Food for thought from my friend Bob Van Laerhoven…



Is “Return to Hiroshima” still relevant in this era? Decide for yourself after reading this guest post on Toe Six Press:


Or read:

Author Article: Literature Resonates by Bob Van Laerhoven

Lately, many people ask me if I think literature is still meaningful in this era of rapidly progressing digital technology: fast changing communication, the many ways of experiencing movies, streamed television series and news.

Literature does matter in our time. In any era.

I’ll explain this with an example of my own work.

Return to Hiroshima is my latest novel in English. As the first city ever struck by a nuclear bomb, Hiroshima became an iconic symbol. A novel with that city in the title inevitably refers to that moment in time that changed human history forever.

Why write a work of fiction in which the nuclear detonation plays such an important role? It’s easier, and faster, to stream a documentary about the subject, or to be carried away by watching an after-the-bomb movie.

That would make us informed, correct?

In a way, yes, but, in my eyes, literature has an added value. It can provoke in us an empathic understanding of the consequences of nuclear warfare.  That’s something else than being informed.

Moreover, are we as informed as we think we are? The answer is a bone-dry “no”. Mass-media and social networks spread “news bytes” every second around the globe but have desensitized us to a certain degree to the deeper meaning – or consequences – of the experience behind information.

What do you think about the heightened possibility of a WWIII, which has been all over the news lately?


Tensions are on the rise. A new World War is nearer than ever since the end of the Cold War. Democratic regimes seem to loose the battle against dangerous demagogic populists and dictators: Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia,  and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, to name but a few.

Never before was the turbulent Middle East such a chaos of shifting alliances and growing animosity.  Iran and Saudi-Arabia are competing for hegemony in the region and build nuclear facilities that can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The US, Russia, and Turkey – with China looming at the horizon – support different factions in the civil war in Syria… They are allies today and enemies tomorrow. No-one seems to have a sound strategy, a solution, for the region.

It’s obvious that the seemingly endless Syrian civil war could become the trigger of a new worldwide conflict. The airstrike in April of the coalition of US, UK and French forces on the chemical weapon installations of Bashar al Assad’s regime triggered so much international unease that the most important question for the coming  months (years?) seems to become: how close are we to WWIII?

People tend to react to this question with a curiously abstract resignation. When prodded a bit, they usually confess that they can’t fathom how it would be, a nuclear conflict across the globe. Usually they end the conversation with an uneasy, “They won’t let it come that far, will they? I can’t imagine they would.“


One of the problems of the modern digital society is precisely that mass-media and social networks have wreaked havoc on our ability to use our imagination. As a result, the all too real possibility of a nuclear WWIII seems inconceivable.

And that, my dear friends, is truly dangerous. Our leaders are not smarter, wiser, or more mature than we are. And they sure do not have more imagination… except in one area – their endless dreams of their growing power.

This is the point where literature can step in. You may have trouble imagining what a nuclear conflict would be like, but literature can.  Moreover, it does this on a one-on-one basis.

A one-on-one basis in this era of mass-communication? Do I hear your Gargantuan laugh booming?

I like movies and television series, even games and social networks, as much as anybody. But I notice that, when spending too much time with these media, my level of thinking is reduced to a receptive, confined mode. The essence of a story often slips away from me like water from a seal.

This is not the case when I read. A novel resonates within me. Words can convey sensations that even the most sophisticated visual media cannot. Words can vibrate with layers of meaning, they can produce flashes of feeling (which is different than experiencing emotion), and they can make the reader emotionally receptiveThe power to step into the story, not wandering on the outskirts of it, is readily available.

I know, I know: you’ve heard this story before. Since the advent of mass-media, countless philosophers and artists have hammered on similar reasoning. You’re probably sick and tired of being advised to read fiction. Why should you, when watching movies is so much easier?

You may argue reading novels takes time, a certain effort, which is getting more difficult with every minute. Stress on the job, stress in traffic-jams, stress at home with children. Stress of not having posted a witty message on Facebook for two days…..

You have every right to think so, but in my view, literature, more than any  other art-form or entertainment, gives you the opportunity to interrogate yourself about the meaning of life: what exactly power or wealth is, how the world is evolving, what kind of society we live in…. The list is endless.

To interrogate yourself is a lot different than being shown what it is all about.

It’s not per se better.

But definitely different.


I admit willingly that I present the situation rather black-and-white in this post. But so is the question I hear so often: do you really think that literature can offer something more than, say, Netflix? It’s nearly always about who or what wins, not about differences. We don’t like differences anymore; we want to see winners and losers.

And that, dear friends, is a dangerous attitude, won’t you agree?

