Murder in Montego Bay

Murder in Montego Bay, Paula Lennon: Jacaranda Books

I was pleased to receive a copy of Murder In Montego Bay via The Contemporary Small Press because of its Jamaican authorship and setting. I have only previously read one Jamaican novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, and although this book also revolves around murder, it provides a very different perspective on island life. Lennon sets her tale within the grossly underfunded Jamaican police service. I appreciated that her team of detectives really are portrayed as a team. Their leader, Preddy, does have shades of the dysfunctional-older-detective-against-the-world crime fiction cliché, but at least he isn’t an alcoholic who never eats! There’s no random love interest forced into the plot either which made a refreshing change! Instead Lennon’s detectives realistically banter, support and rile each other in a patois dialogue. Their camaraderie reminded me of Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series and I think fans of those books might also enjoy this tropical mystery.

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Lennon’s great strength I thought was in her evocation of Jamaican culture and people. She presents the poverty of the island alongside the vast wealth of some of its inhabitants, and shows how tourists are generally fenced into their own secure beach enclaves away from sights that might discourage them from visiting again. Details of police station disrepair are shocking. I liked that the lack of available high tech gadgets gave a classic crime fiction feel in keeping with the investigation’s style. This novel is certainly more of a character-driven mystery than an all-action thriller. The plot narrative isn’t particularly convoluted, but Lennon kept my interest throughout and I actually found myself being drawn deeper into her created world as the book progressed. I wasn’t immediately gripped by the early chapters, but struggled to lay the book aside by the end as I wanted to know how everything would turn out! Murder In Montego Bay is a nicely satisfying read and has the potential to continue into a strong series.

Click here to find Murder in Montego Bay at Jacaranda Books.

About the Publisher:

Jacaranda Books Art Music is an independent publishing house based in London publishing adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries, with a particular interest in works related to Africa, the Caribbean, and the experiences of those peoples in the Diaspora.

Review by Stephanie Jane

Stephanie is a travelling blogger usually to be found in her caravan somewhere in Western Europe. She loves long country walks, theatre trips, second-hand shops, coffee and cake, and, of course, reading. She makes a point to read diverse authors from around the world as this allows her to experience countries and cultures that she may not get to visit in person. Literary fiction is her favourite genre, but she is happy to try niche reads across the board and enjoys supporting small publishing houses and indie authors.

Director Mark Tonderai buys film rights for The Book of Harlan

Small Press News – Jacaranda Books

Mark Tonderai and his production company Shona Films have acquired movie rights for historical novel The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden. The novel, published last year (2016) by Jacaranda Books in the UK and Akashic Books in the US, follows the life of Harlan, a travelling musician from Georgia during the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, who is taken hostage in Paris when the city comes under Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

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Tonderai is the director of psychological thriller Hush (2008) and House at the End of the Street (2012) which starred Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence. He is adapting The Book of Harlan, and will direct the movie himself, with McFadden assisting in production.

The Book of Harlan has received several accolades since publication, winning the NAACP Award earlier this year, and the American Book Award. It’s powerful prose, evocative of time and place, and its success in highlighting a poorly documented group of victims of the Nazi regime, has already garnered it outstanding praise. McFadden says of the novel “I realized that while much had been written about the Jewish victims, the fate of Africans and African Americans at the hands of the Nazis was less well documented. I was fascinated by this discovery and set about writing a story that would illuminate this hidden verity.

Click here to buy The Book of Harlan directly from Jacaranda Books.

 

Skimming over Black Glass and Counting Lies

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell: Inspired Quill, Release date – October 2017

‘Ready?’ Always the same word. The same starting gun. He liked that.

Are we ever truly ready for what life throws at us and can we outrun fate? As Abbott, a gay man who works with troubled boys, runs to the refuge of a red beach hut during a time of fear, persecution and the threat of his life being torn down, he meets an unlikely friend, Neville, a young boy aged eight. Lynn Michell writes a beautifully innocent and endearing tale twisted by the tainted gaze of society’s perverse darkness, as two lost souls find hope in their unlikely companionship amidst their separate turmoil. As the odd yet surprisingly complementary pairing draw the attention of others’ gazes, which eventually places them under suspicion, Michell subtly tackles prejudice by treading the thin line between what is and is not appropriate. Abbott continuously questions how his actions may be read and misconstrued by those watching, yet both Abbott and Neville provide each other with the quiet trust, understanding and constancy they are each searching for in a time of need.

