Van has finished reading… The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Sybille Bedford

22 Nov



As famous trials go you might think that this one wouldn’t be so high on the list of interesting ones to report on. Okay, it was ground-breaking and important and we’re all shaped in some small way by its outcome but, interesting?

Well, actually, yes!

Set aside the fact that the defendant is not a person but an object. Set aside the fact that this case was the first to test the newly drawn-up obscenity laws. Set aside even the fact that the Defence drew on any number of eminent persons to form its phalanx of witnesses. All these things are interesting in their own right, but set them aside because at the very heart of this trial reportage – that’s essentially what this book is – is the wondrous theatre of social history. It’s nothing less than the broadening division in the class system that’s on display. Not on trial in the dock – at least not entirely, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all, which is much more about Class than the goings-on in the undergrowth – but on display in the manner of the Prosecution, and the measure of the Defence. There’s a great line early on (yes, it almost feels it could be fiction it’s so telling) where the Prosecution asks, “…Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?” This is 1960. It sets the tone of the Prosecution’s case. In such a pantomime we’d readily boo Mr Griffith-Jones as the villain of the piece but, as in all good literature, at the end of things I felt something akin to sadness and pity for him, having watched him fall so far: screaming obscenities in the courtroom as though that’s what Lawrence’s repetition was all about; inviting – with no small measure of smugness – a Senior Lecturer in English to straighten him out about his misapprehension of the word puritanical, and being summarily straightened out; reverting again and again, and each time seeming more petulant, to the only real line of defence he could muster, that it was all about the sex and nothing else.

Against this, Defence witness after Defence witness offers their understanding of the book, of what it is about and what Lawrence was trying to achieve in the writing of it. Of Lawrence’s place in Literature, of his ability, of Lady Chatterley’s worthiness as literature. Witnesses drawn from universities, schools, publishing houses, even churches, come to state their view, and it’s hard to imagine now how the Prosecution could’ve stood against all this without the certain understanding that they were in the wrong.


Through all this Sybille Bedford, who was commissioned to report on the trial, guides us with fairness and clarity. Being an author, we can easily guess which side of the argument she came down on, and Thomas Grant’s introduction to this edition confirms her stance. It is testament to her skill indeed that she remains as impartial as she does in the rendering of the proceedings. What stands out most for me is the apparent warmth with which she greets some of the witnesses, notably the aforementioned Senior Lecturer, a rather feisty Classics Mistress from a Grammar school, and a ‘most smartly dressed’ editor of, no, ‘Not a Ladies’ page. It hasn’t been called that since 1912.’ You can almost feel Sybille Bedford’s relish in Miss Scott-James’s small victories. Though, plus ça change, one might think some 55 years on.


It’s a striking thing to be so sure of the fallacy you’re opposing, to be so confident of the outcome that it seems the height of unreasonableness that anyone would even hold such a position. And to us now – certainly to me – it seems obscenity itself that such a prosecution could ever have taken place, but in these uncertain times, these days of political division, it is surely possible to read Sybille Bedford’s account of this famous trial and imagine, before the verdict comes down, what it would’ve been like to sit and wait, not knowing which way the jury would swing.


This edition of The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in October 2016 by Daunt Books ISBN:9781907970979

My sincere thanks to Daunt Books (and to Angela Carter) for allowing me to read this book.

Van has finished reading… Runemarks by Joanne Harris

21 Nov

Okay, so this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Honestly, it’s not. When I first started thinking that I’d like to be a writer I was in junior school. I couldn’t tell you what it was particularly about being a writer that made me think I wanted to be one but I suspect it had a bit to do with my teacher. He was good at everything and good with us kids and he played guitar and he knew how to tell a story. On a school trip, just after lights-out he’d come into the dorm and flick a torch on under his chin – did he have a beard? I think he had a beard – and the atmosphere and the torch and his voice would scare the bejeesus out of me. Not that I’d admit it to my classmates, of course. Anyway, one day in class I’d obviously declared my intention to be a writer so he gave me an exercise book and a pencil and a sharpener and challenged me to do it. So I did. I was so proud of my joined-up handwriting, all slanty on the page, and before long that page became pages. Every now and then I’d stop and shake my hand because it hurt, what with all the writing. And being that age there was a hero, and a woman was trapped somewhere up a mountain, with danger and dragons and… things. I invented some names. And I can distinctly remember the point at which I stopped: my hero was half way up, imprisoned by a cone of fire (I can even remember what I called the cone of fire, and no, I’m not going to tell you). I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to get him out. And I realise now that in stopping here I found my teacher’s one weakness. He liked to see us do well and he liked us to know we were doing well. He gave me gold stars beneath the words ‘half-time report’. The sad thing was that I never finished it because I’d got my reward, my gold stars, and the incentive seemed to fizzle entirely out. It was probably only about a thousand words, looking back, though at the time it felt epic. And I’ll bet my last money it was truly awful. And this is why said at the start of this review that this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Because reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks brought all this back to me.