So, as an experiment, try something different. Watch a thrilling, shocking movie about the consequences of a nuclear conflict. There are a lot of gripping movies about that theme out there.

And, afterwards, read a novel about the same subject. There are a lot of gripping, passionate novels out there with this theme.

I want to share a few lines with you from Return to Hiroshima, a story set in Japan in 1995. In one of the chapters, a Seizon-cha, a survivor of the nuclear bomb called “Little Boy”, recalls some of the scenes he witnessed and could never forget.


A woman staggered past the burning buildings with a baby in her arms. The heat had caused the baby’s skin to peel. He was limp and motionless in her arms.

A man tugged at the body of a teenager buried under the rubble. The boy’s skull was cracked open and brain tissue was hanging out of the wound. He had lost his right eye. He was calling out for his mother, his voice clear and steady. The man had pulled away enough rubble to see that both legs had been crushed. He tried to lift the boy. He succeeded. He continued on his way, the boy motionless in his arms.

A girl, blood gushing from her mouth, stumbled through the ruins of a school. Hands shot up from the rubble, bloody and smoldering. They tried to grab the girl by the ankles. Voices begged: “Take me with you, take me with you!” In panic she kicked at the hands and ran on, her arms outstretched as if she was blind.

Hundreds of people tried to reach the river Aioi. They screamed for help, lost direction in the ash-filled clouds of smoke, and fell exhausted to the ground before they could reach the banks of the river and baked like clay stones in the raging fire.


How did this excerpt make you feel?

Reading literature resonates.

New Book!!!


My good friend the award winning Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven has a new book out. It is a collection of five dark short stories. Here is my review and one other:

28 January 2018

Format: Kindle Edition
Whether or not you are aware of it, whenever you take the time to read a book or in this case a series of short stories, you are entering its author’s psyche. Heart Fever is a collection of five dark tales by the award winning Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven. From beginning to end each story gripped me. I hope they also grip you…

20 January 2018

Format: Kindle Edition
No one writes quite like Bob Van Laerhoven. Though his novels stories often find themselves as deep in a heart of darkness as anything Joseph Conrad ever dreamt of in a nightmare, there is still something noble in them. For Van Laerhoven knows that all any of us do is fight for survival and momentary glimpses of peace and/or desire amidst the madness and rot of this world. And sometimes, you just have to laugh at us. This is an extremely important literary voice and Heart Fever is a fine place to start your discovery of the author’s meticulously structured talent.
Click on the cover to go to the site…

Baudelair’s Revenge

Bob Van Laerhoven

The Award Winning Belgian Author Bob Van Laerhoven

Bob’s award winning novel Baudelair’s Revenge has received yet another brilliant five star review.


Ross Macdonald, one of the pioneers of the hard-boiled mystery novel, once posited the theory that the modern detective story flows from Baudelaire, who, it should be noted, translated Poe and felt a deep emotional connection to the man who by most accounts invented detective fiction. Baudelaire’s supposed contribution according to Macdonald was to see the modern city as though it was a model for Dante’s Inferno. It is therefore particularly interesting to have a mystery novel so deeply inhabited by the poet’s ghost as Baudelaire’s Revenge.

Baudelaire is not a character in this book, which takes place in 1870, three years after Baudelaire’s death. But Baudelaire’s spirit haunts the Paris of the novel. It is a Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, a Paris where the rich amuse themselves with drugs and liquor and perverse sexual adventures and the poor are hungry and subject to the Prussian shells falling all around.

But the Prussians are not in the city yet, and so they only form the outer circle of the novel’s Hell. Baudelaire is at the center of the darkness. The novel is about a serial killer choosing victims from among those who tormented Baudelaire during his life. And beside each victim is a piece of Baudelaire’s poetry.

Paul Lefevre, the police commissioner, and his assistant Bernard Bouveroux, are opposites. Lefevre is intensely attracted to prostitutes and understands the call of sex in a way that his assistant cannot, for Bouveroux mourns for his dead wife but without approaching another woman.

Baudelaire’s Paris in this novel is not a hospitable place for every reader to spend time. The corpses, the bizarre characters, and the explicit sexual descriptions are not for everyone. Neither are the serial philosophical discussions or even the discussions of art and poetry. The author writes in an unusual way for a detective writer. He tells instead of showing, violating every rule ever uttered at a writing workshop. Action is not seen but talked about.

But without question, this is an extraordinary book. It is unfair simply to call it well-written. The prose is lush. Here is the first sentence: “Life and death had taught Commissioner Lefevre to love poetry and wenches, and in spite of his fifty-three years, he still wasn’t certain which of the two he admired most.” It’s impossible to stop reading after a sentence like that.

