Marmite on toast

Marmite on toast. So wrong but right. It was hot and comforting. Not sweet. The opposite of sweet. The Japanese would probably call it umami. 

It had to be created with care. The toast brought to the edge of being burnt. Then the butter spread while the toast was so hot it would melt into it. Lots of butter! Marmite added then, a good layer, not too thin, not too thick. Spread right to the edges of the toast. Then served with a hot mug of tea or tall glass of milk in the sitting room while we watched a movie (probably Labryinth) 

I remember it fondly because it was a taste my younger sister and I shared. There was a regular debate between us as to who made the best version. If she make it I wanted hers. If I made it, she wanted mine. 


The symbolic power of masks

greek mask

In the imaginative life of humans MASKS have always been powerful totemic symbols: Comedy, Tragedy, Vader, Boba Fett, Noh, Bauta, V, Stormtrooper, Batman, etc.

Masks both hide and resonate with energy at the same time.

They project symbolic power while hiding the individual personality underneath.

The names and faces of classic authors have also become masks, death-masks: Shakespeare, Hemingway, Kafka, Orwell, Beckett, etc.


They have ceased to be individuals and are represented by their work, what it represents. The ideas their work express are no longer attached to the individual but belong to the world.

What can new writers learn from this?


Review: Sinker by Jason Johnson

I recently reviewed Jason Johnson’s new novel, Sinker for Issue 2 of the Incubator journal. Incubator is a new online journal with a strong focus on contemporary writing from NI / Ireland. This is my second connection with Incubator as my story ‘Saint Perpetua’ was published in their first issue.

You can read Issue 2 of The Incubator Journal here. As well as my review it also includes:

Interview: Cherry Smyth, interviewed by Claire Savage.

Review: Orla McAlinden on Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson.

Plays: Paula Matthews. Jamie Guiney.

Fiction: Marie Gethins. Laura Cameron. James Meredith. Aoibheann McCann. Tom O’Connell. Deirdre McClay. David Braziel. Lynda Tavakoli. Paul McCaffrey. D. Joyce-Ahearne. Eve-Marie Power. Chris McLaughlin.

The review is reproduced here:

Review: Sinker by Jason Johnson

Set in an alternate present day, where drinking alcohol to excess is a professional sport, Sinker drops us head first into the life of Derry born law dropout, Baker Forley, a new recruit into this reviled and controversial sport. He’s not an alcoholic though, he doesn’t even like to drink socially, he’s just there to make some money and do something with his empty life. He teams up with an arse-groping American drinking coach called Ratface and heads to sunny Mallorca for the infamous Bullfight drinking battle.

It’s all going to plan until the heat gets to Baker and he stares at the wrong woman in the crowd, a mysterious Arabian beauty called Crystal and is knocked out by her Saudi oil-baron husband’s heavy, a bodyguard called Nap.

Afterwards the alcoholic Saudi feels guilty about Baker losing out in the Bullfight and to make amends he invites Baker and Ratface to his Gaudi-designed home so they can teach him how to drink like a professional. And he’s willing to pay handsomely for their services.

But this is not the real reason they are invited over. Others in the background are conspiring to use Baker for more than his drinking skills. As he drinks to excess in the hot sun hidden lust surfaces, Baker learns the truth about why he’s been invited and must escape before he loses everything.

This novel is described as, ‘inspired by the power and complexity of addiction, Sinker is a thrilling, irreverent yet often joyful take on a hopeless but changing male drinking culture.’

The story opens strongly and hooks you in. At the start of the novel Johnson builds his world well; we get the history and rules of the sport of Professional Drinking. You can sense he really enjoyed creating this aspect of the story. We hear the commentary on it from a liberal media which hates the sport and wants it banned.

‘Sink has been called ‘the most disturbing so-called sport on the face of the earth and the one which prove most concisely that mankind is mad, self-destructive and, worse, likes being that way.’.’

‘Protesters wave placards calling for a ban and shout statistics about the sport and the lifespan of livers and the empty, endless void of death, and stuff like that.’

An interesting aspect of Sinker is the way it explores drinking and modern masculinity by pushing it to its most extreme. It’s a hyper-real version of the way thousands of people behave every weekend in pubs throughout Ireland and Britain. The first half of the novel is explores this deformed male drinking culture really well. For example, when Ratface gives Baker advice on how to perform at the Bullfight: ‘He says, ‘Besides, you’re a man, M-A-N. Tough and mean and dick muscle and rising to the occasion. Alpha it up, okay? Control your environment, got it?’ To be a real alpha male, with a big dick your must drink. Sex and drinking are here exposed as intertwined. It exposes the pressure on men to drink hard to show how manly they are.

Johnson is also a good at continually creating fresh and unusual images. The house where the Saudi lives is an absurdist, Dali-esque nightmare. It’s so odd one character even dies by water fountain. Another example is at the end of the novel when they are on the run from danger and head deep underground, ‘It’s like we’re stuck now, nowhere, in the middle of zero, dark as the inside of a horse, right on the edge of some sort of hell.’ The house is a warped labyrinth of danger.

