The Word For Freedom: a review

The word for freedom

An excellent and very enjoyable anthology of short stories, by both established and new writers, inspired by 100 years of women’s suffrage, The Word for Freedom is the brainchild of the author, Rose McGinty. Sales of the book will raise money for the work of Hestia, an organisation with a crucial role in running refuges and giving support to women and their children escaping domestic abuse in London.

The stories themselves range from the historical (set at the time of the Suffragettes) to the contemporary, and we see women at all stages of life and in a variety of settings. There is darkness of course, but also humour and above all hope that women can overcome whatever life throws at them.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who calls him or herself a feminist.

Eggshells: a review

Eggshells

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally is a darkly hilarious and moving novel about feeling that you don’t fit in. Vivian lives alone in her dead great-aunt’s house and spends every day (like a 21st century Leopold Bloom) walking the streets of Dublin. Other people and all their words and conversations make no sense to her and she can’t understand how to live in the ordinary world. Vivian believes she’s a changeling, and is looking for a portal to take her back to where she thinks she belongs.

In the vein of the best-selling Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, this novel is a depiction of acute loneliness. Vivian’s parents are dead, her sister can’t stand her and she has no idea how to make friends, so writes a notice and pins it to a tree:

WANTED: Friend called Penelope. Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say. Good Sense of Humour Not Required Because My Laugh Is a  Work in Progress. Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply. Phone Vivian

For me it took time to get used to Vivian’s strange world but once I did there were many moments of laugh out loud humour. Her neighbours comment on her behaviour:

“Ah, Vivian, would you look at yourself, a grown woman up a tree on a day like today.”

When reminded by David, her social worker to keep an open mind she says:

“I am open-minded … sometimes I wear my slippers on the opposite feet to change my worldview, even though it makes me hobble.”

At heart this is a book about language and how we use and misuse it. As she journeys around Dublin, Vivian collects lists of words making patterns and connections and trying to find hidden meanings. She’s not ‘neurotypical’ and is therefore unlikely to change her (to us) eccentric ways of thinking, so don’t expect character development, but if you love a novel that plays with language you’ll enjoy reading Eggshells. As an unreliable narrator her skewed understanding of the world makes for some very funny one liners and achingly funny set pieces.

She may be a tragic and lonely figure but Vivian is a feisty, determined character getting on with her life against the odds; by the end there are glimmers of hope that something  may change for the better, even if she never finds her portal. Eggshells reflects our own image back as we observe Vivian’s struggles and is a bid for acceptance and understanding of human differences.

Newly published by the Borough Press, Eggshells was first published in 2015 and has recently won The Rooney Prize for emerging Irish writers. As chair of the selection committee, literary agent, Jonathan Williams said: “Caitriona Lally’s only novel, Eggshells, is a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.

This Is (Not About) David Bowie: a review

Due to be published on 12th November this is a debut flash fiction collection from award-winning writer, F J Morris.

This is not about David Bowiek

It’s a bit like saying ‘Don’t think about an elephant’ so of course you can’t help it, only in this case it’s the ghostly presence of the great David Bowie floating through these stories. His songs (their titles), influential fashion-sense and his (almost) staged and unexpected death link surreal, surprising stories rooted in everyday life with a twist of sci-fi. The collection includes very short flash fiction as well as verse and some longer stories. An impressive range.

In the opening story, When David Bowie moved in, a failing relationship is pushed to breaking point after ‘pieces of Bowie landed daily’. When a woman feels her heart becoming cold and she starts to grow scales, in Loving the alien, she hopes it’s ‘a sickness that would go away’ but ‘It was genetic; an alien gene in my very DNA.’ With this metaphor F J Morris examines the impact on a relationship of the death of a baby, and the way the couple each hide their emotions. Other dark or challenging subjects are given this slant approach: child abuse in Blooming Scars and the loss of a sister in Swings and Rocket Ships. In the poem A Song of Space the writer plays on the contrast between Space with a capital ‘S’, ‘arms holding supernovas and planets and milky ways’ and the minute space formed by ‘the semicolon between now and then.’

Talking of semicolons, I particularly enjoyed the more experimental Slush Puppies that cut punctuation and capital letters altogether, echoing the experimental nature of adolescent sexuality: ‘I know she would taste sweet like her candy-floss hair.’

This Is (Not About) David Bowie is a collection that combines a light touch with serious undertones that question what it means to be human. Now to dig out my old Bowie records…

This Is (Not About) David Bowie will be published on 12/11/18 in eBook and paperback.

Writing update: exciting news!

