Review: Nothing is as it was

Nothing is as it wasA fascinating and timely mix of short stories and flash fiction exploring the impact of climate change. Nothing is as it was places established authors alongside newer writers to make  a unique and wide-ranging collection of voices.

There are apocalyptic visions of a drowning planet or a world about to incinerate. In Lorraine Wilson’s excellent Thirst a woman’s desperate attempts to keep her children from dying  of thirst, side-steps into vandalism. Walking with the Weather is a fine example of what flash fiction can do: ‘We are looking at the fire as it starts to burn my fingers. We are standing and staring at the petition in flames.’ Mirror Image offers a stark choice in two stories back to back: the first ‘assuming massive global action’, the second ‘assuming our current climate trajectory’.

But there is also hope and levity. In Portal a way is found to get rid of our rubbish – it literally disappears through a portal, but the twist in the story is that one day, just as inexplicably, it starts reappearing, along with the scientist who found it: ‘It was only when Reed appeared, dusting himself off with a confused expression, that Kellerman concluded, ‘I think we have a big problem.’  Parental worries about their child’s obsessive hoarding are misplaced in Blue Planet Collection when they find he is single-handedly trying to save the planet from plastic.

What these stories illustrate is that it’s still not too late, but it will take not just individual effort, but decisions and governmental-backed initiatives into research and development at an international level to hold back our runaway global warming.

Retreat west logo

Retreat West Books is an independent press publishing paperback books and eBooks. Founder, Amanda Saint, is a novelist and short story writer. She’s also a features journalist writing about environmental sustainability and climate change. So all Retreat West Books publications take advantage of digital technology advances and are print-on-demand, in order to make best use of the world’s finite resources. Retreat West Books is an arm of Amanda’s creative writing business, Retreat West, through which she runs fiction writing retreats, courses and competitions and provides editorial services. Initially started to publish the anthologies of winning stories in the Retreat West competitions, Retreat West Books is now open for submissions for short story collections, novels and memoirs.

The Retreat West Novel Prize is now open for debut writers without an agent:
Entry fee: £15
Deadline: 19th August 2018

Retreat West Novel Prize 

 

 

Review: Ponti

Ponti.pngA coming-of-age novel set against the relentless modernisation of Singapore, where air pollution is measured daily and reeks of rotten eggs, or burnt barbecue. 

In Ponti, men are largely absent or feckless. This is a novel about three women and told in three time perspectives. In the early 2000s Szu is sixteen, tall, awkward and ostracised by everyone; even her own mother is a monster who rejects her. She eventually finds a friend in Circe, another loner who is equally unpopular. There are brilliant descriptions of the ‘mean’ girls, the in-groups who tease and bully Szu and Circe: They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles … Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulder like a rifle sling.

As well as a  monster for a mother, Szu is also coming to terms with a missing father, and the knowledge that now her mother is dying, she’ll never gain her affection or approval. She’ll be left with only the mysterious Aunt Yunxi who works as a medium, with Amisa as her assistant. 

In the 70s Amisa,  young, poor and impossibly beautiful, is spotted by a film director and promised international stardom: Her face would grace billboards in Hong Kong, Paris, Hollywood … she would be immortal. She makes a series of three shlock horror films starting with Ponti! about the Pontianak, a vampire-like monster who lures men to their deaths with her ethereal beauty. But when the films are released, horror is unfashionable; everyone wants American sci-fi movies like Close Encounters. The films are a flop. Amisa never hits the big time and her short film career defines the rest of her life.

In 2020 Circe, estranged from Szu, is working for a cutting edge media company promoting a reworking of Ponti for a contemporary audience. But she’s living with a medical condition more typical of developing countries – a tapeworm that she feels moving inside her, symbolising the monster she feels she is and the guilt that she was disloyal to Szu when her mother died. Circe also felt the strange mystical bond with Amisa – What linked us was something real and true and rare. Szu wouldn’t understand.

Writing in the Observer, Julie Myerson was damning about Teo’s knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak; while I think she’s heavy handed in her criticism, she does have a point about the language; but only on a very few occasions.

Overall this ambitious debut novel is a success – it took me back to the sometimes gruesomeness of life as an angsty adolescent. Painfully sad but sometimes humorous, Ponti is an eye-opening read about the effects of rapid modernisation on a developing country and the people who have to live with the consequences.

