Van has finished reading…How Much The Heart Can Hold

23 Sep


I’d love to see more of this. How Much The Heart Can Hold is that rarest of rare beasts in the publishing world: a collection of short stories – a collection of short stories about Love, no less. Can you just picture that first production meeting?

‘Love stories,’ (pinched face)

‘Short ones?’ (eye rolling, the accountant dry-retching into a hankie).


The simple fact is that a good short story collection shouldn’t be such a hard sell. The oft-vaunted buoyancy of the form, the sheer weight of writers active in – indeed, devoted to short stories points to a waiting market. And while it is true that a really good short story is a very difficult thing to write, there are clearly many writers capable of doing exactly that. In How Much The Heart Can Hold, Sceptre have put together seven such writers and presented each, it seems to me, with a facet of the same challenge: to reclaim the word Love. Take off the tarnish, show us that it is so much more than cheap currency, a catch-all, a silence-filler, an excuse or a reason. In the seven specially-commissioned stories the writers take us through variations of what love is, and they do it very well.

Rowan Buchanan’s keen eye for detail and atmosphere ushers us to the border between fantasy and reality in a tale about unrequited love; D.W. Wilson gives us a muscle car, a clenched fist and a past the won’t lie down as he tackles enduring love; Nikesh Shukla explores the love of self with a sibling whose moment of realisation echoes through generations, and leaves us to the last to unlock the title of his story; Donal Ryan presents a desperate and very moving story of obsessive love; Carys Bray, who seems to understand that what the heart holds it does so delicately, that fierce and tender are not mutually exclusive, and manages to infuse all this into her writing, studies familial love; Grace McCleen takes us back to the beginning with a coming of age tale whose protagonist skirts the very edge of joy and pain, of naivety and knowledge as she unpicks the knots of erotic love; and Bernadine Evaristo’s protagonist watches over it all with a heart big enough to love us all.


If that’s not enough to tempt the scribblers among us, Sceptre will be launching a short story competition, running from How Much The Heart Can Hold’s publication date, 1st November, to Valentine’s day, 14th February 2017. And the prize? Well, there’s some money, but more tantalising than that is the prospect of having your winning story published alongside these seven pieces when the paperback gets launched!

Time to get writing…


How Much The Heart Can Hold will be published by Sceptre on 1st November 2016 ISBN:9781473649422

You can find the featured authors in these places:

Rowan is on Twitter @RowanHLB or at her website

D.W. Wilson is on Twitter @RedneckAbroad or at his website (when it’s finished)

Nikesh Shukla is on Twitter @nikeshshukla or at his website

Donal Ryan has better things to do

Carys Bray is on Twitter @CarysBray or at her website

Grace McCleen is at her website

Bernadine Evaristo is on Twitter @BernadineEvari or at her website


My sincere thanks to Emma at Sceptre for allowing me to read this delightful collection.

Van has finished (re)reading…Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

12 Sep

I’m not a huge re-reader. For me, a book has to do something really special to outweigh the enormous pile of books I haven’t yet read and warrant a return visit. In fact, there are three books I consistently return to. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is one of them (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf being the other two, if you really want to know). It’s a deceptively simple novel (as are the other two) but one which, the more you visit it, opens up to allow you glimpses of the subtlety contained therein (ditto).


As a writer learning your craft you are frequently told about character arcs, and particularly about how our characters need to change through the course of the work – not just a physical journey but an emotional one too. It’s all great advice but it’s not, of course, a hard and fast rule. Okonkwo is so set in his ways, so adherent to the ways of his world, so unbending it’s as if you can see the moments of conflict written in the features of his face. Okonkwo doesn’t change, won’t, can’t. Therein lies his power as a character and the way Chinua Achebe moves us as readers is superb. Because Okonkwo cannot change it’s our perception of him that must move for the story to be successful. And how it moves. We sway from that early admiration of his prowess, of his staunch will and determination to succeed to disappointment at his unflinching bullying of his children and wives. And then there are those moments where he seems undone: his love for Ezinma, that precious and most delicate daughter, and his bitter disappointment that she is a girl; the unfolding of Ikemefuna’s fate; Okonkwo’s own unravelling finale.