Retreat west logoAmanda Saint founder of Retreat West Books writes:

Ali Thurm signed for debut novel

Thrilled to have signed the debut novel from Ali Thurm for Retreat West Books. One Scheme of Happiness is a story of desire, obsession and delusion and just how far you will go to get what you think you want. It was shortlisted for the 2018 Cinnamon Debut Novel Award and the narrator Helen is telling the story of her complicated and deceitful friendship with married couple, Sam and Vicky.
Friends when they were children, they are all now in their forties and haven’t seen each other since school. Helen has remained in their home town to look after her sick mother and when Sam and Vicky return to try and repair their shaky marriage she gets embroiled in their games, but she’s also playing some of her own and things spiral out of control. Ali’s writing is beautiful and atmospheric, and I am very much looking forward to bringing this story to the world.

Ali Thurm is a novelist, poet and teacher living in London. Her poems have been published in magazines and anthologies, and in 2016 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Her first poetry collection was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection in 2015. In 2017 she was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and shortlisted for the First Novel Award (Daniel Goldsmiths). She also won a prize in the 2017 Troubadour International Poetry Competition. Ali completed City University’s Novel Studio course in 2013, where she worked on the draft of One Scheme of Happiness. She is represented by Emily Sweet at Emily Sweet Associates.
Ali said:

‘I’m thrilled that Retreat West Books has taken on One Scheme of Happiness. I’ve been working on the novel for several years with the support of a group of friends from my City University writing group and with advice from my agent, Emily Sweet. I’m looking forward to working with Amanda and to benefitting from her expert editorial skills to make the story really shine.
My first-person narrative explores what can happen to a character when the lid is
taken off her deeply-repressed emotions and how, without support, mental-health issues can lead to destructive and disastrous choices.

One Scheme of Happiness will publish in February 2020.

 

The Dreamers: a review

THE DREAMERS

A small Californian town is under threat when a mysterious virus starts spreading from the local college; people fall asleep and can’t be woken. Karen Thompson Walker handles the material very efficiently, building up an atmosphere of disbelief that escalates gradually until the town is cut off from the outside world by a ‘cordon sanitaire’. No one is allowed in; no one can leave. The disease affects everyone, from the smallest new-born baby to the elderly and confused living in a nursing home. There are echoes of Camus’ The Plague and of Rip Van Winkle, laced with theories about sleep and dreaming from ancient Greece via Freud to the latest findings of neuroscientists. All against a quietly smouldering background of global warming: the lake is drying up, trees are slowly dying and the whole area is at the risk of devastating forest fires.

The sense that this illness affects all is echoed by the way the story is told from several viewpoints with no one central character: a young fresher who doesn’t fit in; two young sisters with an eccentric father; a professor grieving for his partner and a young couple patching together their marriage with a new baby amongst others.

The Dreamers is a subtle story where reality and dreaming become mixed, and the decisions we take in how to live our lives are put under the microscope. A quietly devastating page-turner.

Published Feb 2019

The Little Snake: a review

the little snakeVery different from her usual style of writing, A L Kennedy has written a feminist novella for adults based on St Exupery’s well-loved children’s picture book, The Little Prince.

The Little Snake is a fable that gently reminds us that life is more than building great cities and fighting over resources; life can be lived in a small, simple way accepting loss and embracing love. If you take tiny steps across a small garden it makes it appear so much bigger. This is a beautifully-told story, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, that quickly gets its point across and, if you’re familiar with this type of fable it won’t really work for you. I would pitch it more for a YA audience, or for very stressed out adults.

But it’s still a timely nudge to all of us to slow down and to remember that simple activities like flying a kite, being kind to our friends and sharing food is all we need to be happy in life.

All Among The Barley: a review

all-among-the-barley

When it comes to evoking the natural world and capturing the sense of a superstitious, rural community on the verge of disappearing after the First World War, Melissa Harrison is a very fine writer. For the first half of All Among The Barley it was like watching paint slowly drying, albeit a very beautiful paint from Farrow and Ball; and that’s not to say it’s a bad thing, just that there is often little sense of plot and (apart from the main protagonist) some of the characters have been picked straight from central casting. There are shades of Hardy here, even down to burning ricks and a rape scene reminiscent of poor Tessa Durbeyfield, as well as a very Hardyesque sense of dark brooding and foreboding. And yet… half way through everything gains pace and the hints of forces at work are substantiated and brought out into the open: one character really is the violent drunk we’d suspected and another an out-and-out fascist. Topical questions are raised about how communities deal with those who are different (migrant workers) and how easy it is to be influenced by the politically astute (Farage and Johnson).

Ultimately, this is an enjoyable story of the loss of innocence in a vanishing world brought to life by a writer with painterly gifts.