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: Bad Boy Poet

Bad Boy Poet, by Scott Manley Hadley, is a collection of free form poetry that explores, amongst other things: breakup, breakdown, drug taking and the modern dating scene. There are many references to sex and poo but also the challenge of watching parents aging. The poems are confessional in style and content, with descriptions graphic and, at times, soul searching. The reader will gain a picture of a young man as he descends mentally towards a suicide attempt and then climbs out the other side to reach a form of personal acceptance.

The first few entries cover the narrator’s breakup with his long-term girlfriend. The fallout from this appears to be a great deal of sex, often drug fuelled, solo and with strangers. The narrator is trying to work out what he wants and now feels free to try new experiences, hooking up with like minded people via dating apps.

He also contemplates the nature of poo and the satisfaction to be found in defecation.

“A good shit
Is better than
A bad shag”

He ponders the important questions.

“Do androids do electric shits?”

His poems about his parents are poignant and insightful.

“I wish I could watch Dante’s Peak before bed every night.

I watched it with my mum, cold,
Sat in a house that was once my home
But now nurses encroaching death.

[…]

I wish the action of Dante’s Peak was the scariest thing
I saw when visiting my parents.
But it’s not.”

His dog gets regular mentions, something good that came out of his broken relationship.

“When it rains
My dog looks at me
Like I’ve made it happen on purpose
Just to piss him off.”

In time he meets someone and forms a new relationship. This is described across many graphic sexual encounters. He also comes to a better acceptance of himself.

Regular readers of my reviews will know that I find descriptions of sex acts disturbing. I am aware that I am not alone in this but also that, presumably, there are many people who enjoy reading such things or writers would not include them so readily. Whilst I didn’t enjoy the images put into my head from the many poems that include sex acts, they did provide an education as to how some people choose to live. They are honest accounts of encounters, not there purely for titillation.

I was also intrigued by the commentary on ‘literary boys’ who use their reading matter in an attempt to impress. From the authors listed, my credentials would likely fall short of the narrator’s standards – but I’m okay with this.

As I have mentioned, I didn’t enjoy all the imagery but did appreciate the honesty of these poems. The writing flows with an impressive energy whether describing sex, concern about self or parents, or the more mundane.

The collection is bookended with pictures of the author in a state of undress. The poems are likewise stripped of carapace, and that is their strength.

Bad Boy Poet 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.

Book Review: Shitstorm

Shitstorm, by Fernando Sdrigotti, is the first in a series of pocket sized novelettes from Open Pen. It offers a wickedly entertaining take-down of contemporary attention spans and media fuelling of public outrage. Although a work of fiction it is built around actual events and the associated input from bizarrely popular public commentators. As well as being witty this story is vexingly accurate in its observations.

The opening sequence tells the tale of an American dentist who travels to Zimbabwe to kill animals for his own skewed pleasure. He ends up causing the death of a protected lion named Cyril who was much loved by wealthy celebrities. Newspapers and social media soon pick up the story and the hunter becomes prey. Hashtags trend and column inches fill with barely considered click bait opinions. A shitstorm is generated.

The dentist and his family receive death threats and require relocation and police protection.

“So maybe it was about his stupidity, maybe it always boils down to people doing stupid things, being incredibly stupid all the time, or just once, being stupid at the wrong moment. And our never-ending hunger for content.”

The outrage goes on for days, building momentum, airtime and petitions, until a bomb goes off in the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International. The President of the United States of America uses this latest tragedy to spread his message of hatred and fear of Islam. The dentist is forgotten as commentators turn their attention to garnering supporters for whatever message they wish to peddle.

“Some of us have changed our avators to one with the Union Jack or a photo of Big Ben while others have chosen a black square while others did nothing. Many of us have announced ourselves safe over Facebook while others have articulated in the strongest terms that we are against doing this, in order not to play at the hands of the terrorists, whoever these might be. And of course all of us are now policing people’s reactions to an atrocity, as is the tradition these days.”

A mosque in Birmingham is petrol bombed. A driver attempts to run over a group of young Muslim girls in Milton Keynes. Then a blogger from Archway goes viral after news breaks that she is making bread from her own vaginal yeast and selling it.

“now we can all stop thinking about bombs for a while”

And so it goes on: the patriarchy, Holocaust, transphobia, terrorism, conspiracy theories, the President of the United States of America accused of sexual harassment – there is always another shitstorm with its requisite opinion pieces in newspapers and on social media. Judgements are quickly made, written about and shared. Boycotts of companies are supported by people who never bought from them anyway. Insults are exchanged when points of view are not openly agreed with. Then everyone moves on to the next happening.

The denouement of this little tale is neatly executed by looking at what happens to those in the eye of the storm after public attention diverts from them. I was amused by the addition of a Russian connection.

In fact I was wryly amused by this entire book and its depiction of how easily so many are being manipulated. Wanting change in this world is understandable, armchair activism smugly comforting, but proper understanding of issues and their wider repercussions is vanishingly rare.

An intelligent and quirky little book that may (or may not) make readers reconsider their reaction to whatever shitstorm comes next. Astute and entertaining, but also important in its cogency, this is a recommended read.

Shitstorm is published by Open Pen.