Book review: ‘Built on Sand’, by Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton’s Built on Sand is described on its own cover as a novel, but those looking for a clear protagonist and a consistent story will be disappointed. They are the only ones, however. The book is challenging and demands concentration from readers, but is written beautifully; no barriers crop up as a result of the language. Though I found the fragmented stories unsettling at first, unsure which characters would appear again later, a few chapters in I felt confident in Scraton’s hands. I didn’t need to know what would be relevant later because I believed Scraton did. To me, the book read not like a novel but a mosaic of fictional stories, memory and memoir, arranged together to create something impressive when you take a step back.

To say the stories are ‘set’ in Berlin downplays the presence of the city in the book. Scraton’s narrator is unnamed, the domestic dramas reduced to background noise. What would usually be the backdrop or context of a novel is brought forward as the focus of the book. We hear about forests, lakes and S-Bahn stations as main events. The narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend, the death of his flatmate, his friendships with other Berliners emerge throughout the book, but always within the context of something else – a trip to a lake, a village, a protest march. This could have been a mistake and made the book very dry, where it not for the fact that the backdrop is so incredibly interesting.

The detail in the stories does not read like research but knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. Scraton has built his life in Berlin and now even gives guided tours of the city. This experience seems to have informed his writing, as he dispenses information with confidence and then walks on. He tackles the big subjects – the historical persecution of Jews, the rise of the Nazis, the trains to the death camps, the invasion of the Red Army, the massacres, the unrest, the Wall – but embeds them within the context of everyday life, a city still moving.

Take the character of Annika, for example. A mapmaker, she attempts to trace the steps of Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-century Jewish philosopher, who first arrived in the city through the Rosenthal Gate, the only entrance Jews (and cattle) were permitted to use. The Gate is no longer standing, so Annika has to guess where she thinks it would be. Her imaginary Gate stands not far from her own apartment and the cemetery where Mendelssohn was eventually buried. Later, next to the burial site, the Gestapo turned an old people’s home into a collection point for the Jews of the neighbourhood. They were then transported to Grunewald station, loaded onto cattle trucks and deported to extermination camps. ‘Having removed the living, the Gestapo returned with the dead,’ Scraton writes. The burial ground where Mendelssohn was laid to rest became a mass grave for three thousand murdered Jews and three thousand victims of bombing raids. All a short walk from Annika’s apartment where, years later, she makes her maps.

It’s heavy stuff, which is possibly why Scraton has written the novel in fragments. Stories about genocide and murder are interspersed with stories of old friends, of secret bowling alleys in pubs, of art and life. One particular section has an almost Brothers Grimm feeling, as we return to mapmaker Annika, who has moved to the forest with her family and becomes entranced by a mysterious neighbour. Scraton seems to say all these stories are ‘true’, even the fictional ones, and that they coexist, occupying the same space, the same city, built on shifting sand.

This tension reverberates throughout the book. The narrator describes a father trying to explain the significance of the holocaust to his young daughter at the Platform 17 memorial, ‘But we were struggling to comprehend it ourselves.’ After visiting the memorial, the narrator and his girlfriend go swimming. Scraton writes:

‘Despite starting the morning at Platform 17 and all the stories that lingered there beside the rusting railway tracks, this moment that came after, on the lake and in the sunshine, feeling K’s body against mine as we sat there, was to be one of my happiest Berlin memories’.

It is uncomfortable and jarring, but true. Moving on isn’t a choice, a decision made by a committee; Scraton implies it is inevitable, that new lives are built on top of memory, not by denying their existence.

The book is about people(s) and crowds, rather than individuals and it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who, which backstory relates to which person. There is very little physical description, not much to help make connections. This said, there are still some good character moments. Towards the end of the book, we meet museum guide Frau Grautoff. Despite the sombre nature of the exhibition, she’s perky and enthusiastic, keeps telling the narrator that, regardless of whether they’re maps, cranes, birds or exhibits, she could ‘look at them for hours.’ There’s a painful argument between Annika and her partner, with him trying to provoke her into an emotional response and her disappointing him repeatedly. It’s a book about collectives, migration, armies and populations, but there are moments when Scraton swoops down and picks out something personal. It’s effective and moving, but for some readers, might not be enough.

