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Randall
Randall
by Jonathan Gibbs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.00

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jonathan Gibbs' impressive debut novel..., 25 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Randall (Paperback)
What I admired most about Jonathan Gibbs’ impressive first novel was the tone of the narrator’s voice: sensitive, clear-headed, tending to self-analysis, and self-effacing. It’s a tone that manages to be fresh and singularly English; an achievement given the relative absence of such clean narrational styles in the immediate literary culture. It’s a versatile voice that is pleasingly free-ranging, as opposed to the first-person voices often favoured by Gibbs’ contemporaries; ones which become tangled in and restricted by a sustained effort at mimicry, usually of regional or marginalised characters.

Suitably, the subject of the story is also wholly English; the narrator describes the rise to pre-eminence of the best-known of the Young British Artists, Randall. In this story Damian Hirst has suffered an accidental youthful death, and Randall fills his space, becoming the internationally celebrated conceptual artist of the day. Our narrator, Vincent, is an early addition to Randall’s entourage, and the story is made of episodes that are memorable both in relation to their sincere but fragile friendship, and to the spectacular progress of Randall’s career.

Another significant accomplishment of this novel is its reflections, both on contemporary art, and on what prompts strong friendships in adulthood; Jonathan Gibbs uses the opportunities the story provides to explore these. The reflections on art are often prompted by Randallisms: ‘There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it. Everything else - talking about it, thinking about it, selling it, looking at it - either comes under one of those two, or doesn’t count.” Equally, there are Vincent’s persistent, self-enquiring attempts to understand the force that Randall exerts on him. ‘If knowing someone doesn’t change you as a person, then they’re not a friend, they’re an acquaintance.’ Vincent is employed in financial services, and this role is one of the qualifiers for his status as an everyman of the English professional classes. His fascination with Randall’s cultural endeavours is bound up with his fascination with Randall’s personality. It’s an interest whose pursuit is overshadowed by an absolute lack of understanding; a lack which Vincent aspires to confront, and one whose traces are discernible in almost any response from a politician or high-ranking professional, when commenting on the arts.

Where I struggled with the novel was in the instances when the tone drifted towards sentimentality. With a story, and a narrator, preoccupied with friendship, the tone can edge towards one more usual in buddy movies; a tone that relies heavily on the sympathies of the audience being fully with each man. Equally, Vincent’s sense of intellectual inferiority creates passages about Randall that verge on the reverential. In combination, these tendencies at times lessen the dramatic impetus.

The story is told from two perspectives, and in two distinct narrative strands: one in the first person, involving extracts from a manuscript about Randall written by Vincent; and another, told in the third person, in which Vincent travels to New York to meet with Randall’s widow, Justine, herself a former partner of Vincent’s, to discuss a problem she has alerted Vincent to. It is in this second strand where the strength of the novel really shows. Vincent and Justine are presented with a dilemma to solve, one which has colossal consequences for the posthumous status and value attributed to Randall’s art. The reader observes them struggle together under the pressure of a vital and difficult decision, and as the novel draws towards its end, we begin to realise that it’s their response to this decision that will settle the question of whether Randall has had an enduring influence on either of them after all.


Unthology 5: 5
Unthology 5: 5
by Ashley Stokes
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unthology 5 Review, 24 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Unthology 5: 5 (Paperback)
Unthology 5 opens with a swift run of stories that takes a reader straight to the precipice of British consciousness. It’s a queasy vantage point, far from Westminster narratives and familiar from Crimewatch, where vicious events unfold in the most commonplace spaces, and interior lives contend with monstrous inclinations and the unceasing pressures of trauma. Angela Readman’s ‘A Little More Prayer’ in which an adult is prompted to recall her youthful experience of being held captive, and KS Silkwood’s ‘Daddy’s Little Secret’ in which a father returns home having murdered his daughter and minutely observes his wife’s responses as she realises the girl has gone missing, form a strong start to the collection.

