Wednesday 31 July 2019

Unveiled: the First Unthank School Anthology edited by Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver

When cuts closed down the local university creative writing group, Unthank Books stepped into the rescue setting up its own 'school'; initially a face-to-face workshop in Norwich, but now expanded to online courses. It's now been running for a little over ten years, and, proud of their students' work, the tutors decided it was time to collate some of it into a book. They asked for submissions from former and current students, and chose these fifteen pieces from over fifty contenders.

Nicola Perry; Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men
Sabine Meier; Walls
Susan Allott; Interference
Jose Varghese; In Control
Jax Burgoyne; Writer
Nicholas Brodie; The Red King
Carey Denton; No Second Chance
Claudie Whittaker; Ideas I am Sending on Holiday
Jacqueline Gittins; To Sudden Silence Won
Victoria Hattersley; The Lantern Man
Zoe Fairtlough; Zoldana
Lorraine Rogerson; The Shadow of Moths
Marc Owen Jones; Killing Coldplay
Lloyd Mills; Shizuko

What you have here is something slightly different to the standard collection of stand-alone short stories - while some fit that description, others are excerpts from novels needing a short introduction to the piece, and perhaps leaving the story and characters just as you were getting interested.
The writers come from varied backgrounds - some through the academic creative writing route, others having followed other careers before beginning to write - and the style, content and setting vary as much. Sci-fi sits next to a family saga, 1930s Ireland next to a contemporary drug dealers' den.
Some I felt worked better than others - obviously those written as complete stories but also the extracts which reached, if not a conclusion, a natural break.

There are many authors to watch out for, and stories I want to hear the end (and middle) to, but if I had to pick out a couple ... 

John Down' s Roads -  which follows events spiraling out of control after a hit and run accident. An extract from his first novel, British Teeth, it's tense and crazy and immediate, puts the reader in the heart of a burgeoning riot, or sitting calmly talking to the dead boy as if it's the most normal thing in the world. I can't find trace of the full novel being published yet, but I hope it is soon.

Killing Coldplay by Marc Owen Jones is one of the complete stories. Stefan has come to London to find out about his father's past obsession with punk. He believes it to be about the exterior display - Mohican  hair cuts, and safety pin piercings - till he discovers the music. I'm not into punk but I recognised that feeling of raw energy that takes over in a deafening rock venue. 

No Second Chance by Carey Denton is another 'proper' short story. An argument between sisters over what to do with their parents' ski chalet (a huge sum has been offered for it) re-awakens forgotten dreams, long since swallowed by 'life' and the choices forced on us by careers, family, houses and cars.

OK, that's three, not a couple, and I could probably list more, but read it for yourself and see if you can spot the next big publishing semsation.

Beware if you're hunting online for this book. I pick up the cover image that way, through that big online store, and searching by title alone brings up some very interesting and 'exotic' alternatives, a bit like 1950s' sci-fi movie posters. Don't be distracted by those. You're looking for the cover image shown above - black, white and striped diamonds in a quilting Tumbling Blocks pattern; an appropriate image for a short story collection as each story is complete in itself, as is a small quilters' block, but assembled correctly they form a new pattern.

If you're interested in writing courses, you can find out more about the Unthank Writing School here

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Unthank 

Genre - Adult contemporary fiction, short stories

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel

Anna and her daughter Trine live on the German coast, by mudflats that are covered twice a day, and whose form shifts with the tides. Their life is lonely, haunted by the ghosts of war. Anna is emotionally and artistically paralyzed by grief. She spends her days collecting debris washed up by the tides, with which she intends to create something - but can't find the spark within herself to start. Trine, forced into more social contact through school, is more resilient, finds it possible to put the past behind her and move on.

Set in 1950s Germany, Meike Ziervogel's latest book tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to come to terms with grief and the past. Anne and Trine live, damaged and adrift, like emotional flotsam on the blurred edge between land and sea. The mudflats, shifting and changing form with each tide, echo the women's thoughts and memories - there's only one safe way through, otherwise you'll sink and be caught by the tide. 

Ziervogel's writing is, as always, concise and sparse; her characters troubled and arresting. It's a story which sticks in the mind, with a lot of impact for such a slim volume.