Closure is not an option here. We get hints of domestic unrest from the narrator, but not enough to get a sense of resolution from the ending. However, the book is all about shifting sands. Closure demands a moment of stasis, a moment to get your bearings, for calm reflection. Berlin is constantly moving and in Built on Sand, the reader works to keep up.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

Book review: Slack-Tide by Elanor Dymott

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If you’ve ever wondered why you write, why you feel the need to create, why you feel everything constantly depends on what you are capable of creating, then you should read Elanor Dymott’s Slack-Tide.

Elizabeth is a novelist in her forties, who had a miscarriage that led her marriage to an end. When she’s set up on a blind date with Robert – who vaguely looks like Keanu Reeves and whose job is “designing cities” –  she feels it is the right time to start again, to be happy again.

From the very beginning of the book, we know this is a novel about an intense, even though only temporary, love story: at the end of the prologue, it is Elizabeth herself who says “by midsummer the thing between us was finished, and it was as if a storm had torn the roof from over me”.

Indeed, Sarah Moss’ quote on the back of the book anticipates this is “a compelling and beautiful account on the stories that hold us together and keep us apart”. Dymott’s hypnotic, sharp prose takes us on a journey where love and loss are indissolubly intertwined – and, despite already knowing it would finish, I couldn’t help it but keep on wishing that Elizabeth and Robert’s love story never ended.

It is Elizabeth’s clear voice that guides us: she is fierce, beautiful and tells her story as if she’s whispering it to a friend. The loss of her child haunts her. Flashbacks of a life that could have been and painful memories – her tears when the anaesthetist asks her to confirm she’s at the hospital for an abortion and the way Elizabeth screams “I’m not choosing this. I wanted my child. I wanted my baby. Do you understand?” – come back at her, neat and clear. These are constant reminders of how vulnerable she feels.

Robert is vulnerable, too. In his fifties, he has lived a life between the comforts of a wealthy family and a successful career as an architect, that brought him to travel around the globe. We get to know him when his marriage with Lea is already over, and he is torn between the social pressure of being a good father to Philippe and the need to share his daily life with a lover. “I want to be with someone,” he says, “When I come back from a trip, I want to have someone to talk about it […] About the stuff I see. I see so many things. I have so many things to say. […] Right before I met you, I was beginning to think I might burst with the things I’d seen.” As we read on, we begin to discover his acute selfishness. As a reader, you’ll find it impossible to feel indifferent to him: you’ll either love him or you’ll hate him.

Slack-tide is a book about love, about loss, about the details that make our lives unique. But what strikes most about this novel is Elizabeth’s attachment to the characters of her own books. She is loyal to them, and she’s firm in her decision of putting her writing first, come what may. When Robert tries to make her change her plans, claiming that there are other people involved, she explains “I have characters, waiting for me to tell them what to do. […] the only difference between my ‘other people’ and your ‘other people’ is that I have to make mine up. Every thought they think, every word they speak, and every single thing they do. You are lucky, Robert. You pack your case, get on a plane, and when you get off at the other end, your ‘people’ are waiting in arrivals, holding up a little sign with your name on.”

Elizabeth was not capable of giving birth. She was not able to create a new life. However, she is capable of bringing those characters to life, and she defends her work at every cost.

In this way, Slack-tide is, most of all, a book about the power of creating.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Perennial, by Ben Armstrong

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In science fiction, space and time warps are a commonplace. They are used for rapid journeys around the galaxy, or for travel through time. But there is an integer at which fact and fiction collide – where the relativity of space-time comes into play – and it at this point, the writer suggests, we might find poetry.

Ben Armstrong’s searing debut poetry collection, Perennial, is laced with this relativity; a sense of warped perspectives as different narrative voices walk us through different places and different times – with different poems separated within themselves and sometimes from each other by a clear sense of distance. Distance between one object and another; between one lover and another; between the past and present; between a remembered thought and feeling and a prediction of a future life.

