Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone

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Home published by Red Button Press

Home published by Red Button Press

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone is an unnerving novel which stays with you long after you have finished reading it. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly reassuring title. This book isn’t about home in the cosy, stay in, have a pizza and watch a box set sense. The home in the title is referring to the euphemistic antiseptic institutional variety, as in care “home”.

Retired Steve has recently started working in one of the above mentioned homes for the elderly at the behest of his dying wife Fran. Knowing the kind of man Steve is, she realises that he will need something to keep him going when she is gone.

Initially things start well. The work load is manageable and being relieved of the responsibility of being a carer for a few hours a day unburdens Steve, and no doubt eases his wife’s concerns about him being occupied when she has passed. Although they have a son he is living in America and him and Steve are somewhat estranged.

Steve’s new colleagues are bearable if not entirely likable. The homes two nurses are Milos an immigrant and aspiring artist with a wife and child back home and  Sarah. Sarah is a rather bitter and hard done by figure who labours under an unreciprocated crush on Milos.  Steve’s boss is Miss Tacey, whose penchant for aggressive high heels and tightly fitted outfits provide a source of amusement for him and his wife.

Despite Steve’s UKIP like views on immigration it is with Milos that he strikes up a friendship both of them bonding over hot beverages and cigarettes, Turkish coffee for Milos and of course tea for Steve.

Things tick along well enough for Steve and a new routine is developed. Then the inevitable happens and Fran dies. Initially devastated, as time passes and Steve emerges gradually from the fog of immediate mourning, he starts notice some things don’t add up.

Why after working for months in the home has he never set eyes on a resident? Why is the home in possession of an industrial strength incinerator for cremation? And why did the care home employ Steve, an elderly man with a dying wife as caretaker? It’s almost as if they were looking to hire someone distracted who wouldn’t pay attention to their surroundings…

Steve decides some investigation is in order and uses his position as care taker to give him the access he requires in order to get the answers he needs.  But as Steve soon discovers, some questions are dangerous to ask.

Home is a challenging book which offers the reader no easy resolutions. It unflinchingly looks at the way western society treats it elderly and how they are marginalised and commodified for the sake of convenience.

The home itself is anything but that, its bleached neutrality rendering everything interchangeable and impersonal. Here individuals lose their specific histories and become part of the interchangeable mass termed the ‘elderly’ which society consigns those deemed to be past usefulness.

Ghastly families flit in and out of the home to pay perfunctory visits to their alleged loved ones, primarily concerned about easing their own guilt rather than the wellbeing of their relatives.

This novel is not easy to read, especially if you have a friend or relative currently residing in an institution, but things worth reading usually aren’t. While some people will no doubt be defensive in the face of its critique I feel that it is both necessary and compelling.

To say I enjoyed “Home” seems a little perverse given its subject matter. instead I’ll just say it left me unnerved and a little sad, which I mean as a compliment as sometimes one requires something a little more substantial than the sweet lies of happy ever afters.

The Anchoress by Paul Blaney

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The Anchoress published by Red Button

The Anchoress published by Red Button

One of the many strengths of the novel form, when successfully executed, lies in the ease with which it can transport us to exotic, unfamiliar locations and scenarios without the need for big budgets and special effects, but rather through the simple interplay of the written word and our own mind. Whether from the comfort of our favourite armchair or aboard public transport we can open a book at any moment and be transported to  the midst of a medieval market place, walk the streets of Victorian London or even witness intergalactic warfare in distant solar systems.

Or as is the case with The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, we can find ourselves outside a walk in wardrobe wondering why a grown woman has decided to sequester herself there. While this scenario may not seem as obviously dramatic as the previous examples it is important to remember drama has as much do with the interior lives of characters as much as exterior events.