This isn't by any stretch of the imagination a 'traditional' post-apocalypse story, but mulling over what exactly I'd say in this review, perhaps due to how my thoughts are running at the moment, it struck me that there were similarities. Isolated, bleak, drab, their location seems spot on for post-apocalyptic fiction. And then, imagine the mindset of the German people in the immediate post-war years. No matter whether or not they supported the Nazi regime, believed its propaganda or thought it was all lies, the end of the war marks the end of an era; everything that shaped their lives has been swept away, leaving huge uncertainty in its wake. For them, this is post-apocalyptic life.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - adult literary fiction, coming of age, 

Tuesday 16 July 2019

The Carer by Deborah Moggach

Phoebe and Robert have decided that their elderly widowed father, James, is in need of some help. They're busy with their lives - Phoebe in Wales and Robert in London - and don't want to give them up, so take on a live-in carer for James. After a couple of false-starts, they find Mandy, their 'saviour from Solihull', and they willingly leave things to her unfailing good humour and capable hands. But gradually James seems to change, to find delight in banalities he'd previously avoided - daytime television, shopping trips and outings to garden centres - and Phoebe and Robert become concerned about how far under Mandy's spell he's falling.

I'll be upfront and say from the start that I was disappointed with this. When I originally received my review copy, I was hesitant about reading it at all.The subject matter of needing care for an elderly parent was a bit close to home, but in that regard I needn't have worried - it's not concerned with the nitty-gritty side of care, just uses it as a vehicle for a storyline. At first that moves along as you might expect - middle-aged children, grateful to have a burden taken off their hands, soon become worried about the influence the carer is having on their father - then, fortunately, there's a twist, but I was so uninterested in these self-centred characters, cushioned from real-life problems by income from trust funds, that by then I didn't care what happened. 

Did the humour pass me by? Quite possibly. It's been known to happen. Other folks will find something hilarious and it won't raise a smile from me.

Did the characters just not appeal to me? Definitely. They seemed, at best, caricatures rather than real people. I couldn't care about them or their predicament.

Was it too close to home? No. I've been through this - without the unlimited trust fund package - and it doesn't have any resemblance to caring for elderly parents as I've experienced it. 

I've enjoyed other books by Deborah Moggach and had expected much better from The Carer. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she explored the world of elderly folk with humour and understanding - this book seems so slight by comparison. 

Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction,

Thursday 11 July 2019

Jonathan Pinnock - author interview

Today I'm delighted to welcome Jonathan Pinnock to talk about his new series of books - The Mathematical Mysteries -  fast-paced, funny thrillers in which innocent ex-PR man Tom Winscombe finds himself caught up in a world of murder, Belarusan mafia, cryptocurrency scams and, of course, mathematics.

My first question has to be - how, or why, did the germs for the series of Mathematical Mysteries take root? 
 Long story. I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and I was struggling to come up with an idea for my manuscript. I was actually thinking about a project that had more to do with narrative non-fiction, which is why I ended up taking the narrative non-fiction module. As it turned out, it was a terrible choice of module for me, apart for one thing. One of the set texts was Janet Malcolm's “The Silent Woman”, an investigation into the life and death of Sylvia Plath. In it, she interviews a wide variety of people who knew her, some of whom are, let’s say, more than a little eccentric. As I was getting in my car at Corsham to drive home after discussing it in class, I began to envisage writing a novel about a literary murder mystery populated with a cast of strange characters. By the time I was halfway to Bath, I’d realised that I was a lot more confident about writing about a mathematical murder mystery than a literary one, and by the time I was driving through Bath I’d remembered a short story called “Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions” that I’d written about a couple of mathematicians called (you’ve guessed it) Archimedes and Pythagoras Vavasor (it’s here, in case you’re interested: By the time I got home, I’d pretty much worked out what I was going to do for my manuscript.

I wrote up the start of it for my next submission to the creative skills workshop class, and I still remember the moment when our tutor, Celia Brayfield, asked the group if they felt I should continue writing this, and everyone, including her, put up their hands. There was still a lot of work to do, including changing the age of the protagonist so that he wasn’t a jaded, middle-aged proxy for myself, and also swapping the skillsets round so that the protagonist was no longer the mathematician. From that point on, the book felt like it was writing itself.

Obviously the series' title mentions mathematics. Did you know much about theoretical maths before starting this series? How much or little does the reader need to understand? Can they glide along, as with Big Bang Theory, knowing nothing about the finer theoretical consepts? and, similarly, Dorothy and Ali computer company - presumably you had some more in depth knowledge of the computing world than I did (not difficult as the average junior school child probably does)
 My first degree was in maths, so I guess the answer to the first part of your question is “yes”, although that should be tempered by the fact that it was quite a long time ago, so I’ve forgotten pretty much all of it. I’ve tried to pitch it so that the reader who understands it can nod along without being jarred by anything that’s obviously wrong, while the reader whose head starts to spin at the very thought of the subject can just treat the maths bits as - to quote Blazing Saddles - “authentic frontier gibberish” and move quickly on. Despite the fact that the books are billed as Mathematical Mysteries, the maths isn’t actually that essential to the plot, although I’d like to think that I might open the eyes of the occasional non-believer to some of the extraordinary stuff that the subject has to offer. For example, Euler’s identity is just the most amazingly weird and beautiful thing in existence, and EVERYONE should know about it. I guess the same applies to the computer content - it’s either stuff you recognise or more gibberish you can skip over, but it’s not essential to the plot.

