Thursday, 23 October 2014

Book Review: Six Stories & An Essay - Andrea Levy

Six Stories & An Essay

By Andrea Levy
Published by Tinder Press
Available in hardback and ebook
Forthcoming in paperback

As the title suggests this collection includes six shorts from Andrea Levy, the author of Small Island plus an essay on how her heritage has influenced her writing. Let me point out that the only downside to this collection is the rather drab title because inside there are some fantastic stories on the immigrant experience, soldiers fighting in WW1, and life in London council estates.

This absorbing and compelling collection is just over one hundred pages long so it will only take a matter of hours to read. I loved this collection so much that I have already gone back to read several of the stories in particular The Empty Pram which tells of a woman who has recently moved from Jamaica to England and is mistakenly accused of stealing a baby. Levy explores the ignorance of the other women and the way communication breaks down if a situation falls out of your comfort zone. I really wanted to grab the shoulders of the mothers who were accusing the Jamaican woman and shake them as I shouted 'listen to her!'

I really enjoyed the small introductions and also the full essay at the beginning of the collection. I found these interesting as Levy tells the reader the inspiration for each story as well as her decision to become a writer. These stories and Levy's writing journey shows the reader the need to embrace the culture we come from even though it may not be the norm (but then what is the norm nowadays). These are the things that make us interesting. We may try to rid ourselves of history but it will find a way of finding us again.

Six Stories & An Essay is about people and history. Levy's characters give voices to people who may not normally be represented in literature - we have the soldiers from Jamaica who serve the British Army in WW1 but then are dismissed for their heroic actions and are treated like second class citizens. There are the young children from working class backgrounds living on council estates where there is nothing to do other than punish and play with each other. The Immigration experience is explored on both sides - from the people who move to England and in Loose Change, Levy explores the behaviour of  the offspring of immigrants and way they see immigrants. Levy writes with lots of honesty and humour.

Levy says in one of her introductions, "Short stories can be as consuming as any novel," which as a writer I can agree and I can also agree with this statement from the readers point of view especially with Levy's short stories. She packs so much detail into these stories that it makes them feel like mini novels. The characters are so vivid that each one could easily have a novel told about them and in fact one of the stories eventually turned into Small Island.

It was interesting to read That Polite Way That English People Have which was written in the early stages of Levy's fantastic novel Small Island and includes the same characters. Levy explores the immigration experience in the eyes of a young woman as she moves from a hot country to a cold country, full of optimism while the people around her are jaded. The themes of the novel are being formed in this short story and I can see why Levy decided to expand this into a novel as the short story is rich with details.

You should go and buy this book today, find your favourite reading chair and settle down to some great stories.

You can buy a copy of Six Stories & an Essay from your favourite bookshop from today.

Thank you to for the review copy.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Book Review: Stay Up With Me - Tom Barbash

Stay Up With Me
By Tom Barbash
Published by Simon & Schuster
Available in hardback and ebook
Paperback forthcoming

Tom Barbash’s compelling stories within Stay Up With Me explore the struggles of characters in everyday situations and they way we tell lies to cope with the world and its expectations.

Stay Up With Me is a short story collection that will refuse to allow you to put the book down after one story. I found myself promising to read just one more but I kept going and I was able to finish this book in no time at all. Barbash has a way of capturing the reader and refusing to let them take a break.

Many stories reminded of Richard Yates and Raymond Carver with seemingly ordinary characters, who have resentments building underneath their public fa├žade. Jealousy and dysfunction lurk under the surface of these normal characters. There is a mother who is jealous of her son’s sexual conquest in The Break while in How to Fall a woman goes on a singles skiing trip to help get over her ex-boyfriend but finds herself more isolated than she would have been if she had stayed in the city.

Barbash creates characters that the reader only sees only after a major event has happened to them, usual off the page before the story begins. There are deaths of family members and friends, break ups, isolation of living in a new area like the narrator in Somebody’s Son. These characters are trying to forge a new identity, deal with the grief and move forwards with their lives. These characters are on the brink of change and their resistance to change makes an engaging and fascinating story.

My particular favourite story was Balloon Night where Timkin’s wife, Amy has left him but he continues with the party they were planning. Through out the night he pretends to his guests that his wife is away on business to save face not only for himself but also her friends. This allows him another day where he would not have to face the reality of his wife leaving him. I liked the way Barbash created a character that has had a change in fortune but is refusing to accept this and move on with his life. He is trapped in a bubble and this does not bother him.

Stay Up With Me is a short story collection that I would seriously recommend to any one who loves short stories either reading them or writing them. Even novel lovers will enjoy this collection as the characters linger just as much as a novel does after the last page.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Book Review: All The Days And Nights - Niven Govinden

All The Days And Nights
By Niven Govinden
Published by The Friday Project
Available in Hardback and ebook
Paperback is forthcoming

All the Days and Nights, Niven Govinden's fourth novel, and second novel reviewed on Writer's Little Helper is a magnificent novel which explores the way creativity shapes and controls the life we lead.

The narrator of All the Days and Nights, Anna Brown, is a dying acclaimed artist. She is currently working on her final portrait of her muse and husband, John Brown but she can not bring herself to finish the details on John's face. The portrait must be perfect and be her final statement to the world, however, John has walked out of their home and has decided to trek across America, hunting down Anna's previous portraits that she painted of him. He has the need to move away from being the observed and become the observer - maybe some emotion captured in his younger face will help him face up the future.

Govinden's lyrical novel paints a picture of an intense relationship between muse and artist, husband and wife, agent and artist. Anna narrators the novel as if she's talking to John in a letter and maybe this is her final portrait, not of John but of both of them and their relationship over the years. Anna's narration is very personal and revealing about their relationship - tension simmers as they push and pull against the creativity that rules both of their lives. Anna is a claustrophobic, remote and recluse character while John is a character who opens up when he is around other people and is willing to be part of the community. They are both opposites and yet, their love keeps them together.

