Reviews

 

Concrete interview, 4th February 2013.

Review of TRANS-NEPTUNE and UNTHOLOGY No.3 from the EASTERN DAILY PRESS, 2nd February 2013.

U3_EDP

Review of A SHORT STORY ABOUT A SHORT FILM from CASUAL DEBRIS’ review of UNTHOLOGY No 1, 1oth August 2012.

“A Short Story about a Short Film” by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

“A Short Story about a Short Film” is a great example of how a structurally different story can be both entertaining and act a proper medium for its thematic content. Outwardly the story is bland, as it can be summed up as a pretentious and insecure young filmmaker struggling with his obsession with his ex-girlfriend, and through that obsession achieves an important moment of self discovery. Yet there is depth in the unity between narrative and structure. The story is a screenplay of a short film inset with a series of footnotes. The short film emulates the great shorter films of mid-century Eastern Europe, while the footnotes are by the filmmaker as he has pieced together his own kind of director’s commentary, and uses that commentary to reveal the behind the scenes drama amid the filming of the short. The idea of introducing footnotes is not original, but this is likely the first time I’ve read a story in which the footnotes act as extras on a DVD, a concept which I like since I’m a sucker for good extras. Overall it’s well presented, particularly as the story manages to create various layers and connections between the short film and the self-indulgent love story, making it engaging and often funny.

Our filmmaker Stasi Lloyd is not very likeable. He is weak and self-interested, obsessed with film and with his former girlfriend-cum-former lead in his debut film, Kaliningrad. What begins as a pretentious undergraduate film project of a pretend totalitarian society replete with its spies, its mysterious women and its relentless clacking typewriters, not to mention vodka and onions, the little film turns out to be little more than a dramatic love triangle, emulating real-life behind-the-scene events. The entire thing is ridiculous, but in a funny, engaging and even thought-provoking way. There are a myriad themes interconnecting the fantasy of film and of the real-life drama, as love and lust are secretive, even persecuted (by a jealous third party), and the real life director becomes the shady spy of his own film, sneaking into his former lover’s parents property, taking the entire film crew to the vicinity as an excuse to be there in the first place. The dark film society he portrays is illustrative of his own dark, guarded nature; he tries to rationalize the situation by being removed and understanding, but is essentially driven by a stronger form, that of raw emotion, so that the melodrama of life is so much greater than that of film. And what is it all for, since like the film, life too is short. I was surprised, though pleasantly, that the narrator gains some insight through these straining experiences.

The story is perhaps a little too long.

Which got me thinking about the title. Certainly it’s about a short film, but technically it’s a novelette, so it should be titled “A Novelette about a Short Film.” But it’s not about a short film, particularly since the film’s ending is changed due to life’s influence. In many ways the city embodies both the film and the filmmaker’s final transformation, so I thought a good title would be “Kaliningrad with Footnotes.” Though that sounds more like a painting than a film.

Sarah Dobbs on TOUCHING THE STARFISH, NEVERENDING STORIES, 15th February 2012.

I have to admit that I thought that the title to Ashley Stokes’ debut novel Touching the Starfish was a bit rude. But it’s not. That’s just me.

So what is Touching the Starfish?

It’s a book for every creative writing lecturer out there. If you ever wanted to write about your experiences in this area, then don’t. It’s been done. And I can’t imagine it being done better than TTS manages to do. There’s plenty of Thank God It’s Not Just Me moments when Nathan Flack, the novel’s protagonist is describing his horrific experiences with his new tutor group. There’s a lot of footnote asides that explain about the Moon-Barkers and Rom-Ts and Wrong-Roomers that inhabit his group.(1) You know what I mean, the ones that would merrily drive you crazy. If you let them.

(1) Put simply, the bonkers, the over-romantics and people who should really be telling it to a therapist type of students.

You might even nick some decent writing exercises.

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Still, it’s not just a book about teaching creative writing. It’s a book for every jaded writer who still has nostalgia for bookshops; the desire to find something to read that feeds you, the ones you relish, as opposed to the 3for2s; the Importance of Any Email / Post / Unexpected phone call which could be The One.

But it’s also bloody, and often unexpectedly, funny. Don’t read it in front of anyone. Read it on your own so you can choke on your own laughter, finally get it out, and start barking unapologetically. Something writers don’t do enough of I think (again, that could just be me). (2)

(2) You may discover you have some different laughs, too. I noted a squeaky one that I wasn’t aware of till now.

All this might suggest the book is a bit flippant. It’s just superficial, surface stuff poking fun at writers and students and whatnot. But Flack is haunted, perhaps by his inner psychology/destructive self-critic, perhaps by a Moon-Barker, or something even more sinister. Flack also admits to the fact that he writes to be close to other people, a simple and sensitive truth that perhaps many writers would agree with. We write to explore, to understand and, perhaps, to connect. Coupled with the fact that Flack’s doing his damnedest to avoid intimacy with an ‘impossibly beautiful’ albeit slightly difficult ex girlfriend, this starts to get really interesting. And the writing is brilliantly observed with nourishing, juicy detail that, if you are a writer, you will nod at and perhaps be slightly jealous (while still inspired to write).

Case in point:

A cafetiere cooled on the coffee table and, underscored by crackles on the vinyl, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue swam around the tangerine walls. (3)

(3) I’ve heard reviews are supposed to be balanced: Okay. I would have liked it to be ever so slightly pacier. Maybe less of the group to start with. The footnotes work mostly, sometimes brilliantly, but sometimes disrupt the pace. 

But enough about why a writer might like it. Here’s why readers will read:

Who is the inner voice that speaks to Nathan? Who is the shadowy figure staring into his flat at night? Will he solve all his problems, sell his book and live happily ever after?

I read this book in a couple of days. It gave this rather jaded writer who unfortunately seems to read for a living, as opposed to writing, back that compulsion to devour. To look forward to going back to the book. To wish people would leave so you can – Get Back to the Book. For me, a rare and actual page-turner.

If you don’t buy it now, you’re dafter than a Moon-barker.

Amazon – £16.14, pp 533

Stokes, A (2010) Touching the Starfish. Unthank Books.

“The mag also champions the long short story and probably the stand out story is a forty pager called ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes (who also edits), loaded with menace and mystery as a voyeur across the road watches the hero with his new girlfriend from across the road (To the left of her ear the Swan King hung in his box of white dazzle). The girl becomes convinced that the man is holding a missing girl and convinces the boyfriend to investigate.”

Alan Beard on Unthology No.2, Good Reads, January 2012

“There were times that reality seemed all too familar with the coming of age and bogeyman story written by Ashley Stokes. The Swan King is a figure maligned and wrongly blamed. Part Rear Window in the way the main characters watch from their flat and part To Kill A Mockingbird in the way a relatively harmless odd figure is turned into some sort of bogeyman this gets under your skin. Secrets come back to haunt those looking for the killer of a student and the desire to be popular, liked and loved is one that doesn’t just haunt the Swan King.”

Simon Quicke, Inside Books, http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/ January 2012

“The stand-out story for me in this collection however is ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes, a longer contribution than most in this book and one that gently turns, delicately playing with assumptions about the narrator and the story that unfolds, capturing a period of time where our protagonist is ‘Living through an interlude, an anomaly’ to throw him into (albeit) hazy relief against the background events. I confess I had to read this story twice to really feel I had a grasp on it, the first time to take pleasure in the mystery, and on reading it again to appreciate the subtle way the reader is challenged to accept or dismiss stereotypes in order to get to the heart of the tale.”

Elinor Rathbone, Sabotage Reviews, 2nd November 2011. http://snurl.com/2hbdz7

Unthank Books and School in Eastern Daily Press: 22/12/2010

UNTHOLOGY NO.1 – A SHORT STORY ABOUT A SHORT FILM

My highest praise, however, is reserved for editor Ashley Stokes’s ‘A Short Story About a Short Film’, which is exactly what its title says it is. The story that unfolds is told via footnotes to a screenplay of a short film Kaliningrad, recounting the circumstances of its conception and filming. The method recalls Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or more recently, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and the technique is put to interesting effect here because the reader learns a lot about the character of Lloyd Fernery from what he says and how he says it. His obsession with the faithless and fickle Lucile Delph is both amusing and menacing in its intensity, particularly since the footnotes are explicitly directed at Lucile, as if she were watching the film. I can think of no better compliment to pay Stokes than to say that after I finished the story, I went and bought his first novel,Touching the Starfish, also available from Unthank Books.Short Review Unthology

Ian Chung, Sabotage, 3rd April 2011

UNTHOLOGY NO.1: http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/Unthology1.htmUNTHOLOGY NO.1

“The art of the short stories is very much alive and kicking.”

“This collection sets out to showcase unconventional and experimental short stories by new and upcoming writers. And in this it has succeeded. The stories by the 17 authors are innovative and thought-provoking, ranging from the inspired and deeply moving to the downright bizarre.

I can’t promise that you will like every story, but that is to be expected with a collection featuring such a variety of styles and subjects. However, I found enough of interest to keep me reading to the end and feel richer for the experience.

I haven’t got space here to write about all the stories, but among my favourites was Write or Die by Sandra Jensen.

For a start, it is a gripping tale well told. But it is also cleverly written in the accent of the poorly educated-main character (the narrator) with all the appropriate misspellings and grammatical errors you would expect. Jensen uses this technique well, drawing the reader into the character’s world without sacrificing pace or readability.

Martin Pond’s Waiting Room is an intriguing and mysterious Brave New World-type tale set in the near future which keeps the reader guessing right to the end while Deborah Arnander’s The Mall is a deeply moving and evocatively written story of loss and hope.

In The Burning, by Mischa Hiller, you can feel the silent anger raging through someone in the grips of bitter disappointment.

It shows a strained relationship in which endearing quirks have become sources of intense irritation, and Hiller uses this to great effect throughout.

The extract from Doing It by the Book by Vicci Adams invites the reader into the main character’s confusion and increasing desperation as the world around him makes less and less sense. As the tale unfurls, it becomes clear to the reader why.

Ashley Stokes’s A Short Story about a Short Film was the most challenging to read, principally because it is told in a series of footnotes to a film script, but I found that once I got used to the style this added an extra layer to the story.

The Unthology provides a platform where the short story as a form can be explored and pushed to its limits (and in one or two cases go beyond them). The publishers rightly make no apology for giving untested writers an opportunity to prove themselves, acknowledging that an author’s first work may not be his or her greatest but that it may show promise of greater things to come – and there are writers here, veteran as well as new, who show much promise.

This collection is a worthy undertaking and shows that the art of experimental short story writing is alive and certainly kicking.”

Andrew Smith, Eastern Daily Press, 4/12/2010

The plot is remarkable, twisting in ways that surprise [ . . .] highly poignant

Not many books are set at university, much less our own, UEA. Even fewer are written from the point of view of a cynical creative writing lecturer. Touching the Starfish follows Nathan Flack, failed novelist and condemned lecturer of adult education creative writing seminars at UEA, as he goes insane.

The storyline hangs upon a unique idea: Flack and his ex Frances once discussed the possibility of a literary genius coming to their classes, one who would reveal Nathan as the counterfeited bluffer he feels he really is. The character infiltrates Nathan’s mind, turning him into a puppet and creating a dramatic fight within Flack for his sanity as he attempts to carry on his mundane life around the UEA campus.

Stokes has created a first person narrative in a character everyone can relate to: the underdog. Nathan Flack hates his job, hates himself and hates what he is becoming, for he realizes he is now the kind of lecturer he never wanted to imitate, sitting on the side of his desk with that stereotypical slant of the head, making “go on” noises to every awful entry his students read. Stokes’s brilliance is the novel’s style. Flack has become the routine lecturer to such an extent that he has written his own story in the exact specifications of a creative writing handbook, complete with footnotes and a “create-your-own-storyline” exercise.

This book teaches you all the rights and wrongs of the craft, giving examples from the lowest form of style to the hidden tips and tricks of impressing the tutor, the agent and the publisher. It tells you all about the plight of giving readings and of the unfair nature of the business. It is comparable to Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, a respected and recommended work, and Touching the Stafish is on a par with its teaching, methods, ideas and encouragement.

The plot is remarkable, twisting in ways that surprise with no implausible issues in its writing; the story itself is full of highly poignant comedy, making the reader’s emotions flow effortlessly from pity for Nathan to laughing out loud at his dilemmas, whilst Nathan himself is a character with a drollness grounded by his cynical views. The setting of UEA is thrilling; it’s painstakingly accurate, from the concrete walkways to the grad bar, all of it easy to place. The book was written a few years ago  and a few places in Norwich have changed, but if you have lived in Norwich all of your life it evokes a strange nostalgia as it reminds you, for example, of how the Costa Coffee in Waterstones uses to be filled with the bigwigs of literature as they looked down at your lattes.

To top it all is the lecturer’s code for he students around campus, guaranteed to have you fretting your position and laughing at the definitions of a ‘folder holder’ or a ‘sensitive plant’. And if that doesn’t get you, the relations between the lecturers are certainly hilarious enough to keep you desperate to know who ends up getting their comeuppance.

This unique novel will change the way you see the tutors, UEA and your fellow students. It will also inspire you to act on your own creativity. So grab a copy, pick up a pen and start your own creative writing lesson.

Hazel Compton: Concrete, 12th October, 2010.

Comic Writing Doesn’t Get Better Than This.

Touching the Starfish has a feeling of inevitability about it. Somewhere along the line someone was going to write about the aridity of the fiction scene with such verve and candour that the current crop of novelists would be put to shame. Someone was going to show us what we’ve been missing. The novel is no dry polemic, though, nor is it a pallid exercise in style for literary snobs. It’s a comic tour de force and has all the makings of an enduring cult classic.

In Touching the Starfish, Ashley Stokes, a writer who has populated little magazines for a while, creates a mordantly heaving world of vulgar publishing houses, Byzantine university departments, mercenary, shyster wannabes and soul-crushingly uniform bookshops. Enter this world, Nathan Flack, ‘locally respected creative writing tutor’ and unpublished novelist convinced he’s on the brink of a breakthrough and just about clinging on to his ideals. Constructed partly around a course Flack teaches, the novel follows his downward spiral, starting with his initial encounter with a particularly testing creative writing class and continuing with the appearance of James O’Mailer, a very literary ghost intent on enlisting Flack to play a role in the sort of harebrained, high concept supernatural story that Flack instinctively despises. It’s outrageously funny from the off, jam-packed as it is with memorable grotesques, on the button pastiches, downright stupid literary games and hilarious set-pieces. A visit to a London poetry reading is a lit-up moment in this respect but all the classroom scenes are worthy of mention.

This isn’t to say that TTS is a mere romp. It also contains at least two very moving love stories, one with a girl and one with language itself. There are echoes of the novels of Tom Sharpe and Douglas Adams on the one hand and JG Ballard and Philip Roth on the other. That it might be a bit long and experimental in places for some tastes are the only notes of caution. In an equal world, Touching the Starfish would outsell Dan Brown five to one, but it’s not and the cultural consequences of this is exactly what Ashley Stokes describes so poignantly. Ultimately, this is a novel that deserves to be read by anyone who want to write and anyone who has attended or taught a creative writing course. Maybe it ought to be read by anyone who loves reading. Comic writing doesn’t get better than this.

