Book review: Cold Sunflowers by Mark Sippings

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is a remarkable testament to the way of the world right now that authors who self publish can find their books taken on an equal footing with those published through traditional mainstream houses. And so it should be.

This is, to an extent, taking us back to the old tradition of authors printing their own books (many books we now consider great classics were entirely funded by their authors originally). It’s also testament to the great writers who are out there who really don’t need to sell their soul to an editor to have their work read and loved by readers. Indeed, apart from the great feeling of prestige from being ‘formally’ published, there’s no real benefit to any author going with a traditional house.

There is a flipside though: editors check for errors. We all make them and it is very useful to have someone looking out for them. Our errors hide themselves from us – they’re pesky like that. Likewise, an editor, or at least a writing mentor, can help us see issues or difficulties with our plot, themes, or scenes which just don’t quite work. Indeed, a substantial amount of my income comes from doing just this for clients – reading their manuscripts and helping them tighten their ideas.

It took me a while to realise that Mark Sippings’ novel of a friendship between a teenage boy and an old man was in fact an indie-published book. I had the book recommended to me and was given a copy. It is beautifully and professionally produced on the whole and well done to the author for getting his writing out there! I was about a third of the way through the story before I began to click on that this wasn’t quite the full package.

The reason I did so was two-fold. Firstly, there are errors. Not many, but a few, and that is a clue – though I’ve found many an error in trad-published books and top-quality newspapers too, to be fair. My own published work is far from perfect too. Nevertheless, when you see too many errors it does start to make you frown.

The second reason was a dissatisfaction with the plot ideas and general pace of scenes. It felt like the kind of book the author should have employed me (or someone like me) to improve before publication. There were many scenes which should have been twice the length and so many times I felt we needed to delve deeper into who the characters were. I felt like I was watching a heavily edited movie where whole weeks and months pass by within minutes. Some scenes in the book were very much sketches of what should have been longer scenes. The plot depended on depth and it was simply lacking.

Similarly, the crescendos were all wrong. I awaited a showdown of some sort with the youths that badger young Raymond from the start. It didn’t really happen. The motif of the franc which recurs throughout the novel didn’t really gain the impact it needed to, and was borderline silly. And the cold sunflowers of the title? Beats me. Sure, sunflowers are a recurring motif, but their significance never really comes through – especially the adjectival ‘cold’. Finally, the catchphrase, ‘everything happens for a reason’. Apart from this being such a hackneyed cliche as to elicit groans from the off, it also proves largely untrue. Considering what happens to most of the main characters, it would have been truer to say ‘everything happens, and most of it is pretty damned shit and pointless’ – but I guess that’s less prosaic.

The annoying thing is that all of these faults could have been avoided with a bit of advice from a decent editor. This is not a piece of experimental literary fiction where you can trash rules of engagement and do weird and wacky things with the storyline. It was a pleasant tale, simply told and intended to entertain. And it does do that, to an extent. But with tightening of nice ideas that didn’t go anywhere and a general consideration of what works for the reader, this could have been something really very special. Instead, it is very predictable and ultimately rather put-down-able. What a pity.

The fact that I had the book recommended to me tells you that people have, and do, enjoy the story. It certainly is pleasant enough, I’ll grant you. But it is a shame that the potential of this kind of tale was not fully utilised. There was a little gem here, but it remains largely uncut.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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