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W. J. Thirsk-Gaskill (Leeds, England)
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Dinosaur Council
Dinosaur Council
Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable story in a genre that I don't usually go for, 4 Jun. 2013
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This review is from: Dinosaur Council (Kindle Edition)
This story is what I would call an apocalyptic. While it is quite short, it reminded me of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

I nearly always dislike apocalyptic stories, even including classics such as Nineteen-eighty-four or Brave New World. I heard an apocalyptic radio play on BBC Radio 4 recently, about the political effects of climate change, and it was terrible, because it was an attempt to sound realistic, but failed because of false assumptions or unconvincing details. Sean Bamforth avoids these problems by setting the story not in this world, but in a completely self-contained one. The narrator gradually reveals the features and conflicts of this self-contained world. This is engaging and convincing.

The characterisation is unusual. There are references to the narrator's father and grandfather. We do learn something about these ancestors, but only what the narrator tells us. Apart from the narrator himself, the other "character" is the world he is describing. The story is about the narrator's relationship with the world he describes. The tone is fatalistic, but the details are given early enough and frequently enough to draw the reader in.

The result is part gothic, part science fiction, and part fairy-tale. I think this is best read as a grown-up, contemporary fairy-tale, because it relies on setting and the relating of events rather than characterisation and dialogue.

This is the first thing by Sean Bamforth I have read, and I will certainly be looking out for more.


Strange Way Out
Strange Way Out
Price: £0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Plot-driven, page-turning short story, 2 Jun. 2013
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This review is from: Strange Way Out (Kindle Edition)
I came across this story via a Twitter conversation. It is by an American author. This is the first piece by him I have read.

The protagonist is a young man called Sammy who is an "in extremis persona". He clearly has a problem, which many readers will surmise near the beginning. One of the main things that engages the reader's interest is to see whether this surmise is correct.

The character of Sammy is fairly well-developed. I did not find that Sammy generated much sympathy, which is fine. Having a somewhat unsympathetic, self-conflicted protagonist gave the story a contemporary feel of a kind which I often strive for in my own writing.

Sammy meets a woman. I won't mention what she is called, because that is a part of the story. The female character does move the story along, and she is part of the resolution, but she is not as well-developed as Sammy.

CREATIVE WRITING TECHNICAL STUFF KLAXON -- The narrative mode I would describe as "third person with limited omniscience" (the same as, say, 'Catch-22'). There is a bit about two-thirds of the way through when the focus of the narration moves from Sammy to the woman - arguably an inconsistency. This is technically one of the most difficult narrative modes to use.

The narrative arc is well-executed. This is a story which knows whose story it is. It has a strong, engaging beginning, and a surprisingly tidy resolution. Some of what happens in the middle seems incoherent, but this is explained in the ending, which I think most readers will find satisfying.

I am giving this three stars because, while the story is structurally strong and the main character is good, there were a few features of the prose style that did not appeal to me: there are too many similes, which tend to detract from the otherwise contemporary feel of the piece. The show/tell balance could be more towards showing in a few places. But it certainly held my attention right to the end.

Follow Troy Blackford on Twitter: @TBlackford3
Author website: www.troyblackford.com


Selected Poems (Salt Modern Poets)
Selected Poems (Salt Modern Poets)
by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reaches the parts other Selected Works cannot reach, 16 May 2013
I first heard of Fiona Pitt-Kethley from my mother at about the time that Fiona's collection, `The Perfect Man' was published in 1989. My mother was a faddist of the worst imaginable kind. She had heard Fiona speaking on a programme on Radio 4, probably `Kaleidoscope'. My mother said, "There's this woman who writes poetry, and her two main concerns are animal welfare and promiscuous sex - she's fantastic." I leave it to the reader to surmise which of those two my mother was the more interested in.

When my ex-wife and I moved in together and combined our very considerable libraries, there were two books that were conspicuous in their duplication, `Kennedy's Latin Primer', and `The Perfect Man', by Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

I co-host a literary community local radio programme on a station broadcast from Halifax, West Yorkshire, and available via the internet on www.phoenixfm.co.uk. I have read two of Fiona's poems on this programme, `Bond Girl', and `1984', both of which appear in both `The Perfect Man' and her Selected Poems.