It’s a real lesson in the fact that writing is not about rules (or perhaps that the rules are more like guidelines than rules). Character is hugely important but is not the whole shooting match. What’s fundamental to this story is that Okonkwo doesn’t change; that everything that happens to him happens because he can’t change; that each internal conflict that besets him is a clash between his character and how he relates to his situation. The balance between these aspects of the story is what makes it so powerful.


Rarely does a closing chapter carry such impact as it does here. It’s a fist to the gut. It’s a real masterstroke, too. For all that the entire novel is spare, through every chapter but the last there is a meandering sort of flow. The voice of the storyteller lives, drawing on the richness of the clan’s history and folklore, pulling in the reach of the tribal community and the diversification of core customs as the edges of this world spread before us. In short, Chinua Achebe lays down the richness and variety of a complex community, then in that last perfunctory chapter he sounds its death knell.


Whether you’re choosing to read more diversely, looking to oust those great-white-hunter tropes about Africa or simply looking for a great book they’re all good reasons – and there are plenty more – to pick up Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I urge you to give it a try.


Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958 by William Heinemann. My cope is the 2001 Penguin Modern Classics print. ISBN: 9780141186887

Van has finished reading…The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

6 Sep

1922, and London struggles to shrug off the ever-present effects of the great war. Times are hard, the streets throng with ex-servicemen, their hunger for opportunity coalescing to stark disillusionment. Widowed Mrs Wray and her daughter, Frances are forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet.

Enter Mr and Mrs Barber. On the up from ‘the clerk class’, Leonard and Lilian move in and for Frances life will never be the same.

Being a Sarah Waters novel, you can guess to some extent where The Paying Guests is heading, although, being a Sarah Waters novel, won’t see it all, and even as the path ahead clarifies you won’t care because by that time it’s how each revelation will rake her characters’ souls that you really want to see. The build-up to these telling moments is superb, over and over again done in such a way that you find yourself at first examining the options, and then as the possibilities diminish becoming more attuned to the effect whichever outcome is likely to have, and then finally, once the screen draws back and the path is known, finding the delight that is a good page-and-a-half more of actually seeing what that effect is. It’s the tree root the dangles beneath the cliff we’ve already hung from, ratcheting everything up a notch further when you thought there weren’t any notches left. The other thing that’s brilliant about it is that it’s exactly this that makes the book about the people who populate it more than the events. It’s quite brilliant.

As you’d expect from Sarah Waters, it’s her women who really shine. They’re each drawn vividly and distinctly, each hemmed by their station in life, and their interactions are sublime. Mrs Viney’s playing-up to her hoity-toity expectation of Mrs Wray’s sensibilities, and her subsequent slipping back into her more comfortable Walworth Road patter as familiarity spreads, is just brilliant. The comedy of it underpins perfectly Mrs Wray’s fear of what they’ve had to stoop to in taking lodgers in. The distance between Frances and her mother is perfectly weighted too. The sense of her being nothing better than an unpaid scullery maid against the simple fact that the chores must be done. It’s all a microcosm of between-the-wars London on the cusp of an emerging new social order.

Then there’s the burgeoning affair. It’s the focus on the emotional rather than the physical that really lights a fire here. I think anyone’s who’s ever been moved by desire will relate to the author’s rendering of Frances and Lilian’s first kiss. It’s like those coalescing paths all over again: the possibility of it, the probability, the act itself and then the plunging, fearful, joyous emotional storm of it that we endure as Frances does. It fair makes the hairs at the back of the neck rise.

It’s a big book, something of a slow-burn, I thought, to begin with though you have the author’s lovely prose to spirit you into the heart of the story and its cast. It is, as you’d expect, most definitely a book to get lost in. Set some hours aside to immerse yourself and I’ll warrant there’ll be a teary eye or two come the curtain.


The Paying Guests was published by Virago on 26 August 2014 ISBN: 9780349004365

You can find Sarah Waters at her website,


Van has finished reading…Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

24 Aug

I wonder which comes first: the crushing sense of loneliness or the desire to express what’s inside. The young Yukiko Oyama is lonely. Having grown up in 60’s America she is disconnected from her Japanese heritage, unable to relate to the customs of her traditional parents. She is too westernised, kicks against her mother’s Japanese-style phonetic pronunciation of English words. For her American contemporaries she is too foreign to be accepted. Even the boots she covets in a shop window are not made in a size small enough to fit her. No wonder it’s a world she prefers to view through a filter.