The Anchoress opens with our protagonist, Maggie, already cloistered within the closet; we know nothing about how she ended up in there. As the story unfolds we learn a little of her predicament through her interior dialogue and her interaction between the various individuals who come into her life as a result of the unorthodox action she has taken. The first of these is a pizza delivery man of a philosophical bent who mistakenly enters her unlocked apartment and ends up in conversation with her. Through their initial interaction he soon becomes a confidante who provides food for both sustenance and thought.

Then there is the mysterious neighbour whom Maggie communicates with via the thin partition wall which separates them. This mysterious voice initially sounds like a child or young adult’s, but the probing questions it unrelentingly asks soon suggest otherwise.

The other characters come in the form of Norman, an ostensibly concerned but perhaps self-serving work colleague, an unexpectedly religious policewoman, and as news of Maggie’s retreat from the world spreads, an inevitable journalist. Each of these characters tries to make sense of Maggie’s actions through the lens of their respective positions. The colleague discusses work, property values and material things and represents these concerns, the policewoman represents the state and our responsibilities to it which sometimes come at a cost to us, and the journalist represents society and its determination to categorise our actions.

Blaney presents these characters sympathetically and does not condemn them; they are all shown to have an inner life and unexpected dimensions. This shows real subtlety on behalf of the author who doesn’t condemn these semi-allegorical characters or what they represent. Blaney is possessed of enough perspicacity to realise that things such as the material and social do matter, but it is the order in which we prioritise them which is essential.

It’s clear from reading the Anchoress that Paul Blaney is well-informed about religion, philosophy, mythology, fairy-tales and ritual, as he blends ideas from these areas and intersperses ideas from all these sources throughout the novel. This is most apparent in the form of the conversations between the characters, especially Maggie and the pizza man, which follow the tradition of, and reference, Socratic dialogues.

The fairy-tale themes come in the form of the princess in the castle trope. Over the course of her various dialogues we learn that Maggie’s childhood was quite isolated, growing up as she did in a renovated Martello tower. Although she has since left her childhood home she continues to dwell there psychologically, a prisoner of the consolatory fables she had constructed to aid herself in her time of need which she has now outgrown. Instead of being rescued by a handsome prince as is the convention, Maggie must figure out how to liberate herself from her past. Her seclusion in the closet is the beginning of this process.

The walk in closet is a sacred space which offers a place for self-examination and reconstruction. It is a confession box at first where she must confront herself and the truth of the narrative of her life. Later it functions as many other things, a reference to the famous wardrobe of the Narnia chronicles, a chrysalis for growth, and an echo of the Buddha’s spot under the Bodhi where he resisted the temptations of the outside world in order to attain enlightenment, to name but a few.

The Anchoress is a generous spirited novella which approaches spiritual, philosophical and psychological topics in a refreshingly down to earth way. The character Maggie is an ordinary middle class woman who is quite unexceptional, an everywoman, rather than a wild-eyed mystic or messianic chosen one. This serves to bring topics which can appear forbidding down to earth.

While sometimes philosophy, religion and literature can seem to occupy a rarefied space reserved for the exceptionally intelligent, spiritual etc… here we see they are in essence tools for helping us to make sense of the world around us.  I think most people could identify with Maggie’s need to “work out what kind of relationship I should have with the world”.

The message of The Anchoress is a simple one which is frequently ignored in our chaotic capitalist society. Sometimes we need space from the chaos of the world, our jobs, families, phones and facebook, all the things which distract us from examining ourselves and asking hard questions. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different from the crowd. Accessible, engaging, full of ideas and humanity, The Anchoress won’t disappoint.

An interview with Red Button Publishing

red buttonI recently got the opportunity to interview Caroline Goldsmith, co-founder of Red Button Publishing. Established by Caroline and Karen Ings, Red Button are an exciting new e-publishing company whose second e-book, The Anchoress, by Paul Blaney has just been released. Expect a review of the Anchoress here soon.

Steve: So first things first, red button publishing, that an interesting name, how did you come up with it?

Caroline: Yeah it was interesting, Karen and I had been talking about setting up Red Button for a while, but the name was something we really had no idea about. We wanted something that grabbed attention also we didn’t want a name which harked back to paper publishing. Lots of people have said, quite disparagingly about digital publishing, that all you have to do is press a button nowadays, which isn’t true but we wanted to sort of play on that. We made it red because that’s the button that you really want to press, it’s the tempting one, it’s the exciting one. It’s the one that wants to be pressed, and really that was the type of books we were looking for, the ones which want to be read, which want to find an audience and want to be out there in the big wide world.

Steve: So it seems like it was important for you to establish a separate identity from more traditional modes of publishing?

Caroline: Well we didn’t want to be disingenuous about what we were doing, because we had both worked in traditional publishing our entire careers, and it’s a fantastic industry to be in. But what we are offering now is a voice through the digital medium. We’ve been very upfront from the start; we understand that lots of authors would love to see their names on the cover of an actual printed book. So our hope is that when our authors become hugely successful and they get Penguin knocking on the door we will be able to handle the transition over. We’re about giving people an audience and we can do that for them digitally.

Steve: So you’re hoping to launch authors and help them to maximise their potential audience?

Caroline: That’s one of our goals, certainly. But our key goal is really to just publish some fantastic fiction, and to work with some authors who we find really exciting, and who we hope other people will find exciting too. That’s the primary goal. Further down the line we wouldn’t stand in the way if one of our authors got a big deal out of this.

Steve: And who knows how big you guys will be in a couple of years…

Caroline: Yes! It’s just the two of us at the moment. There’s lots of work to be done.

Steve: You mentioned earlier how you both have previously worked in traditional print publishing. Have you noticed any major differences between that and digital?

Caroline: Well for a start you’re not printing on paper, that’s the crucial difference. Actually I would say that’s probably the only difference. I think the self-publishing revolution has been really fascinating and really empowering for writers. Increasingly I think a lot of writers are realising that people within publishing, do have certain skills which can be applied to e books just as well as paper books, you know there are production values involved in producing a good e-book. Cover design is something which needs to be professionally done, or to at least look professional. Editing is probably the most crucial thing that a lot of self-published authors are missing out on. Equally there’s the marketing. We found that a lot of self-published authors that we’ve spoken to find it quite exhausting and quite difficult to do their own self-promotion. It’s a difficult enough thing to cold contact book reviewers when you’re a publisher; I know having worked in publicity, it’s another thing if you’re ringing up and saying “my book is brilliant” as opposed to someone else’s book is brilliant. So I think that people are actually realising that the publishing industry, whilst it’s evolving, it still is relevant. If you want to have good quality fiction to read then you need those curators.

Steve: That’s actually what my next question is about, Curators and discernment. The quality of stuff published through e publishing can be variable, more dramatically perhaps than in traditional publishing. When I read Red Buttons debut novel, The Human Script by Johnny Rich, the first thing that leapt out at me was the high quality of the writing and presentation. I could immediately tell that it had gone through an editorial process.  This really challenged my sniffy pre-conceived notions about e publishing, which I had previously assumed to be the preserve of strange people writing vampire fan fiction in their bedroom or vanity projects. Do you think that stigma is slowly being challenged by the likes of red Button who apply traditional editorial standards to e publishing

Caroline: Yes absolutely. I think that stigma is still there, but that was really what we wanted to do with Red Button. Carol and I are both passionate about good fiction. And I do read Vampire novels as well…

Steve: Me too, actually!