It did this because it tapped straight into those things that you already know, even in primary school, about fantastical stories. Your hero must be a loner. That said, your hero is going to have to trust someone or something that probably shouldn’t be trusted because your hero cannot do what they must do on their own. Because your hero is about to go on a quest. This quest will be dangerous and probably some people and definitely some animals will die. It will get harder and more dangerous and there will come a time where it simply isn’t feasible it’s all going to work out. But your hero is a hero, so… What it tapped into was the sheer joy of invention, the unadulterated bliss of feeling these people you read about – or as I was then, write about – inhabit a wondrous and untouchable place in your mind’s eye where the rules are different, where the unexpected not only can but will happen, where it’s the law, where power is at your fingertips, where the small are not cowed by the weak, where you, whoever you are, are able to win.

I have to say I loved it. It simply made me smile. It’s somewhat relentless in pace and a tad irreverent in voice, which suits the inhabitants right down to the ground. There’s a delightfully threaded message in there too if you care to ponder the weave a little, but if you don’t, no matter. You’re still going to take a crash-course careen through the nine worlds – or a good part of them anyway. You’re going to boo at the villains when you know they’re villains and you’re going to cheer the heroes in the same way. You’re going to smile when dignity besmirched is stood upon and you’re going to look wryly at the world on these pages and see the ways in which it’s not so different from our own.

You can thank Marvel for two disconcerting things. Firstly, it’s really hard to picture Loki without a certain Hiddlestoneness about the twisted grin, and secondly, the familial relation is a generation shifted in Runemarks. Of course if the source material were set in stone it’d be history rather than legend. And legend has a much more appealing ring to it!

Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to be sniffy about reading. We get bogged down by that word literature and we start saying things like, fantasy, you know, it’s really not my bag. The trouble with that is that we limit ourselves, limit our intake and our experience. And remember too that genres are really only there to sell books. Oh, you like that? Try this. But what’s the harm, once in a while, of picking up something unexpected? Okay, if you pick a book up and you don’t like it, move on. No harm done. Every work of fiction you read is fantasy, after all. None of it’s real except in yours and the author’s imagination. And if you find one you really like, tell your friends. Share it and then you can talk about it with them and relive it. There’s immense power in words if only we allow them in and who knows, that next book, that unexpected read might just have the power to change your life. It happens you know. Books really can do that.

Runemarks was published on the 2nd August 2007 by Doubleday ISBN:9780385611305


You can (and should – she says wise things and sometimes tells stories) find Joanne on Twitter @Joannechocolat, or on her website

Van has finished reading…We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

14 Nov

Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the writing is exquisite, a tale told with a deserving level of complexity, not just the use of language but the pace of it, the precision of the vocabulary, and perhaps above all the grace notes, those crystal chimes that cast you back to what would’ve appeared earlier as a throwaway line, a funny aside or a strange departure from expectation. Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the story it tells is so vivid, so believable – regardless of the fact you might mutter, ‘unbelievable,’ in that surprised way, so extraordinary that you start to look at what’s around you in a different way. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is that rare conjunction of both these things. What a fantastic book!

Rosemary Cooke, in the short prologue, is looking back, watching her two-year-old self’s garrulousness on a silent cine reel, telling us she used to a talker, telling how those who now her now would be surprised. She offers a hint of fairy tale conjured by what she sees, and the fairy tale flavour endures as she follows her father’s advice – given in those garrulous days when he was trying to stem the flow a little – to begin in the middle. What follows is the unpicking of a strange and broken family, the uncovering of secrets and not a small pinch of sleight-of-hand. Until about page 77. Then, in what is paradoxically the most bizarre admission in the book, everything begins to make sense.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a character off the top of my head who’s quite so clearly a product of their situation as Rosemary. Of course it takes a little time to realise this because that situation is not apparent until post page 77. Look back at the behaviour in the opening chapter post page 77 and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