As the reader progresses, a pattern emerges of very precise writing that bores down on and then drills into an exposed self, or writing that is technically sophisticated, and sometimes both. For me, Jose Varghese’s ‘A Writer Tries To Work It Out’ in which dual narratives, one relating a story and the other a dialogue between a creative writing tutor and the story’s author, where the story improves in line with the tutor’s comments, and the narrative between the tutor and the author moves in unexpected directions, was a stand-out. Equally, Mark Mayes ‘The Regular’ is a masterclass in upping the ante in the short form, showcasing the effect of shifting remorselessly through the dramatic gears.

It’s a sign of Unthology 5’s strength that I’m struggling not to write a review that dwells on each story in turn. I was impressed by the powerful, concise storytelling in John D Rutter’s ’79 Green Gables’, Andrew Oldham’s ‘The Lesser God’, and Garrie Fletcher’s ‘Kowalski’; I admired the multiple shifts in perspective in Maggie Ling’s ‘Death and the Maiden’; I liked the well-drawn minor characters in Sarah Bower’s ‘Restoration.’.

What many of these stories struggle with, to their credit, is a dramatic rendering of the domestic. It’s difficult but crucial ground for any writer, well trodden by soap operas and sitcoms, as well by any established professional author one might think of. More than once, at the end of one of these stories, I faintly heard the bof-bof-bof rhythm that opens the closing credits of Eastenders. Having said that, I felt many of the writers conjured an authentic claustrophobia, that staring up from the bottom of a well sense of family life at its most confining and limiting. Personally, I spent the best part of two years trying to find engaging ways to write about domesticity when drafting my novel ‘Captivity’. I ended up making my narrator famous; I suppose I concluded that a voyeuristic reader is preferable to a disinterested one.

What unites these stories, and marks them out as Unthank Books material, is that they don’t seek to provide respite. For these writers narrative is a means to penetrate and interrogate their own sense of reality, not evade it in a middle-ground work of exotica literama, or other piece of genre writing that relishes and revels in recycling accepted formulas. I tend to find it reassuring, and worth any difficulty in the reading, when writers write like they do in this anthology.


Waiting for Bluebeard
Waiting for Bluebeard
by Helen Ivory
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Helen Ivory's 'Waiting for Bluebeard', 25 July 2013
This review is from: Waiting for Bluebeard (Paperback)
There is a recurrence of symbolic motifs in Helen Ivory's latest collection `Waiting For Bluebeard'; for instance bone, silver, caves, eyes, cobwebs and dolls. Their use draws her skilled and accomplished poems towards the Jungian interpretation of dreams, early Renaissance painting and Alice's favourite rabbit hole. In this principally domestic, narrative sequence of poems their effect is to render the world described as an eerie place, shifting and transformational, in which the present and immediate is cast as a much punctured façade, into whose gaping holes the reader is invited to peer, catching glimpses of forests of cogs and wheels. In some respects the poems remind me of Deborah Levy's novel `Swimming Home'; in both psychological artefacts are as embedded as they are in perception.

It seems clear that Helen Ivory, in producing such a coherent, themed collection, so deftly assured in its style, tone and material, is an outstanding poet long overdue some serious national, even international, attention.


The Ask
The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Impressive prose but..., 18 Jan. 2013
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This review is from: The Ask (Paperback)
I bought this having read Ben Marcus recommend it in an interview. The reviews compare 'The Ask' to Amis's 'Money' and in terms of the tone and the quality of the prose, the comparison is justified. My reservations are really due to a response to some of the embedded points of view implicit in the novel. Firstly, it often reads as if made of East Coast hipster cliches: the tired thirty something marriage, the narrator's unfulfilled creative aspirations. Secondly, it's rammed full of the kind of minor characters that would work well in a short story, but seem stereotyped and partial in the wider space of a novel. Thirdly, the writer' objectivity to his material seems hopelessly compromised to me: the novel satirises left wing communitarianism, presents the very wealthy as the most active, self aware personalities in the narrative, and generally promotes all the myths of 21st century Capital whilst believing itself to be ironic towards and therefore removed from them. I suppose as a British reader I'm not the perfect audience for this but still...


