Three remarkable writers

Today it’s personal. I’m going to share with you my favourite three indie ebooks of the last six months.

As writers I think if we are honest we all probably feel at least for some of the time that we are ‘better’ writers (better at the craft of writing not necessarily better people!) than a lot of the writers we read. (That’s when not wracked with self doubt that we are any ‘good’ at all). And I picked these three writers because they present me with a commonality. When I read them, they blow me away. I know that I don’t write as ‘well’ as they do and yet, far from making me want to go away and give up altogether, they inspire me to keep on going. I’m not saying I ever want to write ‘like’ any of them, (and I don’t believe I ever could)  just that I really admire qualities in their writing in a way that often I don’t when I read other writers work.

Sometimes being a reader is a hard thing for a writer to achieve. It’s like watching a film when you’ve worked in the ‘movie’ business, or going to the theatre when you’ve been involved in performing or directing plays. You ‘know’ the tricks. You understand the insides of the creative form and it’s very very hard to ‘suspend’ disbelief. At least it is for me. I’m good at ‘critical analysis’ not so good at ‘leaving the writer at the door.’ So when I read something that makes me weak at the knees with how good it is, that makes me forget I am even a writer, and simply become a reader who is lost in the wonder of what I’m reading – then I sit up and take notice. And then I want to tell everyone about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I have read more ‘good’ books in the past six months than in the past six years. And hugely enjoyed them and been challenged by them and learned from them and loved them. I have had my own personal reading renaissance. I never expected that. I don’t like the ebook ‘format’ very much. I love paperbacks. Real books. But when it comes down to it if you judge a book by its cover you’ll not always get the content that really moves you. I’ve learned that its not the physicality of the book that matters any more. For the first time in my life I’ve now got access to a whole new world of writing. Many of the ebooks in this new bookstore are ‘indie’ books.

The transformation in my own reading (and reading pleasure) is partly to do with me being able, at last, to find non mainstream work which is what I favour. (I’m less likely to ‘know’ the tricks). And partly to do with the fact that it’s now possible for non mainstream writers (which sometimes just means those not yet favoured or picked up by commercialism) to publish their work. It’s not hugely visible. I might have missed (no, let’s be honest I would have missed) any and all of these writers if I hadn’t followed up on recommendations from people whose opinions I respect, so I’ve become an evangelist for the ‘it’s out there’ campaign on good writing. I feel confident in saying that if any or all of these writers had a traditional Big publisher backing them, they’d be winning awards. And that should make you think twice.

It amazes me that I may be one of a relatively few people who have heard of or read the works of Peter Tarnofsky, Andrew Staniland and Stuart Ayris, but I am extremely glad that I have. So I’m going to share with you my reviews of these three remarkable writers. They will not all be to everyone’s taste. They are certainly to my taste. And irrespective of taste, if I am ever asked to prove that there is ‘good’ indie fiction out there these are top of my examples pile (there are many, many more!) Read them and weep (in some cases, literally.)

Whatever is bad about the marketplace and the economics of epublishing at the present time, I am prepared to overlook to be able to get my hands on work of this quality. Would I pay a tenner to buy any and each of them as paperbacks? Of course I would. But the mainstream doesn’t give me that opportunity. And my allegiance is primarily to finding something I consider good writing, not keeping gatekeepers of any kind in business.
So whether you like these or not, whether you choose to explore my recommendations (or those of anyone else at the festival) or not – DO please start exploring indie epublishing as a place you may find something you really want to read. You’ll be glad you did. Or I’ll give you your money back. But remember you have to learn how to look and judge for yourself. Don’t expect to be spoonfed. It’s your choice and it’s up to you to make an informed one. I’m just giving you a map. Choose your own destination. But choose it for yourself. Based on what you like not on what you think you should like or have been told to like. Writing and reading are so much more important than commodities or fashion statements.

Cally Phillips (Festival Director and Editor of IEBR) 

PETER TARNOFSKY – They All Die at the End 

I have to confess that it took me only the first line of the first story to decide I was going to review it.

I’m generally not a fan of banana skin jokes (or indeed bananas) but the first story in this collection begins thus ‘It was the banana that got him in the end.’ For some reason I found this utterly compelling. And seriously funny. I thought a writer would be going some to keep me laughing from this high start point. But this opening certainly set the tone for the whole collection. Tarnofsky is effortless in his humour throughout and his unique angle on the short story – where we ‘know’ the ending of each story- is very clever and does not in any way detract from the stories he tells.

Tarnofsky justifies his title with a personal comment which explains what is to come. Yes, we know they all die at the end, but it’s how we get to that point which is important. The ending is not what a story is about. Tarnofsky’s collection is thus an important comment on narrative itself and one that makes you think more carefully about narrative as a whole. It also acts as an introduction to the ‘character’ behind all the characters. In his off-hand, self-effacingly humorous way, Tarnofsky builds a relationship between writer and reader before he even begins the stories and this is clever. It made me aware of a unified narrative ‘voice’ behind all the specific stories. I knew someone was in control of all this anarchy. The writer ‘God’ of this chaotic world was paying attention and was cleverly teaching a valuable lesson.

