Review – Man On Fire – Stephen Kelman

This book is a vibrant and visceral song of India. Part biography and part embellishment, it weaves through the lives of both its narrators, charting a path from pain to acceptance, reflecting on the nature of purpose and calling and what it means to be truly present; truly human; alive.

In the dust and glory of this story there is great peace and hope. The narrative prowls the line between life and death with the sure-footedness of the tiger and all the colours of Maharashtra flood the pages. It is a beautiful exploration of need and man, examining the ties that bind us and the desires which drive us, laying them as bare as the earth before the rains.

In choosing to enter into the life story of Bibhuti Nayak, the writer has found a cause which resonates deeply in the heart of Navi Mumbai. A multiple record holder and tireless worker for the health and welfare of others, Nayak seeks to demonstrate what can be accomplished with perseverance and determination, and he does so for those whose lives  demand determination on a daily basis if they are to continue. Nayak takes his place as hope-bringer, perhaps the highest title to which any of us can aspire.

There is foolishness and thoughtlessness, there is great love and great sacrifice, and there is wonderful flawed humanity; it boils from the page in the summer heat.

It is worth reading this book simply for the craftsmanship with which the writer drip-feeds information, gently leading us in the search for purpose, or for the poetry of symmetry with which he balances the plot, making each new revelation startling yet inevitable. It is to his credit that his guidance is always gentle, taking a backseat to the development of character. You should read this story for its richness, its beauty and its stunning sense of resolution. This is a powerful work beautifully written.

Stephen Kelman is the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Pigeon English. His new book Man on Fire will be published by Bloomsbury on 13th August 2015.

He can be found on Twitter @stephen_kelman

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The Poet and the Poetry Reviewer

Author, historian and poet, Mathew Lyons in conversation with writer, artist and reviewer, Rachel Stirling.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Mathew Lyons can be found here:

MathewLyons@wordpress.com

MathewLyons.tumblr.com

and @MathewJLyons on Twitter where you can also find me @Stirlingwriter

Review – The Ship – by Antonia Honeywell

This is an emotionally complex, chilling, and compelling read. The author takes the Dystopian genre and the YA Fiction genre and slams them together to produce anything but simplicity. What initially seems to be a first person narrative written by an undeveloped writer, turns out to be an essay in selfishness through the eyes of an extremely broken protagonist. Again and again the world proves to be the author and creator of its own destruction, not least in the creation of its flawed beacon of hope.

This is a disturbing read which will stay with you long after you have read it. The unsettling nature of the work stems largely from the psychological truth in the actions of its characters. We are forced to face the reality of desperation. We are made to ask ourselves if we would fare better. Would we make similar choices? We are made to ask ourselves if we are capable of terrible things. The truth is that under certain circumstances we all are. It’s not an easy thought to take tea with.

I left this book understanding but not liking any of the characters. This is not a bad thing. The characters are extremely well constructed and we have to take into account the inability of the protagonist to make sense of her world. The information we receive is filtered through a shattered looking glass and the struggle to piece it together is evident throughout the story. People will have different reactions and take different things from this tale. I had to take away confirmation of the struggle with brokenness and darkness  in all of us. I had to ask myself whether I was disliking people for who they are or humanity for what it is.

The story drives you forward in a bid to gain comprehension. We seek to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge and are damned.

Read it. You won’t forget it.

Letters to my Husband – by Stephanie Butland – Debut Novelist

Today I have the pleasure of heading up the Blog Tour for debut novelist Stephanie Butland.

ButlandBlogTour (2)

I had the opportunity to ask Stephanie about her journey from idea to novel and this was her reply:

‘Letters to my Husband’ is my first novel (it was originally released in hardback as ‘Surrounded By Water’). It’s the first of three novels set in a small town of Throckton, and it’s a story about loss, love and the unexpected places that life can take us to. It begins when Michael, a well-respected police office, drowns, saving a teenage girl who had fallen into a lake on a cold January night. We follow his widow, Elizabeth, as she struggles to come to terms with his death, and the shocks and surprises that come to light in the aftermath of his death.

This novel had a prologued journey from my head to the page to publication. It began as a comic novel about a committee – I had made an impulse decision to take part in Nanowrimo in 2011 and hadn’t really given a lot of thought to what I wanted the book to be about. 20,000 words in it stalled, and an insightful reader suggested that the committee – which I had thought would be a great way to bring together a group of diverse characters – might be holding the story back When I took the idea of the committee away from the book, I found that the real content was in Elizabeth’s bereavement. So I started again, writing a series of interlocking first person narratives which told the story much better – although once the book was bought by Transworld, my editor suggested that a third-person narrative would be even more effective. She was right. But the letters of the title have remained unchanged since the very first draft.

I’m now writing my fourth novel. I’ve learned a lot about the writing process, and the way I write is now better organised, and less wasteful of words, which is a great relief ( there are few things more dispiriting than spending 6 hours working on a book and ending up with 18,000 words less than you started with). But ‘Letters to my Husband’ taught me something really important about writing, and it’s this. Start somewhere. Write something. Keep going. If you do that, you’ll get there eventually.

Letters to my Husband  by Stephanie Butland is published by Black Swan 9/4/15.

Stephanie can be found at

http://www.stephaniebutland.com   or  @under_blue_sky on Twitter

The next Blog in the book tour is http://www.shazsbookboudoir.blogspot.co.uk

The Transformation from Written to Audio – by Jane Isaac

When I received the news last year that the audio rights to my second book, The Truth Will Out, had been sold, it was met with a mixed response. Of course, I was excited – who wouldn’t be? But it also delivered a huge dose of apprehension too. Who would they select to read the book aloud? Would it be a good fit? Would their voice create the right level of suspense and tension for a thriller? How would they cope with the different accents in the book?