Both Anna and John are stuck in a circle and are unable to break the bonds - the art controls Anna, Anna controls John, John controls the art. There are subtle shifts of power with Anna making John sit for a portrait soon after losing the battle to save his friend's son from drowning. John's disappearance, as he tries to escape the fact that Anna is dying and therefore his role as muse is over. His journey pushes Anna further into the clutches of her creativity and away from reality. John has the power to bring her back from being consumed.

Govinden beautifully captures the sense of knowing that death is coming and the way people react, knowing that they must face the loss that is about to descend on them. John sets off to find previous portraits to find meaning in his younger face while Anna becomes more recluse and locks herself away in her studio with her final portrait sitting on the sidelines taunting her

All the Days and Nights has recently been long-listed for the Green Carnation Prize and I really hope it wins. You can buy All the Days and Nights from your favourite bookshop.

I was kindly sent a copy by the publisher.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Bad Writing Tips

  • Only write when the moon is full.
  • Keep a napkin handy as they better than notebooks. Rough drafts can be wiped away with snot.
  • Lounging across the sofa with the laptop balanced on your stomach, with The Real Housewives of New York playing on the television while you eat peanut M&Ms is the ideal writing position.
  • All first drafts must be sent to magazines and agents. They love reading raw, rough writing.
  • There’s no need for editing.
  • You must get yourself a logo before you can be a real writer.
  • Make sure you have an entourage: You will need at least one person to do the typing, another person to have the idea, another person to do the editing (if needed), another person to run your Facebook fan page and another person to dab your forehead when its’ getting too much or to change the television channel when the adverts are drowning out your inner voice.
  • Comic Sans is the best font for sending out writing to agents and magazines.
  • Make sure that your short stories include emoticons J
  • Only a two-week all-inclusive holiday to a tropical island will help cure you of writer’s block. OR, if your budget is tight then lounging across the sofa with The Real Housewives of New York playing on the television while you eat peanut M&Ms and have a cold flannel across your forehead will be a lesser cure.
  • Daily doses of champagne will make the ideas bubble onto the page.
  • Write in a vacuum.
  • Don’t tell people that ‘there’s a book inside everybody’ because you don’t want them to get a book deal before you.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book Review: The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

By Victoria Hislop
Published by Headline Review
Available in hardback and ebook
Paperback is forthcoming

Nowadays, Famagusta in Cyprus is abandoned, derelict with barbed wire wrapping around the perimeter of the city. Once it was a desirable holiday destination but now it is deserted. Hislop goes back to the 1970s where Famagusta is on the cusp of change…

Famagusta in 1972 is a city full of glam, wealth, good fortune and expensive shopping. Hislop paints an intriguing picture of glamour and peacefulness. An ambitious couple, Aphroditi and Savvas Papacosta are about to open the most spectacular and luxurious hotel on the island. They are a very liberal couple and plan to have a mixture of Greek and Turkish Cypriots working in their hotel. They are determined to make their hotel the most desirable even with years of unrest still rumbling around in the memory of many of their staff members. Two neighbouring families – Georgious and Ozkans find work in the hotel.

You would think this is a book about love triangles, golden beaches and expensive lifestyles but this book is full of tragedy and conflict. Unrest between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is building up outside the walls of the hotel. Hislop slowly unravels the lives of the characters and pushes them to the brink. This is a book with tension simmering under the surface, ready to ruin the ensemble cast of characters.

The second half of the novel is marked by the Greek coup and its aftermath on the Papacosta, Georgious and Ozkans families. The shift of power swaps between the characters - the Papacosta's find themselves in a refugee camp, after fleeing the attacks on Famagusta, struggling to survive - having to sell their jewelry, abandon their car and wear dirty clothes. Even though when they reach Aphroditi's parents flat their downfall continues.

Hislop shows the reader that not even the higher classes of society were safe from the invasion. Every body has become equal in their standing in society. The Papacostas are still eager to go back to their old life - Aphroditi wants to find her lover while Savvas wants to start rebuilding his hotel empire. Hislop pushes these characters right to the edge especially Aphroditi. She must endure a brutal attack, a miscarriage, the loss of her status and her family. Aphroditi is probably one of the strongest and interesting characters out of the Papacosta family - she is a determined character and will not be stopped by barbed wire or soldiers. It's a shame that by the end of the novel, even though she is living in London, she has no hope left and is just a shell of her former self.

Hislop does a great job of exploring the human side of conflict and its lasting affects on people. The Georgious and Ozkans stay in the city after the attack, hiding away from the soldiers who patrol the streets. They end up camping inside the Papacosta's hotel, The Sunrise and their confinement is in luxury. Even though Georgious and the Ozkans families are on opposing sides they work together to stay alive by building trust, friendship and teamwork. There were points where I wondered if this would have a happy ending and I think the satisfaction from reading this novel comes from knowing that this strand of the story shows people from opposing sides rising above their prejudices to survive.

At times some of the secondary characters are not as developed as I would have liked. In particular the sons from both the Georgious and Ozans families who go out to fight the invasion for opposing sides. I would have liked to have known more about their journeys and their battles to survive.

I'm glad I was sent a copy of The Sunrise as I don't think I would have picked up the book from the bookshelf of a bookshop because I think the front cover is a bit bland. This book has a very strong plot and it derserves to have a strong cover to represent this. 

I was kindly sent a copy by the publisher

Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review: Meatspace

My review of Nikesh Shukla's second novel, Meatspace, published by The Friday Project, is now up at Everybody's Reviewing.

You can read my review here > Meatspace