Yet while the idea of the space (either physical or fourth dimensional) between two set points helps drive the core narrative of the collection, Armstrong’s poetry stridently ignores rules of Euclidean geometry – embracing instead the science fiction (or fact – as Hawkin and Einstein would insist) of space-time warps and jumps. Shifts in tense, and perspectives, blur lines, all the while experimental formal structures breakdown boundaries and conventions, helping the reader rearrange language in unique and surprising ways.

And by jove does this surprise you. From the greeting that opens the poem to the sad vision of a remembered goodbye, Perennial takes us on a ride infused both with comedy and tragedy, seeped with allusions and allegory that are literary, modern, classical, punk, political and pop-culture, using faux-satirical homages to classical literary figures and Homeric journeys, as well as very specific moments in scenes that collide together like atoms in a collapsing neutron star.

Take, for example, the shift in tone and style between ‘old bar’ and ‘Coca Cola Focus Group’. The former: a rather beautiful meditation on loneliness and the risks of being consumed by one’s memories. The latter: an extremely fun, engaging, and wry skit on the failings of modern capitalism. Both are excellent – but what the hell are they doing beside one another? In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace the unpredictability and recognise the order within the otherwise apparent disorder. As Dr Ian Malcolm would say in sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, “it doesn’t obey set patterns or rules […] it’s chaos” (to be clear: in Perennial, the chaos is very much a good thing – not one likely to involve the risk of being eaten by dinosaurs, though probably best never to rule that option out completely).

In short, Perennial sets the highest of high bars as a debut collection and firmly marks Armstrong out as a poet to keep an eye on. Not least because his work reminds us just how damn fun poetry can be.

Book review: ‘Truth and Dare’ by Martina Devlin

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Martina Devlin describes the eleven Irish women featured in her collection Truth and Dare as her ‘heroes’. Her admiration is evident; it is impossible to read this book and not discover something interesting. Devlin’s impressive research is fuelled by her conviction that these women were overlooked – sometimes even blatantly abused – in their own lifetimes. The collection is an attempt to redress the balance and give these women the recognition they deserve. It’s compelling and timely, particularly after the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, and is full of powerful moments. In Nana’s Ark’, Nana’s father smuggles her onto a merchant ship inside a chest stuffed with wool so that she can attend a convent school in France. In ‘Tucked Away’, two sisters burn to death at a society dance when the crinoline of their dresses catches a spark from the fireplace. Devlin shows us the underbelly of history, tells it from perspectives normally suppressed or dismissed, and it makes for refreshing reading.

It’s an ambitious goal, rejuvenating the legacies of eleven different historical figures within two hundred and sixty pages, and perhaps at times Devlin stretches herself thinly. In her determination to do the lives of the women justice, she prefaces each story with a detailed non-fiction biography and wraps it up with an italicised summation of their subject’s impact on Irish society. In the introduction to the collection, Devlin admits that she was unsure whether to write the book as fiction or non-fiction. ‘I decided on fiction because of the uncanny hold stories have over us,’ she writes. ‘Fiction is laced with enchantment. It hums with energy. It has the power to transport readers – to let us inhabit someone else’s life. Stories connect us with one another on a more intimate level than history or biography allows, creating space for magic to happen – the imaginative leap.’ In fact, Devlin’s storytelling is compelling enough to render the biographies unnecessary. The stories are short and dense, filled with context and historical knowledge, but the best moments are those that are emotional and human. Mary Ann McCracken is the only member of her family to walk with her condemned brother to the scaffold. Incarcerated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is visited mid-hunger-strike by the ghost of her dead husband. It is only his company that keeps her from imagining delicious meals and distracts her from the cup of congealed tea in the corner. In these moments, the transformative effect Devlin sets out to create begins to emerge.