The characters are what make the book. Their inner demons, their wild, dark drives and creative imaginations take us inside Baudelaire in a way that is deeply revealing.

It is a book readers will want to read slowly. It should be noted that Brian Doyle, the book’s translator into English, has done an unbelievably excellent job. The sentences, dark as they sometimes are, are rendered with astounding verve.

If, as his mother claimed, Baudelaire was furious throughout his life because he had been born, readers of the book will understand why when they experience the dreadful horror he witnessed and see inside these characters’ hearts of darkness.



Many congratulations my friend.


Join me in congratulating fellow writer Bob Van Laerhoven

Bob Van Laerhoven

My good friend and fellow writer Bob Van Laerhoven sent me the following email yesterday. After reading it, I was left in no doubt whatsoever that he can feel justifiably proud of himself.

Take a look for yourselves. I’m sure you will agree.



This is what Cheryl Hingley, former editor of a Booker Prize Winner, has published on her blog “Free Literary Mentor” today  – -after having read 30 pages of “Return to Hiroshima”.

BLOG Friday 15 May

Stunning, must-read novel, Return to Hiroshima

Every now and then, Free Literary Mentor receives a submission of great originality, and today I’m excited to announce that the as yet unpublished novel by Belgian writer Bob Van Laerhoven is quite simply breathtaking. I’ve reproduced all of Chapter 6 below. Please leave your comments about this work. You are reading a voice of the future.

This is, in short, Mrs. Hingley’s biography:

Cheryl Sawyer is my maiden name and I was born in Wellington, New Zealand, then lived in Cambridge and Auckland. I have been a teacher and university tutor and hold two master’s degrees with honours, in both French and English literature.

My training as a publisher began in Auckland. I subsequently worked in New Zealand and overseas as a freelancer on a wide range of non-fiction and fiction; the highlight came when I edited The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which won the 1985 Booker Prize in the United Kingdom. I still see Keri’s book as one of the great novels of our time. When I moved to Sydney, Australia, with my husband and two sons, I eventually became publisher for Lansdowne, an independent Australian company. From 2003 to 2014, I created the lists for popular fiction and non-fiction collections for Reader’s Digest. I now write full-time and maintain Free Literary Mentor.

This is her critique:

Mentor’s critique – Return to Hiroshima

Bob, I found it agonising to have to select an extract from your first 30 pages, because they introduce such compelling storylines and utterly distinctive characters—what to choose from your astonishing narrative? In the end I have let Mitsuko speak because her voice begins the novel. You have great gifts as a writer and, provided your complex plot holds up in Return to Hiroshima, I predict that you will be a great gift for the right publisher. That is, a publisher looking for the skill, panache and trenchant seriousness of a writer like Keigo Higashino, with whom I have no hesitation in comparing you.

You have quite a large cast of important characters in the novel: Mitsuko; police inspector Takeda; punk writer Reizo Shiga; young Xavier Douterloigne, returning to Hiroshima from Belgium to investigate his sister’s death; German photographer Beate Becht; and possibly Yori the street girl … and hovering behind them all is Mitsuko’s monstrous father, the sinister figure known as Rokurobei.

You have also crammed it with vivid and disturbing events: in the first 30 pages we get pregnant Mitsuko’s terrified escape from the ruined island where her father has kept her imprisoned all her life; the kidnap or murder of her newborn baby while she is under anaesthetic; the discovery of a hideously deformed dead baby beneath the Peace Monument in Hiroshima; and the murder by gas poisoning of security and police officers at the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo bank.

Whether you are presenting characters or events, you write with a cogency that tells us these are all linked by history: everything happening in the ‘present’ time of 1995 relates in some fateful way to the date on which Hiroshima was destroyed exactly fifty years before. With a chapter for each fairly short scene, you use the narrative technique of juxtaposition to allow one event or character to comment on another: for instance, the reader is bound to wonder, with horror, whether the dead baby under the monument (which you describe in excruciating detail!) might somehow be Mitsuko’s own …

It’s a very effective technique but also very demanding on reader and author. To avoid feeling bombarded by events, the reader needs to feel strongly attached to one or more characters and avid to follow their story through the book. For this reader, you have already achieved a sympathy with Mitsuko and I sense that you will build one with Inspector Takeda, particularly when they begin to interact. Only you can gauge when it is necessary for your readers to get close to characters and when you can afford to distance, even alienate them.