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The novel’s structure eloquently intertwines memories and inner dialogue throughout, weaving Abbott’s childhood memories of days on the beach with his aunt and the terrible mistake that led to him running from his current life. The Hut becomes a refuge and a safe place to revisit these memories – a place of innocence and happiness. Meeting Neville helps Abbott, in many ways, to recapture this time and see the world through a child’s eyes once more; allowing him to share the heartfelt, excited, compassionate, and honest perception of Neville. Michell develops the characters with an undercurrent of stillness running through their fibres; capturing the mind of Neville with such authenticity and attention to detail, which is no small feat. She interlaces his inquisitive nature with a quirky need to count everything in an attempt to appease an anxiety for order, rules and consistency. The literal, black and white mind of a child tests the grayscale of an adult’s mind, as Michell captures deep and poignant moments when tackling the truths and lessons people learn as they grow up.

Neville has a fascination and desire to understand words, to understand language and his place within it. Abbott meets this desire through the knowledge he’s gained whilst working with troubled boys, providing Neville with an adult figure who will actually be honest with him and treat him as an equal – recognising that he needs consistency and someone to take the time to know him. 

‘But we can say now it’s day and now it’s night…’

‘Only afterwards. There’s light and dark but there’s grey in between. Twilight. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t sure. It’s OK sometimes not to know. To be uncertain.’

‘I like certain.’

‘I know you do.’

‘What about me and you? Are we certain?’ He liked the word.

Whilst Neville teaches Abbott to be true to himself and find the honesty in what is spoken, Abbott provides Neville with the safety and security to be ok with the uncertainty of life; to be ok with not knowing. Michell presents the reader with the delicate and fragile moments in which one reveals oneself to another and hopes that that vulnerability will be met with compassion. Abbott gives Neville the confidence to speak and the trust in someone being there to listen. He is given the chance to share his voice and his thoughts, a truly powerful gift to give another, which Abbott, knowing the danger of being made to feel voiceless against discrimination, knows all too well.

In The Red Beach Hut language is not always vocal: Lynn Michell’s writing evokes the subtle languages of touch, of music, of being on the sea, and of being still. There are other ways, and sometimes more powerful ways, to communicate than with words.

 

Before they set off, the boy bounded up the steps and slipped his small hand into the man’s big one. Abbott let it rest there. The gesture spoke of trust and Abbott offered his acceptance. How could he betray it?

They give each other companionship, yet through this pairing Michell similarly tests the boundaries of intimacy, as Neville desperately wishes Abbott was a father-figure and Abbott must navigate the conflict of the intensity of emotions within a child’s mind. There is a tenderness to Neville – the deep and absorbing love of a child who’s found a friend with whom to learn how not to be so alone. The internal world of a child is a lonely place, a confusing place of learning the rules of life, and Abbott offers a helping hand of guidance.

One goes on and on, running on the same treadmill, never considering an alternative until forced to stop, he thought.

In each other’s company, Abbott and Neville find a moment to pause, reflect and just be, there is an easiness in which they can both stop running – Neville stops counting all the time, and Abbott stops running from himself. Out of rhythm with society, they find solace in the sea’s rhythm, the subtle shifts in the water’s moods and the constant gravitational pull they feel to be there on the seashore looking out and imagining what could be. As Neville says, “I can wish”, and perhaps wishing is all we ever can do.

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell

About the publisher:

Inspired Quill is a not-for-profit publishing house which is dedicated to quality publications and providing a people-oriented platform for writers to develop their skills in writing, marketing and self-editing. They value a collaborative approach with their authors throughout the process from submission to launch, endeavouring to produce unique and powerful pieces of work.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Pseudotooth – Review

Pseudotooth – Review

Pseudotooth, Verity Holloway: Unsung Stories, 2017

Verity Holloway’s debut novel from Unsung Stories is a richly developed story entwining multiple layers and perspectives weaving in and out of consciousness as the plot traverses dream, fantasy and reality.  Following the experiences of seventeen-year-old Aisling Selkirk, whose blackouts and pseudo-seizures cause bewilderingly altered states of consciousness, the reader is plunged into the intensity and confusion of a protagonist who is never quite sure where she is.  The skill of the novel is in maintaining that disorientation throughout the plot, never quite drawing clear boundaries between dream and reality, while creating a compelling narrative that propels the reader forward with momentum.  It achieves this very successfully most of the time, although it took me a few chapters to fully immerse myself in the book after a potentially slow opening.