 

 

 

Review: Census

Census by Jesse Ball.png

A dying man takes a road trip with his son who has Down’s syndrome; he wants to mark their last few weeks together so becomes a census taker, travelling in an old car where, if there’s nothing better, they spend the night.

This structure gives the author the opportunity to link a range of odd characters and strange settings together, and provides the space for the narrator, a former surgeon to muse on life, parenthood, bereavement and bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome; both the challenges and the happiness.

A deeply moving short novel, based on the author’s own brother, told in simple, clear prose.

Writing update

Sometimes you need to go back to a piece of writing you thought was finished. I completed the nth draft of my first novel about 18 months ago, and my lovely agent sent it out. Some positive comments but no takers. So I worked on my second novel, and then the third.

But a couple of months ago something made me want to read number 1 again. Partly because revising and editing is so much easier than producing new stuff,  and the new novel needs time to work out where it’s going – but also from a sense of curiosity. What was novel number 1 really like? Is it any good? Would I buy it? So I sat down and read it through, as if I was reading any novel. An interesting experience: some scenes were so familiar I knew every word, and others I could hardly remember. But most surprising was the ending – I thought I’d made it very clear, but when I read it again I realised it was not what I’d intended, or even what I thought I’d written…

So, for the last 6 weeks I’ve been redrafting. It’s even got a new title! Which I won’t share at the moment because I’m going to submit it for a few of the debut novel prizes that are coming up. I guess the process of having written two and a half novels has given me a better grasp of how to write a novel. If this one is ever published, it will genuinely be my first, but i suspect a lot of ‘first’ novels are likely to be third or even fourth ones… You can learn a lot on creative writing courses (thanks City University for The Novel Studio), but the best way to really get to grips with writing a novel is, (yes you have to read and read)  sit there with your laptop or pen and paper and (as my dad used to say) just get on with it!

Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary PeopleDiana Evans’ third novel is bookended by a party to celebrate Obama’s election as the first black president of the USA, and by the death of Michael Jackson. Against this slice of history two relationships in London start to fall apart. The ordinary people of the title are middle class couples facing the strains of ordinary domesticity, possible extra-marital affairs and divorce, the loss of parents and jobs. They’re also the ‘ordinary people’ of John Legend’s lyrics:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
‘Cause we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow

At the beginning we meet Melissa and Michael who live in a lop-sided house in South London, not far from Crystal Palace (a recurring theme throughout the novel). They’re seen at the party both ‘on the far side of youth’ but still a glamorous couple. Adult life has ‘revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown’ but with their children away for the night, Michael at least feels ‘a pressing obligation… to deliriously copulate’. But nothing goes to plan and, after the party, back in their house in the ironically-named Paradise Row, domestic needs take over: Melissa finds a mouse, a wardrobe rail collapses and the sex is no good. Michael compares himself to the singer in ‘Ordinary People’ Passed the infatuation phase /Right in the thick of love. But everything is going wrong and he can’t control it.

Melissa is struggling with the joint pressures of crushing domesticity, and the loss of her career: where she was an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’. Descriptions of the dragging details of being at home with small children and trying to work freelance, are both hilarious and poignant. For Melissa there are hints (from her Nigerian mother) of the supernatural, of ‘night things’ – ‘beings who walk in the night hours, not quite human, who watch us.’  Symbolic of what is wrong in their relationship. There is a recurring image of the 1851 Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace was moved south of the river, and eventually burned down.

Then there’s Damian (Michael’s university friend) who lives with Stephanie in leafy Surrey. He’s reassured by ‘her aptitude for contentment’ so has been persuaded to move away from London to Dorking because she’s worried about inner city violence affecting the children. She loves their house with its ‘neatness and thick upstairs carpets and old wooden surfaces’. Damien is struggling with the long commute, the recent death of his father and a sense that he’s not doing anything important with his life. His father, a political activist, campaigned constantly against racial inequality, but ended up a lonely, disappointed man. Damien misses London: ‘the stern beauty of church women on Sunday mornings, the West End, the art in the air, the music in the air, the sense of possibility’. He has a running question in his mind: How long will you go on living your life as if you were balancing on a ribbon? Stuck at the bottom of a drawer he has an unfinished novel.