White Goddess, The : An Encounter
White Goddess, The : An Encounter
by Simon Gough
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary read, 18 Jan. 2013
This memoir reads as if the writer was overcome whilst writing it, as if the writer was moved to new degrees of honesty and self examination. It recaptures a milieu, and the sensibilities within it, that are almost entirely lost. The voice of Robert Graves, the impression his personality makes on his contemporaries, are brought to life with the power one expects of a major novelist.


Saraswati Park
Saraswati Park
by Anjali Joseph
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anjali Joseph's beautiful novel, 13 May 2012
This review is from: Saraswati Park (Paperback)
Saraswati Park is a novel of dramas and energies that are entirely welcome and recognisable. Its story brings a cluster of urban Indian, domestic lives into the foreground, and Anjali Joseph creates an adeptly textured narrative space in which the feelings and experiences of husband and wife, friend and friend and lover and lover are carefully turned over and examined, and are thereby accorded great value. The tone and pace are handled superbly, and the measured coming and going of the sub plots, the ebbs and surges of each particular line of the story, swap over and swell or fade in a way that suggests Joseph has a very strong technical sense of narrative structure. This is all accomplished against a background of a monsoon drenched, bustling city, whose train guards and servants and newspaper sellers manage, thanks to Joseph's skill, to be always present as themselves.


Swimming Home
Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved Swimming Home, 6 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Swimming Home (Paperback)
As the review above has outlined some of the plot I'm not going to elaborate on that but I think that some of the qualities of the writing are outstanding. First the way the very persistent but subtle Jung like symbolism (the threatening objects under the bed, the mermaid like Kitty Finch) creates exactly the kind of unease in the reader that the characters themselves are experiencing. I've never read a novel that has managed this level of alchelmical effect so fully before. The text really does reach into the reader's subconscious, and the story becomes more fully participated in as a result. Secondly the novel feels written by a playwright; there's a certain economy of movement through the settings, a certain sense of staging, I guess which is an everyday concern for a playwright, but which is more unusual in fiction and carries over into 'Swimming Home' particularly well. Some of the features in and around the villa, like the swimming pool, like Madeline Sheridan's balcony, are used admirably neatly to further the ends of the story.


Laikonik Express
Laikonik Express
by Nick Sweeney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Nick Sweeney's Laikonik Express, 18 May 2011
This review is from: Laikonik Express (Paperback)
Nick Sweeney's novel is full of resonances and echoes: Sal Paradise buddy talk here, Joycean close consciousness and wordplay there. Read too fast and you'll miss them. Laikonik Express's settings, its cross-country train journeys and looping metropolitan walks, have the flavour of these influences. It's a novel of streets, bars, carriages, churches and encounters between strangers, in which the actions of the leading characters are frequently punctuated by the hospitality or indifference of local citizens and passers-by.

The voice is characterised by the persistence of wry humour and rubber-stamp one-liners, and after a while the reader learns to anticipate and relish these. For instance,

".....Don had dragged him all that way through the snow on the train to be right there and right then in that deep-frozen Ben-and-Jerry town..."
"But Don was out there already. He cut a momentary man-with plan shape in the swirl of the snow, and then it closed over..."

This tone, rueful and amused, hopeful yet a little careworn, manifests it's presence throughout. For the reader, a sense of being confided, of being poked in the ribs and wisecracked to, accumulates. It's a stylised, rock and roll diction, and when it works well it makes Laikonik Express a performance.

The story, of Don and Kennedy crossing Poland after a girl, whilst Kennedy tries to convince Don to take himself seriously as a writer, touches on different things: a mid thirties milieu of whittled down opportunities, the homesick restlessness of reluctant globetrotters, the wariness of the Polish towards Poland's place at the forefront of post USSR capitalism; Nick Sweeney touches on a smorgasbord of preoccupations.

Emotionally, it's a novel that's by turns sentimental, wistful, optimistic and humanistic. It celebrates friendship; its possibilities and its responsibilities, and in that sense Laikonik Express reminds me of Ghostbusters.


Unthology No.1
Unthology No.1
by Robin Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unthology No.1 Review, 29 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Unthology No.1 (Paperback)
In the UK, short fiction anthologies are pretty rare. Equally, readers of anthologies are pretty rare. To buy an anthology, of unknown writers, by an unknown publisher can only be, I think, an act of investigation. Firstly, a reader has to be at least disenchanted with the high street 3-2 staple on offer. Disenchanted enough to wonder what else is out there, to wonder if what's publicly available really is a representative range of the uses of the medium.

Secondly, a reader has to be familiar, or more than familiar, with the short story form. One motivation for buying an anthology is to compare the contents, either with favoured writers, or with the reader's own work. Given that short story reading and writing are both unusual practises, and that the literary culture they inhabit, and are sustained by, is in the midst of a decline and fall, these readers must be very few.

It's this kind of curious, discerning, reader that a new anthology should appeal to. And it's exactly these readers that might look at Unthology No.1 and assume the worst. It's these readers who may, at the first page, brace themselves, wince, and otherwise prepare to endure a dose of provincial amateurism, indistinct narratives and shop worn familiar characters.

With the Unthology, these readers can relax a little. Each of its stories has merits, ranging from the narrative maturity of Mischa Hiller's "The Burning" or Melinda Moore's "The Turtle", where carefully layered residual emotions reach a point of focus and clarity; to Viccy Adams's "Doing it by the Book", where what at first is a straightforward scenario develops unexpectedly, so that the reader quickly accumulates questions. The more leftfield, experimental, style of story is well represented, as in Michael Baker's "Bleach", which is one of the strangest pieces I've ever read, but in a good way. Ashley Stokes's "A Short Story about a Short Film" is a film script underscored by footnotes which describe the many agonies of the director.

There are plenty of positive signs. For instance, I had trouble reading the collection quickly, because I found so many of the stories to be moving. Also, in general, these are stories with strong or confident openings, as in Jenni Fagan's "Impilo", which begins as the narrator falls into a lawnmower. Then there is Sherilyn Connelly's "The Last Dog and Pony Show", which introduces us to `the biggest animal role playing event of the year.'

Finally, there is an unusual pleasure in anthology reading, which comes from the variety of the stories, and the novelty of each one. For a short story enthusiast used to reading collections, this is a pleasant surprise.


The Canal
The Canal
by Lee Rourke
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Canal: A novel amongst fiction, 5 Aug. 2010
This review is from: The Canal (Paperback)
The Canal is a novel in which the responsibilities of fiction are very apparent. It is grounded in the common experience of a disaffected everyman; an unfufilled employee who has decided to sit on a bench by a canal every day, instead of at his desk. Lee uses this scenario to unpack the idea of boredom: to consider its definitions, its tainting presence and effects, and some popular responses to it. This is done explictly through the meditations of the narrator, through the dialogue with the narrrator's daily companion on the bench, an alluring but troubled young woman, and through the intrusive behaviour of a local teenage gang.

The subtlety and the cleverness of the novel lies in the manner in which the reality of boredom manifests in ways which the narrator is unconscious of. The reader is frequently presented with his memories, which in the odd light of the novel, gradually come to seem like fossils from an excavation of boredom. Equally the prosaic and utterly recognizeable conversation and perspective of the narrator, which at first is so acceptable, grows to seem limited and inadequate. By the end of the novel the reader is left wondering where boredom begins and ends, and asking to what extent can it be contained and identified.

I guess Lee has taken on the burden of mediating commonplace experience, and as a result he's delivered a story that resounds.


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