Ed Pryor – essentialwriters.com. 1/6/2010


Anarchic and Seriously Funny.

Ashley Stokes has described Touching the Starfish as a “campus-shed novel” to distinguish it from the “campus novels” written by predecessors such as Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. Where they skewer the pretensions and foibles of established, often senior, faculty members, Stokes’s subject is the precarious academic demi-monde of “adult education” – the world, more nearly, of Henry Wilt than of Jim Dixon.

The book defies summation. It is jointly narrated by Nathan Flack, a tutor of creative writing, and James O’Mailer, an imaginary author invented by Flack, who by turns, jeers, taunts, advises and comments on his progress. Plots and sub-plots proliferate in wild profusion describing Nathan’s attempt to publish his fourth novel; his tangled relationships with his head of department, his ex-girlfriend, publishers and agents, and with his class of aspiring writers.

These students – “folder holders” is Flack’s taxonomy of student types – are a peculiar motley. Mac MacMahon is the ex-drummer of Ruiner, a heavy metal band and “Literature Denier” who “don’t read”. Reginald Carnaby is a pedant – a “Grammar-Stammerer” – who doesn’t read anything written after Jane Austen and wants  to write something that will be of “use to future generations”. Dr Jane Vest, an employee of the local sewage company, is a “Romantic Typist possessed of a genteel idea of lady authors living in cottages with their cats who hopes “to get into chicklit”. And Erika Gretsch is simply crazy – a Moon Barker” who believes she was once singled out by “a wise old woman sitting on a lump of hay” to be “the Herald of The He and must serve him” with her words.

The novel is the work of an anarchic imagination stuffed with incident and mordantly humorous observations on teaching and academic politics, publishing and the venality of publishers and the travails of trying to survive as an author of serious fiction in a market dominated by “three-for-two product shifters”. It draws on a range of devices familiar to readers of contemporary “experimental” fiction. Footnotes, varying typography, the questionable narrative voice of James O’Mailer, pastiche, and stories nested within stories written in a variety of genres and styles, are all employed.

For all its attention to form, Touching the Starfish is a very funny and accessible book. It is a fine first novel.

Mark Bond Webster. Eastern Daily Press. 3rd April 2010

Touching the Starfish, is a darkly comic and downright naked portrayal of the plight of the artist and intellectual in the corporate environment. Stokes’ tortured protagonist, Nathan Flack, is our generation’s Lucky Jim. Haunted by the dismissal of his latest novel as ‘tricky to market,’ Flack is surrounded by philistines, psychos, and business nazis, all of whom seem to be doing better than him. Doomed to teach creative writing while heroically clinging to the literary ideal, Flack is further tormented by the Dickensian animus ‘James O’Mailer,’ muse of muses, imagination (figment or personification), gothic device, and/or symptom of mental illness. As O’Mailer invades the hero’s consciousness, he also annexes the text in the form of deconstructive, Shandyesque footnotes, which mediate the essentially Modernist structure (each section corresponds to a fictional device). This is a book about writing – about the compulsion to write, the need to communicate, the frustration, and not suffering fools gladly. It is also unashamedly experimental: points-of-view shift, styles change, foot-notes intervene, and intertexts and allegories abound – you don’t need to know what they are, but it’s fun if you do. Flack’s elitism is endearing – he loathes the military/industrial/entertainment complex, and his world view is guaranteed to appeal to anyone who need not lie on The Culture Show about always owning Live at the Witch Trials. But you don’t need to be a Generation X part-time tutor to get off on this. Stokes’ prose is engaging, intelligent, beautifully observed and very funny – the teaching sections alone are worth the cover price, and the sex scene from Death Metal Revelations will change your life. A story for everyone that knows that failure is much more interesting than success, and that people who are unlucky at cards are usually unlucky at everything.

(Dr. Stephen ‘Kit’ Carver.)

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