Guest Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

Today I welcome Valerie O’Riordan to my blog. Valerie is a writer, critic and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at the University of Bolton. Her fiction has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Tin House, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, and The Manchester Review. She edits both Bookmunch and the Forge Literary Magazine. It is through my contributions to Bookmunch that we are associated. After I had submitted my review of Things Are Against Us to Bookmunch, I noticed that Val was reading the book. Interested in what she thought of it, I was delighted when she agreed to review it for Never Imitate.

Lucy Ellmann, Things Are Against Us

Things are against us, if by *us* we’re talking women, and anyone who identifies similarly, queer folx more broadly, and that’s not even to mention the issues thrown up for Black and brown and indigenous peoples, and by *things* we mean, oh, the institutional structures of human societies worldwide. In fact, notes Ellmann, when you look at it with a keen eye, ‘the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.’ So what’s to do? Well, while we work busily on a global socialist-feminist uprising, we might as well complain.

Things Are Against Us is complaint writ large. It represents a glorious bellowing back against the Trumps, the Weinsteins, the mansplainers and manspreaders; against penile architecture and commodity fetishism and tech utopians and widespread ignorance; against bras, against travel, against morning routines and stereotypes; against fake news and FGM and femicide; against violence of all sorts. Make no mistake: this is a tirade. Or, tirades, really, because this is a collection of essays, Ellmann’s first work of non-fiction, drawing several previously unpublished pieces together with polemics printed over the last twenty-one years, from ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’ (2000) to ‘Sing the Unelectric’ (2013), to ‘Consider Pistons and Pumps’ (2016) and ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’ (2017). The recurrent theme is patriarchy and its manifold woes, and the latter essays are sharply focussed on Trump and his administration, still in power when most of these pieces were composed. With the election of what Ellmann calls, variously, ‘this delusional mass murderer’ (gun violence, kids in cages, Covid), ‘the phoniest guy they could find’, and, turning Trump’s own vocabulary against him, ‘the big fat loser of a president’, and the attempted MAGA coup following Biden’s election, America reached ’a whole new level of patriarchal absurdity’. And this book is dedicated, mostly, to a setting out of this
state of affairs: how it came about, how it’s manifesting itself, how screwed we all really are. And it is all of us: while Ellmann’s a steadfast ex-pat (she lives in Scotland), she doesn’t let the UK gets away with anything — Tony Blair is a war criminal and Brexit is, she argues, ‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’ — and even though America does play its hand especially blatantly, it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real enemy, not any particular nation-state. ‘Wildlife is pretty much finished now’, Ellmann says, plainly, and it’s true. So what do we do? Well, complain, for a start: make ourselves heard. Take a stance. Hold out for worldwide matriarchy, suggests Ellmann. Be strong, take the
money, and run. (And take the pill.)

Now, remember, this is Lucy Ellmann, who might well be the living embodiment of barbed wit: this is a funny collection. It’s bold and brash and unafraid to offend, defiantly belligerent, and for every swipe the book takes at unabashedly misogynistic and colonialist and ecocidal world leaders and conventions, it takes another at missing hot water bottle stoppers, blenders and pumpkin spice lattes. It’s a serious book, but a fun one; it’s an easy read, a rapid read, a fist-thumping and grinning read. It’s enjoyable. But that’s also how it gets you: Ellmann lays a trail of funny breadcrumbs, draws you in, and then, bang: we’re reading about the stupefaction of the public by YouTube and Fox News and we are furious. It’s smart and ingenious and demonstrates enormous rhetorical skill – skill that has, often, gone underappreciated in the reaction to her works online. Ellmann rails against so many Things that critics — and, naturally, social media users who, in many cases, haven’t actually read her works — have liked to latch onto isolated examples (her dig at crime fiction; her twitter essay about ‘crap’) as case-studies in why she ought to be ignored. But one of the Things Ellmann rails against is this proliferation of electronic noise: the unconsidered pile-on, the lack of critical thinking encouraged by the exact varieties of patriarchal capitalism that got Trump into the hotseat in the first place. Slow down, she’s saying, step back, shut up and think. We don’t like gobby, unapologetic women, do we? Why is that?

‘I made nice,’ Ellmann says, and ‘it didn’t work.’ So pay attention. Get angry. Be strong: complain.

Valerie O’Riordan

Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Mordew

mordew

I’ve been a fan of Alex Pheby’s work since I first read ‘Playthings’. His next novel, ‘Lucia’, was also excellent. When I heard he was turning his hand to fantasy I was excited – fantasy is my primary genre, and given the creativity of his literary fiction I was intrigued by what he could do with expanded horizons. The answer, it would appear, is a lot – possibly too much to form a fully coherent novel.

Mordew – a play on the French Mort Dieu, meaning God is Dead – is set in the city of Mordew, a city ruled by the mysterious Master, a man who stays in his locked palace on the top of the hill yet reigns completely unopposed. At the bottom of the hill lie the slums, coated in the filth of the Living Mud – and it is in these slums that Nathaniel Treeves, the protagonist, grows up. Nathan is different to those around him – he has a Spark, an ability which he can use to coax flukes from the Living Mud to sell to obtain medicine for his dying father. However, Nathan’s abilities only go so far, and the day comes when his mother decides she’d be better off selling him to the Master. This sets off a chain of events which shake the very foundations of the city of Mordew.

Nathaniel is a difficult protagonist to like. He’s thirteen – always a bold choice in an adult fantasy novel – and in many ways acts his age. However, his biggest crime is his complete inability to make a decision. He never seems to know what he wants, or why – partially because no-one ever explains what’s going on to him, but partially because he really doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Characters in any genre need to have a goal – Nathan starts off with a goal, but when that goal becomes impossible, he never creates another one. Instead, he’s led around like a fool for the entire novel – which does well to show the power of those around him, but makes him very hard to root for.

The best character in the book is undoubtedly Dashini, who’s the complete opposite – strong-willed with clear goals and knowledge about what’s going on around her. Dashini lights up the novel when she appears, and in many ways would have made a much stronger protagonist.

As a regular fantasy reader, I’m very confident in my preferences – strong, character-driven fantasy with a clearly delineated and explained magic system and beautiful prose. This clearly plot-and-worldbuilding-driven fantasy was never going to be exactly my cup of tea. However, I do think the world created is fascinating. The idea of the Living Mud and flukes is intriguing, and the corpse of God – something which I don’t think the blurb should mention due to the lateness of its appearance in the novel – as a source of power is bold. I also loved the descriptors – Spark, Itching, and Scratching. There are few answers about how power works, but this is the first book in a trilogy so that isn’t really required at this stage.

The other main issue this book has, besides the apathy of the protagonist, is the pacing. The first 250-odd pages are incredibly slow and do very little to further the plot. Fortunately, the pace picks up from here and remains brisk for the rest of the novel – but, especially given the blurb, the first section is essentially spent waiting for the book to start doing what it advertises.

Overall, this is a solid novel with a very intriguing world, but one that suffers from a lack of character depth. It reads very much like a debut – possibly to be expected given that this is the author’s first foray into fantasy. Recommended for fans of darker, plot-focused fantasy and fantasy of a literary bent.

 

Jackie’s review of Mordew can be found here

 

Published by Galley Beggars
Hardback: 13th August 2020

Book Review: Mordew

“When a wheel turns it rolls across those things beneath it: stones are pushed into the mud, snail shells break, delicate flowers are crushed.”

Mordew, by Alex Pheby, uses the above words in its description of The Master of the titular city. The Master is powerful, using magic to retain control of the place he protected from the encroaching sea and now lives above. He takes unwanted boys from their families and finds uses for them in the running of the place – and in experiments. The Master is curious and ruthless. When he is offered thirteen year old Nathan Treeves, it marks the beginning of a battle for supremacy. There are consequences to unleashing powers that may be better contained.

Nathan is a boy with magical abilities that everyone he encounters wishes to use for their own selfish ends. He is told by adults not to ‘spark’, but does so anyway. Mordew is the story of what happens next.

The reading of the tale should not be rushed. There are a great many aspects to the setting, along with character interrelationships to weave together. These are not difficult but are best given due consideration.

The book is the first in a proposed fantasy fiction trilogy. There is impressive world building along with recognisable greed for wealth and influence. Nathan is a central figure with capacities beyond his comprehension that other, more informed individuals, intend to harness. The power he possesses has not been explained to him.

“Can you weigh up the wrong a man might do in doing good and match it against actions that might be taken to prevent that wrong?”

The opening section introduces the boy, a slum dweller who tries to help his family by catching creatures formed in the ‘living mud’ surrounding their decrepit home. Nathan’s father is dying of ‘lung worm’. His mother puts food on the table by selling herself to ‘gentlemen callers’. What is offered is a picture of extreme poverty, the only life young Nathan has known.

In order to buy medicine for his father, Nathan joins a gang of petty criminals. With them he ventures into the gated community of merchants. Here, he encounters a different way of living. By using his magical abilities, the gang can tackle more audacious heists than previously. They enjoy their nefarious rewards, but someone else is pulling their strings.

The second part of the book – which I found more engaging – takes Nathan into the home of The Master. Here, he lives in affluence and receives an education. There is an undercurrent of mistrust – of what The Master knows and wants from the boy. When Nathan agrees to a task The Master sets, the devastation wreaked changes him.

“like the calm rippling of fog across the surface of the sea on a cold and storm-less morning at low tide. Whatever was beneath the surface, whatever violence the underwater creatures acted out upon each other, was hidden. What does a man on the shore know of the activities of fish and crabs and coral and vents deep in the trenches of the ocean?”

It is frustrating when Nathan’s powers are curtailed due to his willingness to trust others. It is then interesting to watch what happens when he uses his spark fully. The author is leading the reader, and he does this so well.

I also enjoyed how the author deals with coincidences necessary for plot progression. When he chooses this direction, or breaks supposed rules of creative writing, it is alluded to in a sort of fourth wall narrative.

Although often dark and cheerless there is a playfulness in how the tale is written. This comes to the fore in the massive glossary provided, which the author advises be read at the end, where it is placed. Certain entries here provide additional background information and hints at what may be to come as the trilogy develops.

The book concludes with a ‘Philosophy of the Weft’ which I found rather dense to read. Even with these extras, not all questions are answered – inevitable perhaps in a three part tale. I am still pondering why Nathan’s parents raised him as they did.

There is a degree of nihilism in the overall arc. Characters act to buy themselves more time, comfort and obeisance, however damaging what they do may be. Ultimately, many actions prove personally futile due to mortality. There are, however, ghosts. And then there is God, dead in the catacombs beneath the city. The realm in which beings exist, their transience and fluidity, may yet prove to be key. I have no doubt the author introduced each creature and trait for a reason.

These layers add interest to what could have been a typical fantasy story of an unpolished child with powers who takes on an established overlord. There is enough that is new in this imaginative epic to make it well worth reading.

Mordew is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review: Patience

Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.

Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.

It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.

And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.

All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.

Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.

The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.

“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”

Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.

“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”

The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.

Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press. 

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

“the fact that what is it with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff”

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is mostly written in the form of a single sentence, containing many commas, and running across almost one thousand pages. Add in the notes at the end, expansion of the acronyms scattered throughout the text, and it easily breaks this tally. It also weighs more than a kilogram – a Big book in every sense of the word.

I mention that it is mostly written as a single sentence. There is a story within about a mountain lion that runs in parallel. This is presented in a more conventional format and provided relief from the frantic intensity of the stream of information and opinion pouring from the narrator’s head. The two tales increasingly segue and enable a devastating denouement. The final line was breathtaking, and not just because the book was finally finished.

I recently read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession and it was like being enveloped in a welcome hug – it is quietly splendid. While Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story that makes me feel good about the world, Ducks, Newburyport is its opposite. Over the course of its thousand pages it lists many, many ways in which man is a scourge on our planet. I’m still not sure I can forgive the author for putting the picture into my head of the teenagers with a baby dolphin – just one horrific scene in a multifarious outpouring. By the end of the book I was believing the world would be a better place if we all followed the lead of several minor characters and removed ourselves. This tome is depressing.

Set in Ohio, America, the sentence is the internal monologue of a middle-aged wife and mother of four children. She bakes cinnamon rolls and pies in her home, supplying select eateries around her local town. She keeps hens in her backyard. She misses her dead parents, especially her mum. We learn of her history and current concerns between ephemera meandering around such subjects as: baking, films, actors, popular culture, books she has read to her children. She watches the news and bemoans the state of modern America – the atrocities enabled by American gun laws and the thoughtless self-entitlement of humans.

“the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore, the fact that even baking a pie has many ramifications”

The woman’s history does provide interest. She has lived in Europe as well as America. She has suffered serious health issues. The facts and feelings engendered by these nuggets sown within the digressive text need to be sieved from the stream of facts that are often inane: types of pie, the contents of cupboards, shopping lists. She details her dreams, her worries about her children and the type of mother she is.

“the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time”

The reader is taken on trips to a shopping mall and a visit to the dentist but mostly the woman is in her kitchen, baking and watching news on TV. She is thinking about her shyness, looking back on all the incidents in her life she feels bad about, remembering her parents. She is considering the way Amish people live and how simple their lifestyle appears.

There is a great deal of repetition: polluted water supplies, bottled water, plastic pollution; how inspectors drive around gathering samples and thereby contribute to air pollution; cruelty to animals, factory farming, the billions of chickens raised in cages to sate man’s wasteful food preferences.

“the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”

The narrator is neurotic – well meaning but selfish. The narrative is all over the place and this appears to be deliberate – that thoughts will wander as connections with memory are triggered by current events.

“the fact that I do feel guilty though, bringing kids I love into a world we’ve trashed”

This trashing of the world along with the senseless cruelties inflicted by man are, of course, done for money – personal gain.

“the fact that it was the costliest natural disaster in Ohio history, the fact that it’s always about money, the fact that they think that’s the only thing that interests people, the fact that they can’t just talk about a violent storm, they always have to translate the damage into cash terms”

The woman regularly mentions her money worries, blaming the cost of medical care. She worries about environmental issues but mainly their impact on human health.

Trump is mentioned along with his Make America Great Again slogan. This is backed up by national educators’ desire to instill patriotism, optimism and contentment in their students.

“the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of, the fact that it makes you pretty sick, but my students didn’t want to hear any of that, the fact that they wanted everything to make a pretty picture, upbeat”

To get to the story there is a need to read through page after page of frenetic, often upsetting and then inane, tortuous facts.

“the fact that celery puts so much effort into being celery, just to end up filling the plastic lunch box of a not particularly hungry American kid”

I wondered why this structure had been chosen. It is audacious and ambitious but felt done for the sake of it.

Amongst the many books I have not read, or not finished, are tomes such as Don Quixote and Ulysses – books that certain people seem to believe should be appreciated by anyone who wishes to have their opinions on literature taken seriously. Ducks, Newburyport may well end up sitting amongst these supposed greats. Making it through to the last page certainly felt like an achievement.

There is much to ponder within its pages but also a great deal that felt like filler. Had the book been a quarter of its size, had it told the family story and the lion story but without quite so much litany, then perhaps I would have been more impressed. As it is, the sheer number of words and the form in which they were written overwhelmed the beating heart of what is a devastating take-down of human consciousness and behaviour. The issues confronted may be worthy, but I am glad to have finished reading.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review – Francis Plug: Writer in Residence

Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, by Paul Ewen, is the follow up to the author’s remarkable debut. How To Be A Public Author introduced the unsuspecting world to the inimitable Francis Plug during the period when he was conducting booze fuelled research for his Booker Prize winning novel. In a travesty of justice that first book was not awarded the prize. It did, however, lead to Francis Plug (and in real life, Paul Ewen) being offered the post of Writer in Residence at Greenwich University.

Francis takes the job title literally and moves into an empty office on campus with his camp bed. The Christopher Wren designed surroundings prove more comfortable than the rat infested garage in West Hampstead where he had previously laid his inebriated head. It also saves on travel costs, an important consideration since he lost his gardening equipment and thereby any means to earn an alternative living.

