Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Novel’ Category

‘Anytime Return’ by Tom Wingfield

In Novel, Object on July 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

It seems a fair assessment that with the ever-growing levels of multi-cultural inhabitants that are housed by the United Kingdom, conflict amongst UK cultures is, some would argue inevitably, also seeing an increase. Years of immigration and integration have effectively blurred the lines surrounding the question of what cultural groups, or more specifically, which members from cultural groups, can now be termed ‘British’. Rather than racism softening towards those who have resided in this country for an extremely long period of time, it seems that the EDL attitude, if I may be so bold as to employ that term, transcends these considerations and, rather than allowing acceptance of those who have been a resident of the United Kingdom for some time, all this seems to do is spark more confusion and frustration; two states that are made particularly apparent thanks to the increased media coverage that exposes them. It would appear that, like so many other issues, racism is fast becoming more dominant within our society simply because of the attention that is now being showered upon it.

Given how prominent these ideas and topics are within not just the media and such like, but also in our actual lives, it comes as no surprise that writers are turning to literature to address this downwards spiral of discrimination.

In T. A. Wingfield’s recent publication, Anytime Return, we are taken on a journey littered with racism and harsh realisations for many of the characters, that offers an intriguing representation of life in today’s society.

The plotline of the tale is reasonably simple: we travel alongside young Declan Skinner, who seems to be entirely dominated by the over-bearing opinions of his father, who identifies himself as a member of the English Defence League. The creatively constructed pages follow their journey to Leicester, where Declan fraternises with brother Jason, who fails to meet their father’s approval for a number of reasons.

During this time, when Declan is not only reunited with his brother but is also introduced to his brother‘s multi-cultural friendship group, Declan begins to reassess the foundations on which his ideas and principles are built. This twist of events allows a personal revelation to occur within the character of Declan, forcing him to alter his perceptions of things and ultimately paving the way for an empowering end to this tale.

Not only is the plot itself extremely though-provoking, but the presentation within this short piece is also outstanding. Somewhere between prose and poetry, each page exhibits Wingfield’s clever manipulation of structure to complement elements of the tale, with each page providing something visually new. The occasionally hard-to-follow structure is perfectly suited to the goings-on within the text and there is more than one occasion when the presentation of the literature seems to directly mimic that which is being described, which is fascinating from both a literary and artistic perspective.

Interestingly, the pages themselves are not the only unique element of presentation, with the whole text being physically produced in an alien manner. The book is introduced with the disclaimer: ‘The publisher recommends the reader only reads the ‘lower’ page, turning the book when they get to the end.’ This seemingly strange advice becomes perfectly logical upon realising that these pages are not to be read in the typical manner in which one would usually read a book; this is something that will become clearer upon obtaining a hard copy of the text, which, by the way, I fully recommend.

Anytime Return Tom Wingfield

Anytime Return may be a short read, but it certainly packs something of a punch on the unsuspecting reader. Wingfield has created a brutally honest presentation of elements of the United Kingdom, and the variety of people that now reside within the country, and, for anyone interested in the current state of conflict that exists between these cultures, this book would be a worthwhile purchase. Despite my initial reservations, many of which were tied to the unfamiliar presentation of the text, Anytime Return was actually a true pleasure to read and I would indeed recommend this book to others looking for literature that opens both the eyes and the mind.

Anytime Return is a short but hard-hitting read that is a startling but brilliant reflection on the attitude held by those who brand themselves as real Britons, towards those who now inhabit the United Kingdom alongside them.


Review: Not the OxfordLiterary Festival – Friday 30th March Installment

In Novel, Performance Poetry, Short Stories on June 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm

– reviewed by James Webster –

Alternative Poetry and Publishing!

In this, its third year, the Not the Oxford Literary Festival ran from the 27th to the 30th of March; parallel with the mainstream Literary Festival. Organised by Dan Holloway, it’s an interesting indie alternative to the somewhat ubiquitous literary festival that tours many UK cities.

So arriving at the inestimable venue that is the Albion Beatnik a little early, I was distressed to find out that the Not the Oxford Literary Festival’s Wednesday event had not only featured a plethora of joyous poets, but had also seen the first ever occurrence (to my knowledge) of a fight at a poetry event (I can only assume someone called Wordsworth an annoying hippy and things descended from there). ‘How will tonight live up to that excitement?’ I asked myself. Incredibly well, it turns out.