It’s one of those interesting things with reading, deciding how much you can trust your narrator – of course it’s something of a dilemma when you decide you can’t because to keep reading, to keep enjoying, you have to trust, at least to a certain extent. What’s most pleasing about the construction of Rosemary is not so much the establishment of that level but the reasoning behind it. You get to that moment and it ceases to be a question of trust and becomes something else entirely. Every reaction, every word, every step, every expression makes sense and it can only break your heart to hold that world in your mind’s eye. As the book progresses that understanding deepens and deepens as Karen Joy Fowler unpicks not just Rosemary’s troubled existence but what it really means to be family. It’s only fair to say that there are moments in this book that might just sicken you, and there are many many more that will make your heart ache. I can’t tell you the relief I felt towards the end of the book as I came to realise the many possibilities I came to fear weren’t going to be realised. About three quarters through I came close to a bout of borderline ugly crying while reading on the train, which is never a good look!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is above all things a book about love, and that’s a joyous thing to cling to. It’s about family and what it means to be connected to another being. It’s also about the lengths we’re prepared to go to to understand who we are, and how sometimes that needle doesn’t point in a positive direction. If you haven’t read this book I’d urge you to find. It really is masterful. I only hope that you’ll have the benefit of approaching it without having come across any spoilers.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 19th June 2014 ISBN:9781846689666

You can find Karen on her website

Van has finished reading… These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

19 Oct

There’s a treat coming your way in the shape of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. In her own introduction, Fran says that she wanted to write about the real Paris rather than the image so many of us hold. I’ve never been to Paris but, having lived abroad for a time I can appreciate the distinction. I can also say that the Paris Fran Cooper shows us feels entirely real to me. It’s as much a character as the people who inhabit these pages, not dressed in her finery (or at least not always) but quotidian and vivid, and wholeheartedly laissez-faire.

The Walls of the book’s title are those that separate the inhabitants of number 37, a property made of two buildings – one a little (but only a little) more sheeshy than the other. There’s not much that escapes the attention of these proximate neighbours, though there’s plenty to distance them personally. And no matter how inquisitive they are there’s always a little secret to be kept here and there.

As to the characters themselves, they are superb. You will of course like some more than others – as you’re meant to. Perhaps you will, like me, give a little ‘yesss!’ when something happens that you’ve been hoping will happen to one or two of them (good or bad I won’t say but, if you’re wondering Fran & Emma, p183 of this proof!). Some may even feel like people you’ve actually met. I wish I could go through each one and tell you what it is I liked about them, what I hoped or feared – that’s how close I felt to them – but that would be to give the game away.

Although Fran Cooper tells us in her introduction that elements of These Dividing Walls started life as vignettes read at a Paris spoken-word club, don’t imagine this is one of those linked-short-story-collections-thinly-disguised-as-a-novel novels. This is a proper, layered start-to-finish novel with characters in action, evolving storylines and emotional journeys. There’s nothing unnecessary or incidental about events and interactions.

Any writer will be familiar with the exhortation to show-not-tell but in These Dividing Walls Fran Cooper gives us a perfect example of how an almost-telling style of writing can work. It verges on the conspiratorial, inviting the reader over to the wall with a glass in hand to listen in, points to certain things with a whispered ‘would you believe it?’ It makes a resident of us, and in so doing we’re invested in every drama, be they small or large.

Beyond the fact of the book’s location, beyond the premise that frames the characters we meet I think Fran Cooper has a lot to say about the way we live today, about the things that scare us and how we react to them. It makes the point, too, that events are never as far beyond us as we imagine, that the things happening around are often made up of ordinary people, and that people are never really all that ordinary.

Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. It transported me to a sultry Paris arrondissement in the summer. It made me laugh, it made me smile, it brought a lump to my throat more than once and even made me cheer quietly. I really hope you’ll give it the chance to do the same for you. Make a note in your diary for April 2017.


These Dividing Walls will be published by Hodder in April 2017 ISBN:9781473641532

You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My thanks particularly and especially to Emma Herdman at Hodder for knowing I’d love this book and allowing me to review it.

Van has finished reading… The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

17 Oct

Faber & FaberKate Hamer’s debut, The Girl In The Red Coat, is one of the few books I’ve read that impelled me to keep on reading. The very urgency of the story kept me turning the pages, whereas my preference is to slow it down when I’m really into a story, to really relish the experience. With it also making my top ten reads for last year, I was really excited to receive a copy of Kate Hamer’s new novel, The Doll Funeral (for which my especial thanks go to Sophie Portas at Faber). The Doll Funeral doesn’t disappoint.

Comparison between a debut and a follow-up novel is inevitable, though in the case of The Doll Funeral it’s almost unavoidable. Kate Hamer treads similar ground in that we have a young protagonist who is sensitive beyond the conventional. There are challenging family relationships and unusual alliances. The sense of place too could bear comparison, that heavy lean toward the fairy tale, the sense that nothing would be too surprising in the world her characters populate.