The Selected Poems is Fiona's poetic biography. She describes her life in interesting ways, with reference to marginal jobs, such as film extra, as in the two poems I just mentioned, sexual awakening, and sexual everything else.

On `Themes for Dreamers', my fellow host, the poet, Gaia Holmes, and I are constantly searching for variety. What I am trying to build up for the poetry element of the programme is a palette of emotions, moods, subject matter, and styles. In this regard, Fiona Pitt-Kethley is indispensable. She occupies a place that no-one else does. She is interchangeable with no-one. The show occasionally reaches a Fiona Pitt-Kethley moment, at which point, there is nothing else to be done but read one of her works.

It is the hallmark of a really good writer that he/she can break the elementary rules of writing and still produce publishable work. By this standard, Fiona Pitt-Kethley is a really good writer. Breaking rules (in the sense of societal rules) is one of the main subjects of her work. I would say that she is, among other things, a "punk" poet, in the same sense that Dame Vivienne Westwood was/is allied with the punk movement. Fiona's poems seem like punk because many of them look as if any-one could have written them (to which the rejoinder is: "maybe any-one could, but any-one didn't"). Most of them are free verse. None of them is in a standard form. Some of them rhyme. The rhyming is mainly to achieve whimsy rather than conform to a form.

The main rule that Fiona breaks is the one about the show/tell balance. Many of her poems tell you rather than show you. One example is `Girlie Mags'. This is entirely telling rather than showing, but I am an expert on the subject matter of the poem, and I agree with every word of it. Fiona Pitt-Kethley gets much closer to digging out the malodorous truffles of the male sexual psyche than just about any other female author I can think of.

My favourite from Selected Poems that I had not previously read is `The Serpent's Complaint'. It is written in ballad rhyme (AABBCCDD...) and iambic tetrameter (and so I suppose this is in a standard form). This is the poem from the selection that I most wish I had written. It is written from the point of view of the serpent in the garden of Eden, and it mentions port and Stilton. It is another hallmark of a really good writer that she can write about quasi-theological subjects without offending atheists like me.

If you have other books in your poetry library that are like Fiona Pitt-Kethley's work, then you may have slender reasons for buying this. Otherwise, it is a must.


Couples
Couples
by Michael Stewart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A "must have" collection for people-watchers and writers, 10 April 2013
This review is from: Couples (Paperback)
'Couples' is a book of contemporary English poetry by the award-winning playwright and novelist, Michael Stewart.

'Couples' is the only collection of poetry I remember reading from cover to cover at one sitting. One reason I did this (in fact, I've read it like that several times) was because the controlling idea of the collection is outstandingly clear: on each double page, two related poems face each other, like a couple sitting at a dining table. Without wishing to get too close to Pseuds' Corner, I can say that the physical volume itself is a work of conceptual art: the poems are separate when you read them, and only touch when you close the book.

Another reason for the compelling reading quality of the collection is its variety. There is one underlying concept, one set of subject matter, but huge variation in the language, the viewpoint, and the details.

Michael Stewart himself told me his definition of poetry: poetry is distilled language. That is certainly the case here. None of the poems is more than a page in length - if it were, it would spoil the concept. Language, in the sense of vocabulary, of lines constructed from words chosen with meticulous care, is the main vehicle for the author's purpose. Some of the poems are written in stanzas, but none has a rhyme scheme and none has regular meter. As works of art to be performed out loud, they read beautifully.

This is a collection which bears limitless re-visiting. All of the poems are comprehensible at first reading, in the sense that they are mostly about everyday objects (a fried egg sandwich) or situations (burning something in the back garden). It is the relations between the objects, the personalities and the situations which hold the fascination. Much of how you evaluate these relationships is up to you.

Finally, I would say that, for any-one who has an interest in writing poetry, this is a book to absorb and to study, precisely because it is a masterclass in the art of what is deliberately left unsaid, as well as the carefully-chosen words on the page. That is what makes it such an accomplished example of what is possible in contemporary poetry.


Killing Daniel
Killing Daniel
by Sarah Dobbs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two female points of view, 9 Dec. 2012
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This review is from: Killing Daniel (Paperback)
The form (but not the quality) of `Killing Daniel' is what I would describe as a "train crash". The story starts with two disparate characters, living in the same time, but separated by gulfs of distance and society. These characters are an English woman called Fleur and a Japanese woman called Chinatsu. Having met in adolescence, they think about one another and look forward to a nebulous idea of reunion. The plot advances in opposing directions, one starting in Salford and the other in Japan.