Aisling, whose experiences are figured alongside the mystical visions and poetry of William Blake, is drawn further and further into a world that defies the linear logic of temporality and geography on an adventure to understand not only her condition but her desires.  Comparing this new world with the familiar world of reality, would she choose to go back even if she could?  This question is left hanging, and the novel is far stronger for its refusal to accommodate a satisfying resolution.

“None of this is real, is it? … I think I’ve worked it all out now.  And I don’t mind that it’s not real.  I’m happy here.”

“Because you’re happy, it can’t be real?”

The question of the reality of one place or another is likewise never resolved, with the general suggestion that each can be as real as the other.  On one level, the book could be an exploration of the effects on consciousness of various forms of writing – poetry, journal writing, fiction – words and worlds are tangled and layered in a perplexing swirl of locations, identities and possibilities, and the ways that words are used to conjure those worlds underlines the close proximity of alternative states of consciousness to what we generally experience as normality.

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The novel is incredibly well researched with threads including William Blake, contemporary mental health issues, Russian history and speculative fiction.  Characters and plotlines are well developed and complex – which is necessary for this kind of fiction and something I felt that Unsung Stories were yet to develop in some of the earlier books I reviewed.  The complexity of this novel, its intertwining plotlines and well-developed characters made it a substantial read while leaving enough questions unanswered to spark a desire to flick back through it in search of missed connections.  Both ‘pseudo’ – something that is not genuine or not fully what is seems to be – and the eponymous ‘tooth’ feature as integral to plot and character throughout the novel, but the title is perhaps never fully resolved within its pages, only suggestions are made which the reader must actively attempt to demystify.

At its heart, the novel poses questions about the viability and desirability of any potential utopia – exploring the conflict between the desire for purity and the desire for acceptance.  The novel frequently raises the problematic complexity of any so-called utopia based on an idea of purity which leads to differentiation, isolation, segregation, exclusion, expulsion or eugenics.  This is an historically important question which bears repeated asking, and a question which seems to have more and more vital contemporary urgency with every passing day at the moment.  It does, however, lead to a very occasional heavy-handed morality in the writing, although this is always consistent with character or plot and never overly intrusive.

The book is a remarkable achievement for young writer Verity Holloway and a quality addition to the Unsung catalogue.

Click here to buy Pseudotooth directly from Unsung Stories

About the Publisher:

Unsung Stories publish literary and ambitious speculative fiction. This means science fiction, fantasy, horror and weird, and the fuzzy bits between these genres.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

 

Seduction and Betrayal in Pre-War China

Seduction and Betrayal in Pre-War China

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle by Karen Kao: Linen Press, 2017

‘The rain has stopped and the street gleams like the barrel of a rifle.’

Shanghai, 1937. During the opulent days before the Second World War, 18-year-old Anyi travels to the city determined to make her fortune. Raped and left for dead on the journey, this is the story of her battle for survival in a culture where all a woman has is her fragile reputation.

As an intelligent young lady from wealthy parents, Anyi has always been frustrated by polite society’s stifling attitudes towards women. Deeply traumatised by the vicious attack, she is taken in by her aunt and uncle who, despite their initial kindness, rush to arrange her marriage before what they consider to be her shameful secret is revealed.

‘No-one must know. It never happened, you see, because you are a good girl from a good family. Something like that doesn’t happen to people like us’.

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Referred to from the beginning as ‘the broken girl’, Anyi defiantly reinvents herself as a glamorous siren able to wrap men around her little finger. Captivatingly beautiful, she inspires lust and jealousy in equal measure. Against the odds, she becomes a successful dancer earning enough money to live independently. In the dazzling world of the dancehalls, she is worshipped by diplomats and playboys alike as she embraces her new lavish and amoral celebrity lifestyle.

‘We, the dancing girls, are the gazelles who draw the predators out of the high grass. The whores are the dead meat to be flung to the lions.’

But in secret she is plagued by visions of the soldiers who violated her and at night their ghosts line her bedroom wall. In a desperate attempt to block out the memories, she seeks release by allowing paying men to abuse her. At times a painful read featuring unflinching references to physical and emotional cruelty, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is a sensitive portrayal of the devastating impact one incident can have on a woman’s life.

‘Why didn’t they just leave me to the dogs?’

