Tag Archives: “Van Demal”

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 (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, sarahwaters.com


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, rowanhisayo.com, 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 Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

21 Jun

There’s a great deal of in-betweenness about The Fortunes, the new novel from Peter Ho Davies. It’s actually four separate stories, though each is in itself a facet of the one greater experience: that of being Chinese in America. Though I suspect the author would quite firmly place this work in the fiction bracket, there is a tantalising frisson of the real about it. It’s not quite narrative non-fiction, though the people and places, and I would guess a great deal of the content rises straight from the pages of history.

Just in case that sound a bit lukewarm and you’re wavering, let me add that it’s gripping and sad and honest and immensely enjoyable.

Above anything else it’s a book about belonging. It’s so fundamental to our nature as humans to want to belong – whether we recognise it or not – that it shapes us in every way imaginable. Peter Ho Davies tackles not only the longing but also the being that’s implicit in that state. With Ah Ling, the mixed-race ‘white ghost’ sent to California to make his way in the 1860’s and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese film star in Hollywood, Peter Ho Davies shows us not only the barriers but also the double standards which control the level of integration they are subject to – and ultimately how belittling a process it is. In Vincent Chin’s story we see the forces of longing and being brought brutally to a head as he is killed by two Detroit Auto Workers who think he’s Japanese. Vincent, it transpires, was the most American of Chinese boys.

In the last movement of this quartet we come right up to date as a half-Chinese writer visits China for the first time to adopt a baby girl. Where Peter Ho Davies has been aware of the emotional ebb and flow of his characters in the preceding pieces, here is where that sense of in-betweenness feels closest to the skin. There are truths here that we can all recognise, seemingly harmful assumptions that we have likely made ourselves at some point. It’s a very emotional finish.


I think it would be fair to say there is a low simmer of resentment flavouring each of the lives portrayed between these covers, the injustice of wilful exclusion never far from the surface. But sometimes to belong is to become nothing more than a face in the crowd, indistinguishable from the mass, and sometimes, being invisible is as bad as being excluded. The enduring optimism that underpins these lives akin to square pegs in round holes is what makes them so malleable, so adaptable to each niche they find themselves in.

It’s quite a book. What Peter Ho Davies gives us here is a skilfully woven and emotionally resonant view of what it is to always be on the outside. Put it on your To-Be-Read list.


The Fortunes is published by Sceptre on 25th August 2016 ISBN:9780340980231

You can find Peter Ho Davies at his website, www.peterhodavies.com

My thanks to Nikki Barrow at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

3 Jun

That thing where you realise you’re definitely not a young adult anymore. That’s me reading this book.

Nannette O’Hare, white, privileged, even studious as well as being the toast of the soccer team, is nonetheless disaffected. And that’s what made me realise I’m outside the ideal demographic for Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing. I couldn’t get close to Nanette. I couldn’t feel for her in the way I wanted to and so ultimately I wanted to like this book more than I ended up liking it. The story is put together well. The parallels between Nanette’s experience and the events of the novel within the novel, The Bubblegum Reaper, are nicely laid out and the switch to third person about halfway through is really effective.

It’s an outsider’s story so of course there’s the expectation that the main characters will be different from everyone else but I can’t help thinking Matthew Quick missed a trick in making everyone else so normal (or perhaps what I mean here is normal in the same way). Where the difference is as stark as black and white it leaves little middle ground for the reader to question their own doubts or sympathies.

Okay, I’m definitely not a young adult anymore so I’m a little less qualified in appraising how well these characters will translate. Whereas a character like Lalla from Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship (which wasn’t written or marketed as a Young Adult novel) carries an appeal that spans a broad age range (if you have kids and they’ve not read the Ship yet trick them into reading it by saying it’s a grown-up’s book) Nanette, for me, is far more niche. I can see the ways in which Nanette would appeal to a younger reader but they may well be the exact reasons why she’ll be distant to an older one.

I guess every generation needs its Holden Caulfield. Nanette O’Hare could well be a Holden for the disaffected youth of today. Of course the problem with that is that we already have Holden who is consistently a Holden for every generation. Still, as the cover of the book says, there is room for all of us in this world. Try it for yourself. If you don’t love it your teenagers probably will.

Every Exquisite Thing was published by Headline on 31st May 2016 ISBN:9781472229540

You can find Matthew Quick on Twitter @MatthewQuick21 and on his website, matthewquickwriter.com