The narrator and protagonist Baker Forley is utterly unlikeable, with not one redeemable feature. He is a cynical, self-obsessed loser who punctuates every idea with an expletive or ‘some shite’. He is the modern anti-hero, he’s laconic, laid back, to use his own words he doesn’t give a shite. But the problem with this is at times he feels so laid back he’s not even interested in the story he’s telling or his own life.

Hi coach is a man called Ratface. He is an American expert of the sport of Professional Drinking. A sort of alcoholic Mr. Miyagi. He has a nasty habit of grabbing Baker’s arse without permission. This is supposed to be funny but is overused. Ratface is his nickname because he looks like a rat. I have a problem with this way naming of a character. It’s too reductive. It seems a cool thing to do for a generation raised on Tarantino movies; and while it can work on screen where we see the character not just the name, on the page of a book it becomes repetitive and reduces the character to a simple idea: this character is a rat, he cannot be trusted.

Baker and Ratface are the two most developed characters and their relationship exposes a truth typical to many male relationships. They constantly argue and insult each other; they never permit themselves to get along. But the other characters and relationships are underdeveloped. Women in particular don’t fare well. The only real female character is Crystal, whose only role in the story appears is to be an object of Baker’s desire and to deceive him. She is the ice-cold femme fatale. We learn very little about her and why she acts as she does. The only other women in the story stand around looking sexy and serving beer. The Saudi oil-baron and Nap the Bodyguard are even more undeveloped. The Saudi is a rich alcoholic while Nap is a bodyguard with a heart of gold who can’t hold his drink.

Overall Sinker, to use a sporting cliché, is a novel of two halves. When I first started to read the novel it read as an interesting comment on the male drinking culture, but this aspect disappears. It could have done a lot more with this idea. Midway during the novel the story shifts and transforms into a warped revenge thriller when a crazy ex-associate of Ratface’s shows up and starts killing characters at with his ice-cold femme fatale at his side. By the end it feels like a missed opportunity.

Jonathan O’Brien

Choices and their Fallout


Fallout is the title story of my collection currently available on Kindle. I chose that title for the collection as it felt right for stories about consequences, about the fall-out from the choices we make in life, be they big or small.

The story ‘Fallout’ is about two boys, Jack and Froggy, playing in fields near their council housing estate in 1980’s Ireland. They fight and fall out over childish things, as boys often do, but their games are cut short by Jack’s mother calling them in due to some dimly understood threat from the east.

The story is based on my own memories of hearing the news about the Chernobyl disaster when I was a boy.

This story has been in my thoughts recently for two reasons. Sadly, the boy who was Froggy died in tragic circumstances earlier this year.  And also because the news from the east has begun to feel threatening again.

Hopefully the boys in power, East and West, will make the right choices before there are consequences that are impossible to repair.

The Chernobyl disaster took place in Ukraine on 26 April 1986.

Download and print a free copy of the story here: Fallout J.O’Brien Carlow (1)

Literature and Class Consciousness



Who controls literature?

This question has been humming in my mind lately. It relates to power structures and class in Ireland. I can only speak of the Irish experience as that is what I’m familiar with but what I’m thinking of probably applies to most modern capitalist cultures.

In Ireland we rarely speak about class, it seems a very British idea, but there are different classes.
There is an upper class of the ultra rich. They control wealth and land. This is a relatively small class but very powerful.
There is a large middle class of educated professionals, doctors, solicitors, teachers, academics, politicians, journalists, etc.
There is a large working class of farmers, tradesmen, shop and industrial workers.
There is a small underclass of people who exist in a liminal space, they have almost no voice in our society.

In my experience it is the middle class who control literature and therefore literature reflects their interests. Most editors are from this class. Most publishers are run by people from the middle class. The news and media are run by people from the middle class. Politics is run by the middle class. Are most writers from this class too?

Now, I’m not calling this a conspiracy or saying that there is any ulterior motive behind it by people working in literature, however there is a downside to this. That is groupthink.

If all of the people who decide on what is ‘good’ literature come from the same class then we get a very narrow view of what literature is. Their interests and needs will dominate what’s published. If they write about the life experience of another class they do so from the outside and there will always be a judgement made about the lives of the other class.

For example, in literary magazines in Ireland at the moment there seems to be a strong interest in stories about the underclass; criminals, outlaws, and scumbags. They are ‘characters’ to feel sorry for or to laugh at. Rarely are their lives seen from the inside, without judgment. I suppose they are of interest because they live in the moment, acting out emotions in violent and sudden bursts. A sort of grotesque spectacle, a deformed human drama.

But where are the stories from the working class perspective? The upperclass? The underclass? What if a working class story came to an editor that did not fit with their view of ‘good’ literature? Would it be rejected?