As well as talks from a variety of small publishers about their various intriguing ventures, we also had performances from some very proficient political poets and the poetical experiment that was Gin-Soaked Sheets (brought to us by Lucy Ayrton): a selection of writing exercises the audience could take part in through the night, that coincided neatly with the breaks and thus the participants level of intoxication (you had to write down the number of drinks you’d had when you did each exercise, for science!). And some very good music performed by the very talented Jessie, too!

The variety of different talks and performances made sure the night never got stale (until the very end) and everything was ably presided over by Dan Holloway’s warm hosting. Indeed, Dan’s enthusiasm for the event and clear affection for all the people he’d brought together to the event was a definite factor in the audience’s collective enjoyment.

After a charming intro from Dan we had the introduction of the:

Gin Soaked Sheets task 1: write a poem that takes the form of a selection of information about a book that doesn’t exist.

We then had our first talk from:

  • Frank Burton (Philistine Books) gave an intriguing explanation of Philistine’s activities over the last two years, in which they’ve published 20 e-books and discussed the motivation behind making all their books available only online and all for free.
  • Philistine Writers who read:
  • Patrick Whittaker read from ‘Sybernika’ a clash of entertaining sci-fi and the all-too recognisable mindset of a reckless driver, with some expressively described music mixed in (the speaker tells his car’s AI ‘I’m not reducing speed in the middle of Mozart’s 40th!’).
  • Rick read several variations of the Lord’s Prayer, aimed at Toddlers (‘Halloween be thy name’), Middle England (‘give us this day our Daily Mail’), Gay Men (‘it’s raining, amen’) and Zen (‘your name is sky beyond sky’). They varied from appropriately and amusingly juvenile to really quite beautiful, succeeding in making the Lord’s Prayer more human and humorous.
  • Clare Fisher read the opening of her new novel ‘Avalon’, dissecting the question: ‘how do you know when your sister is missing?’ with quiet hope and despair hovering around the edges of her words.

Organiser Dan Holloway then gave us a preview of the political poetry with his movingly grimy and clever piece ‘Monsters on Our Streets’ that weaves together different ideas of monsters; the hoodies, drunks and drug-users, and then the men in suits who made the system that threw these supposed ‘monsters’ of our generation up and ‘let its body rot like meat … and pocketed their change’.

NOTE: Dan’s own collection ‘Last Man Out of Eden’ has just been released and will be reviewed soon on Sabotage!

Gin Soaked Sheets Task 2: Write down 20 quotes from the readers and then use 5 to make a poem.

Kirsty Clark railed against the advice writers are always given that say you have to follow certain rules, and also read two extracts from her book ‘Going Back’ (possibly the most commercial book of the night). It evoked a nice atmosphere of homeliness and comfort while its bare writing style (while maybe seeming to lack originality) highlighted the danger of loved ones overseas, and gave a sense of quiet trauma when they returned.

Orna Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors talked about her own writing experience (64 rejections, then the 65th submission resulted in a 2-book deal), and how surprised she was by the cynicism of the book business (her editor once told her ‘every time you come here you leave feeling really shit’). She found that writers in the indie publishing system had a much better time of it and launched ALLi at the London Book Fair back in April with the belief that by combining resources publishers can do more than they could alone.

Banana the Poet and partner Andy spoke on their efforts with Endaxi Press in publishing books of poetry. They focus on professional and beautiful looking books, which they do in both print and electronic versions so readers can choose their format.

Authors Electric are a group of 28 authors, whose spokesperson Dennis spoke on the importance of Indie publishers building reputations and giving a defined image of who they are, so the indie publishing scene can continue to develop into a viable alternative to mainstream publishing.

He also read a 30-minute section from his book ‘Spirit of the Place’ which dragged on long after losing audience interest.

3rd Gin Soaked Sheets Task: listen to the following music, imagine you’re listening to it at a train station, look down at your hands: now write a thank you letter to them.

