Tag Archives: “Shelley Harris”

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.

 

 

Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

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Van has finished reading…Vigilante by Shelley Harris

31 Mar

Shelley Harris’s Vigilante is a deeply serious book masquerading as entertainment. There’s rich humour in there, genuinely funny moments as well as those which will prompt a wry smile from anyone who has pondered their self-image even a little bit, or found themselves staving off life’s drudgery with a flight of fancy. It’s the seriousness that lingers after the last page though. It’s those crushing moments that are a mix of fear and rage and relief and sadness that bring tears to the eyes. Whether it’s your own kids or those of friends and relatives, whether it’s loved ones that you think of the response is unavoidable: fear that it could happen to them; rage that it might; relief that this is fiction; sadness that we live in a world where this possibility exists. And it’s between that rage and that sadness that the Vigilante lurks in each of us. It’s a credit to the pace of Harris’s prose and the veracity of her characterisation that I really wanted to hurt him, that I was right there in the midst towards the end of the book, and that I felt genuinely angry for a good hour after finishing it. Because we all know someone…

Vigilante is a thoroughly believable book, nothing out of place, nothing extraordinary in the representation. I particularly liked the rendering of the Hero’s (yes, let’s not beat around the bush with a meagre ‘protagonist’) moments of conflict. If you’ve ever practised martial arts, either for self-defence or as a sport, you know how little they can actually protect you. Hollywood miss-sells combat so enormously these days (compare the old musketeers films, circa Finlay, Reid and York with anything recent involving swords and it’s ludicrous – everyone’s born a ninja now) but for it to be effective in a situation it needs to be so entrenched in the muscle memory it needs to have been there for years because it has to get past that debilitating flash of fear that blitzes every sense you have. Or you need to be lucky. It was Judo with me and I did do it for years but I’d been running longer so that usually took precedence. I was lucky once (and my God did I feel alive afterwards!) That said, I’d sign up for Mac’s one-to-one training any day, shouting and all.

One of the things I really love about the characterisation in this book is watching Martha through Jenny’s eyes. All the wanting to ask, the wanting to say but worrying about how and about getting it wrong. And knowing her just by the tilt of her head – beautiful. For me, it feels like that’s where the gold is. That’s where I found that sense of uplifting that meant I could smile once I’d closed the covers, despite all the fear and the anger. Because we all know someone…

 

The word hero gets thrown around like confetti these days. If you’re a soldier you’re a hero, if you work in medicine you’re a hero, Fire Service, Ambulance, Police, Teacher and so on. There’s no doubt these are all worthy professions with their own distinct challenges and opportunities to make a difference. Ask any one of these people and they’ll tell you they’re just doing their job but that doesn’t diminish the importance of or the pride in what they do. And who doesn’t want to be thought of in some small way as a hero? If you’re a Mother…? Those words, profession, job, suddenly jar. They don’t seem right yet the dedication to the task is so much greater. Vocation, duty, honour? Now try the word Vigilante…not quite the same. There’s something dark about it, something furtive. More a rule-breaker than an upholder of law and order. Imagine seeing every mother as a vigilante. The trouble is that we still think in distinct terms when we think Mother or Father. Times are changing, I think, but there’s rarely a day goes by where a woman isn’t belittled in some way because she’s a woman. You only have to look at press coverage of female politicians to see how far away parity is. And the sadness is that most of it is changeable. It’s a simple case of becoming aware. Making jokes about the colour of someone’s skin, or their sexual orientation is rightly and roundly frowned upon these days, where twenty or even ten years ago people would have found it funny (which might be read as ‘people laughed because that’s what everyone else did’). Hounding someone, openly attacking them because of these things would be scandalous. How long before laughing and pointing, hounding and attacking women ceases to be acceptable?

Now imagine seeing every mother as a hero.

Books like Shelley Harris’s Vigilante aren’t just entertaining, they make a difference too. Vigilante is out now. Find it before it finds you!

Vigilante was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (in paperback) on 3rd March 2016 ISBN:9780735829398

You can find Shelley Harris on Twitter @shelleywriter and on her website, shelleyharris.co.uk

My thanks to Virginia Woolstencroft at W & N for allowing me to review this book.