Review: Nothing is as it was

Nothing is as it wasA fascinating and timely mix of short stories and flash fiction exploring the impact of climate change. Nothing is as it was places established authors alongside newer writers to make  a unique and wide-ranging collection of voices.

There are apocalyptic visions of a drowning planet or a world about to incinerate. In Lorraine Wilson’s excellent Thirst a woman’s desperate attempts to keep her children from dying  of thirst, side-steps into vandalism. Walking with the Weather is a fine example of what flash fiction can do: ‘We are looking at the fire as it starts to burn my fingers. We are standing and staring at the petition in flames.’ Mirror Image offers a stark choice in two stories back to back: the first ‘assuming massive global action’, the second ‘assuming our current climate trajectory’.

But there is also hope and levity. In Portal a way is found to get rid of our rubbish – it literally disappears through a portal, but the twist in the story is that one day, just as inexplicably, it starts reappearing, along with the scientist who found it: ‘It was only when Reed appeared, dusting himself off with a confused expression, that Kellerman concluded, ‘I think we have a big problem.’  Parental worries about their child’s obsessive hoarding are misplaced in Blue Planet Collection when they find he is single-handedly trying to save the planet from plastic.

What these stories illustrate is that it’s still not too late, but it will take not just individual effort, but decisions and governmental-backed initiatives into research and development at an international level to hold back our runaway global warming.

Retreat west logo

Retreat West Books is an independent press publishing paperback books and eBooks. Founder, Amanda Saint, is a novelist and short story writer. She’s also a features journalist writing about environmental sustainability and climate change. So all Retreat West Books publications take advantage of digital technology advances and are print-on-demand, in order to make best use of the world’s finite resources. Retreat West Books is an arm of Amanda’s creative writing business, Retreat West, through which she runs fiction writing retreats, courses and competitions and provides editorial services. Initially started to publish the anthologies of winning stories in the Retreat West competitions, Retreat West Books is now open for submissions for short story collections, novels and memoirs.

The Retreat West Novel Prize is now open for debut writers without an agent:
Entry fee: £15
Deadline: 19th August 2018

Retreat West Novel Prize 



Review: Ponti

Ponti.pngA coming-of-age novel set against the relentless modernisation of Singapore, where air pollution is measured daily and reeks of rotten eggs, or burnt barbecue. 

In Ponti, men are largely absent or feckless. This is a novel about three women and told in three time perspectives. In the early 2000s Szu is sixteen, tall, awkward and ostracised by everyone; even her own mother is a monster who rejects her. She eventually finds a friend in Circe, another loner who is equally unpopular. There are brilliant descriptions of the ‘mean’ girls, the in-groups who tease and bully Szu and Circe: They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles … Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulder like a rifle sling.

As well as a  monster for a mother, Szu is also coming to terms with a missing father, and the knowledge that now her mother is dying, she’ll never gain her affection or approval. She’ll be left with only the mysterious Aunt Yunxi who works as a medium, with Amisa as her assistant. 

In the 70s Amisa,  young, poor and impossibly beautiful, is spotted by a film director and promised international stardom: Her face would grace billboards in Hong Kong, Paris, Hollywood … she would be immortal. She makes a series of three shlock horror films starting with Ponti! about the Pontianak, a vampire-like monster who lures men to their deaths with her ethereal beauty. But when the films are released, horror is unfashionable; everyone wants American sci-fi movies like Close Encounters. The films are a flop. Amisa never hits the big time and her short film career defines the rest of her life.

In 2020 Circe, estranged from Szu, is working for a cutting edge media company promoting a reworking of Ponti for a contemporary audience. But she’s living with a medical condition more typical of developing countries – a tapeworm that she feels moving inside her, symbolising the monster she feels she is and the guilt that she was disloyal to Szu when her mother died. Circe also felt the strange mystical bond with Amisa – What linked us was something real and true and rare. Szu wouldn’t understand.

Writing in the Observer, Julie Myerson was damning about Teo’s knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak; while I think she’s heavy handed in her criticism, she does have a point about the language; but only on a very few occasions.

Overall this ambitious debut novel is a success – it took me back to the sometimes gruesomeness of life as an angsty adolescent. Painfully sad but sometimes humorous, Ponti is an eye-opening read about the effects of rapid modernisation on a developing country and the people who have to live with the consequences.




Review: Census

Census by Jesse Ball.png

A dying man takes a road trip with his son who has Down’s syndrome; he wants to mark their last few weeks together so becomes a census taker, travelling in an old car where, if there’s nothing better, they spend the night.