Musical Interlude

  • Jessie Grace gave a fun musical set of jangly, but discordant, guitar that was much fun (and occasionally wistfully melancholic). With the guitar strings bending and her voice crooning, you could feel the music thrumming through you. Very enjoyable (and apparently she’s Eight Cuts’ oldest collaborator).

Political Poetry

  • Danny Chivers kicked off the political poetry with a poem on the ‘armani army’ who are ‘out of control, feral’ in their corruption of the system. A fluidly angry poem, resonating strongly with the occupy movement, that encourages us to take back control as ‘we are the 99%, and if we take back our consent, they’re irrelevant’.
  • His second ‘Shopper-Scrounger’ is a slightly illegal poem that he performed during the occupation of Fortnum & Mason, which promptly got him arrested. It made use of his faux-reasonable smarm to great effect as Chivers directed his funny and flowing scorn at companies that evade taxes.
  • Davy Mac‘s powerful voice came across well in ‘Your Loot’, expressing the unfairness of politicians trying to make sleeping rough illegal.
  •  ‘Cutting Edge’ evoked a gradual chipping away of optimism and confidence, mirroring how constant persecution of the poor from the media and society grinds people down.
  • While ‘PTSD’ was chilling and torn glimpse of former soldiers on Remembrance Day being reminded of ‘what they drink all year to forget’, ending with the powerful ‘I’ll be dying for your freedom, in a war lost before you were born.’
  • Finally, Dot 23 performed ‘Evisceration of Democracy Village’, a brittle poem giving glimpses of late-night fractures of violence and chaos, as peaceful idealists are evicted from a camp in the confusion of the early morning.

Overall: a really entertaining and elucidating night, providing a plethora of alternatives to mainstream publishing and poets!

‘Border Run’ by Simon Lewis

In Novel on April 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Simon Lewis’s Border Run is a pacy read that tells the story of two gap year travellers, Jake and Will, who embark upon an ‘adventurette’ in the jungle on the borders of China and Burma that turns nasty. We see events unfold from the viewpoint of Will, an insecure young man keen to prove his adventurous spirit to validate himself in his ex-girlfriend’s eyes. Lewis’s writing conjures up the self-reflexive Facebook generation perfectly, with Will analysing each experience in terms of its ability to impress back home. Jake even berates Will for mediating his experiences through the lens; ‘take that camera off your face. Stop using it like a shield’.

Will and Jake’s personalities contrast with one another, the uptight and slightly neurotic young man to carefree and footloose lad. The novel opens with Jake excitedly proposing a roadtrip with a stranger, the bait for Will being a photogenic waterfall. The bait for Jake is somewhat different; the temptation of ‘walking marriage’ with girls who live in the borderlands. Will is disappointed at the first sight of their promised paradise, his vision clouded by his resentment towards the carefree Jake for having commandeered their carefully planned itinerary. He jumps to negative conclusions, seeing the place as ‘a hopeless mass of green detail’ before they come upon their real destination.
Border Run Simon Lewis
The novel is full of vivid descriptions seen through Will’s keen eye as a photographer. The luscious settings, a smattering of technical photography language and the odd detail such as their snacking on ‘Cashew Savageness nuts and Lonely God crisps’ recreate the curious traveller’s wonder. Will captures every moment as it unfolds for its physical beauty, but more importantly for him as proof of his experiences for how they might rate as a Facebook album. Later his relentless documenting of every detail becomes his protection as he casts himself in the role of witness.

Will’s unease about the impulsive trip is overridden by his desire to impress, and when things start to heat up he ‘told himself to relax and be more like Jake, carefree, easy in his body, going with the flow’. However Will’s premonition that things are too good to be true doesn’t take long to be proven right. As soon as evidence starts to appear that perhaps Howard, their tour guide, isn’t quite as altruistic as he’s made himself out to be Will assumes the moral high ground and begins to weigh up his options considering his irresponsible travelling companions, and finds himself having to constantly adjust to increasingly perilous situations until he’s no longer sure where his loyalty lies.

