NaNoWriMo Retrospective & Review

Around mid-October, I was writing a short story, but contemplating the possibility of a larger project. My primary medium has always been the novel—I love its history (its emergence from travel, journal, confessional, dialogue and epistolary writing) and versatility. Games, films, cartoons, songs, poems and comics have illustrious narrative traditions, but for me nothing compares to the novel’s capacity to blend internal and external worlds and evoke a sustained story in captivating depth. As an axiomatic faith, I maintain that the novel will defy the doom-prophets foretelling of its demise: from José Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 Decline of the Novel to Will Self’s more contemporary pontificating. During this time, I recalled hearing of the National Novel Writing Month and its communal goal of writing a fifty-thousand-word piece of new narrative fiction in November. NaNo is more than just that lofty target: it is an ethos and a method of novel writing too.

Continue reading

Review: Hazel Manuel, 'The Geranium Woman'

205054950

In tragedy, the plot is propelled by a hamartia—the flaw of the protagonist that causes subsequent events. The protagonist of The Geranium Woman suffers such a flaw, which consists of her naïvely in falling for something analogous to Mornington Crescent. Popularised in Britain by the radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it's a game in which you move between locations on the London Underground to arrive at the eponymous Northern Line station. As you play, you challenge the ‘legality’ of other players’ moves, debating an increasingly baroque rule-system invented along the way. It’s an in-joke and farce—one with no adherence to a system of actual rules. Hazel’s hero, newly a CEO in Paris, is unaware of the Mornington Crescent in-joke of her company’s corporate ethics and the other hypocrisies of many of her interactions. She attempts to play, hoping to reform the hyper-masculine world of business and shareholders as well as navigate open and undefined relationships, within the loose strictures and conventions that secretly oppose her values. She does so against the backdrop of her father’s recent death and the implied existential, memento mori revelation of her own mortality—with shorter chapters giving us moments of his deathbed reflections.

Continue reading

Review: Jennifer Young, 'Cold Crash'

41LcUH9IkL

By backgrounding aspects of a fiction, they can be emphasised more than were they to be foregrounded; so when historical research is over-presented—e.g. we’re reminded a book is set during the Battle of Actium by characters obtrusively commenting on period-specific markers—verisimilitude can be counterintuitively weakened; whereas confidence with historical research allows an author to seamlessly blend pertinent indicators into the narrative, where they become the more apparent. Jennifer Young’s Cold Crash demonstrates just such a confidence in its treatment of early fifties Britain and the life of pioneering archaeologist Maxine ‘Max’ Falkland. What is so impressive about the Cold War novel is that it does not need to embellish its setting and time. It transports you as much into the presuppositions of the decade as its surroundings (with beautiful descriptive prose), geopolitics, immediate history and percolating (often still relevant) prejudices. And because the world of the past is never presented clumsily or exaggerated, character and narrative are freed to direct the story to more interesting places.

Continue reading

Review: Cyan Night 'Girl, Fighter'

51FwSt959mL._SY346_

Girl, Fighter by Cyan Night is a coming of age story about Aliyah, an Australian expat residing and working in London from a mixed Kazakh-Chinese background. It is well paced and gripping, as the hero is soon led by her character and circumstances into a series of calamities almost reminiscent of Hellenist tragedy. It is in this tension between character and social context that the novel finds its strength; it is an honest examination of one person’s complex situation in its historical and predetermined nuance, but also manages to highlight its heroes agency. The novel is structured into two parts, the first (narrated in a detached third person voice) sets up the ascent necessary for the fall of the second, which is made more intimate by its adoption of the first person.

Continue reading

Review: Suzy Rigg ‘Songs of my Soul’

51uBL0GdYv_20171106-135915_1

Divided into three parts of an inner journey—Discovery, Holy Fire, Resurrection— Suzy Rigg’s Songs of my Soul is a diverse poetry collection. It has pieces that tackle the aches of isolation and fear and loss,’ For one so alive/ it is hard to believe, you are gone’ as well as more jovial light verse about the London urban experience, such as ‘The C-O-M-M-U-T-E’ in which one feels the, ‘touch of a strangers bag or case/ The jolt of an armpit right in your face’. Rigg’s début is a ‘song full of longing, loneliness, fear.’ (p.5), but it is also, ‘a joyous chime of freedom’. From allusions to Red Riding Hood in ‘Footprints’ (p.6) to Rapunzel in ‘Things not forgotten’, these poems are often suffused with the primordial archetypes of fairytale, an eerie play of life and death. The book is striking; in ‘tightrope’ Rigg’s experiments with concrete forms while exploring the fragility of life and elsewhere with subjects as difficult as the black diaspora. It’s also sometimes wry, warning at one point that ‘all characters are creations of this poet’s imagination and any similarity to persons you may know is just spooky.’ Songs of my Soul is an impressive introduction to a new and original voice. I look forward to more work from this poet.