While fiction ‘brings history to life’, it does also have limitations. Readers are unlikely to be able to inhale facts from a story the same way they would from a reference book, though from a fictional account of someone’s life they are likely to get much else: atmosphere, context etc. Devlin is aware of these limitations, stating in her introduction that ‘none of these stories represent the total sum of the woman concerned. After all, each of them led fascinating and productive lives, whereas a short story can do no more than filter light towards some element or other which caught my attention.’ The stories are most successful when Devlin realises this point and reduces her own scope, choosing one or two moments within a person’s life and using them to paint a human, rather than a heroine.

In ‘Somebody’, featuring activist Anna Parnell (1852–1911) and ‘No Other Place’, about writer Alice Milligan (1866-1953), Devlin appears to do just this. In each, she describes a long scene – a visit to the pawnbroker’s, a conversation with a policeman over a cup of tea – and uses objects to trigger memories, a line of dialogue to open up the character and invite the reader into their past. This method is more satisfying for a historical short story and is well-executed by Devlin. Sometimes, the stories are so detailed they become stationary tableaus – revealing and beautifully described – but slightly overwhelmed by biography. The technique would be hard to sustain as a writer and difficult to absorb as a reader in anything longer than a short story but are probably a result of its form and the need to be concise. Devlin can’t draw it out because she doesn’t have time but, by unlocking information with imagery, manages to convey an extraordinary amount of research in very few pages.

The concision is admirable but it is possible that, in Truth and Dare, Devlin has the making of eleven novels rather than a collection of short stories. The content is arresting and disturbing – the description of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington dreading her impending force-feeding is particularly brutal – and could easily withstand a more thorough examination. Devlin is an expert researcher and prolific writer, having already written nine novels and several short story collections. Truth and Dare is a tantalising hint as to what could be possible, almost a catalogue of stories waiting to be novels or biopic movies starring Meryl Streep. At this time, with these characters, I’m sure a lot of people would buy tickets.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

Book review: December Stories I, by Ian Samson

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What’s that sound in the air? The crisp crunch of carollers footprints in the even evening December snow, perchance?

Not a bit of it. That sound you hear is applause; the clapping of hands from all those souls for whom the festive period is never as simple as the unbridled joy and consumerist cheer that the overwhelming majority of corporations and media establishment would have you think everyone is feeling at this time of year.

Because, of course, the month of December means a multitude of different things to different people at alternate points in their lives. The meaning of Christmas (if there is such a thing) changes as our feelings evolve and our memories build upon one another. The sweet stirrings of excitement many felt as Children on Christmas morning contends with the emotions pent up in familial tensions and blends over the years with Christmases of all stripes and colours; of loneliness, disappointment, anger and – yes – joy, into feelings that are not simple or binary emotions; but not necessarily the poorer for that.

Yet this complexity is so rarely discussed or acknowledged. And it is rarer still to see it put down in any form of creative medium. And so the aforementioned applause comes because it is precisely this complex diorama of festive feelings that is displayed so well, so vividly and so wonderfully in Ian Samson’s latest book, December Stories I.

Published by a team of fabulous independent creatives over at Belfast-based No Alibis Press, December Stories I comprises ‘short stories, vignettes, axioms, the odd recipe [emphasis on ‘odd’], art criticism, meditations and literary curiosities relating to all things festive’.

This collage of 31 entries – one for every day of the titular month – offers readers a plethora of different viewpoints with which to view the Christmas period. And it is within these tales – of terrible Christmas poetry, strict instructions from teachers to parents before the holidays, Floridian barbecues and meditations on faith (among so many others) – that we encounter the rich and so often contradictory feelings and emotions that make Christmas what it is.

Funny, sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic, December Stories I, is the perfect antidote to piped Christmas Muzak played on repeat from October onwards. And it also offers something else to people who may otherwise find themselves rushed off their feet at this time of year with work, social engagements and requisite consumer splurges and extensive (and expensive) grocery shopping: a chance to pause. Indeed, Samson’s book gives everyone who reads it the opportunity to take time out from everything else that may be going on and reflect – perhaps even meditate – on what Christmas means, and has meant, for them over the years; and also, perhaps more importantly, what it can mean for others, too.