The beauty of this technique in your hands is that it is congruent with your prose, which pulsates with extraordinary light. You link contrasting (even contradictory) words and ideas to create sentences charged with unexpected meaning. The effect is sometimes that of haiku: for instance, Mitsuko’s extraordinary musing about her lost baby: The creature was tiny and kind. It understood. It forgave. It was a universe of comfort. For a small scrap of humanity to be present as a universe in its mother’s mind is poignant and profound.

Your book is built on contrasts (for instance between harsh outward realities and inner tenderness) and your writing reflects these with haunting effect. The passage about Mitsuko’s love of books is bound to strike other readers as it did me. What an electric conjunction of thought and feeling you provide in a single sentence about the island: It was a place that left you short of breath because of the secrecy it exuded.

Much of what you tell us in this book is confronting. It is also shot through with a silver thread of compassion. The message of your book seems to be that the past holds cruel secrets, and every return to Hiroshima reveals terrible facets of the truth that are still affecting Japan and the world. It’s important to manage these contrasts and contradictions so that you can guide your reader through to the conclusion that means most to you.

Since this is translated from your language (Walloon?), I must make mention of the English translation, which positively shimmers. Translation is one of my interests and in my opinion Brian Doyle is to be congratulated for his beautiful rendition of your very distinctive prose. This is no doubt a first version and there are one or two phrases that you’ll be revising. For instance, if Mitsuko cannot decipher the doctor’s glance at the end of the extract, it would not be ‘unambiguous’.

This is an ambitious novel. It’s a police procedural, a haunting thriller and the philosophical exploration of a very dark side of human life. As anyone can see from this extract, it’s also written by a virtuoso. I’m sure this novel is going places and I wish you a splendid journey with it.

And now, searching for that publisher who’s looking for “skill, panache and trenchant seriousness”….

All the best,

Bob Van Laerhoven


The above is high praise indeed, when you consider it is from someone like Cheryl Hingley. Unfortunately she is a member of a dying breed these days – the professional editor of international repute, recognised for the quality of her work throughout the industry, unlike the steadily increasing numbers of individuals who simply call themselves editor, purely for monetary gain.

Well done Bob, very well done indeed my friend.


Introducing the award winning Belgian/Flemish writer, Robert Van Laerhoven


As readers if you have never heard of him before, it’s not really surprising. Until now, few of his books have appeared in the English language. Usually they are published in Dutch and French, only available in paperback and hard cover. Hopefully that will change in the not too distant future. Like all of us, all he wants is to ensure his books are read by the widest audience possible.

Bob, as he prefers to be called, is an award winning Belgian/Flemish writer. I’ve known him for years. So far he has written more than thirty books. Among the awards he has won is the much coveted Hercule Poirot Prize for his crime novel Baudelair’s Revenge, published in 2007, (paper and hard cover) set in Paris in the eighteen seventies.

A few days ago he contacted me via chat on Facebook to ask if I would be willing to participate in a project to our mutual benefit. On Saturday he sent me an email explaining exactly what he had in mind.

In essence, if I was prepared to read and review the English language version of his collection of short stories Dangerous Obsessions, he would like to do the same for one of mine. Needless to say I readily agreed. So I suggested that for his part he read and review my novella Cataclysm published in 2014. He emailed me to say he had ordered the paperback version yesterday (Sunday).

Normally this is an arrangement that I would not enter into. But Bob is such a likeable character, it would be churlish of me to refuse. So why not oblige him?

He offered me a link to a free PDF version of the collection to read. But, if I’m going to fully support his wanting to break into the fastest growing English language literary market – eBooks, particularly in the USA, I’m going to do it properly. So I started as I mean to go on by purchasing a Kindle copy.

He went to the expense of having the collection translated by Bryan Doyle here in the UK – accredited by the Flemish Fund for Literature. Bob asked that I review it on Amazon and Goodreads. I told him that I’m more than happy to place a review on Amazon, but not Goodreads, explaining that the latter is still riddled with author hating trolls.

So from now on my evenings will be taken up with reading through the short stories in the collection. The following link is for the interview with him that his US publisher Anaphora Literary Press produced – Bob’s Interview.

If this writer who’s first language is English can’t support another who is more comfortable writing in Flemish, what is the world coming too?

PS – why not join me in helping Bob out. Get your Kindle copy by clicking on the Dangerous Obsessions link, or go to the Amazon site you usually use. Then read and review it. Come on folks, let’s help a fellow writer.

PPS – My fellow bloggers, you can all do your bit by reblogging this post. Bob’s name and his books need to become known to the entire English speaking world.

PPPS – before anyone thinks of pointing out the obvious yet again – I only use links in my posts. Why? Because the majority of my readers live there. Ok?