Book Review: Tempest

Tempest: An Anthology, edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, contains a wide variety of speculative fiction, poetry and essays that explore our tempestuous times. Subjects covered include politics, climate change, equality and the possibilities offered from the development of artificial intelligence. Donald Trump appears as himself or in caricature. Dystopias are created to portray imagined post-Brexit worlds or ecological Armaggedon. Although sometimes lacking depth, the collection’s strength is its spread of opinions.

Anna Vaught writes in her introduction:

“I would desist, if I could, from political and social involvement – I know plenty of people who have entirely stopped following the news and/or placed severe limits or careful muting on their social media diet. I understand this, but it is not an option for me or, really, for this press, with its philanthropic bent, passionate sense of questing after social justice and being involved in politics.”

This passion is evident in many of the entries. What is refreshing is the lack of shouting despite the frequent despair so clearly expressed. The issues raise awareness. When there is anger it is controlled and measured.

The opening article, The man who would be Christ, was written in 1988 and is a study of Donald Trump, the property developer. This is aptly followed by a story, The Wall, which I enjoyed until its unlikely ending.

Women must act now looks at the development of robots – artificial intelligence.

“Women must act now, or male-designed robots will take over our lives”

“There are great benefits in the use of AI and we should cherish them. However, the issue is not innovation, or the pace of technological improvement. The real problem is the governance of AI, the ethics underpinning it, the boundaries we give it and, within that, who is going to define all those.”

Whilst finding this subject interesting, I remained unconvinced by the author’s arguments that most low paid, replaceable jobs are held by women because they cannot access anything better. I would have liked references to verifiable studies on this premise, to make the piece appear less opinion. If the only jobs remaining in the future will be in STEM, women are as capable as men.

Some Start Fires is a poem around climate change offering a picture but no solution. Of course, there may not be one as man appears bent on destroying his life support system.

This is Earth is a similarly depressing depiction of man’s selfish tendencies, this time written from the point of view of aliens. Although offering a clear message, its development felt somewhat simplistic.

I enjoyed The cowboy with the calcium spur, a poem that I read as having another dig at Trump.

The Walking Stick imagined a post-Brexit Britain, although I considered the ending another ultimately pointless protest.

Save me from the dogs was a more straightforward story about uncared for children living underground and groomed as criminals. Between the lines lies the question of what options society offers those it rejects.

One of the headline contributors is Sam Jordison and it was no surprise that his article, Rage, had Brexit as its subject. He suggested that those who voted to leave the EU did so out of a desire to return to times they remembered as better.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the Leave Vote was inspired by misplaced yearning for the years when Baby-Boomer voters didn’t have such bad backs, still had flowing locks and something more to look forward to than nights in watching repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys. They imagined that everything was better before we joined the EU, because that was when they personally felt better.”

Populists are on the rise… is a cogent essay, first published in the Guardian in 2018, that appears to offer more balance than is normally apparent in newspapers writing for their loyal readers. Perhaps it was simply good to consider some alternative opinion.

Nature and culture provides a discussion on the damage to ecosystems from globalisation.

“We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced.”

The essays around nature and ecological collapse put many of society’s current political preoccupations in perspective.

I readily admit that there were certain pieces throughout the collection that I didn’t get. Neither can I comment on subjects I know little about, such as Palestine. It is good that the publisher offers space to such potentially divisive subjects and divergent opinions. Refreshingly, the authors make their cases without getting shouty or insulting.

The Job takes an interesting idea – a future where most people do not work – and weaves a story of coercion. Although sometimes lightweight, I enjoyed many aspects of this tale, including its ending.

A narrow escape for the Chelsea Hotel takes another dig at Trump, exploring what is valued in life other than money. I couldn’t help thinking its conclusion was reprieve more than escape but the Russian angle was a neat addition.

We should own the stars is an fascinating essay on AI and equality with reference to Bladerunner. This entry was a particular favourite of mine.

Tempest on Tyneside offers a vision of the region as a sought after destination offering beer and football while southern England disappears under water. Ironic as this turnaround is to consider I thought the apparent interest men had in female footballers a stretch too far. It says much about the reader what imaginative aspects of a story can be accepted.

As with any collection of opinions there will be favoured and disregarded contributions. What I enjoyed in the reading was that disparate voices were included. Projects such as this, which take us outside our carefully curated echo chambers, are always worthwhile.

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

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Gig Review: Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

Last Thursday evening I travelled to Bath Spa for a book launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Author Anna Vaught was celebrating the publication of her second novel, The Life of Almost, and her supporters packed the bookshop out. It was a friendly and fun event involving books, chat, readings, wine and delicious snacks. This is my sort of party.

    

Anna talked about her two published books (her first was the autobiographical Killing Hapless Ally) and her writing inspirations. For The Life of Almost these were: her family; her love of Pembrokeshire; Welsh myths; Dickens’s Great Expectations.