Caroline: But we decided right from the start, because it’s just the two of us and because we are running on our energy at the moment, we wanted to do books that we really believed in. When Johnny came to us with The Human Script (Red Button’s first release), I think the two of us must have read it in a day, and we both immediately got on the phone to each other and I recall jumping up and down in my lounge. We knew it was something good and we knew it was something that should have been published and the fact that it wasn’t and that it had just sat under Johnny’s bed for the last decade was a real tragedy, it deserves to be read, it is a brilliant book. For us, we are still finding that there is a stigma attached to e publishing. For example when I tell people what doing, even former colleagues go “oh well that’s not really publishing is it?”  People don’t seem to realise that digital publishing is not just pushing a button. There’s a lot of work, thought and creativity, not just from the writer, which goes into making something the best it can be. So yes I think there still is a big stigma. One of the things we found very frustrating are the literary prizes. We’ve been approaching various literary prizes. The new Goldsmith Prize is one, which is a prize for innovation, and they’re not accepting e-book submissions this year, I have put my case to them and they are apparently going to reconsider for next year but of course that’s too late for Johnny’s book. The Booker does take digital submissions, but there are many who don’t and I think that closes doors to some really interesting writers so that it’s a shame that paper still has such a hold over the list.

Steve: It’s like the rest of the culture still has yet to catch up with the concept of e publishing?

Caroline: Exactly. Equally it’s the same with the mainstream press, which is why Karen and I have been really focussing on the book bloggers, not just because they are becoming increasingly more influential on what people read. I mean even for people who are publishing paperbacks at Penguin it can be difficult to get your books on the Guardian book page because they’re getting smaller, they focus very much on hardbacks and they focus very much on a key demographic, I mean you very rarely see sci-fi books sitting on the Guardian literary pages you have to go elsewhere to find reviews and recommendation for that sort of stuff, but I do think things will change as the move towards more digital reading happens and I do firmly believe that will happen, that it is the future.

Steve: Well to be honest Red Button are the publishers who changed my mind about e publishing and who challenged my preconceived notions about what it can be so I hope you continue to succeed in this. I believe you have another book due out soon?

Caroline: Yes I’m currently wrestling with the formatting as I sit at my Mac. It’s called The Anchoress by Paul Blaney. He’s an ex-pat based in the States, he’s writer in residence at Rutgers University. It’s a fascinating book. Its novella sized, a nice neat little package. It’s a very quirky, very touching and very brilliantly written little novella. Paul is a really good writer and we were really impressed with him. That is coming out imminently.

Steve: Excellent, I look forward to that. You mentioned its format is the novella. Do you have plans to publish other formats such as short stories or serialisations?

Caroline: We haven’t had any short story submissions yet actually, but as we’ve said on our submissions page we are leaving the door wide open really. We will consider any genre. We’ve had thrillers, sci-fi and romance submitted to us. Basically our motto is if Karen and I like it, and if we think we can do right by the writer, we will offer the author a contract. That’s the other thing: we really don’t want to take people on if we don’t think that we work well with them and be of benefit to them. If a short story collection came along and we loved and felt we could do right by the author we would definitely consider it.

Steve: Well I think that covers everything Caroline, Thank you very much for talking to me today and best of luck to Red Button for the future. I look forward to the next book.

Caroline: It was a pleasure, thank you Steve.

 

 

 

 

The Human Script by Johnny Rich

indexSurely if someone writes a novel which is gripping, bursting with ideas and evidently written by a skilled story-teller, these merits will guarantee it gets published right? Sadly the answer to that question is no. While we sometimes like to think of art as a lofty endeavour which transcends the mundane world of economics, this is simply not the case.

Take the world of publishing for example. In times of economic uncertainty, such as now, publishers become risk averse and understandably tend to stick to what they know will sell, rather than taking risks on unknown quantities. This means that those who do not conform to these models, such as unpublished and experimental authors, lose out. While it would be great if meritocracy reigned within publishing, unfortunately harsh economic realities render this unlikely.

As a result of comprehending this unpalatable reality I have become a haunted man. My dreams are filled with spectral libraries, vast purgatories of the unpublished. Translucent tomes taunt me with their intangibility, their spines unreadable and unknowable. How many great books have been denied to our culture due the current economic climate? To quote Joseph Brodsky, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” What then of those whose actions unwittingly prevent their publication and prevent even the possibility of reading them? Those bankers have a lot to answer for…Damn you Goldman Sachs!