There's wide range of odd background material packed in - Belarus mafia, off-shore private countries, pythons, cryptocurrency. How interesting, or alarming, does your search history look?  
I suspect that if anyone did take a look at my search history with a view to finding anything incriminating, they’d probably just throw their hands in the air and give up. Oddly enough, not all of my research was online - for example, most of the crypto stuff came from a book by a sceptic called David Gerard. All I did online in the case of crypto was check to see what names might still be available for a new currency. This turned out to be quite surprising in itself. Would you believe that Madoffcoin, Ponzicoin and Tulipcoin all exist already? Also, Channellia grew out of a talk given to our parish council by a PR lady for Hinckley Point C, via a stag do that my son went to on another offshore platform. There’s material all over the place.

I've mentioned Simon Pegg before with reference to these novels - if anyone decided to adapt the books for film or TV, who would be your first choice to play Tom Winscombe?
Good question. I used to think that Ben Whishaw would have been a good choice (partly because Tom is essentially a less furry Paddington), but I think he’s probably a bit old now. This may be a bit of a cop-out, but I think both he and Dorothy should probably be played by complete unknowns, with loads of famous character actors doing the bit parts. For example, I would love to see Tim McInnerny (in his later, post-Blackadder, phase) do Rufus Fairbanks from the first book. It’s nice to fantasise.

What next for Tom? More mysteries to solve, I assume, but do you have an overall plan of how the series will continue (publishers permitting)?
 I have a contract for two more books, and after that I guess we have to see how things go. I’m very much a pantser rather than a plotter, so I don’t have a big idea of where the overall story arc is going, apart from the fact that there is one and that it will be driven by the characters. What I can say is that Book Three has just acquired a new title, “The Riddle of the Fractal Monks”. All the regular characters will be there, plus some old friends and enemies and one or two new ones. As with “A Question of Trust”, you won’t necessarily have to have read the other books in the series, but it will improve your reading experience if you have. Also, I make more money if people buy the entire series, so it’s a win-win situation.

Thank you for coming along, Jonathan. I hope we've intrigued readers to go out and try The Mathematical Mysteries - and for the rest of July the e-version of A Question of Trust is available at the amazing price of 99p! See publishers' Farrago website for details

Reviews of the books can be found  here - The Truth about Archie and Pye
                                                                     A Question of Trust

Thursday 4 July 2019

Emily Eternal by M G Wheaton

Emily is an artificial consciousness, designed in a lab to help humans process trauma, which is particularly helpful when the sun begins to die 5 billion years before scientists agreed it was supposed to.
So, her beloved human race is screwed, and so is Emily. That is, until she finds a potential answer buried deep in the human genome. But before her solution can be tested, her lab is brutally attacked, and Emily is forced to go on the run with two human companions - college student Jason and small-town Sheriff, Mayra.
As the sun's death draws near, Emily and her friends must race against time to save humanity. But before long it becomes clear that it's not only the species at stake, but also that which makes us most human.

As you can see from the publicist's blurb above, I'm continuing with my apocalyptic streak, but with a slight difference  - this time the story is set pre-apocalypse, because when the Sun dies there'll be no humans left to tell stories.
There are two sides to Emily Eternal; there's a gripping, action-packed race to save humanity from the dying sun, but, just as much, it's about what kind of society will survive, and what constitutes 'humanity'. How far can a person change and still be considered human? how far would you be prepared to sacrifice free-will to survive? Unfortunately, it's not something to debate further here as I'd have to give away too many plot spoilers.

It took a while to come to grips with the slightly weird way 'Emily' works - making her sometimes visible to one person, sometimes to many - but overall I enjoyed the book.
There were a few bugs and loopholes that plagued me at times - the most niggling being the lack of panic shown by the general public. The end of the world is coming, people know about it, but everyone seems to be taking it amazingly calmly - none of the street-rioting, suicide cults, etc that you might expect and which appear in other end-of-the-world novels and films. It possible that in part this could be explained away by the fact that Emily 'lives' in the restricted environment of a university campus and news of the outside world is kept from her, but even the academics surrounding her seemed unperturbed by the thought of mass extinction.
It's good to see a 'computer' working on humanity's side for once. Emily isn't 2001's HAL, or the Terminator series' mankind-destroying machines; rest assured she has our welfare at heart.

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Genre - Adult, scifi, apocalypse