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.

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.