Human beings are wonderful, surprising, contradictory things – and few times is this more apparent than during the Christmas period. Samson captures all of this effortlessly and brilliantly, making December Stories I an essential item on everyone’s Christmas wish list (we suppose you could wait for the January sales; but where would be the fun in that?)

You can watch Samson reading one of the short stories from the collection, ‘Two words’ in this lovely short video below.

 

 

 

Book review: The study circle, by Haroun Khan

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘The study circle’, by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink Books.

The Study Circle

This debut novel by Haroun Khan follows two friends from a South London council estate. Ishaq is devout and well educated, a regular at the titular Islamic study circle. His education at a university may give him a way out of the brutal poverty of the estate. His friend Shams is less fortunate and is obliged to make ends meet anyway he can, even if the means are not entirely legal or safe. The pair are caught between the gentle and wise Ayoub, the leader of the study circle, and Mujahid, who justifies his own criminal activities with radical politics and mangled religion.

Khan, writing from some personal experience, gives an unrelentingly grim portrait of the estate. It’s a hopeless and forgotten place, where violence is never far away, and the police are more of a threat than a source of protection. Choices and opportunities are impossibly limited; the characters wonder if it is possible for them to ever truly leave the place behind. Again and again, it is emphasised that outsiders simply do not understand the everyday challenges faced by young people in such an environment, abandoned and alienated while at the same time demonised and discriminated against by the society they live in.

This is a very timely, of the moment book that deals with issues of Islamophobia, racism and poverty in modern Britain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with them in the context of an always engaging novel, but sometimes heavy-handedly in the form of extended essay passages between minimal slices of here and now events.

The last third of the novel is the first time that I had any sense of interest in what would happen next, any sense of drama. This welcome change of pace redeems at least some of what has come before, but how many would persevere to this point? It is not a long novel, but it would benefit from some editing.

The writer himself admits to feeling uneasy while writing this and says, ‘There is a lot I have said here that people can take issue with.’ That’s unavoidable when dealing with such heavyweight issues of race, religion and class. It certainly gave this reviewer uncomfortable things to ponder.

About the reviewer

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Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

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Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

Book review: Cane, by Sam Bully-Thomas

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘Cane’, by Sam Bully-Thomas, published by Wundor Editions.

Wundor_Poetry_Paperback_Design_-_Cane_grande

The first thing that struck me about this slim but attractive volume from Wundor (see this interview with their founder to hear how they are making unique and interesting in-roads into the publishing sector) is that it has word poetry front and centre on the cover. As if the publisher wanted to avoid anyone picking it up and complaining that they never expected poetry.

Sam Bully-Thomas (http://issamthomas.com/) grew up all around the world and the poems in this collection are similarly globe spanning – we go to Iran, Cuba, Mexico and Alaska among others. She mixes themes from what I imagine are her own experiences with the historical experiences of the poor and enslaved, usually connected by the sugar trade. Havana 1857 is written from the point of view of a kidnapped Chinese forced labourer, while ‘Husbandman’ describes Cimarron fighters (escaped slaves) planning the ambush of a plantation owner. Set between the poems are quotes from a Hindu veda, a history of sugar (written by a Mr Mintz), a biography of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the author’s own brief explanatory notes.

The collection shares its title with a Modernist, Harlem Renaissance novel by Jean Toomer. The poet favours blank verse and sentences that run over many short lines. Sadly, few lines or poems are truly memorable – the overall effect, like the volume itself, is slight. Generally, the historical poems are stronger than the contemporary ones. Havana 1857 is the best poem in it, an evocative and tragic account of people trafficking from China to work in the sugar plantations as the luckless captive remembers the night he was kidnapped. This is one that stays with you:

‘Your sores from beatings never healed./And I was traded many times over, my brother,/in the ten years between us.’

Overall, Sam Bully-Thomas shows a knack for evoking far flung places and times. She is clearly a writer comfortable in several mediums, also writing screen plays and micro fiction. Hopefully future works will offer more substantial rewards.

To purchase a copy of ‘Cane’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/cane-by-sam-bully-thomas

About the reviewer

tandrewsTom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai