Book Review: I, Nerd

i nerd

“I remember the glossy half page images of men holding tape measures standing behind immaculately painted armies. It was freeing to think that this was a way to grow up, that it was okay to live like this.”

I, Nerd, by Max Sydney Smith, tells the story of a few months in the life of twenty-seven year old Robin who, every Sunday, plays the Game at a small club on the top floor of a converted warehouse. He does not consider his fellow club members to be actual friends but, other than his housemates, he rarely sees any other people outside of work. He may not feel lonely but does feel alone. He is unsure how to act when around others, particularly girls he is attracted to – when he tries to talk to them they rarely show interest.

“It is hard not to look at them but I know I must not look at them because I know they do not want to be looked at … they do want to be looked at, a certain way, sometimes, by some people, but it is not me, no it is not me that they want to look at them.”

When the members are told that the Game club is closing due to the warehouse and its surrounding area being redeveloped, they decide to enter the National Masters Tournament as a team in an attempt to leave some sort of mark. Robin knows he is one of the worst players in the group. He is still to be included. Although excited at the prospect of taking part in something he has been avidly reading about since he was a young teenager, Robin is anxious about the dishonour he might bring on the club by association.

“Bilbo was right when he said it was a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Robin is offered tactical advice by fellow club members. On the day, however, he must play on his own and live with the consequences of his choices.

The author takes the reader inside the mind of a young man whose interests are niche and often mocked by those who do not understand the draw and escapism offered by Warhammer. Robin is not entirely obsessed by the Game but it provides an imaginative outlet for what would otherwise be a bland existence.

“I push back going to sleep, because to go to sleep is to wake up and to wake up is to go to work.”

Robin understands how his interest is perceived. He has been dealing with the fickle nature of most people’s hobbies, their concerns for how they are seen, since his school days. Those who also attend the club are shown to be individuals, there to partake although with differing priorities when it comes to building their armies. Beyond the Game, they have little in common.

The build up to the tournament draws the reader into this world, providing a vivid depiction of modern life through the lens of a young man who is not naturally sociable but would like to be. The denouement is skilfully rendered, offering a moment Robin can savour in a life shadowed by doubt – ‘feelings of uselessness and anxiety about what I am supposed to do with my life’. Pleasingly, this fits with crowd behaviour and the various characters’ prior development.

Although short – a mere 66 pages – the story told is complete and satisfying. Robin’s interest in the Game may be particular but the life he leads is an empathetic example of so many contemporary twenty-somethings whose day to day travails are different to previous generations – however little understood this might be by their elders.

A window into a world that some may mock for reasons they themselves should probably question. A perceptive, piquant and poignant read that I highly recommend.

I, Nerd is published by Open Pen.


Book Review: Good Choices

good choices

“But the thing about getting clean … is that you have to get used to living with this tandem, shadow self around you – this other you which could exist”

Good Choices, by Bonny Brooks, tells the story of a thirty-five year old woman, P, who is questioning the direction she has allowed her life to take. P is a recovering junkie who has remained clean now for many years. She has built a métier for herself as a writer and is engaged to be married to a man with assets and education. She is unclear in her own mind, however, if this is the future she truly wants. She believes it would be a good choice, but the cost to her sense of self could be significant.

“This place is gentrified now and so am I. I have a career and an online presence. I have found better cheeses. And now I am sitting here pondering marriage over a green view like some Jane Austin cliché.”

The story is structured in two styles, intermingled. The first is a piece of writing the narrator is putting together, setting out the truth of how she feels about her fiancé. The second tells of her return visit to the rehab facility that helped her with the detox required to achieve recovery, to give a motivational talk to current patients. Here she meets a man she knew from her own time there, a fellow patient she had sex with. The conflict she is suffering comes to the fore when she realises she doesn’t want him to know she is engaged. She ponders the self she presents to men in order to be accepted.

“I’d learned that they didn’t want to listen; what they wanted was to watch themselves being listened to. That ultimately, they would rather a woman that thinks they are funny, than a funny woman. That they would rather a woman who thinks they are clever than a clever woman, and that ultimately, someone with too many thoughts of their own is in their way”

P’s fiancé is also a writer, one with a large and popular online presence. P is aware that he lives much of his life as a performance for his followers, something she has willingly collaborated with. Now, however, she is reminded of what she used to be. Which life, if either, was more honest and satisfying?

“like most of us to some degree, what you want is significance”

The insights offered on choices and relationships resonate. This is an author able to drill through complex issues with eloquent succinctness. The reader is provided with a lens through which an addict views their options: the damage wreaked by a high that is nevertheless desired for its escapism; the knowledge of what is missed when such drugs are eschewed.

The tension ratchets up as P’s life spirals. She wishes to appear responsible, to be accepted within the circles her fiancé inhabits, but isn’t so sure she can be herself in that world.

This is another pocket sized masterpiece to add to the Open Pen novelette series. A book with something to say that is well worth paying attention to.

Book Review: Here is Where

here is where

Here is Where, by Morgan Omotoye, is billed as the eighth novellete published by Open Pen. These neatly packaged literary gems aim to encourage ‘growth within our talented, fertile, literary underbelly.’ This latest work is the author’s debut, a deliciously incendiary tale of unrequited love, narrated retrospectively.

As the blurb on the back cover states, Pacific Hale is in love with her best friend, Dorothy Shu. They talk on the phone late into the night, often about one of Dorothy’s recent dating experiences. Pacific is required only to be a listening ear, to make encouraging noises as though interested in whatever detail is being relayed. Her mind wanders into fantasy at times. On one memorable occasion she becomes so distracted that she responds with a witticism that makes her laugh. This does not go down well with Dorothy.

Weeks pass during which Pacific pines. Her mother worries about her wellbeing. Important schoolwork is neglected. When Dorothy eventually calls again, Pacific is beside herself with relief, rushing to do her friend’s bidding – until she comes to realise what has been planned and why.

Along the way the reader is offered snippets of Pacific’s past and future. The tale being told evokes all the insular awkwardness of teenage thought and behaviour. Much is conveyed by the posters chosen to grace bedroom walls, and the mixtape Pacific is creating for Dorothy, carefully recorded from the radio and edited on a double tape deck. The girls talk yet never really share how they feel. They are works in progress, aspiring to copycat images of those they admire. 

Although just over one hundred pages in length, this is a story with vivid depth. Supporting characters offer a wider dimension. I was particularly drawn to Pacific’s fondness for Dorothy’s family, of whom in reality she knew little. All was reminiscent of being a teenager and the challenges of surviving on one side of a valued yet uneven friendship.

I advise checking out each of these pocket sized, subversive publications. They are well worth reading.  


The Open Pen Novelettes

Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti
One Thing by Xanthi Barker
The Prick by Mazin Saleem
In Lieu of a Memoir by Tadhg Muller
Never Seen the Sea by Holly Watson
Bad Boy Poet by Scott Manley Hadley
Not Far From the Junction by Will Ashon
You Ruin It When You Talk by Sarah Manvel
Here is Where by Morgan Omotoye

Still to come
I, Nerd by Max Sydney Smith
Good Choices by Bonny Brooks

Book Review: You Ruin It When You Talk

You Ruin It When You Talk, by Sarah Manvel, is the second novelette in Open Pen’s second five book series of small but mighty pocket sized paperbacks. I highly recommend you check out all these little nuggets of literary treasure. They are proof that succinct story telling can be as impactful and satisfying as more common weighty tomes.

Marketed as fiction, the tale is structured as a series of short anecdotes detailing encounters on the modern dating scene. These are as appalling as they are hilarious – an eye-opening exploration of the narcissism inherent when seeking a mate.

“Have you tried toning it down? Men will treat you better if they think you’re dumber than them.”

There are recurring characters: friends, coworkers, and sometime partners. Mostly though, the entries offer up conversation that lays bare ill-considered expectation.

“As the night wore on I was disappointed by my surprise. The glam location convenient for the tube back to his was supposed to guarantee him sex. And once it became clear his moves weren’t working, he spent the rest of the meal being rotten to me.
We split the cheque, so the unpleasantness at the end was limited to him kissing me outside the station, then stepping back and saying, “Wow, that was awful. You’re really bad at this.”
I replied, “Likewise.””

The narrator dates both men and women, most found through an online dating app. She encounters: the angry, the desperate, and the bizarre. One man was in regular phone contact with his mother who was interested in how the evening was progressing. Others are already in relationships. Both men and women are shown to be capable of insulting without, apparently, thinking.

“After a little chitchat, he said he liked my necklace.
“Thank you,” I said.
“And I’m really glad you wore it,” he said, “otherwise I’d have had nothing to compliment.””

The narrator is knowledgeable about films and enjoys sharing her opinions with those who also consider themselves aficionados. This does not go down well with certain men who will not accept that a women may disagree with them and be able to back up why.

It is not, of course, just men who can be awful.

“I walked into the Christmas party and the Romanian girl from marketing said, “Oh wow. This is the first time I’ve seen you look pretty.””

From those who spend the evening sharing intimate details of their exes to others who boast about having assaulted previous dates, the encounters can be horrifying as well as cringeworthy. They do, however, provide a rich seam to mine for humour and elucidation.

An entertaining unsheathing of the contemporary dating scene. Written with candid and always engaging flourish.

You Ruin It When You Talk is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: Not Far From The Junction

Not Far From The Junction, by Will Ashon, is the first novelette in Open Pen’s second series of pocket size paperbacks. As ever with these little books, the author’s concept and realisation are innovative. This is a work of non fiction but offers up stories as remarkable as any work of imagination. It provides a reminder that kindness and hope exist in people from all walks of life.

On 21st May 2019 the author set out from Redbridge in East London to hitchhike north, reaching Sheffield before attempting the return journey. Nine different drivers offered him lifts of varying length. With their permission, he collected transcripts of their conversations. The book is a collage of these voices, cross cut but with clear signposts to who is talking. The author has removed his contribution enabling each interviewee to take centre stage.

The drivers include people from diverse backgrounds, ages and experiences. One is ex-army and suffering PTSD. Another talks enthusiastically of a recent spiritual journey. A husband is planning to move country and shares tales of drug taking sessions he regards as beneficial ceremonies. A young family simply like to help out when they can. A highway worker is pleased to offer a lift, something forbidden when driving a work vehicle. A builder regularly picks up hitchhikers – although he sees fewer these days – as he enjoys having company he can chat to when driving.

All involved talk of their work and families, aspirations and challenges. Redundancy, money issues, and relationships feature widely. There are differences in culture and expressed opinion, but each driver proved willing to stop and help an unknown traveller on his way.

It is interesting to consider how an initial picture of a person is formed from the early part of their conversation. Perspective changes as further details are shared. The complexities of any person belie easy categorisation. I caught myself forming judgements that proved shamefully fluid. In trying to build a coherent picture of a character, I was forced to face up to my own prejudices. Whatever decisions the people being interviewed may have made in their past, they are doing what they can to get by in a life that offers hard knocks as well as moments of satisfaction.

The structure and writing style take the reader on a journey, one that is poignant in places but also captivating. While the stories that unfold may be discomfiting at times, this is a recommended read.

Not Far From The Junction is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: Never Seen the Sea

Never Seen the Sea, by Holly Watson, is the fifth and final novelette in Open Pen’s first series of these marvellously subversive little stories. It is structured as a diary written by a young girl named Holly, whose age I would put as pre-teen. The entries record her day to day activities and offer a snapshot of life in 1990s Coventry. Holly lives with her parents and two siblings. Her maternal grandparents have recently gone through an acrimonious separation. There are aunties who are related and those who are family friends. Holly records the food she eats – Findus crispy pancakes, chips, fish finger sandwiches – the television programmes she watches – soap operas, Gladiators – and the embarrassing moments in her days. These are the highs and lows of an ordinary childhood. For readers of a certain age, who were brought up in happy enough households that didn’t have much but got by, it is a trip down memory lane.

In many ways Holly and her friends remind me of Grace and Tilly, the protagonists of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep. There is a naivete, a gaucheness, in her observations. These offer a great deal of humour and poignancy as she views adult behaviours and copes with the casual cruelty of her peers. Her desire to attract the attention of a classmate, Tom, and her interest in an older Goth girl, Tasha, suggest that she is on the cusp of change.

Holly is at the mercy of her parents’ timetable as she and her siblings are not old enough to be left home alone. She is often looked after by Nanny Pam, whose friends from ‘the fag counter at Tesco’ are continually making inappropriate conversation. The anecdotes they tell inject an element of comedy.

“Auntie Mauve’s round at Nanny Pam’s too. […] she won a conservatory in The Daily Mail, but they wouldn’t give it to her because she lives in a top floor flat.”

In a series of diary entries, Nanny Pam and Mauve help Holly prepare for a fancy dress party she is only going to because Tom will be there. Holly expects the other girls to go as Spice Girls so Nanny Pam finds some leopard print – Scary Spice – and Mauve does Holly’s makeup.

“I look at the pink streaks across Maeve’s cheeks and the sparkly blue circles around her eyes and start worrying again.

When they’ve both finished I stand up on Nanny Pam’s bed and look in the big mirror. I look like Nanny Pam Spice.”

This short book perfectly captures a moment in time and in a young girl’s life with succinct insight and empathy. It provides an engaging and entertaining read.

Never Seen the Sea is published by Open Pen

Book Review: In Lieu of a Memoir

“This is a work of the author’s imagination […] Even the author is a figment of the author’s imagination.”

Tadhg Muller may or may not exist. In this collection of short stories his narrator shares episodes from his life – autofiction – that remain riddled with inconsistencies. The effect is destabilising as foundations are created and then shifted. At times the experiences related are quite base and graphic, which would normally put me off reading. However, there is so much wit and humour within these pages I remained entertained.

Interspersed with the stories are notes, written as if by the Editor, who also writes the introduction. In this he explains that the tales cover a period in the author’s life when he was living in London. They represent an existence fraught with financial worries – meagre food, housing, and a succession of energy sapping jobs offering little reward. Tadhg claimed to have arrived in the city after a hasty exit from the Islamic Republic. The collection opens with a dream recounting his escape.

That the author is writing stories is occasionally mentioned (meta, but go with it). The Editor recalls an encounter at a bookshop in Bethnal Green that Tadhg nearly missed, despite being down to give a reading.

“I was so overwhelmed by the mass of people outside the bookshop when I arrived, I paused to consider my next move, thought about cutting and running,” he confessed with tight-eyed gravity, “then a double-decker came, and the footpath cleared.”

One of the stories sets out an attempt to join a writers’ group in London. The group has guidelines as to who it is aimed at, those it will welcome.

“They declared they were “a friendly group of writers.” I then read that not everyone could become a member.”

In retaliation, the narrator attempts to set up a rival group. This trundles along ineffectively until he loses his job at a bakery after insulting his boss, a fellow writer, who is “working hard to meet the deadline imposed by insatiable penguins.”

“Still working on this crap? I said.
She sat back obviously stunned, obviously wounded, but mostly just aware of the truth of my statement.
You’re fired, Tadhg.
I nodded and thanked her and so walked out, past the Tartar who offered me one last smile, then closed the door on that world, a world that was a far greater lie than all the fictions I’d concocted.”

The author regularly pokes fun at the pretensions of self-appointed elites. An artist who has achieved preeminence is observed to have been granted “deification amongst the London cultural establishment”. Staff in a coffee shop who serve this artist are “sunned by his eccentricity”. The narrator is determined not to fall victim to such behaviour.

“He paused, and turned his head to take a better look at me, opened his eyes wide, very wide, wider than usual. He’d realised I’d anticipated his behaviour. He realised he’d been anticipated.”

There are stories during which the narrator seeks shelter with a friend. At times he is trying to support a wife and child. In others he is alone. Jobs change but the struggle to make a living continues. He writes of encounters with a variety of characters, some struggling and others whose supposed success he despises.

“Mr M took us – us being the main players – to a cafe for a debrief. There he settled into his allocated role, shifted to instruction, and authority, his sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined his folk had done it for a thousand years or more.”

What is offered in this collection is a picture of life in the city through the piercing eyes of a narrator who is trying to find a way of fitting in without compromising what he is. Or maybe he would have been willing to compromise had a break been offered. The reader cannot know because of the shifting nature of the writing. What in lesser hands may be pure pathos becomes humorous without losing the bite of the difficulties faced. It is a cleverly constructed and rewarding read.

In Lieu of a Memoir is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: The Prick

Open Pen aims to encourage

“growth within our talented, fertile, literary underbelly. We are a platform for up-and-coming writers from all backgrounds, with particular interest in working class writers.”

The Prick, by Mazin Saleem, is one of Open Pen’s novelettes – there are currently five of these available. Each offers a topical and thought provoking story that cuts through the gloss sometimes applied to apparent reality. The authors are not afraid to say it as it is.

This tale opens with a young couple, Will and Agatha, during the final week of what they had planned as a year long world adventure (don’t call it a holiday). They are in Greece preparing to go snorkelling. Once out in the open water, Will gets caught in a riptide. He is rescued by a bodyboarder, Roland, who is part of a stag party. Feeling that he owes the man his life, Will seeks Roland out to offer his thanks. Thus begins a decade long ‘friendship’ between two men who all but despise what the other chooses to be.

The chapters deal with ‘That Day’, ‘The Day After That Day’, ‘A Week After That Day’ and so on, as Will and Roland meet up socially and quickly come to realise how little they like each other. Will considers Roland to be a prick for the way he talks and acts. He is, nevertheless, strangely fascinated and obsessed. Much to Agatha’s bewilderment, Will stalks Roland over social media, relaying what he finds as amusing anecdotes to his friends. Without Will’s feelings of obligation, these friends are bemused by Roland where Will is often appalled. Somehow, though, he cannot break away. They attend the same parties and partake in mutual interests together. It is a fascinating study of how frenemies choose to interact rather than seeking avoidance.

There are many cringeworthy moments along with humour in the story. Both men behave badly at times. Roland appears content with his actions. Will, a seeker of admiration and affirmation, feels vicarious shame.

The climax occurs when the men go on an adventure holiday together. Thrown into extended close proximity, there is a dangerous reckoning. The denouement offers added depth and is skillfully rendered.

When stories as satisfying as this can be told in just over a hundred pages I am left wondering why we need so many lengthy books. I will be looking out for further work from the author. This is an entertaining and recommended read.

The Prick is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: One Thing

“If she’d been his wife, he’d be a widower. But if your ex-wife dies, you’re left with nothing at all.”

One Thing, by Xanthi Barker, is a piercing exploration of grief. Its protagonist, Len, is fifty-eight years old when he receives a phone call informing him his ex-wife, Violet, is dead. Violet walked out on their marriage and daughter twenty years ago to set up home with her accountant, Ivan. Len has never stopped loving her, and also hating her for what she did to him. Instead of phoning his daughter, or driving straight home on hearing the news, he tries to finish the big job he has been working on for months that is almost complete. This does not go well. When he eventually leaves, in time for the funeral despite being told he would not be welcome there, he is facing the prospect of bankruptcy.

Len is struggling to cope with his memories of all the things he has lost: his wife, their daughter’s smile when she was a baby, his beloved green van, the life he once thought he would live. At the centre of it all is Violet, how she was when they first got together.

“Len didn’t know, had never imagined the sun would come out in his life like that. He had settled on overcast drizzle for the most part, women who thought he couldn’t think because he didn’t think to say every thought he had”

“She said she couldn’t live without him. She couldn’t sleep without him in her bed”

“She was the first person in his life that made him want to say things”

Violet left Len for Ivan when their daughter, Lila, was still just a toddler. Len has never stopped wanting the shared life she took from him. Now he has a plan, one he knows carries risk. He will reclaim from Ivan one thing that Violet left. To do so he must enter their home, which he does when everyone else is at the funeral. Being in the place she chose over him proves overwhelming.

This story is told in the form of a novelette – just over sixty pages – yet is powerful and complete. The reader is taken through Len’s life, understanding why Violet meant so much to him. The writing is taut and direct yet breathtakingly tender. The lens through which grief is viewed – with its impuissance and jealousies – is masterfully rendered.

A short yet evocative tale from a writer whose work I will now look out for. A rare find that I recommend you read.

One Thing is published by Open Pen.