She and two of her friends then gave readings from the book before Anna’s husband, Ned, spoke of his wife’s prolific writing and his pride in her achievements. Anna does not have a dedicated space for her craft. She writes at her kitchen table surrounded by family life. The time for this must be squeezed in around her many other commitments.

    

Questions were invited from the floor and Anna spoke of her next books. Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2020. A fourth novel is currently out to submission and she has started writing a fifth.

In talking of her characters Anna explained that many are based on wider family members and the stories they have shared with her. She wished to capture these before they were lost. Her family do not read her books so she has few concerns about their reaction to her representations.

Anna then offered to sign books and there were a flurry of purchases before a queue formed. As it was getting late I had to slip away.

    

The Life of Almost is published by Patrician Press. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Anna’s launch party was just one of the many enticing events in Mr B’s Autumn schedule.

Book Review: The Life of Almost

“how do you tell, when you come from a storied landscape, what is alive and what is dead? What is really there and what was only intended, presumed spoken into being? Can you tell?”

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaught, is the story of a storyteller. It is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the landscape presented as a living, breathing influence on residents whose hearts and histories are intricately bound to the place where they were made.

The storyteller is a young man named Almost Llewhellin. He begins by introducing his cast, the bulk of whom are wider family members, many of them dead. His story is populated by unhappy families, infidelities, cruel mothers and damaged children. It opens with Almost briefly escaping the confines of the home he shares with his brutal sister to find comfort by the sea.

Almost has mermaid friends who can shed their sea garb to explore the land and spy on its inhabitants. He is besotted with Seren, the adopted daughter of his wealthy benefactor, who treats him with disdain. Almost takes an apprenticeship with the local undertaker – there are detailed descriptions of how to prepare a body for burial. Attitudes towards and treatment of the dead are recurring themes.

“Death in life and life in death”

The story is of those who went before and who continue to shape the living. Almost comes to understand why each family member behaved as they did. There are the missing, the murdered, the mute who still exert influence. There are unexplained forces that could be used for good or evil.

Almost travels to London, tries to settle in Wiltshire, but is drawn back to Pembrokeshire and his tangled heritage. The puzzle of his links to each cast member is revealed, the reader invited to consider what truth may mean.

“To be sure closes doors”

The garb of the mermaids could be the vitality of young women, a lure that must then be shed to pacify their controlling men. The direction Almost chooses for himself could be a demonstration that even the most difficult start in life need not lead to perpetual anger – with the damage this can wreak.

Set in contemporary times, the narrative brought to mind Shakespearean soliloquies albeit peppered with Welsh vernacular. It took me some time to engage with the language and form which has a dream like quality and poetic repetition. There are numerous literary quotations and references, most of which I could not place.

I read about a third of the book – my copy is 160 pages – before becoming engrossed and wanting to know what happened next. The world conjured has a mythic quality, the story a dark beauty. Having finished, its impact lingers.

“Who am I? Did you make me, or am I really just so?”

Although dealing largely with death there is a playfulness in the telling, an invitation to accept possibilities and rise above expectations. For readers open to a story that may not be quite what it first seems, this is a beguiling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

Book Review: My Europe

My Europe is an anthology of stories, poems, drama and essays exploring Britain’s relationship with Europe in the wake of the contentious referendum result that could lead to Britain leaving the European Union in a process commonly referred to as Brexit. The publisher writes:

“The anthology is about Europe, not just the EU, but in the interests of fairness we tried to include more pieces in favour of Brexit. Alas, it proved difficult”

In trying to present the facts around such a complex and emotive subject, certain of the short essays are a tad dry to read. Nevertheless, they succeed in offering up information that is too often drowned out in hectoring rhetoric by supporters on both sides, and in the click-bait seeking media. The dismay felt by so many at the unleashing of previously suppressed xenophobic hatred has led Remainers to consider the prospect of Brexit an unmitigated disaster. What is rarely now mentioned, but is acknowledged within these pages, is that the behemothic bureaucracy of the EU is far from ideal.

“In truth, Brussels is a democracy-free zone. From the EU’s inception in 1950, Brussels became the seat of a bureaucracy administering a heavy industry cartel, vested with unprecedented law-making capacities. Even though the EU has evolved a great deal since, and acquired many of the trappings of a confederacy, it remains in the nature of the beast to treat the will of electorates as a nuisance that must be, somehow, negated.”

In the first essay, Suzy Adderley writes:

“For many Tories, the neoliberal stance of the EU is not problematic, but free movement of labour and loss of sovereignty are anathema, while for left-wing socialists, the neoliberal structures are highly problematic whilst they would support the free movement of labour and regulatory structures. So it seems to me unrealistic to expect either main party, as presently constituted, to as a whole or entirely support or reject Brexit.”