Review: Natsume Soseki's 'Kokoro'

kokoro-028

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (meaning heart, getting at the essence of something) is a deceptively simple story exploring egoism, generational conflict and death. It is a character study of shame written in the turbulent shift from the Meiji era of Japan, symbolised by the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent ritualistic suicide of General Nogi Maresuke. This historical sequence is explored as a background narrative, an expert instance of literary morphasis in which something kept out of central focus in a story is thereby rendered with more emphasis by the author. The foregrounded story is, then, an attempt to tease out the meaning of General Nogi’s drama. The book assumes a basic understanding of this backdrop and an appreciation for its ramifications: General Nogi fought in the Seinan (Russo-Japanese) War and was one of Imperial Japan’s national heroes, but he lost the Emperor’s banner during the Satsuma Rebellion and sought to reclaim his honour through suicide. He was ordered not to by his junshi (master), the Emperor, and consequently waited for the Emperor’s own death to enact his own. ‘When did he suffer greater agony,’ Soseki’s novel muses, ‘during those thirty-five years, or the moment when the sword entered his bowels?’

Continue reading

Review: Julio Cortázar 'Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia'

51U43HpbKOL

Part comic book, part novella, part epistolary literature, and replete with footnotes, Julio Cortázar’s fantastically experimental Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia (translated by David Kurnick) is a majestic wonder in its sheer, resplendent weirdness. There’s even an appendix delightfully entitled, ‘A friendly piece of advice: read the appendix last, why rush things when we’ve gotten off to such a good start?’ And the first two chapters are prefaced, á la early modern literature, with proleptic summaries such as ‘Concerning how the narrator caught his train in extremis (and from here on we dispense with chapter headings, as there will be numerous beautiful pictures to punctuate and enliven the reading of this fascinating story).’ The mass destruction of all the world’s literature as a part of a vast conspiracy, famous authors threatened with death if they deign to write again, Susan Sontag amongst the cast, a hero who makes references to the surrealist film Un chien andalou and the revolutionary utopian Second Russell Tribunal all come together in a book that satirises the superhero genre so much better than the better known Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchman ever manages. The author stand-in Julio, opines on things such as that ‘the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.’ Or even that ‘history is like stake and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.’

Continue reading

Review: Octavia E. Butler 'Dawn'

5123KWMEAfL

I tell you that by your way of measuring time, it has been several million years since we dared to interfere in another people’s act of self-destruction. Many of us disputed the wisdom of doing it this time. We thought . . . that there had been a consensus among you, that you had agreed to die.

Continue reading

Review: Morgan Bell's 'Laissez Faire'

51BlilPm8L._SY346_

From fairytales to moments of pathos, from science fictions to parables, Morgan Bell’s Laissez Faire is similar to her earlier work Sniggerless Boundulations in that it collects weird and disorientating vignettes and microfictions, but feels more developed. Bell’s voice retains her witty absurdism, but it is complemented by a greater confidence that allows more depth of situation and character. With ‘The Glass Of Water’ a girl is navigating unfamiliar rules and craves ‘the family vibe, it didn’t matter whose family.’ Over and over, Bell places us into the heads of complex people robbed of belonging and purpose or merely appalled by the world: in ‘No Small Thing’ a woman loses her love for a man after learning how he ‘euthanized’ his pets and in ‘Juniper Bean’ another is literally torn by her opposing desires for the familiar and adventurous personified as a squid and pelican, ‘“Well girlie?” goaded the squid. “Your loyalty to kin and convention, or a whole heap of flapping around and some undefined potential to create.” “Do you wish to dwell or soar?” asked the pelican. “It’s a game of chance either way.”’ As the title Laissez Faire suggests, the interconnecting theme is that quite anything goes—anything can happen to anyone and the rules and parameters that help us make sense of existence are merely effective but restrictive illusions.

Continue reading

Review: Omar Sabbagh 'Dye and Other Stories'

41JV8K9lGzL

Comfortable in any medium, but with a recognisable voice, Omar Sabbagh has already published essays (Disciplined Subjects and Better Selves), a novella (Via Negativa) and poetry (Square Root of Beirut and My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint). It is unsurprising, then, that these prose pieces are mature and developed. Literature, theology and his alter ego—personified in characters such as Omar Ghaleez or hinted in autobiographical traces—haunt Sabbagh’s work. Like his nonfiction, but even more spirited, Dye and Other Stories plays seriously with philosophical ideas, richer for their narrative ambiguities. And these ideas have much to do with interrogating selfhood in its metaphysical context, making the introspective mood appropriate. A consistent feature of Sabbagh’s writing is his engagement with other writers, especially from the modernist tradition and authors with an interest in self-identity. Here, writers of self-reflection make frequent appearances (Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov), but more explicitly authors of Confessional writing appear over and over too: Thomas De Quincey, Augustine, Franz Kafka. This genre, with all of its religious connotations intact, grounds the book.