With titles as diverse as: Yellow Banana Smile, Shopping Basket Crown, Ukulele Cradle King, No Second Swing, Rogue Santa, Noctural Crème Bulee, Head Stand Ascension, High Thumb Cuticle, Soft Shoe Kick and Two Sole Certainties; one never knows what one is going to experience next, but the wit and humour provide a through line which holds the attention.

In some stories the central character seems more obvious and the point of view and narrative voice shift around between stories, which provides a nice variety, keeps the ‘joke’ fresh and prevents any ‘samieness’ from setting in. I’m impressed that the author found ten very different ways (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to kill off his characters but I was also became clearly aware that the stories are about much more than the endings and this is a valuable lesson to the reader (and aspiring writers). Don’t rush to the end point, savour the journey. I’m not going to go into detail about any specific story because I don’t want to spoil the experience for the reader. I can’t pick out a favourite. I can tell you there are no turkey’s.. each story is self contained while connected to and serving the aims of the whole and I for one was sorry when the final death occurred.

Tarnofsky dovetails several of the stories together (in a fashion similar to John Altman’s film Short Cuts) which adds depth and interest for the reader as well as reminding us that one person’s ‘moment’ can affect other people’s stories in a way they never know about. This realisation heightens the reader’s awareness of the journey that each story takes. We don’t care about the ‘ending’ as such because it’s simply a point in the story. We want to know the WHOLE story and that is encapsulated within each narrative. The ten stories in this collection are funny but the humour is not in the punchline. They are also thought provoking, sad and well observed. The ‘worlds’ Tarnofsky creates for his characters are interesting and realistic and there is plenty of variety.

I can’t pick a ‘favourite’ because I found the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts but each ‘part’ was played out. From the opening line of Yellow Banana Smile to the last story Two Sole Certainties (where the author seems to be implicated in the narrative) Tarnofsky takes you on a journey, on many journeys and I loved every step of the way.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

They All Die in the End is available in Kindle format

More about Peter Tarnofsky

ANDREW STANILAND – The Beauty of Psyche 

This is an unusual and unique work of fiction. It’s certainly not going to suit everyone and I don’t for a minute think I’ll be able to do justice of it in a review. But I do think it’s an important work, and an important work of contemporary art. It’s a modern prose poem but such a description does little to indicate its true depth. Staniland is in control of his medium throughout and challenges the reader to go along with him. The overt stance of the author is refreshing. He points out fairly early on ‘I am free to write whatever I imagine’ and reading The Beauty of Psyche is like being allowed to connect in a deeply personal way with another persons imagination. I both respected that and enjoyed the experience. He sets up his stall early by pointing out that he’s painting with his imagination but the whole impact of that statement takes the entire work to fully comprehend.

He is a poet, I can spot that straight away – I think only poets have the commitment to and command of language in its pure form. In its entirey The Beauty of Psyche is beautiful; throughout the work he draws pictures with words. You roll the paragraphs round in your mouth like fine wine. You drink in the words with your eyes. It begs to be read out loud. The sum of a prose poem seems here to be so much more than the combination of the parts. It’s a fusion of art forms. A juxtaposition of writer, artist, actors, mythmakers and theatre. A collision of creative worlds all imagined by the writer. And I relished it.

Reading this I felt the excitement and pleasure of those long Romantic poems by Keats, Shelley and Byron or even Pope and Milton but it’s not ‘like’ any of them. It is not a modern version of a classic, it is a modern classic. I felt like I’d spent an afternoon on the sofa with Shelley himself.

But he deals with contemporary issues as well. There’s descriptions of the publishing industry, and the expressed belief that good literature engages with your imagination. The ever present author explains that ‘I paint clothes on the human characters. But gods are gods. I dramatise their divinity.’ The compelling analogies between painting, writing and theatre were an absolute revelation to me. Staniland paints with the imagination. Deliberately. And explains his process to you, drawing you into a consideration of the creative process in all its dimensions. I have never read anything like this in my life – and it really excites me. His comment on art is Any work of art aspires to an absolute realism. To be its own reality. It is fatuous to reduce this work of art to a subject of debate, but one feels that one is studying literature rather than just reading it.

He turns his consideration to how we ‘spend our lives’. It’s very deep. It’s something for people who like to STUDY literature. It’s not a ‘page turner’ in the conventional way. It’s something you want to savour, to think about and to ponder at every turn. He sets up a dynamic model of narrative which then presents an ending which is dynamic rather than dramatic. A blank ending. Playing with form. Showing us that Our lives are also outside us. It is all our own work.