Short chapters and playful cliffhangers keep the story moving rapidly as the situation spirals out of control. The narrative is dialogue driven, from Will’s cringeworthy non-conversation with a nubile tribal girl to increasingly awkward interchanges between himself and Howard that become more tense as Will tries to make sense of the turn of events and his position within it. Despite this Will makes an unexpectedly sympathetic protagonist. We follow his agonising decision-making process from one uncomfortable situation through another, from the trivial to the perilous.

Border Run is an engaging, humorous novel that forces our modern Young Werther-like protagonist away from introverted self-analysis and into the thrust of the action, until finally he is forced to really test his limits and what he believes himself capable of.

‘Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume #1’ by Michael Stutz

In Novel on April 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Circuits of the Wind Volume #1 is the first in this trilogy by Michael Stutz, which will cover computer communication’s rise from an obscure by-product of telephonic connections to the now-ubiquitous high-speed internet. Stutz’s blurb claims that he ‘coined the term ‘net generation”, which makes it sound like he knows what he’s talking about, and even raises the hint of this trilogy being a tad autobiographical. These books attempt to provide a personal narrative for the information age, trying to impose on it an overall meaning and poeticism missing from more usual computing histories.

Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume 1 - Michael Stutz

Starting from an almost pre-consciousness age, Circuits of the Wind narrates the life of Raymond Valentine, an American whose life seems – through coincidence of birth, if nothing else – to be intrinsically linked with the growth of home computer technology and, ultimately, the internet. In Second Grade, he discovers arcade and home computer games in their infancy. His babyhood fascination with the home telephone flowers into a desire to become a hacker, with a home computer and modem, which will enable him to ‘call out and connect, [to] know the ways and [to] walk the winds like ghosts’.

It’s rather like a gradual biography of internet communication (Volume #1 being set in the 60s, 70s and 80s, before the internet as we know it today). Ray grows up as the reach of computers and phone lines extends, expanding with his adolescent body in ways he doesn’t fully understand but that he can see opening up a future world of adult promise. If you think that makes it sound like a geeky, teenage boy coming-of-age story, then you’re not far wrong. Circuits of the Wind is deeply embedded in external modems and old-school computer hard disks, recalling a time when teenage boys dreamed of ‘accidentally’ gaining access to the Pentagon’s mainframes (cf. Wargames) and hacking consisted of a few bits of metal across the house’s phone line. There’s a certain geeky appeal to Ray’s existence, and just enough computing/internet jargon to reel in geeks without losing the less technically-minded reader.

Ray’s is a life slightly disconnected from immediate reality, existing instead in a world spreading outwards and away from Ray’s physical location. His world (and, increasingly, these days, our world) is one of telephone lines and faraway places, of connections and information flying through the air. It’s a world with a vast amount of information readily available, where a person (like Ray) can know about many things, people and places without actually experiencing them tangibly. Stutz captures the thrill of first receiving a computer screen message from hundreds of miles away, and the desolation when that access is revoked and our horizons are suddenly reduced back to the merely physical.

His life’s disconnection includes relationships, which Ray struggles with as he gets older. Or at least, he struggles with relationships with more than a couple of friends in ‘real life’ – his online social life thrives. It’s a situation any modern Facebook/MySpace/Twitter addict will recognise, perhaps with a guilty half-shrug or sheepish smile; Ray chats with people across America, but feels isolated and ostracised when offline.

At times, Stutz tries to do a little more than tie together the parallel biographies of Ray and the internet. The narrator of Circuits of the Wind starts taking lengthy paragraphs to inject some poetic meaning into the story, and to condense longer periods of time into the book – as though the reader must have a constant stream of narrative about Ray and no part of his life can be left untold. It’s as if Stutz doesn’t want to leave a break in the plot, so rather than go from event to event he gives us everything without pausing except for new chapters. At times this technique is reminiscent of the modern internet’s unremitting stream of data and information, which needs sifting and sorting.

The next two instalments of the Circuits of the Wind series pursues Ray’s life into the internet-enabled 1990s, with increasingly advanced graphics and quicker connection times. Whether he’ll manage to make anything of himself, or while away more hours in front of a computer screen, remains to be seen – and bears a resemblance (and a warning?) to procrastinators everywhere.