It’s in the representation of that view that this book, for me, really sings. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s has a keen eye for colour, and I particularly liked the descriptive chapter headings for Yuki’s elements of the book, and the way that pallet shifts through her story, darkening, bleaching and then tending toward the dangerous.

For all the troubles she faces I didn’t find Yuki to be a sympathetic character. She’s not a person I felt I could get behind and root for as a reader. Indeed, of all the characters on these pages there aren’t many that come out dipped in any particular shade of glory. I found myself continually questioning Yuki’s choices, wondering not at her resilience but at the viewpoint, the skewed lens that guided her (if guided could be the appropriate word) through her early life. This is not one of those books where every event fits as though it were the only logical choice the writer could have made. I don’t mean that as a slight. It’s one of the things that makes the story very real.

As an isolated, even suppressed character, I found Yuki tricky to get close to at first. It made me aware of the writing, which was a double-edged sword because the writing is really nice, though I wanted to feel closer to Yuki. As the story moved on though it’s Yuki’s story that really got its claws into me (Jay I just wanted to grab by the shoulders and shake!). For all the difficulty of an unlikeable protagonist it’s the sensitivity of the portrayal that makes it so readable. Rowan is unflinching and unbiased in what she shows but never gratuitous.


Having recently read Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You is a good companion piece to the debate about the outsider’s experience in general, and those of the people of the far east in America specifically. In both cases, and from both sides of the debate, the title of Rowan’s book serves to underline these thoughts for all of us: What harm can any of us cause? Are any of us free of blame?


Harmless Like You was published by Sceptre on 11th August 2016 ISBN:9781473638327

You can find Rowan on Twitter @RowanHLB on her website,, and if you’re of the scribbling persuasion you should check out her YouTube channel, Inky Dumbbell for posts about writing.


My thanks to Sceptre and BookBridgr for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

28 Jul

I’m not wholly comfortable with the idea of suspending disbelief as a reader. I think it paints us in a somewhat cynical shade, suggests that even before we’ve opened the cover we’ve got the knowing face on and we’re waiting for you, dear writer, to impress us with the way you pull the wool over. I rather prefer to approach a book with the view that I’m going to learn about someone else’s truth, whatever that may be. This distinction, I think, cuts to the heart of whether you’ll like this novel or not. If, like me, you’re of a more accepting stance with your reading then you’re in for an engaging, sometimes amusing time, with the odd wrench of the heart thrown in for good measure. If you’re of the other camp it’s possible you’ll be rolling your eyes and huffing in disgust.

It’s all down to that central action that precipitates that most beloved of engines for fiction: the road trip. You see, to me it didn’t seem that far-fetched that Hattie should decide to pile the kids into the camper and leave the country in search of something that might be more appropriately described as adult supervision. Like just about everyone in this book (even the dog), Hattie has been rejected by the people she needed the most, and while it’s a question of degrees that favours Hattie she is in fact only marginally less damaged than her hospitalised sister, Min, mother to the aforementioned kids.

Of course, if you’re not like me you’ll be wondering just how hard it is to pick up the phone and ring social services, thereby making the book about three quarters shorter than it is – or a good deal longer and several shades darker, depending on your view of government-funded childcare.


Me being me, my heart aches for young Thebes (and not just because she’s called Thebes). There’s something really touching about the relentless optimism of a damaged child and Miriam Teows sets her exquisitely against the foil of equally-damaged-but-far-more guardedly-hopeful older brother, Logan. The three intrepids tread the fine line between optimism and despair, anger and elation as they search for someone to stand by them, or with them, or for them.


The Flying Troutmans was published by Faber on the 6th August 2009 ISBN: 9780571224029

You can find Miriam on Twitter @MiriamToews

Van has finished reading…The Green Road by Anne Enright

27 Jul

I’m hard-pressed to think of a writer who can unpick a family dynamic as tidily as Anne Enright. I remember being blown away by The Gathering and just how much the author could make you feel what her characters were feeling. Her sense of place – and more importantly of character in place is second-to-none, and she has this incredible knack of conveying those things with a turn of phrase. You find yourself reading a sentence and thinking you know exactly what that scene sounds and looks and feels like, even from the inside. ‘I like you now,’ Rosaleen says to her daughter at one point, and there’s the stunted expectation, the swell of neediness, the disappointment the child must feel; there too is the mother’s desire to needle her children, to frame her family in the context of herself, to feed the future she can already see with all the anxiety it deserves.