This domination of literature by the middle class has a dangerous downside that I often see. When I’m not writing I teach in a secondary school and I see students who feel alienated from books and literature. They (mostly boys) tell me that they don’t read. I would argue that this is because they don’t see their own lives reflected in literature in a positive way. They see literature as something ‘posh’ that middle/upper class types are into but isn’t for them. So they prefer film, football and TV, places where their lives are reflected without as much judgement. They ignore literature altogether.

In conclusion…

If this were an essay I would have to reach a conclusion, prove my thesis, but I’m not interested in proving a point. I’m more interested in raising a question. If a literary scene is controlled by a particular class then their interests will surely dominate and every other class will be seen from the outside. This can only be bad for literature in the long run.

5 Ways to Improve Your Flash Fiction

Lightning_storm_over_Boston_-_NOAA (3)

Flash Fiction is emerging as a growing force in modern fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert, I’m always learning, but here are a few things I’ve found that have helped to improve my own Flash Fiction.

1. Be specific. Concrete details help ground your story in a real time and place for the reader. For example if you say a character is eating a Big Mac you know where they are very quickly.

2. Alliteration. This simple technique borrowed from poetry adds musicality to ordinary sentences. Example: ‘her eyebrows are perfectly plucked’. The letter ‘p’ is repeated here. Beware though, overuse of this is fatal.

3. Dialogue. What a character says gives us their personality very quickly as long as you give them a distinct voice.

4. Repetition. Another technique borrowed from poetry. Repeating a word or phrase can emphasize a detail but again overuse here is fatal.

5. Endings. These are the hardest things to get right in Flash Fiction, how do you know when to stop? I have found that less is more and if it feels right then stop. It is better to leave the reader with a question than to wrap it all up with a neat bow. I like ambiguity, the story should bleed into the reader’s life.

These are just some ideas that work for me, what works for you?

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2014


In a few weeks I plan to attend the Winchester Writers Festival 2014. I was kindly funded by my local County Council here in Carlow to travel to the UK. Thanks to them.

It will be my first time attending a festival of this type, although I did go to Listowel Writer’s Week last year and had a great experience.
There is an interesting line-up of speakers and workshops, the big name is Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat.


There’s lot of other people, (agents and authors), who I’m not hugely familiar with, as I’m not very connected with UK writing scene. The only names I’ve heard before are Paul Kerr (Flash Fiction) and Julia Churchill (Agent).

I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone who has attended the Winchester Festival before.
What should I be expecting from this festival?
What are the do’s and don’t’s?
What are the highlights of a festival like this?
What is Winchester like?

These are just a few things I can think of, any other thoughts are welcome.

I’ll post a review of the Festival once I’ve returned.

What are the new classics in literature?


A storm is raging across literary circles in the UK about Michael Gove’s changes to the the GCSE Literature texts.

“To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are among the US literary classics dropped by a GCSE exam board after education secretary Michael Gove called for more British works to be studied.”

There is always a negative reaction to the suggestion that the canon of literature might be changed and that students might be challenged to read different texts.

While I agree that both of the above are great books that people should read, it’s not good if they are overused by teachers and that students see a very narrow type of literature. We need more diversity in the curriculum.

The same issues are present here in Ireland where a narrow number of poems, plays and novels are used yearly by teachers. The offenders are:
The Field, John B.Keane
Romeo and Juliet
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
Dulce et decorum, Wilfred Owen
Any early poem by Seamus Heaney

Nearly all students across Ireland are currently revising all of these for their Junior Cert exams. But overusing these is like looking at literature through a key hole and the sad fact is that for many students the are the only literature they will read.

Rather than fighting for retaining texts that been there for donkey’s years we need to find new classics. I think students should be exposed to a wider range of texts across all genres, not just “serious” literature with serious themes, they should read comedy, science fiction, chick lit, short stories, fantasy, memoir, biography, magic realism, graphic novels, anything and everything. Books that will make them laugh.

What are the new classics?


Literature for Teenagers?


Literature for teenagers?

I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a literature for teenagers. Is such a thing possible?

Whenever I visit my local bookstore I see lots of books aimed at teenagers. They are usually termed YA. They seem to be presented in perfect packages filled with stories of interest to teenagers. Fantasy. Love. Adventure. School. Crime. Romance. But they often seem too deliberate, too knowing, too cool, too well packaged. The authors have no doubt written a great story and worked hard but they seem too thought out. The author set out to write a YA novel.

Literature always strikes me as being less deliberate. More organic. A thing that grows out of the author without their consent, like a wonderful weed. A thistle maybe. It pricks at the writer and forces itself onto the page.

The two novella that I am working on presently both have a teenage protagonist. I’m not sure why, their stories came to be most clearly. They shone bright in my imagination. Maybe it’s because my teenage years were difficult. Whose weren’t? Does that make these stories YA? I never set out to write YA. I don’t aim write in a genre really. I write the story as it arrives. I make no concession for the reader as I write.

This brings me back to my opening question. Is a modern literature for teenagers, that isn’t deliberate or knowingly written, possible? Would teenagers want to read it?