Throughout this book there is clear headed recognition of why the referendum vote went as it did (hindsight being a wonderful thing). There are also attempts at increasing understanding of the cost of Brexit should it go ahead. This does not just explore the social cost, although the allegorical stories and poems cover this effectively. Several essays try to measure the economic impact, especially on those already so badly affected by recent government policies promoting austerity. Long term membership of the EU has created legally binding agreements as well as financial obligations that cannot easily be unpicked. Lawyers are being kept busy.

As I read each contribution I noted that the authors had travelled to countries in Europe and experienced their different cultures, something that many people will not have had the means or opportunity to do. The authors’ desires for wider European assimilation suggests that when they have been fortunate enough to travel abroad they have not been ring fenced with like minded tourists in coastal resorts but rather have explored and interacted widely. There is no acknowledgement of the ability and privilege this reflects.

There is mention of the problems of anger and nostalgia, a sepia tinted nationalism that has little basis in reality. With the country names and borders of the world in constant flux this is not a purely British phenomenon.

Several of the essays that purport to understand the Leavers’ point of view concentrate on the economic penalty Brexit would bring. There are mentions of important issues such as protection of workers rights, cross border health care agreements, research projects that pool resources and funding in order to share results across universities. Whilst not wishing to discount these potential problems, I thought it a shame that presentations for the Leavers side of the argument focused entirely on the negative aspects. Likewise, those authors waxing lyrical on the benefits of remaining in the EU concentrated on the social and cultural benefits of an open Europe, largely neglecting to mention the costs and frustrations of continuing EU membership.

In his essay, The Levellers and the Diggers, Giles Fraser writes:

“the bastard conqueror isn’t the European Union – we freely gave the powers away. But the EU has meekly become his servant. The bastard conqueror is international finance that ignores borders, locates itself offshore to pay no tax, and has the EU in its pocket. Look at how the EU dealt with Greece, imposing crippling austerity on its people. Look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the massive trade deal that the EU has been negotiating – mostly in secret – with the US. Under the terms of this deal, large companies will be able to sue nation states if they introduce policies that curb its profits. I’d vote against TTIP if I could. But because of the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you. The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.”

In committing itself to a timescale for leaving the EU without a clear idea of what must be achieved, the current British government has set itself up to either fail or wander blind into unchartered territory. The EU will not make it easy for Britain because otherwise other countries may follow suit.

In the publisher’s conclusion she states:

“There might possibly be eventual benefits in leaving the EU, but it could take a generation. […] The true tragedy is that Brexit is a distraction from far more important problems needing to be addressed”

The Brexit issue has become so polarised it is difficult to debate. I applaud this attempt at presenting both sides in what is an informative and engaging anthology with a variety of writing styles and a mix of contributors. It would be a step forward if readers from both sides could allow their strong opinions to be rationally questioned. While such an outcome appears elusive, books such as this provide necessary insight.

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

Book Review: Killing Hapless Ally

haplessally

Killing Hapless Ally, by Anna Vaught, is a fictional memoir exploring mental illness and how the protagonist, Alison, learns to cope with her life through the creation of an alter ego and a host of imaginary friends. It is brutally frank, painful in places, but also darkly funny. Despite the suicide attempts and self harm, Alison is trying to find a way to survive in a world that she believes perceives her as a nuisance and a misfit.

As a child Alison always felt rejected. Her mother, Maria, told her she had not been wanted, that she should have been left at the hospital in a bucket. If she had to have a daughter Maria wished her to be a graceful, slender and beautiful little girl. Alison was plump, clumsy and struggled to stay clean. Her middle class parents were well regarded by their local community. All treated Alison with contempt.

Hapless Ally was the personality Alison thought would be more acceptable to her family and peers, an alter ego created as a shield against the verbal and physical onslaughts she endured. As well as hiding behind Ally in public, Alison developed obsessive routines and a shocking vocabulary. Only in private could she be her true self, confiding in a series of invented friends drawn from music and books.

The story explores snapshots of Alison’s life from as far back as she can remember – visits to relatives; attempts at ballet, music lessons and brownies; school and then university; caravan holidays with her parents. All are seen through the eyes of a deeply unhappy girl desperate to find acceptance.

As an adult Alison comes to realise that she is living her life with the soundtrack of her mother’s scathing criticism always in her head. She seeks help, but fears that she will not be able to cope without the strategies she has relied on for decades. She marries and has children, but then suffers a severe mental breakdown. Hapless Ally is conspiring with her dead mother and an exorcism is required.

The writing is intense, sometimes rambling, always coherent. The disjointedness can make for challenging reading but is effective at conveying the fragmentation of memory, especially from childhood, the overlap of sensation with events. It is fascinating and somewhat disturbing to look at adult behaviour through young Alison’s eyes, to see what a child absorbs and the impact of circumstance.

The story has been drawn from the author’s own experience of mental health issues. The authenticity this brings makes it a somewhat disquieting read. Although not an easy subject to explore mental illness deserves wider discussion. This book does not attempt to offer easy answers, but it generates important questions.

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