for your holiday reading, and if you’ve not caught up with Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story, I encourage you to pick up both books. You can laugh, and maybe cry a bit too, and feel the welcome chill of autumn in Azov while you slowly cook in the sun!

 

Two Cousins Of Azov will be published on 13th July 2017 by Borough Press ISBN:9780008159573

You can find Andrea on Twitter @Andreawiderword

My thanks to Ann Bissell at HarperCollins for allowing me to review this book.

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.