It’s working on several different levels, and then some. The interrelatedness of the creative processes employed – from the mythic ‘tale’ to the ‘authorial’ role to the contemporary reportage of the ‘actors’ perspective, give a depth and uniqueness to this incredible creative statement.

It’s as far removed from genre fiction as it is possible to get. It’s a genuine literary work of art. A true contemporary classic. It’s beautiful, it’s intelligent and I don’t imagine I’ll ever read anything like it again.

I loved it. It’s hard not to put a personal slant on it because it engages you in such an intimately person way. I don’t know who else this will appeal to – it has the poetic charisma of making me feel he is speaking only to me. Of course it’s an acquired taste. It’s intellectual marmite, or truffles. If you’ve ever been moved by long Romantic poetry, if you’ve ever been captivated by classical theatre, if myths and classical forms and imaginative beauty attract you, I urge you to read this.

For Stanliand Inspiration is an adventure in the imagination and if you are open enough to buy into this vision you will be richly rewarded.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

The Beauty of Pscyche is available in Kindle format here

STUART AYRIS – Tollesbury Time Forever 

Let me take you down, cause we’re going to…

This is a truly challenging and unique book. From the very opening it grips you with the promise of something strange and compelling. The writing is on the wall. Literally. This is going to be a treat of meaning and metaphysics and madness. The blurring of the lines between fiction and reality achieved through the narrator is a very skilful way to engage the reader with versions of reality and pre-conceptions of ‘madness.’ There is more than one journey undertaken here – the central character, the author/narrator and the reader are all taken on a whirlwind ride into the deepest recesses of what we believe to be ‘real.’

Particularly clever is the way song tunes are segued seamlessly into the narrative. It keeps you actively engaged as well as reminding that the central character (like many of us?) is a man whose life has been given meaning by its soundtrack. And it offers a darker side, reminding us of the people who claim all kinds of dark arts stem from the lyrics (backwards or forwards or sped up or slowed down) of various popular bands – foremost of course The Beatles. You expect that something nasty might happen to Paul McCartney at any minute. But this is also delivered with humour: Something went wrong for all the Beatles except Paul. Paul just got on with it as if it was just about music. There’s also an excellent recipe for boiled rabbit.

On one level this is a Pilgrim’s Progress for our time. A sort of Everyman journey into the modern self. The travel back to the earlier time and a different world both physically and mentally is expertly set up and the ‘breakdown’ works on a number of levels. You see as much as your eyes are open to see.

It’s a strange world the world of the mind and the author takes the reader into the journey of a character’s mind – but I am called to question whose mind? Reading it, I feel like I’m in someone else’s mind. Or more than one mind.

Just when you are truly unsettled and don’t know what to make of things, the focus shifts to the psychiatric ward and the nature of parallel realities is further explored and to some degree explained.

The author deals with a lot of very interesting metaphysical questions – in bite sized and narrative form, but they keep you thinking long after the novel is finished. The doctrine of FRUGAL is central amongst these. Seldom does a novel create its own cult, but ‘frugaling’ is quite a potent contender for a new way of living. Other issues addressed include the exploration that imagination is life, that time is an imposition on the ‘moment’ and that money is not just the root of all evil, it is the evil we all face.

Part 1 of this extraordinary novel explores mental ‘illness’ and Part 2 explores the mental health system. Here we are on more familiar but no less uncomfortable ground. As a psychiatric nurse you can trust the writers experience (which certainly accords with my own experiences of the mental health system as a creative arts tutor) And he doesn’t hold back. He points out the biggest irony (and iniquity) of our mental health system which is that

Insight is gained when a patient does what the mental health system tells him to do without question.

One is barely recovered from the enormity of this statement when one is hit with the alternative view of the central character (and possibly the author/narrator – and certainly this reviewer) ‘My life is not about what you call me, it is about how my heart beats.’

‘The world does not change. All that alters is the way we choose to see it.’ I applaud the bravery and creativity of the man who wrote this wonderful and important fiction, based on a deeper reality, which does so much to set records straight about dismissing psychosis as ‘mental illness.’ As the author enters the story and indeed has framed the narrative throughout one feels that one has been privileged to gain insight into a different way of seeing the world. While the ending confounds expectation, it nevertheless draws a firm conclusion and offers a redemption of sorts for us all.

Throughout Tollesbury Time Forever Ayris is concerned to show that knowledge has little to no value if it doesn’t change your life. Reading this book will change your life. Buy it. Change your perception on life and in the process change your life.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Tollesbury Time is available in Kindle format

These are my personal recommendations. If and when you find books that you feel are great and should be reviewed (and you have the skill to write reviews) DO IT.  Otherwise, how will anyone know?  Indie Ebook Review is primarily a peer review site for professional writers but we will consider ‘reader’ reviews if they are ‘good’ reviews (by which we mean of the kind of quality suggested in the festival REVIEWING REVIEWS parts 1-3) outlined in the Beyond Fiction section of the Festival.