This structure gives the author the opportunity to link a range of odd characters and strange settings together, and provides the space for the narrator, a former surgeon to muse on life, parenthood, bereavement and bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome; both the challenges and the happiness.

A deeply moving short novel, based on the author’s own brother, told in simple, clear prose.

Writing update

Sometimes you need to go back to a piece of writing you thought was finished. I completed the nth draft of my first novel about 18 months ago, and my lovely agent sent it out. Some positive comments but no takers. So I worked on my second novel, and then the third.

But a couple of months ago something made me want to read number 1 again. Partly because revising and editing is so much easier than producing new stuff,  and the new novel needs time to work out where it’s going – but also from a sense of curiosity. What was novel number 1 really like? Is it any good? Would I buy it? So I sat down and read it through, as if I was reading any novel. An interesting experience: some scenes were so familiar I knew every word, and others I could hardly remember. But most surprising was the ending – I thought I’d made it very clear, but when I read it again I realised it was not what I’d intended, or even what I thought I’d written…

So, for the last 6 weeks I’ve been redrafting. It’s even got a new title! Which I won’t share at the moment because I’m going to submit it for a few of the debut novel prizes that are coming up. I guess the process of having written two and a half novels has given me a better grasp of how to write a novel. If this one is ever published, it will genuinely be my first, but i suspect a lot of ‘first’ novels are likely to be third or even fourth ones… You can learn a lot on creative writing courses (thanks City University for The Novel Studio), but the best way to really get to grips with writing a novel is, (yes you have to read and read)  sit there with your laptop or pen and paper and (as my dad used to say) just get on with it!

Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary PeopleDiana Evans’ third novel is bookended by a party to celebrate Obama’s election as the first black president of the USA, and by the death of Michael Jackson. Against this slice of history two relationships in London start to fall apart. The ordinary people of the title are middle class couples facing the strains of ordinary domesticity, possible extra-marital affairs and divorce, the loss of parents and jobs. They’re also the ‘ordinary people’ of John Legend’s lyrics:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
‘Cause we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow

At the beginning we meet Melissa and Michael who live in a lop-sided house in South London, not far from Crystal Palace (a recurring theme throughout the novel). They’re seen at the party both ‘on the far side of youth’ but still a glamorous couple. Adult life has ‘revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown’ but with their children away for the night, Michael at least feels ‘a pressing obligation… to deliriously copulate’. But nothing goes to plan and, after the party, back in their house in the ironically-named Paradise Row, domestic needs take over: Melissa finds a mouse, a wardrobe rail collapses and the sex is no good. Michael compares himself to the singer in ‘Ordinary People’ Passed the infatuation phase /Right in the thick of love. But everything is going wrong and he can’t control it.

Melissa is struggling with the joint pressures of crushing domesticity, and the loss of her career: where she was an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’. Descriptions of the dragging details of being at home with small children and trying to work freelance, are both hilarious and poignant. For Melissa there are hints (from her Nigerian mother) of the supernatural, of ‘night things’ – ‘beings who walk in the night hours, not quite human, who watch us.’  Symbolic of what is wrong in their relationship. There is a recurring image of the 1851 Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace was moved south of the river, and eventually burned down.

Then there’s Damian (Michael’s university friend) who lives with Stephanie in leafy Surrey. He’s reassured by ‘her aptitude for contentment’ so has been persuaded to move away from London to Dorking because she’s worried about inner city violence affecting the children. She loves their house with its ‘neatness and thick upstairs carpets and old wooden surfaces’. Damien is struggling with the long commute, the recent death of his father and a sense that he’s not doing anything important with his life. His father, a political activist, campaigned constantly against racial inequality, but ended up a lonely, disappointed man. Damien misses London: ‘the stern beauty of church women on Sunday mornings, the West End, the art in the air, the music in the air, the sense of possibility’. He has a running question in his mind: How long will you go on living your life as if you were balancing on a ribbon? Stuck at the bottom of a drawer he has an unfinished novel.

From here everything gradually unravels for both couples. But what makes this novel stand out is that although the main characters are black or mixed race, this isn’t the focus of the book. Race is addressed in Stephanie’s fears that London isn’t a place to bring up children, and in Damien’s father’s fight against racist attitudes, but this is a novel about relationships, not race. And in this it is quietly revolutionary. And also wonderfully funny. Ordinary People is a finely-nuanced novel of contemporary relationships that is both compelling and vital.

Ordinary People is published on 5th April.



Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

The One Who Wrote Destiny

Image from

A family saga of repeating patterns of illness, loss and immigration. Often moving and funny, this is a novel about destiny and whether we have any control over our lives.