The Green Road is something of a fractured novel. It deals with a fractured family so it’s not surprising this disjointedness would be there. As the novel moves forward from 1980 we meet each of Rosaleen’s children in their own chapters as they move away from Rosaleen’s vicinity, if not her grip or the ripples of her nature. They each feel as real and complete as you’d expect from Anne Enright and their relations with each other turn on the finest of points: which buttons to press, or not; the habits that are old and fallen back into against those that are new and expose the differentness of a new incarnation; the awareness of the favourites from the also-rans. But where it falls down for me is in the second part. The second part deals with the family coming back together for what might be a last Christmas together in the family home. It runs in a more linear and conventional way that feels like it’s there to draw events together. I found myself looking for the conclusions I should draw at the end when in fact I didn’t want to draw conclusions at all. What I wanted was more of that wonderful collection-of-linked-shorts feel that the first half had. I wanted to stick with the glimpses, with the joining of the dots and the sublime ambivalence of familial cause and effect.

There’s so much to admire in the way Anne Enright tells a story – her eye for character, her lyricism, her uncanny accuracy with a turn of phrase – and these are all in evidence in The Green Road. But if I were to recommend an Enright title to you it would still be the Gathering.


The Green Road was published by Jonathan Cape on 7th May 2015 ISBN: 9780224089050

Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

14 Jul

That thing where you pick up a book and it feels as beautiful as it looks and there’s an energy about it that positively defies the use of a comma in your first sentence. Then you open the book and begin to read…

You’re not reading your way into a story. You’re not taking in the surroundings and building a picture in your head. You are quite delightfully and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a feeling, a sensation. It’s a cold hand at the base of the spine, hairs lifting at the nape of your neck, bristling along your arms. It’s a whisperer, this book. It’s a body standing just behind your right shoulder where you can’t quite see it, unrolling the story in a hush across your ear. It is fabulous.


Cora Seagrave, recently widowed, finds herself on the Essex coast seeking evidence behind the rumours that abound of a terrible serpent that crawls up out of the sea to take livestock or people. Rational and independent, Cora believes something prehistoric to be at work, a ‘living fossil’. Just as steadfast in his belief there is a rational explanation – though naturally opposed to Cora’s reading of events – is local vicar William Ransome. As staunch as each other in their views, each recognises a kindred nature in the other and a turbulent time ahead is unavoidable. Skirting these warring friends are Cora’s companion, a staunch socialist, her autistic son Francis, her physician friend Luke Garrett and The Ambroses, moneyed and high-ranking conservatives. There’s a realness to all these people that is truly rare, no-one feeling as though they’ve been inserted to assist the plot or appearing not-quite-complete. For me, Luke Garrett is particularly vivid. There’s a palpable vibrancy about him, an intensity that borders on the audible.

Sometimes when writing these reviews I have to be very careful not to give away what a book is about. With The Essex Serpent, it’s hard to know where to start. Sarah Perry covers a monumental amount of ground with this book, it’s about so many things. Chief among them is that dark heart of the Venn diagram that is religion, science and superstition. Where does belief end and knowledge begin? Where is safety, where salvation? What’s truly exceptional about this book is that Sarah Perry asks those questions at every level, from the most intimate and individual to the broadest possible.

The language is glorious. There’s an almost biblical lilt to it at times, deepening the sense of place and moment, and heightening that creeping undertone that’s at the heart of the story. The passages that bring us up to date with recent events are prime examples of this. There’s a tone about them that could almost be tongue-in-cheek, relating the facts, filling us in. Yet that insidious voice lurks within them. Is it real, it asks, can you trust this? Is it what you think, or is it something else? Look at them, it says, back then on the verge of all that discovery. They thought they knew so much. But what about you? Do you think you know any more, any better?

One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an absolute delight to read, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be appearing on any number of shortlists by the end of the year.


The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail on 27 May 2016 ISBN:9781781255445

You can find Sarah Perry on Twitter @sarahgperry and on her website


My thanks to Isabel Costello (who has a book of her own out, which you should also read) at the Literary Sofa for sending me this wonderful book.