ARC Review: “Backstories” by Simon Van der Velde

Author: Simon Van der Velde
Publication Date: March 25th, 2021
Publisher: Smoke & Mirrors Press
Genre: Literary fiction, short stories, biographical fiction
Format: eBook
Find it on: Goodreads, Amazon, Audible

Many thanks to the author, Simon Van der Velde, for providing a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis

Blurb (from Author):

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers; they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?
These are people you know, but not as you know them.
Peel back the mask and see.

Synopsis (from Author):

Backstories is a unique collection of stories each told from the point of view of a famous, (or notorious) person at a pivotal moment in their lives. The writing is literary but accessible and the voices vividly real. The settings are mostly 60’s and 70’s UK and USA, and the driving themes are inclusion, social justice and of course, nostalgia – but the real key to these stories is that the protagonists’ identities are withheld. This means that your job is to find them, leading to that Eureka moment when you realise who’s mind you’ve been inhabiting for the last twenty minutes.

Review

Simon Van der Velde’s collection, Backstories, is a quick, engaging read. In a series of short chapters centered around a particular well-known person, readers are presented with a slice of that person’s life and enticed to guess who is being discussed. Some chapters were easier to surmise than others, but all were intriguing. My favorite was Chapter 8 “All Over Now,” a poetic and profound first-person account of a man from an immigrant family struggling with racism and bigotry in London in the face of his morbid medical prognosis.

Due to the setting of these stories readers should expect a strong dose of the abuse and racism rife at the time. This was shocking and saddening but expected for the historical context. When discussing this, Simon has been clear in his intent that the ultimate message of Backstories is “strongly anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-prejudice of any kind,” bringing these sometimes shocking stories to readers in the spirit of awareness and remaining authentic to the experience of the people at that time. In a 1955 racist attack, for instance, that means using the ‘n’ word. Modern readers may feel startled at seeing this type of content on the page as I did, but it’s reassuring to hear the thorough consideration the author put into the reader’s experience. If you have heightened sensitivity to matters that would have been cruelly and/or traumatically handled in the 50’s and onwards, just be aware the stories are crafted to feel authentic to the time.

One thing I personally missed in the book was an answer key in the back to verify who starred in each chapter. I approached the book with open enthusiasm, enjoying the experience of taking notes and hunting for clues. While reading I kept my phone by my side, ready to do a quick search to verify my guesses or plug in hints for the ones that were less obvious, but I had varying degrees of success. As a reader who professes less cultural context and poor memory for names I still did decently well, getting about 60% or so with some light research. When asked, Simon indicated he did consider providing a key but felt it’d be a richer experience to discover the identity oneself through research or discussion with friends and older relatives, which I can appreciate. The intent with this book seems to be more of a reading and discovery experience than a flat read like other books. Simon’s stories beg for interaction to get the full value of it all.

Overall this was a delightful new reading experience. I’d recommend this to readers who enjoy puzzles or are looking for something new.

TW: racism, abuse, homophobia

Please note Simon is generously sharing 30% of all profits from Backstories with Friends of the Earth, Stop Hate UK and The North-East Autism Society. See www.simonvandervelde.com for further details.

About Simon Van der Velde

Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, labourer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as travelling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters and insights for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Shortstory Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.

Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, Nicola, their labradoodle, Barney and two tyrannical children.

Find Simon on his website at www.simonvandervelde.com

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