Book Review: Flesh of the Peach

“If I owned a horse, I feel like I would ride it until it dropped from exhaustian under me,’ Maud said […] ‘I wouldn’t stop until it had given me everything and taken me far further than it could.”

Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory, is a story of grief, selfishness, and the lasting damage caused by damaged people. The protagonist is Sarah Browne, a twenty-seven year old aspiring artist who, when the story opens, has been rejected by her married lover on the day she discovers her estranged mother has finally died. Raised in a chaotic household of women, where attention was rare and often caustic, she escaped to London as a teenager and then on to New York, a city she now chooses to leave.

Sarah decides to use her newly acquired inheritance to start again, to move to a cabin in New Mexico where she hopes to find the space to consider what she can now be. She takes with her just a few possessions, including a new yellow sundress, but also decades of emotional baggage that she has worked to suppress.

“She placed the newly purchased dress so that it lay across the bed in a pool like sunshine. […] She was going to dress from now on for a beautiful life. Keep saying those words to yourself. It sounds naive but that is one way to choose to exist. As a polished stone skipped across the harshness of things.”

Sarah’s wish is that she be the best possible version of herself, which is the most that any can aspire to be.

There follows a roadtrip in a Greyhound bus, a stay in a soulless motel, and then a drive to her late mother’s cabin retreat in the Southern Rockies. Here she meets a neighbour, Theo, and they embark on an ill-fated affair.

There are flashbacks to Sarah’s childhood in Cornwall. The isolation of the cabin unsettles her equilibrium. Theo falls in love with this young woman whose pressure cooked emotions demand release.

Despite the foreboding atmosphere the writing remains lyrical, the imagery painting both sensation and location. Sarah is delicate and fierce, owning her needs without apology, a female willing to reject societal expectation.

The final quarter of the book lost some of the coherancy which had held together preceding chapters. Nevertheless, the quality of the prose ensured engagement was retained. The denouement was unexpected yet once read could be regarded as inevitable. Disquieting but pure pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Freight Books.

Chatting to independent publisher, Freight Books

freight-books-logo-large

As part of my feature on the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited those publishers whose books made it through to the shortlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Adrian from Freight Books. I review their contender for the prize, Treats by Lara Williams, here.

An introduction – who are you and what you aim to achieve?

Freight Books is a Glasgow based independent publisher, with a focus on fiction, poetry, illustrated and narrative non-fiction (and we publish humour books from time to time too). We have won or have been shortlisted for quite a few literary and design prizes for our books, and we were Scottish Publisher of the Year in 2015-16.

Our principal objective is to give a platform to talented writers, whether they be debuts, mid-career not receiving the attention they deserve. We publish writers from around the world but also enjoy celebrating work connected to this part of the world.

We sell books nationally and internationally and have sold rights to a significant number of our titles to international publishers in the US, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Australia and many other parts of the world. We’re particularly committed to the short story and try to publish at least one or two collections a year. I’m a huge fan of the short form.

How have things changed in publishing since you started?

Although we published our first book in 2001, Freight Books was formally established in 2011. In the five or so years we have been publishing ‘properly’, it’s been mostly about us learning how to create a sustainable business. In the wider industry the hysteria around ebooks has died down and there’s less doom and gloom, but it’s still tough to sell books in any kind of volume. Retailers are still very risk averse. It’s harder to sell ebooks via Amazon, as they’re far more guarded about handing out promotions. We try to be as professional as possible and honour the work as best we can. But in that time we’ve also invested heavily in our network and infrastructure, in international selling, so I think people know us better too.

Your experience of prize listings – what are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

Prizes are hugely important to the industry as it’s a great way for readers to discover books. Publishing is so competitive, anything that identifies a book as ‘special’ will help. It’s also great for the writers as its real affirmation. We’ve been lucky in that two of the first three books we published were shortlisted for national literary awards, including the Author’s Club Best First Novel for Elizabeth Reeder’s Ramshackle. Subsequently we won the Green Carnation Prize (for Anneliese Mackintosh’s brilliant Any Other Mouth) and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize (for Kirstin Innes’s controversial Fishnet). We’ve also been shortlisted for prizes like the Jerwood Encore, the Edge Hill Story Prize, the much-lamented Frank O’Connor International Story Prize and, in poetry, the Seamus Heaney Best First Collection, the Forward Best First Collection and the Aldeburgh Best First Collection. We really chuffed that Lara Williams has been shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize which we think is a great idea and wholly ethical. The more focus on independent publishing the better.

The issue with prizes are some of the punitive costs if you are shortlisted or win. I think there’s an assumption that publishers are rolling in money and are a legitimate source of funding for a prize. Personally, I’d be embarrassed if I was running a prize and had to chin the winners for cash to pay for my prize. Seems like a scam to me. Admin entry fees are fair enough but some, like the recently deceased Guardian First Book, had entry fees way beyond what’s acceptable. Clearly these claw-backs are targeting the larger publishers, not recognising that a) some of the best work comes from indies and b) there’s no way indies can justify these costs.

The future – where would you like to see your small press going?

Our ambitions are modest but achievable – that is to still be publishing great work in ten years and to be able to make a living doing so. We clearly want to be as successful as possible and winning one of the major prizes might be a way of propelling us up to the next level – but a huge amount of luck is required to get that. In the meantime, is up to us to keep our heads up and focus on doing the very best job we can for our writers.

treats

Click on the book cover above to check out what others are saying about Treats. You may also wish to buy the book.

Book Review: Treats

treats

Treats, by Lara Williams, is a collection of twenty-one short stories exploring the challenges of navigating modern life in the twenty-first century. With insight, poignancy and wit the author presents her cast of independently minded, mainly youngish adults who are each searching for love, meaning, or simply a way to get through each day in a British city.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, appropriately titled ‘It Begins’. In this an arts graduate returns to the parental home ready to start the next stage of her journey. All too soon she is assailed by reality.

“You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn with a badge of honour. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. […] Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers […] Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier? You grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.”

Subsequent stories look at the excitement of lust, falling in love, and the inevitable disappointment. There are attempts to make a solitary life enough. For all the progressive ideals the various characters espouse there are still expectations to be met, small lies being told, frowned upon behaviours downplayed in order to impress. There is the hankering after a mate despite the recognition that this is unlikely to fill any void more than temporarily.

Dates are recognisable. There are backhanded compliments, men whose eyes linger on vaporous women passing by, excuses pouring forth for behaviours deemed inappropriate as these condescending alphas attempt to maintain the false idea they have formed of the woman they asked out.

Throughout each story the protagonists endeavour to mould themselves and those granted access to private spaces and lives. There is a strong desire for acceptance.

The freedoms offered by contemporary life in a metropolis come at a cost which these stories present with acuity and compassion, concisely voicing the equivical experiences of many. Although sharp in focus, harshness is avoided. This is an empathetic, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Freight.

Book Review: Dark Side of the Moon

darksidemoon

Dark Side of the Moon, by Les Wood, tells the story of an attempted diamond heist by a group of incompetent crooks. They are well used to meting out violence and thereby fear amongst the druggies and downtrodden in Glasgow’s housing schemes. The professional hard men are, however, ill equipped to carry out the half baked instructions dreamed up by their leader, Boddice, which he believes will enable them to lift a huge diamond from its well guarded display. Boddice’s territories are in decline and he considers this audacious robbery his swansong. He promises riches to those who take part, and serious damage to any who will not do exactly as he says.

Prentice and Kyle are feared by those who must pay protection money to their boss. Although more used to punishing painfully they are not averse to killing on Boddice’s command. Prentice is getting tired of this way of life and is shaken when his actions affect an infant. He wants out but needs Boddice to allow him to walk away.

Boag is offered only occasional work by the racketeer. He is given any at all due to his dad’s willingness to serve time for the boss. Since his dad has been inside Boag has fallen on hard times and is living rough. He is pleased to be offered a chance to use his particular skills, to show the others capabilities they do not credit him with.

The Wilson Twins, Campbell and John, run an established and successful Tattoo Parlour. The money they earn is now a sideline since their business became a front for laundering Boddice’s ill gotten gains. They too have their strengths, but John’s do not appear to reach as far as his brain.

The self-satisfied and sadistic Leggett is barely tolerated by any in the group. When he starts cutting the drugs he is tasked with delivering, pocketing the profit thereby made for himself, Boddice takes action. As with many of his decisions, repercussions are not fully thought through.

Boddice’s idea of stealing the massive diamond comes to him when he hears it is to be the centrepiece of a jewellery event in the city. Each of his chosen crew members has a vital role to play in his cunning plan but he does not properly explain to them all that they may have to face. The team are not used to working as a team. Those who normally lead have been given lesser roles and simmer when they feel sidelined.

The motley bunch are not likeable but their characters are presented with a degree of sympathy that keeps the reader engaged. Their lack of guile adds to the humour even when what they are doing is so obviously grim. It is not just the downtrodden and intellectually challenged who are given wry treatment but also the wealthy and supposedly successful city greats. Their contempt for each other is both amusing and pitiable.

This is a light-hearted romp through the criminal underworld where the rule of law is largely ignored. There is no honour amongst these thieves. It says much for the quality of the writing that there was a degree of poignancy to where events ultimately lead.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Freight Books.

Book Review: Walking the Lights

walkinglights

Walking the Lights, by Deborah Andrews, takes the reader through a year in the life of recently graduated drama student Maddie McGuire. When the book opens Maddie is living in a squalid house share with her boyfriend, Mike. They exist on state benefits and short term loans, prioritising both legal and illegal drugs over food. They watch as others from their college course find work, unable to fathom how they will manage to make happen the big break they dream of.

Maddie harbours a deep resentment over her upbringing. She has vague, happy memories of her father who left the family home when she was young. She now wonders why he did not keep in touch, believing he cannot have cared. Her mother remarried and Maddie has always disliked her volatile stepfather. The feeling appears to be mutual.

Although now choosing to distance herself from her family, Maddie has a close circle of friends from her drama course who she can rely on. Amongst them is Jo. This young woman, unlike Maddie, is able and willing to seek out opportunities for work. She puts Maddie in touch with some of her contacts that her friend may find at least some casual employment from time to time. Maddie and Jo talk of putting on their own production, an adaptation of ‘The Tempest’, and Jo sets out to make it happen.

The story charts the progression of Maddie’s relationships with partners, family and friends. As each of the characters is developed the reader is offered scope to empathise, despite their flaws. I could not warm to Maddie though. Throughout the narrative she remained self centred and dependent. I wondered at her friends’ loyalty.

Maddie does not appear able to contemplate moving away from her home town of Glasgow. As an aspiring actress this struck me as odd. When she gets together with Alex and he ponders pursuing further education elsewhere she does not consider going with him. I wondered what tied her so tightly to a place which is presented as damp and drab, where the family she resents can demand attention and her career is in stasis. It is as if she is unwilling to grasp the life she claims to desire, waiting for others to provide.

The writing is abrupt in places, although the reader is offered vivid descriptions of the effects psychotic drugs have on the mind. Alex’s role is centralised and then sidelined. I was unclear as to why Maddie needed a friend to suggest she try to contact her father, why she did not think of this herself. I enjoyed the descriptive sections, it was the neediness and inertia Maddie portrayed that seemed at odds with her apparent talent and desire for more. Despite my reservations I was moved by the denouement.

This is an enjoyable enough read but lacked coherency and depth. The perspective offered on young actors lives is interesting, but ultimately the whole left be unsatisfied.