Scroll forward several months and a box of author copies landed on my doorstep. I opened it with trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised when I saw the finished product. It looked wonderfully professional, something I might see on a shelf in a library, or for sale in a bookstore, and is beautifully finished.

The unabridged box set contained eight CDs spanning almost nine hours and is read by Cathy Sabberton, whose bio claims numerous theatre and TV credits including Emmerdale and Cold Feet.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I placed it in the machine and pressed play. I admit, when the CD started it did feel rather strange to hear my own words read aloud. But Cathy’s beautifully engaging reading voice quickly allayed any nerves. Very soon I became lost in the story and it felt like I was listening to a play, or ‘Book at Bedtime’ on Radio 4. And how did she cope with the different accents? With great ease. Even with DS Pemberton’s Yorkshire accent, she seemed to adjust her voice effortlessly, allowing the story to flow.

I’ve only listened to the first few CDs, but I have to say I’m truly delighted with the results so far. It’s such a huge thrill for somebody like me to hear my words being read by an accomplished actress.

Jane Isaac is a crime fiction author of An Unfamiliar Murder and The Truth Will Out. She lives with her husband, daughter and dog, ‘Bollo’, in rural Northamptonshire, UK. Jane’s latest title, Before It’s Too Late, will be released on 1.6.15

Jane loves to hear from readers and writers. Visit her website at http://www.janeisaac.co.uk, where you can email her through the contacts page or peruse her blog ‘Caffeine’s not a crime’.

Alternatively you can find her on Twitter @JaneIsaacAuthor

The Truth Will Out – Paperback and Audio versions are available on Amazon.

Review – Meridian – by David Rose

After the first few breathless sentences you relax into the arms of a storyteller who knows his craft, not that this is a gentle ride. Thought darts like a swift, weaving and tracing an order in the blue. This novel is about order and pattern, the natural and the constructed, the concrete and the ephemeral. It is also about purpose and permanence. We are involved in a literary Brownian motion, skipping and colliding between stories, between lives. It remains to the reader to decide which if any of these lives is altered in the observing. The narrator asks the same question of his own observations. Does it ultimately matter?

Matter is dual intent. The writer is building a microcosm of experience for the purpose of understanding. He does this by deftly layering first person accounts of experience and bleeding them into each other, at first precisely and obviously, as if to teach us the rules of engagement, and then freely and with added pace. My suggestion would be to trust each wave, trust the flow of thought. It is taking you ever onward.

Flow is such a gentle term for what is, in places, a flood of thought.

There are flood defences.

Each of the minute glimpses of a life could be unfolded into a complete story. Something which won’t surprise you if you are familiar with David’s short story work. And although you may be tossed in the current but you won’t be overwhelmed.

This is gifted, beautiful writing.

I defy you not to learn something.

Meridian – by David Rose is published by Unthank Books,  who can be found here

http://www.unthankbooks.com

@UnthankBooks

Debut Novel Release – Author Chat with Caroline Roberts

Caroline writes contemporary fiction; emotional stories about love, loss, betrayal, and family, that explore how complex and yet beautiful love can be. She lives in stunning rural Northumberland – sandy beaches, castles and gorgeous countryside that inspire her writing. “The Torn Up Marriage” is her debut novel. In her own words, it is a powerful and poignant story about the bomb of an affair, and the key instinct to protect your family. But what happens when you tear that family apart?

The road to publication was long for Caroline, having written seriously for ten years, completed four novels and been submitting to agents and then publishers directly for the last five years. Finally it all came together in July last year, when 2 major publishers offered her deals within the hour! It’s all been a huge learning curve. She tale about her debut novel and shares a few tips for any aspiring authors below.

The Torn Up Marriage is an emotional story, where did you get your ideas from?

I am intrigued by relationships and by the “messier” side of love – it’s more true to life. A magazine article initially sparked the idea…by detailing how difficult it had been for a family coping with the fall-out of the affair, but how they were trying to make it work. I wanted to show how everyone involved would feel, the betrayer as well as the betrayed, the children, the grandparents; the idea just grew. And I wanted to show how love, even when battered and bruised, can survive.

Why did you choose Northumberland as a setting?

I have lived in Northumberland for the last 13 years and absolutely love the place – its rolling countryside, moorland hills, and the most amazing sandy beaches with castles perched on cliffs overlooking them, are just stunning. There are also historic towns, such as Alnwick, with its honey-coloured stone buildings. I think many people still don’t know a lot about it, being rather unique and undiscovered country tucked away on the borders between England and Scotland. My novels are all set in Northumberland – it’s just an inspiring setting to have!

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

* Write what you are passionate about. If you love what you write this will make the writing process so much easier, and it will come through to the readers (and hopefully publishers/agents) and spark their imagination and interest too.

* Finish the book! Just keep going forward and get the story out. Make time to write regularly, and you will get there. Editing is for later.

* Polish up your first 3 chapters, spend time on your synopsis and cover letter, and only then start sending it out. Try and be as professional as possible.

* Persevere – the submission process can be long and hard, and rejection is never easy. Try not to take it too personally – easier said than done, I know – but keep going and try and learn from any critical feedback you may get.

* Link up with other writers. Look for local groups, or link with groups in your genre. The support and friendship within organisations such as the Romantic Novelists’ Association is invaluable. (It was only by taking a deep breath and pitching at the RNA conference that I got my book deal offers.)

* Take a look at my blog for further tips and feedback on writing and submitting:
http://carolinerobertswriter.blogspot.co.uk/

You can find Caroline on Twitter here
@_caroroberts