Yet where pessimists like me see devastation and waste, there are those who are clear-sighted enough to realise that hundreds, perhaps even thousands of unpublished works of high quality floating about in the ether presents a real opportunity. Enter Red Button Publishing. I recently received an email from Red Button, a new digital imprint for fiction. The email inquired if I would like to review The Human Script by Johnny Rich. It also explained that Red Button was established by Caroline Goldsmith and Karen Ings, two people who have enjoyed successful careers in print publishing. Crucially the email also explained that Red Button were established to remedy the situation of conservative publishing due to economic factors by providing an outlet for talented authors who may have been overlooked. Excited by their innovative response to the current publishing climate I agreed to review The Human Script, but you guessed that already, I hope…

The Human Script tells the story of Chris Putnam, a rather introverted young research scientist who is working on the human working on the Human Genome project. Chris lives in London with his flat-mate Elsi, a perpetually stoned philosophy enthusiast who indulges, and engages with Chris’s existential dilemmas offering sympathy, tea, advice and an endless stream of joints. Emerging from mourning a lost relationship with his boyfriend Gill, Chris is just beginning to enjoy life again when he receives news of his estranged father’s death. Chris’s estrangement from his father stems from their disparate world views. Chris being gay, and more significantly an atheist inevitably disappointed his Calvinist father.

On returning to his hometown Dunmarrick for the funeral he encounters his twin brother Dan, a brash young British artist type who seems to be Chris’s polar opposite. Where Chris likes to avoid the limelight, Dan revels in it. Dan like any YBA worth his salt courts controversy, and seems to live by Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It is through Dan that Chris encounters Leo Martin, a young actor whose star is on the rise. Chris and Leo hit it off but unfortunately for the budding couple their liaison must be kept secret as gay leading men do not make good box office.

I must admit that I was a little dubious on encountering this cast of unlikely characters when I began reading the novel. A gay geneticist who lives with a philosopher flat mate, who has a remote Calvinist and a twin brother who is an artist and eventually dates a closeted movie star? The potential conflicts seemed to be too loudly signalled, it all seemed a little too contrived and well, novelistic.

But then something wonderful happened. As the novel unfolded I realised I’d been had. It was the author’s intent that the characters should appear that way to me. Like most readers who devour large amounts of fiction, I have developed the ability to anticipate narrative trajectories with reasonable success. Without divulging too much for fear of diminishing enjoyment of the story, Johnny Rich had duped me and I loved it. I finished the novel with a big stupid grin on my face.

I also enjoyed Rich’s writing on science and belief systems. By juxtaposing systems such as science, religion and even astrology, Rich uses them to explore ideas like pre-destination, probability and the human tendency toward narrative. His passages about DNA are beautifully lucid and informative, especially for those of us who are a little fuzzy about amino acids. I was also relieved that his take on religion is sympathetic, while not endorsing it neither does he succumb to ill-informed arguments against it.

Rich demonstrates that science or religion can be equally restrictive, with genetic determinism providing narratives not so far from ideas like Calvinistic pre-destination as it would like to believe. It’s not that I am overly religious myself; it’s just that I am tired of reductive materialists such as Richard Dawkins and his ilk spouting ill-informed nonsense about it. Rich’s sophistication in engaging with the matter refreshing.

The Human Script is an engaging novel brimming with ideas, so much so I feel it would stand up to multiple re readings within a short space of time. To say I enjoyed The Human Script would be an understatement. It provided me with the long forgotten thrill of not knowing how a novel will conclude, and for that I am grateful. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever, well written fiction.

I have included links below to Red Button’s website; I have also provided a link to an interview with the author on the Red Button site:
http://redbuttonpublishing.net/
http://redbuttonpublishing.net/2013/05/09/9th-may-2013-an-interview-with-johnny-rich-author-of-the-human-script-2/