The characterisation of both Fleur and Chinatsu is detailed and fascinating. This is a profoundly female book. As some-one who is learning how to write novels, I devoured the passages which deal with Fleur and Chinatsu because I am trying to be more accurate and consistent in the depiction of female characters. Because they come from such different societies and social classes, I learnt a great deal just from reading this one novel.

Some of this depiction is portrayed in the distance and antagonism between the two women and their various male counterparts and adversaries. Despite the darkness and occasional violence of the intertwining stories, I think men come off rather lightly in this novel. I repeat that this is a female book, but I would not consider it to be a feminist one. It is a novel which simply happens to be told from the points of view of two women.

The narrative (third person, limited omniscience) contains quite a few rhetorical questions. I thought these had been banned by an international treaty in the 1970s. A few of them irritated me, but they all served the useful purpose of showing the self-doubt, guilt about the past and anxiety about the future felt by the main characters.

The men in the book, with the exception of Chinatsu's husband, are shallow in comparison to the women, but this is also handled in a controlled manner. One of the subtlest and most finely-worked aspects of the story is the relationship between Chinatsu and Tao, her Chinese paramour. This relationship, and its misunderstandings and miscommunications, infuriated me in a way that made for compelling reading.

The settings, as well as the characters, are completely convincing. I have never been to Japan. Most of what I know about Japan is derived from studying the economic and military history of the twentieth century, but all the Japanese details seemed consistent. I also appreciated that they were introduced in order to flesh out character and bring scenes to life, and definitely not to boast, "I've been to Japan".

If I had been born female and capable of having written this book, the ending would have been very different, but I will leave you to decide about that for yourself.


The Voice Imitator
The Voice Imitator
by Thomas Bernhard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some of the shortest stories ever written, 31 May 2010
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This review is from: The Voice Imitator (Paperback)
I came across two of the stories among the material for an Open University course entitled "Start Writing Fiction" (my tutor was Ashley Stokes, the author of "Touching the Starfish"). None of the stories in this collection is longer than one page. Any-one who picks this book up and pronounces, "Any-one could have written this" is sadly mistaken. Like all good writing, every word and phrase is economically used and, despite their brevity, nearly all the stories have a recognisable build-up and conclusion. My favourite is "Hotel Waldhaus". It is the only work of prose fiction which I can honestly say I can recite in its entirety from memory, even when slightly drunk.

The tone of the stories is a mixture of insanity, death, ill-luck, regret, and malign intentions. This can tend to become a bit tedious and so I recommend not reading more than about twenty or so of them per day.


Touching the Starfish
Touching the Starfish
by Ashley Stokes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.00

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I would not have missed this for anything, 31 May 2010
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This review is from: Touching the Starfish (Paperback)
I am another of Ashley Stokes's students. Being able to read a novel about a creative writing tutor who despises most of the members of his class while taking a creative writing course written by the author was a unique cultural experience. Notwithstanding the fact that the course was distance-learning only (and so those taking part never met each other) it was fascinating to take the disparaging terms for different classes of creative writing student described in the book and apply them to oneself or one's colleagues.

The characterisation is superb. The main thing that made me want to keep reading was to find out more about the characters. The structure of the book is somewhat experimental. One of the chapters is in the form of a role-playing adventure book. This and other devices are used deliberately to make fun of the dumbing-down of the publishing industry and they are all handled adeptly, by a writer who knows exactly what he is doing. It is virtually the only book I have ever read (certainly the only work of fiction) which makes liberal use of footnotes, and in which the footnotes are actually worth reading rather than being merely an irritation.

The book's big idea is that modern literature has become a victim of a publishing industry which only knows how to promote books written by people who aren't writers, for readerships of people who don't really like reading. I greatly look forward to Ashley Stokes's second novel. It will be interesting to see whether he decides to continue to experiment (that is to continue to write what are at least partly parodies) or to write an "old-fashioned" novel, which would at least have the merit of moving against the tide in these days of Ricky Gervais and Alan Titchmarsh.


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