Francis’s immediate superior in the Creative Writing Department that now employs him is Dr Alex Pheby. Dr Alex is organising The Greenwich Book Festival and asks Francis if he could use his connections to persuade other authors to participate. Francis regularly meets the big hitters of the literary world, usually at their events where he enjoys the free drinks. He sets about fulfilling his appointed task with gusto. Despite many drinks being consumed the authors do not appear amenable to Francis’s mostly incoherent invitations.

As Writer in Residence, Francis is expected to write his next book while in residence. The office environment suits him best when it is empty of colleagues – when, for example, he may race up and down the corridor on his office chair. For actual writing he works best in a pub, preferably one in a backstreet location not frequented by students or charging tourist prices. He locates several local establishments that suit his needs before being barred due to drunken infractions that upset other regulars.

Francis intends to write a campus novel (which will include the blowing up of a neighbouring power station) so sets about reading other author’s previously published works on this theme and attending their events. As a published author he must also appear before the public, the prospect of which requires a great deal of lubrication. He travels to Paris for an event at Shakespeare and Company, staying in their writers’ accommodation. He participates in the book festival despite complaints about his behaviour.

Francis may have written a helpful book on how to be a public author but performing in public is not an activity he is comfortable with. Neither is teaching students, although he makes an impression. Even when schmoozing with the literati at exclusive events his publishers, Sam and Elly, grant him access to he struggles to make appropriate conversation. When he is recognised it is not for lauded authorial achievements.

This book is best read in chunks rather than in a sitting to fully appreciate the wit and wisdom. The antics, conversations and observations are laugh out loud funny while also being percipient. The inclusion of real people and events, some of whom I have met, adds to the entertainment. I hope that those name checked are happy with their depictions.

If you read books, attend author events, have any interest in the literary world, then this novel is for you and comes highly recommended. Francis Plug may be a socially inept alcoholic, one you may hope never to encounter beyond the page, but his salient thoughts, poignant musings and indecorous behaviour deliver a comedic triumph.

 

If you wish to purchase the black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The purple paperback will also be available from the publisher, discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.

 

Book Review: Wrestliana

Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.

Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.

This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:

“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”

Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:

“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”

Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.

Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as

“manly, patriotic, straightforward”

Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.

Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.

Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.

Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.

 

Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.

 

Book Review: Tinderbox

Tinderbox, by Megan Dunn, is a book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides.

In November 2013 Dunn set out to participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise for her novel was a rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who befriends the fireman in Bradbury’s work. Dunn intended to produce a homage to the book, which she had studied in High School. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

Dunn decides to reread the novel but ends up taking much of her material from Sparks Notes (a study guide) and the 1966 film version of the book, featuring Julie Christie. Dunn admires how Christie dresses and looks. She is also fascinated by the film making process detailed in the DVD extras. She is easily distracted when writing which provides for entertaining asides.

By 2013 Dunn had left behind her career as a bookseller at Borders, a chain of bookshops that went into administration in the UK in 2009. She recounts episodes from her experiences in the various branches where she worked, and of being made redundant. Her recollections are honest and lacking the usual sentiment book lovers apply to booksellers. As an aspiring author she had hoped that inspiration would seep from the pages of the stock she handled but this wasn’t to be.

Dunn struggles to churn out the words required to meet the NaNoWriMo target. She ponders Bradbury’s creative process, how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter hired by the hour, completing the first draft in nine days. Her own writing refuses to flow.

Dunn reflects on the books that sell well; on culture snobs and the popularity of reality TV; on the rise of Amazon and growth of on-line retail; on Kindles and other eReaders. She studies the future as imagined by Bradbury and observes the habits and technology of today.

The writing is sharp and contemporary. There is no shying away from such issues as the prevalence of downloading digital content illegally. Dunn admits to drug taking and reflects on the breakup of her marriage. She mentions the large number of creative writing courses she enrolled in over the years. It is refreshing to find an autobiographical account of failure that is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched the film referenced but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Dunn’s portrayal of book selling was of particular interest. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

Tinderbox is published by Galley Beggar Press.