Continue reading

Review: Erica Benner ‘Be Like the Fox’

niccolo-machiavelli-9392446-1-40_20170923-164036_1

An apocryphal story relates that, before he made his confession, Niccolò told his grieving friends about a dream he’d had. In it he saw a crowd of people, emaciated and in rags. When he asked who they were, he was told that they were the blessed souls of Paradise, because it is written, ‘Blessed are the poor, for they shall reign in heaven.’45 These vanished; then he saw a gathering of people in royal and courtly robes, deep in conversation about politics and philosophy. Among them he recognized Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus, and other famous men of antiquity. Asking who these were, he received the answer that they were condemned to Hell, because it is written: ‘Knowledge of sacred things is inimical to God.’ Asked which group he would like to join, he answered: ‘I’d rather burn in Hell for all eternity with the second lot than suffer in Paradise with the first.’ (p.314)

Continue reading

Ross McCleary's Post-Irony

31311163

While attending the Saboteur Awards 2017, I discovered the intriguingly titled humorous novella Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death. With its James Joyce parody title and the author, Ross McCleary, standing in the crowd dressed as a panda, it was impossible to resist. Experimenting with font size, bold typography, second person voice, motifs of violence, mortality, solipsism and a great surfeit of meta-conceits, Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death is an analysis of what it means to be an artist—in that sense, it has continuity with Joyce. A single conceit, or formulae, structures the book. Each paragraph, separated from its predecessor by a hard break, begins ‘He says[…]’ and proceeds to a statement of some insight from the titular artist, speaking directly to ‘you’ the reader. It has a mesmeric quality: ‘He says it only rains when he takes an Ordinance Survey Map in the shower with him.’

Continue reading

Last of the Summer Manuscripts

August is not a great time to ‘aggressively promote a brand’—to use one of the corny buzz phrases that parasites into the vulnerable mind of any go-getting freelancer. People are keener on taking vacations than having their novels cut up and surgically stitched back together for the prospective discerning, if brutal, attention of agents and publishers. Nonetheless, it is an undertaking (or, more loftily, vocation) to which I am currently committed.

Continue reading

Metaphysics & Gossip

Aside from utopias and related genres, the metaphysics of stories is my most enduring monomania—one I can precisely trace to a single influence. During my formative journey through such topics as ontology, aesthetics and philosophical anthropology, the British writer Raymond Tallis was key. And in his incisive early essay ‘Notes Towards a Manifesto for a Novel of the Future’, collected in The Raymond Tallis Reader, he begins with a statement to which I often return, ‘In my more honest moments, I am inclined to admit that I find only two things in the world truly fascinating: metaphysics and gossip.’ It’s an arresting dichotomy that demands unpacking.

Continue reading

My best (weird) books

My best (weird) books




























For a while I have wanted to do a blog showcasing the best (weirdest) books from my personal collection. I am fascinated by what artists and authors can do when they treat books not merely as dull vehicles for prose, but as aesthetic objects in themselves. Despite not sharing the popular distaste for ebooks, I love the physicality of volumes and volumes of books. The look of text on paper and the playful repurposing of manuscripts. These are examples I evidently loved so much I needed to keep them. I could have chosen a different set and my process for picking was admittedly haphazard and whimsical, but I think this exemplifies a lot of what is possible.

Continue reading

Writing Tips: Character and Place

Attempts to address setting too frequently focus on description, but if we read a piece on characterisation that stopped at how to evoke X’s roman nose or Y’s greying hair, we might suspect something is missing. Settings and characters make similar demands on the writer, and it is true that a good setting can function structurally much like a character. When you start a novel, short story or play you have to ask how many characters you include (from zero up), their relationships, histories, story-arcs and temperaments. Likewise, will there be one setting or many? That choice can significantly alter the mood of your book. And if more than one, what is the relationship between the different places? What has occurred there in the past? What is the mood of this meadow or that street? What will change there during the course of the narrative?

Continue reading

Writing Tips: Show, don’t tell

There are innumerable editing clichés, most possessing strong underlying principles, most treacherous in application. The suggestion to ‘show, don’t tell’ is often accompanied by this quote from Anton Chekhov, as it is on the Wikipedia page:

Continue reading

Leaflets for Rowan Tree Editing

Leaflets for Rowan Tree Editing

Today's post had a few welcome surprises. As well as a hardback, bound copy of my PhD and utopian novel, We Are Seven, I also received Rowan Tree Editing's first leaflets. They are modelled on the website and were designed by the very talented Adam Craig. He is the commissioning editor of Cinnamon Press's Liquorice Fish Books imprint, a champion of innovative and idiosyncratic writing. 

Retake: Tales from the Greenhills

Retake: Tales from the Greenhills

Yesterday I posted a link to an Amazon review of Terry Melia's wonderful Tales from the Greenhills. Amazon promptly removed my review without explanation or a means of contacting them, as well as deleting another review written by my mother—who runs a publisher in Wales called Cinnamon Press. Today I repost both reviews here. First, Jan Fortune's excellent endorsement:

Continue reading

Tales from the Greenhills Review & Other Updates

Just posted my Amazon review for Terry Melia's Tales from the Greenhills, a book that deserves to be widely read. As well as adding it to my own list of available edited work. Currently working on new, exciting editing and preparing to release leaflets for the Rowan Tree website. Exciting days.