It is also a brutally honest account of the seedier side of Shanghai as the flashbulbs of the paparazzi thinly veil the opium-addled, oppressive courtesan culture flourishing beneath the surface. Anyi’s most powerful customer, the charming Japanese diplomat Mr Tanikazi, finds her eagerness to satisfy his particular taste for violence irresistible. Political tensions mount in the buildup to the Japanese invasion as the world teeters on the edge of war. Secret desires overflow into real life as people’s public and private faces are threatened with exposure.

‘The city amazed and disgusted him. Perversion was available on any street corner of Shanghai’.

The story is narrated by multiple characters and everyone from family members to the downtrodden servants is given a voice. The human need for intimacy and understanding is apparent on every page and the reader is offered a vivid picture of events from different points of view. Progressive attitudes collide with old customs in a world tentatively embracing modernity yet still steeped in tradition. Gripping and complex, this challenging read provides an intensely detailed, often harrowing but ultimately sympathetic insight into a lost culture.

Click here to order Karen Kao’s The Dancing Girl and The Turtle direct from Linen Press.

About the Publisher

Linen Press is an independent publishing house founded by Lynn Michell and run ‘by women, for women’ that aims to promote talented female writers producing unique work in a range of genres about relatable issues that matter to women today. Michell explains: ‘I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending’.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, book reviewer, and occasional poet. She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Prize 2017. Follow her on Twitter @BeckyD123 or visit her website www.beckydanks.com.

RofC Prize Rewards ‘Brilliant & Brave’ Fiction from the Small Presses

RofC Prize Rewards ‘Brilliant & Brave’ Fiction from the Small Presses

‘Small press fiction enables stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing’ – Neil Griffiths, founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize

Last night’s inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize award ceremony was held in the iconic setting of the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, in conjunction with The Contemporary Small Press.  

The prize’s founder Neil Griffiths, who set up and crowdfunded the prize to reward ‘brilliant and brave literary fiction’ being published by small presses ‘who are willing to take risks’ in the UK and Ireland, hosted the evening and spoke about the work of contemporary independent publishers.  He said, ‘I’ve been accused of trying to overthrow the established order of the literary establishment’, and while he readily acknowledged the high quality books that are being published by big publishers, he affirmed that in his opinion ‘the best fiction currently being published in the UK and Ireland is with the small presses.’  He elaborated on this, saying that ‘small press fiction enables stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.’  Griffiths explained the awarding process for this year’s prize, saying that there would be one ‘Winner Winner’ and two runners-up: ‘not second and third’.

Winner of the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for fiction from the small presses was Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Unanimously voted the overall winner by all six judges, Counternarratives was considered a ‘once in  generation achievement for short form fiction’ and praised for the way that its ‘subject matter, formal inventiveness, multitude of voices, and seriousness of purpose transform a series of thematically linked stories into a complete work of art.’  Accepting the prize,  Jacques Testard from Fitzcarraldo confessed that ‘it’s not easy to publish this kind of fiction in the contemporary British climate’ – another example of the risk-taking innovation of small press publishers as testified by the quality of books selected for the prize.

Testard said: ‘We’re so thrilled that John Keene’s COUNTERNARRATIVES has been awarded the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. First of all, it is a magnificent book and deserves the widest possible readership. The prize is so important for its focus on small presses — it’s tough, in this cultural climate, for risk-taking small presses to achieve visibility for our books. It’s also a unique prize on two other counts: it does not put limitations on what fiction can be in considering short stories, novels and translation together, unlike other prizes in Britain, and in fact it is the only prize which COUNTERNARRATIVES has been eligible for. Less important but remarkable nonetheless, it is a prize that rewards the publisher as well as the author — a welcome, refreshing reversal when many bigger prizes expect a financial contribution from a shortlisted publisher, big or small. Long may it continue.’

Counternarratives
Counternarratives by John Keene, Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Photograph by Sally-Shakti Willow

The two runners-up and winner were announced by The Guardian’s Literary Critic Nicholas Lezard who praised the ‘long and distinguished history of publishing by the small presses.’  The first runner-up to be declared was the novel Martin John by Anakana Schofield, published by And Other Stories about which the judges said, it ‘makes no judgment: it renders Martin John’s world with phenomenological honesty. It is a moral act.’  Joint runner-up was Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published by Tramp Press, described by the judges as a novel that ‘sets a new bar for fiction about a family. No other novel we’ve ever read portrays the lived experience of dying with such precision.’

A further category was created for Griffiths’ own criteria of Best First Novel, or ‘Surfeit of Multitudinous Energy’, awarded to writer Paul Stanbridge and publisher Galley Beggar Press for Paul’s novel, Forbidden Line.  Galley Beggar’s Sam Jordison collected the prize with Stanbridge.

