Archive | September, 2016

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,