From here everything gradually unravels for both couples. But what makes this novel stand out is that although the main characters are black or mixed race, this isn’t the focus of the book. Race is addressed in Stephanie’s fears that London isn’t a place to bring up children, and in Damien’s father’s fight against racist attitudes, but this is a novel about relationships, not race. And in this it is quietly revolutionary. And also wonderfully funny. Ordinary People is a finely-nuanced novel of contemporary relationships that is both compelling and vital.

Ordinary People is published on 5th April.

 

 

Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

The One Who Wrote Destiny

Image from Amazon.co.uk

A family saga of repeating patterns of illness, loss and immigration. Often moving and funny, this is a novel about destiny and whether we have any control over our lives.

Nikesh Shukla has created some wonderful characters: Mukesh arrives in Keighley from Kenya in the 1970s to start a new life in London (!) and is bewildered to find himself the victim of race-hatred and violence while trying to fit in to the small local community. His English isn’t colloquial and he only has one decent suit, but then he falls in love with the feisty Nisha, the love of his life. So much so that after she dies, he fails to appreciate his own children. In the next generation we have their children: Rakesh, a wannabe comedian and his twin sister, Neha, a fascinating female character who (like someone in  TV’s The Big Bang Theory) is a computer nerd, completely out of touch with her feelings. When she develops cancer (like her mother) she tries to plot the destinies of her whole family, in what for me was the most moving part of the novel. Finally we meet Ba, Nisha’s mother, who briefly looks after her grandchildren when her daughter dies. She has experienced the most loss in the novel, and is only waiting to die and re-join her family. The One Who Wrote Destiny is laced through with terrible obsessive sadness, in spite of some very funny passages. The casual racism at all levels is shocking, but there’s also desperately sad male violence directed at family members (and donkeys).

If I have a criticism it’s that Nikesh Shukla doesn’t take his material far enough. We soon know the basic ‘story’, so that by the time we reach Ba’s chapters at the end of the novel, we already know what has happened and there aren’t any big reveals. I was left with the impression that there are some fascinating and memorable characters in this novel, and it’s a heart-wrenching story, but I didn’t feel it as much as I would have expected.

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published on 5th April 2018 by Atlantic Books

Review: Conversations with Friends

conversations with friends ppb

paperback published, 2018
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Well I’m gay and Frances is a communist.

Frances and Bobbi, both twenty-one and very bright, are university students in Dublin. They’ve had a gay relationship but are still best friends; Frances is an aspiring writer and she and Bobbi perform spoken word poetry at night. When they meet Melissa, a photographer in her thirties who wants to write a profile on them, Bobbi is attracted to Melissa and Frances begins an affair with Nick, Melissa’s glamorous actor husband.
Everyone labels Frances as cool, but it is more that she is guarded and reserved – there’s a history of family instability and, in spite of her political beliefs, she’s financially dependent on her father, a sad shadowy alcoholic. Seen through Frances’ eyes the world is flat, colourless and cerebral. She’s detached from her own emotions and, as she and Bobbi analyse their lives, without becoming emotionally involved, the language of the novel reinforces this sense of distancing.
I had a headache, I hadn’t eaten. My body felt used-up and worthless to me. I didn’t want to put food or medicine into it anymore.

At first Frances hardly knows herself – she is young and naïve; it’s only by observing her own actions and reactions that she comes to a level of understanding, as she tries to reconcile her intellectual beliefs with the messy reality of relationships. She falls in love with Nick but, of course, he comes with his own baggage and vulnerabilities – a complicated backstory of depression and his wife’s infidelities.

Frances keeps the affair secret and ultimately runs the risk of alienating everyone she cares about: her father, Nick and Bobbi. She uses her ‘coolness’ as a shield to hide behind and when everything starts to go wrong, both emotionally and physically, she starts to fall apart and takes it out on her own body.

By the end of the novel Frances is beginning to grow up: she has learned that it’s impossible to live in a completely cerebral way; like everyone else, she is subject to the limitations of her body. If she wants to be happy she will have to compromise.
You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

In this intriguing novel. Sally Rooney shows how precocious intellectual brilliance can mask ordinary vulnerability, and she has achieved a rare feat in letting us observe the complex process of Frances coming to terms with how to live her life.