Paul Stanbridge and Sam Jordison
Writer Paul Stanbridge and publisher Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press.  This photograph and the header image by Becky Danks

‘So much in the literary industry disadvantages small presses, and yet they are publishing the most interesting and innovative current fiction’ Dr Leigh Wilson, The Contemporary Small Press

The Contemporary Small Press’s Dr Leigh Wilson said, ‘We’re delighted to be involved in supporting the prize. So much in the literary industry disadvantages small presses, and yet they are publishing the most interesting and innovative current fiction.’  Organiser Neil Griffiths concluded: ‘I thought it was a wonderful evening. All the presses seemed mutually supportive, and I’m not sure that’s always the case at prize events. I think the key take-out is that small presses really appreciate the emotional support just as much as the chance to win some money’.

The prize was judged by: Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books in Hackney; Gary Perry at Foyles; Lyndsy Kirkman from Chapter One Books, Manchester; Gillian Robertson of Looking Glass books, Edinburgh, Marcus Wright and Neil Griffiths.

Congratulations to all the writers and publishers whose books were selected for the Republic of Consciousness Prize long- and short-lists.  

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The Contemporary Small Press’s Dr Leigh Wilson with prize founder Neil Griffiths.  Photograph by Georgina Colby

Article by Sally-Shakti Willow, Research Assistant for The Contemporary Small Press.

Photographs by Dr Georgina Colby, The Contemporary Small Press; Becky Danks reviewer for The Contemporary Small Press; Sally-Shakti Willow

Prelude to Oblivion

Prelude to Oblivion

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack: Tramp Press, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Short List*

‘The living and the dead stood shoulder to shoulder sharing a joke and a fag’

On All Souls’ Day when the dead are honoured, Marcus Conway is feeling pensive. A dependable family man and successful engineer, he is reflecting on what he has achieved so far. He also happens to be dead. Whilst pottering around the house he recalls past triumphs and set-backs, unaware that he is the lead character in his own ghost story. The reader is invited to step inside the mind of a recently deceased man as his life slowly flashes before his eyes.

 

Written entirely as a stream of consciousness by this central character, a unique insight is provided into his thoughts. A spiritual man who trained as a priest before choosing marriage and fatherhood, Marcus is nevertheless oblivious to his own death as he sits at the kitchen table. His familiar surroundings feel slightly off kilter for reasons he cannot quite put his finger on.

Set in Mayo in the West of Ireland during the economic crash of 2008, the precarious nature of global financial stability prompts Marcus to re-examine those certainties on which he has built his life. Current colossal shifts in world politics following the US election and Brexit mean that this context deeply resonates. Here is a man suddenly keenly aware of a vast, wider history unfolding as concepts seemingly far removed from individuals’ lives threaten to pull the rug from under them. In a familiarly unsettling time, such rapid insecurity is major enough to disturb Marcus on a personal level. He realises the huge responsibility citizens have in voting for change and ultimately the shared blame when things go wrong.

‘What did you expect electing such clowns to public office?’

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Solar Bones is a love letter to family life and an outstanding achievement by ground-breaking writer Mike McCormack. Experimental in style and almost entirely devoid of traditional punctuation, there are no chapters and not a single full stop. Far from being off-putting, this enables the internal monologue to flow very naturally. It is full of those supposedly mundane details which make up a life and are infused with meaning, like the cheese sandwich lovingly made just the way he likes it by his wife. Memories and observations topple over one another, from his artist daughter writing in her own blood on the walls of her exhibition to early childhood conversations with his father.

The reader is encouraged to invest emotionally by joining Marcus at pivotal moments in his life and so when it finally comes, the intense, brutal impact of his death feels like the loss of a friend. Comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses are inevitable and deserved, as intimate minutiae fill a story that ultimately spans just one November day yet covers a lifetime through its internal monologue. Subtle and poetic, Solar Bones is an emotive reading experience that moved me to tears and a novel as beautiful as it is original.

‘Hand on my heart, I can say I died in that layby’

 

About the Publisher:

Tramp Press is a new, independent Irish publishing house committed to promoting unique literary voices and books of the highest quality. They aim to ‘encourage, support and maintain Ireland’s literary talent, and to enrich the lives of readers’.

Review by Becky Danks:

Becky is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books.  Among other things! She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Festival Prize 2017. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.