‘Anger Mode’ by Stefan Tegenfalk (translated by David Evans)

In Novel on October 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Farnell-

I know it’s a translation, but I’m not sure about the title. Vredens Tid is the original Swedish title of Stefan Tegenfalk’s debut novel, which translates literally as Wrath Tide, so David Evans’ translation is an improvement.

My first thought upon receiving this novel (apart from the title) was “Oh, it looks like one of those books they advertise in train stations”. Now, I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but – well, it really does.

Anger Mode Stefan Tegenfalk Massolit Publishing

Regardless, Anger Mode (yup, still not sold it to me) is the debut novel by Stefan Tegenfalk, the latest Swedish author to make the translation into English, and the first of a trilogy. Wave hello, everyone.

The plot: there’s a drug out there, and it is making people angry. It is putting them into a mode in which they kill people. An anger mode, if you will. This promising idea is rather quickly delivered to us, and sets up what could be an interesting police procedural with some scary advances of science on the side. In the background is a shadowy antagonist, whose dark thoughts the reader occasionally glimpses, though nobody else does.

Anyway, nobody knows where this drug is coming from, or how to stop it. Enter frumpy yet dedicated Detective Inspector Walter Gröhn, and his new assistant Jonna de Brugge, a woman from RSU (which I’m told is an acronym for the Swedish Special Investigations Unit, although the best that Google gave me was Roehampton Students’ Union, and I doubt that’s it). She’s a young, by-the-book sidekick who asks helpful questions to keep the plot moving and show Gröhn’s experience of the Swedish justice system. Together they attempt to wade through murder and bureaucracy in order to solve the case. And it is round about here (ie. the beginning) that things start to get silly.

The writing is not inclined to give us depth, usually telling rather than showing. Often it is Dan Brown-esque, almost a thriller-by-numbers. Intent and emotion are expressed bluntly through internal monologue, filled with boring rhetoric and self-satisfied waffle, and characters do not get a chance to portray themselves through dialogue or action. Thus, interactions feel forced, sounding stilted and unconvincing – one man (a real hardcase) brusquely asks “Now tell me, what the fuck have you done with the multimedia evidence?”. The narrative is similarly droll, and littered with strange, empty similes; at one point we are told that ‘the room was as packed as a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were fifteen people round a table’. Clang!

The dialogue is matched by a similar ridiculousness in plotting. Somewhere along the way, the police procedural is whipped along so fast by the thriller pace that it gets left behind. There’s a sharp gear change, and Anger Mode is suddenly more political thriller than crime novel. The story jumps erratically from our protagonists to people we have never met before and have no vested interest in. This is only made worse when Walter Gröhn takes his investigation in a direction disliked by the powers that be and is suspended from duty, which leads to a large section of the novel focusing on a variety of other characters who seem to operate on an increasing level of farce.

The new head of the investigation, Martin Borg, is a raving anti-Islamist who, without any evidence whatsoever, blames the murders on Saudi-funded terrorists intent on destroying the Swedish legal system. He then arrests five Muslims that he found in a house somewhere, and uses torture to make them talk, which of course they don’t (one of them dies). And at this point nobody – not the other officers, not the chief prosecutor, not the lawyers or anyone else at this Bruce Springsteen concert – stops for a minute and says “This is insane! You’re making it up! You’ve got no proof! And stop killing people!”. I guess they were too busy singing along to Born in the U.S.A.

We also meet Jerry and Tor, two felons who swear a lot and talk in clichés about spilling your guts and nailing you to the wall – you know, hard man talk. Jerry and Tor are sent to kidnap a man, which they manage to accomplish. They then let the man escape, and go home because they are tired. You know, like hard men do. They’re not exactly the Krays. More like the Marx Brothers.

I could stomach most of this if I thought there were a point. But it doesn’t feel like there is. It feels like the protagonists were sidelined because the story needed spinning out after a promising start. That’s a shame, because Tegenfalk has a potentially strong story trying to get out and be told.

This is a book that can’t make its mind up. Is it a political thriller or a crime novel? A light read or a social commentary? Alas, we may have to wait for the second and third instalments of the trilogy to find out. The confusing and erratic nature of the story makes this first one quite a fight to endure. Even writing this review is something of an effort. And there are so many more interesting things I could be doing.

All together now: ‘Born down in a dead man’s town…’