Touching the Starfish

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.


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.

Twitter – @AshleyJStokes

His whole demeanour seemed to balloon with venom…

Novel in progress – Guilt.

So Ramsey Campbell is coming in tomorrow and his book, Grin of the Dark, has successfully given me the shits. The worst thing is, it’s such ordinary weirdness, piled up upon increasing, unrelenting weirdness, that it becomes extraordinarily scary. You can’t get your breath. I’ve had to sleep with the radio on. Classic FM, nice bit of chill. Anyway, I’m trying to enact some of the lessons learned in his style. How the ordinary can be utterly extraordinary.




We bundled up our baby, and ourselves, laughing at each other in matching thermals, but it was so bitter we didn’t want to go far. I took my camera and set it to black and white. Happy snaps. I liked black and white. I thought it imbued the photograph, and the memory, with something more profound. An attempt to make it indelible. I thought of how Lola might one day look back at our pictures. It made me want to take good ones, for her future reminiscing.

I snapped Tab in the snow making the obligatory angel. Lola running up the golf course after Tab. We followed the hole signs the wrong way.

‘The red signs are for men,’ Tab said, breathless, cresting the top of one hill, Lola in her arms. ‘Yellow for ladies.’

‘How sexist,’ I said.

‘Well, the men just can’t keep up.’ She winked at me.

The bobble hat I’d bought her for Christmas was jammed over her eyebrows. Her cheeks looked as flushed as Lola’s. Vibrant. Matching lips. She would always be beautiful. The shape of her face, as she aged, would become increasingly womanly. I imagined her, fleetingly, an older mother. A grandmother. That same smile, the same hair, maybe cut with more layers. The same warmth and kindness that infused her with beauty.

I wanted to capture the variation of colour in her face, so I switched from black and white, opened the aperture to let in more light. She was looking down at Lola, hands reaching high for a hug. They were both framed by a tall tree in the background, shaping around them like an arm around their shoulder. I clicked.

A dog yapped in the distance. I looked up, saw another family sledding down the hill. When Lola was bigger, we’d be able to do that too.

I couldn’t wait to look at the pictures later, decide which ones to clean up on my photo editor, which ones to get printed. Tab said I ruined the immediacy of pictures by tinkering with things. It’s not life, if you take away the red eye.

I had that Christmas feeling again. Total relaxation, the wrapped up blanket feeling of being with my family. I was peering at spreadsheets in the office, which was always a bit like those magic eye pictures. You had to look at them the right way for them to make any sense. I pinched the bridge of my nose and sat back in the leather chair. The study was in our converted attic. A small room with low beams, my desk before the tiny oblong window. I couldn’t see down. Just sky. And the sky was white. And the land was white. So which way was up? It felt a bit disorientating, but in a good way. 

I nudged my photo of Tab on the desk. She’s pregnant with Lola in this picture. Black and white again. Perhaps that was the beginning of my love for it. She’s sat in a beer garden, capturing the sun like a tractor beam.

The camera was next to the mouse mat. I pressed it on, heard a little R2D2 squeak as it powered up. I set it to review and moved through the pictures of the day. Tab had been slow-roasting a joint of lamb to go with the wedges. Strange combination perhaps but the smells were heady. I’d head down to see if I could help in a minute.

I swilled the last of my tea and flicked through the pictures, starting with a grin. There was the snow angel picture, the one with Lola running after Tab. The last one, tinged with colour. Tab’s red cheeks, smiling at the camera. They were a bit dark. I could probably bring up the contrast to sort that out. I looked back over them, noticing different details. Pleased with myself. Good framing, despite how cold it had been. Snow, snow, trees, nice symmetry to that one. I’d felt as though my veins were about to crack when I’d taken my gloves off to take each picture.

There was one, near a farm house at the top of the golf course. I’d framed it in such a way that the snow path fed around the building, indicating that there was something to be discovered around the corner. Reinforced by the strong black of the farm house. The contrast was stark. It was just a path by an old barn that wouldn’t look like anything stripped of the moody black and white.

I ran through the rest. Why had I taken that picture? One was out of sorts, in that it didn’t really do anything. It wasn’t a nice symmetrical shot. It had no curved pathway or suddenly interesting barn. I couldn’t remember taking it. It was just a patch of boring snow and trees, but who was that man in the top right? My thumb went to zoom. Paused. Then pressed it. The picture enlarged, and the man in the picture swam out of view. It now just looked like space. Or an x-ray of a bleached lung, withered lifeless by smoke. I pulled it back with the arrow keys.

The camera slipped out my fingers, corner banging the desk.

What the hell?

Stomach tight, I picked the camera up again. The features were blurred. Too dark to see anything particularly distinct. No real mouth, eyes or cheekbones. Just shapes of things. But it looked like the man from the news broadcast. The one who’d tortured his cousin. ‘Barbaric’, the sound-bite from the judge. I winced at the images that word conjured.

I forced myself to look again. The stance of the man was weird, too. Arms hanging down before his body, hips thrust forward. And he was looking straight at the camera, as if challenging me. How the fuck had I not noticed him? Never mind if it was the man from the news broadcast that had so spooked Tab. How hadn’t I been aware of some bloke around my wife and child? Especially one whose whole demeanour seemed to balloon with venom.

It’s just the black and white. It’s just the effect of the photograph. It’s nothing.

I found the picture of Lola running after Tab. That’s what I needed. Something nice and reassuring.

But it wasn’t as I had remembered it. In the photograph, it looked as though Lola was running away from Tab. I shook my head. What?

I found the one I’d taken in colour. This too was stone white. The black harsh. The tree I thought had curved around, providing figurative protection, seemed now to encase them. Still as a graveyard stone, Tab stood in the centre of the picture. Her red cheeks were so dark they looked black. Her mouth so black it seemed to be a gash. Lola, who I had thought had been reaching up for her mother, had her hands over her eyes. Tab’s gaze downward, which I had taken for a mothering glance, seemed cold. Sneering.

And then I saw him. Again in the top right of the picture, just behind the tree. That figure. Arms thrust unnaturally forward. That blank yet horrific expression of hate. He wasn’t looking at the camera this time, but at my family.

My palms were sweaty. Heart frenetic.

I looked to Tab again. Hoping I could undo what I had seen. Instead of sneering down at Lola, her smile is for the camera. Beatific. Our baby is reaching up for her. It was perfect, and yet, sullied, because of what I thought I had seen.

I massaged the point between my eyebrows. ‘Jesus,’ I whispered. My breath lapped over the hairs on the back of my hands.

I was about to look for the man again, to show myself I’d made it all up, misinterpreted the picture, when the office door batted back.


Tab stood in the entryway, arms strangely forward. I saw double. Tab here, echoing the man in the picture.

‘Jesus!’ She pressed a hand to her chest, getting her breath. She threw me her hurt look. ‘Tea. Okay?’