Nikesh Shukla has created some wonderful characters: Mukesh arrives in Keighley from Kenya in the 1970s to start a new life in London (!) and is bewildered to find himself the victim of race-hatred and violence while trying to fit in to the small local community. His English isn’t colloquial and he only has one decent suit, but then he falls in love with the feisty Nisha, the love of his life. So much so that after she dies, he fails to appreciate his own children. In the next generation we have their children: Rakesh, a wannabe comedian and his twin sister, Neha, a fascinating female character who (like someone in  TV’s The Big Bang Theory) is a computer nerd, completely out of touch with her feelings. When she develops cancer (like her mother) she tries to plot the destinies of her whole family, in what for me was the most moving part of the novel. Finally we meet Ba, Nisha’s mother, who briefly looks after her grandchildren when her daughter dies. She has experienced the most loss in the novel, and is only waiting to die and re-join her family. The One Who Wrote Destiny is laced through with terrible obsessive sadness, in spite of some very funny passages. The casual racism at all levels is shocking, but there’s also desperately sad male violence directed at family members (and donkeys).

If I have a criticism it’s that Nikesh Shukla doesn’t take his material far enough. We soon know the basic ‘story’, so that by the time we reach Ba’s chapters at the end of the novel, we already know what has happened and there aren’t any big reveals. I was left with the impression that there are some fascinating and memorable characters in this novel, and it’s a heart-wrenching story, but I didn’t feel it as much as I would have expected.

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published on 5th April 2018 by Atlantic Books

Review: The Trick to Time

The Trick to Time.pngFollowing the huge success of her first novel, My Name is Leon (described by the Guardian as a “touching, thought-provoking debut) Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time is even more ambitious. And already long-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize. For anyone honing their craft, it’s also an object lesson in that tired trope of creative writing classes: ‘show don’t tell’.

This time her narrator is not a young boy, but a middle-aged woman. Mona (short for Desdemona) is from Ireland and lives a quiet, lonely life in a seaside town in England where a carpenter makes the dolls that she dresses (upcycling charity shop clothes) to sell in her own shop.

She can look at a silk blouse with a satin cuff and see what it might turn into, which doll might wear it and how she might take it apart.

Now approaching her 60th birthday, Mona has complex memories and very mixed feelings. Her mother died when she was a child so she was brought up by her father. The image of the young girl playing on the beach in Ireland while her mother is ill in bed is only one of many memorable images in this heart-breaking novel:

Sand as soft as powder all around the wide curve of the bay. She splashes and plays and gets her sandals wet and stays away for hours… at seven or eight children can be heartless.

In a richly evocative and subtly nuanced story about the aftermath of terrible and ordinary losses: parents, a husband, a baby, the trick to time of the title is the secret shared between the young Mona and her father, and establishes time and memory, and what we can do with our memories as the main themes of this novel.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says… ‘By the sea all life’s worries wash away.’

Like Leon, in Kit de Waal’s first novel, Mona is a delightful character, a loyal friend and popular with the few people she knows well; and throughout the novel the reader is rooting for her: we don’t want any more tragedy in a life already full of loss.

Revelations about the insensitive treatment of stillbirths in the 1970s are shocking, but also provide an opportunity for the act of kindness that sets Mona off on her quest to help other parents deal with the grief of losing a baby. As well as managing her business, she runs an unconventional counselling service where parents can work through their own grief. But, at 59 Mona herself still hasn’t come to terms with her own loss. Kit de Waal is a talented and very canny writer: she sets up a range of possible futures for the lovely but lonely Mona. Half-way through the novel I made a note of my predictions and sat back to see if I was right. Would Mona go to Paris or stay in England? Would she marry the carpenter or the gent? Most proved to be wrong. Like opening doors along a corridor the writer keeps raising possible futures then, just when you think it’s inevitable, she bangs them shut. And Mona keeps walking.

Kit de Waal plays on our deepest fears with an expert touch. In less expert hands The Trick to Time could easily have sunk to melodrama: she steers a fine line between sentimentality and genuine emotion but stays on the right side. The determining factor is the generosity of spirit and remarkable sense of humour that come through every chapter. This book often brought me to tears – both at the poignancy of Mona’s story and at the absurdity of some of the scenes. The chapter with the hairnet (which I won’t spoil for you) must be the darkest and funniest of the whole novel.

The Trick to Time is an exquisitely written book dealing with real human feelings. There are no stereotypical drunken abusive Irish fathers or dodgy priests; Mona is the voice of many ordinary, working class women who reach middle age but still have an important story that should be told. And listened to.

The Trick to Time is published on March 28th, 2018.