That said, it is a very different book. Although the story is fantastical at times its roots are fiercely realistic, not a pinch of Disney dust in sight. It’s all in the characters, and Ruby is great. Intrepid when she feels the need, scared and childlike when she should be, wistful, dreamy and needy when she’d dearly love to be otherwise. And as for Ruby’s awareness, it’s never overplayed, or played for a cheap shock. Her relationship with Shadow is as natural as any friendship at that age, breezing in and out of favour. She’s a protagonist to cheer for, and to fear for too. It’s a similar thing with Anna, the earlier of the two timelines in the book, though in her case it’s much more about the how and the why of events, rather than what actually happened. Of course that doesn’t make it any less heart-breaking. In both cases the people who hold sway over these two lives are complete, rounded individuals who are – in some cases – horribly believable.

I’m pleased to say I was able to take my time with the Doll Funeral. Rather than the driven, cranked-up tension of The Girl In The Red Coat that hits you on page one and leaves you feeling delightfully bereft at the end, The Doll Funeral gives us a subtler, creeping sort of tension. It’s not obvious but it’s always there, inexorable. The two timelines complement each other really well and although it’s quite apparent how they relate, Kate Hamer brings them together with subtlety, clueing you in to what she really wants to tell you without drawing big arrows that scream backstory. Everyone and everything is there for a reason and though the myriad possibilities might well have you guessing, nothing that actually happens feels out of place. It’s nicely done.


The Doll Funeral is a worthy successor to the furore that surrounded Kate Hamer’s debut, and definitely leaves me eager to see what she’ll come up with next.


The Doll Funeral will be published by Faber & Faber on 16th February 2017 ISBN: 9780571313853

You can find Kate Hamer on Twitter @kate_hamer

Van hasn’t finished reading…Philip Larkin: Letters To Monica (Edited by Anthony Thwaite)

4 Oct

You can imagine the premise for the novel: an emerging writer in the early stages of his career; the turmoil of an almost-wedding behind him and the lingering desire for the recipient of his correspondence stretching into the future. There are disasters ahead – some to keep them apart and at least one that will bring them together. As a novel it would be enticing and delicate, the prose gradually peeling away the layers to reveal the man inside, the character that carries the weight of this conflict, and how that carrying shapes him. It would be precise and whole and the change over time gratifying.

Except of course this isn’t fiction. This is real. This is life, and the trouble therein is that we don’t get to pick and choose whether or how those traits unfold. Yes, there is delicacy there. Yes, there is the central desire, and all the many things – self-inflicted or not – that stand in its way. But there’s the man at the centre too and the undeniable fact that he is often small and mean, that his circle of allowable humans is not wide, that the change he seems to be heading for over time is an entrenchment rather than a rising up to the tide of humanity. Then, there is nothing more real than that, and if fiction were genuinely that realistic we probably wouldn’t read it.

I’m making this book sound dreadful and it’s really not. It’s interesting in more than a merely voyeuristic way. Yes, if you’re a fan of Philip Larkin there are depths that will no doubt keep you tuned in. If you’re a writer, or interested in how writing works there are keen lessons on the way character shines out of prose. If you’re into recent history there’s a first-hand view of mid-twentieth century living – though it can only speak from the author’s unique perspective. And that character is very interesting too, a person who it’s sometimes hard to reconcile with the general idea of a poet. Is there a tendency to sweep away the unpleasant tang of his being ‘nice to a nigger’ because it’s Labour Day in the dubious belief that the language is a symptom of the period? But there’s all that downward-looking stuff about the Irish too. And there are his colleagues and contemporaries. Not a great many people get off lightly. We mention the word poet and so often imagine a deeply sensitive soul, and the alliteration leads us into soft-focus landscapes and middle-distance staring. Which is piffle. He’s a person like any other. He just happens to be a person who writes. This is very much the private face, these letters only ever intended for the recipient. How many of us would shudder to think of our emails or personal conversations being made public? All the tenderness, the delicacy, the fear and pain and hatred, they’re all there because a person felt them. And finding them in these letters makes those feelings real all over again.

If it were fiction this would’ve been a ‘Sorry, Philip.’ The fact of it is that I’ve found it hard to take so much of the character all at once. It’s too relentless, and knowing it not to be fiction kind of makes that harder to bear. But I really do want to be there to see if there’s a change in the end, whether there’s a wistful appreciation of inevitability, or a burning regret that time’s past and it’s too late in the day.

So, not a sorry, Philip, but a see you later.


Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica was published by Faber & Faber in 2010, ISBN:9780571239092

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.