Tag Archives: “van demal”

Van has finished reading…Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

20 Feb

devils day

I do like it when a book turns out not to be what you thought it would be – at least not entirely anyway. The opening chapter of Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is good old-fashioned atmosphere all the way, pushing all the buttons the ominous-looking cover has already tweaked. But then it turns in the next chapter, it settles into the longer story, into what at times feels almost like a social history and I start to wonder what this book really is. Of course those buttons then get pushed all over again and by now I’m starting to wonder where the bad apple will be found. It’s all rather pleasing!

The writing itself fits nicely together, with that storyteller voice from the first chapter surfacing again and again, weaving the lesser fictions into the greater one and above all else it reminded me just how much stories are histories in their own way, and that history is just as much a fiction sometimes as anything Granny revealed in words at the fireside.

If you’re of a writerly persuasion yourself you’ll be particularly interested in the second chapter, which is a peach of a lesson on showing-not-telling.


There’s some lovely character work going on too with the central family, whose surname, Pentecost, is a nice touch. The dynamics are excellent and really draw you in, and there’s not a little delight in how your view of each of them subtly (and possibly not-so-subtly at times) shifts. I particularly like the way the narration alters. There’s a point where you suddenly feel as though you’ve been led into a place from which there is no escape, and being on the inside, being in the know is really uncomfortable. Of course it also underlines the protagonist’s early admission that he’s ‘acquired a reputation for telling stories just like the Gaffer’, his grandfather. If that’s not code for ‘trust at your peril’.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day is an ideal winter read. A joyous blending of small community everyday struggles and super creepy atmosphere. Pull up the duvet, ignore the creeping shadows and immerse yourself in the murk and mystery.


Devil’s Day was published by John Murray on 19th October 2017 ISBN:9781473619869

I couldn’t find Andrew on Twitter, or at his website. Perhaps he’s up on the moor, looking for a stray, or down at Far Lodge tap tap tapping out a tale just like The Gaffer used to tell.


My thanks to Emma Petfield at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.


Van has finished reading… All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

24 Jan

All rivers run free

What an excellent way to start the year! Two great books in a row, and both with a superb sense of place and landscape. Natasha Carthew’s All Rivers Run Free needs to be on your Reading List.

All Rivers Run Free tells the story of Ia Pendilly. Living in a caravan on the coast of Cornwall with her common-law husband, Ia’s life at Twenty-five is not what she imagined it would be. She is childless and lonely. When one day she finds a young girl washed up on the shore Ia rescues her, and in doing so sets in motion a change that will take her into a world she barely knows, and to a place she can only dare to remember.

Natasha Carthew’s writing is lyrical despite the starkness of the story and Ia’s voice really shines through. The sparseness of commas might throw you at first but trust me, give the first page a second read if you need to because the atmosphere is all in the effect of those extra tacked-on clauses. The isolation, the mistrust, the second-guessing – you can almost feel the struggle Ia is having, hear it as a conversation with herself. I was strongly reminded of Jess Richards’ City of Circles, and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, all books with at their heart a young woman adrift in her own world and trying to make sense of life.

You could almost count the main cast of All Rivers Run Free on the fingers of one hand, though this only deepens the sense of anxiety in Ia’s situation and temperament. There’s a likeness in all these characters too, though don’t mistake that for similarity. They each stand in their own skins, vividly rendered and distinguishable in their action and motivation. It’s location and situation that ties them so strongly together.

The storyline is really compelling, Natasha Carthew sticking rigidly to Ia’s point of view so I found myself always wondering about the goings-on in that elusive wider world. This, along with that excellent characterisation meant I had no trouble rooting for Ia all the way. I could begrudge her nothing, nor hold anything against her. And with the sharp-focus description of the landscape she passes through I found myself wishing it were genuinely possible to make a film that’s as good as the book. river run

All Rivers Run Free will be published by riverrun on the 19th April 2018 ISBN:9781786488626

You can find Natasha on Twitter @natashacarthew or in person where Cornwall is at its wildest.


My particular thanks to Corinna Zifko and Elizabeth Masters at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.

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

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.


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 1st 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.