Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Novella’ Category

‘The Ruins’ by Danny Broderick

In Novella on September 20, 2013 at 7:43 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Published as a Kindle Single on Amazon by Dead Ink, Danny Broderick’s The Ruins is a short story whose impact primarily derives from how it subverts the reader’s expectations regarding certain storytelling genres. The narrative begins in media res as a sort of spy thriller: ‘The woman was stripping the prisoner, tying him to a chair’. Already though, little details in the language prime the reader to expect a twist somewhere. Talk of ‘Fanatics’ gives way to a focus on how the prisoner ‘stretched his muscled body against the rope’ and the sexual frisson of how ‘the hard spike of [the woman’s] heels scrap[ed] concrete as she opened [the door].’

The Ruins by Danny Broderick

The hint of BDSM at this stage of the story suggests a shift into 50 Shades of Grey territory, a genre admittedly very much in vogue at the moment, as publishers seek to capitalise on that trilogy’s mainstream success. However, Broderick’s story appears to be building up to something more complex. As the dominatrix, whose name will later be revealed as Estrella, goes to the bar to have a conversation with Paco the barman, it becomes clear that what is being played out is a very specific fantasy scenario, for which she is ‘earning good money’. Nevertheless, Estrella is also coming to terms with losing the battle against time: ‘Saw a face getting older. Recognised the skin drawn tight around cheekbones and eyes where the lines were visible’.

Although The Ruins quickly establishes Estrella up as a compelling character, the problem is that the rest of the story then essentially continues to dwell on the fantasy scenario and how it plays out, as Estrella does her job and escalates the violence against her client, climaxing in her carving her name into his skin with a blade. Granted, through the intermittent conversations that Estrella and Paco have, there are suggestions that the portrayal of the transactional relationship with the prisoner is to be interpreted as a form of social commentary:

‘“The dreams you had and the plans you made are all dead,” she told him. “Gone with the collapse of the new city you thought they were building around you. So you have only what you have and must make your life here. In these empty ruins. The world did not transform itself around you. Your bar never did miraculously relocate itself to the centre of a new world. And what do you have? The poor workers, the unemployed, the drunks and hustlers. Who you tried to move on in anticipation, who you denied entry to, and who are now back through the door.”’

At the same time, there are issues of power and control at stake here. When Paco tells Estrella, ‘Give him his victory. It’s a game’, she counters that ‘it’s more than a game’, insisting that she is no ‘whore for hire’. However, given the space of a short story, there is perhaps also too much going on, thematically speaking. (It is hard to avoid seeing the Spanish setting of the story as yet another intentional level of meaning being encoded.) This is not really intended as criticism—since The Ruins is an intriguing piece of fiction in itself—so much as an observation that Broderick’s layered storytelling might be even better served by allowing the story more breathing room, given how its internal genre shifts already successfully confound preconceived notions of how the narrative should play out.

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall (trans. Philip Boehm)

In Novella on August 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Everything I’ve heard about the Holocaust leads me think that Auschwitz was the worst – or at least the deadliest – of the Nazi extermination camps. So when I realised that Izolda, the central, Jewish, character of Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, was on her way to Auschwitz, I feared the worst. As she tells the Viennese Jews in the train with her, everyone knows that no one comes back from Auschwitz.

Chasing the King of Hearts

Originally written in Polish, Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a Jewish Pole who spends the war trying to get her husband (her King of Hearts) released from a succession of Nazi camps. Like the best historical fiction, it makes the history personal, focusing on feelings and the impact of events on individual, private lives.

While luck clearly plays a part in her continued physical survival – a fact Izolda frequently recognises, reminding herself of the series of coincidences and events that have kept her alive – there’s something rather more worrying contributing to her spiritual or mental survival. Like many Jews and Poles (to say nothing of the other victims of Nazi persecution, who aren’t mentioned by Krall) in occupied Europe, she sees her parents, her parents-in-law, siblings and friends either killed or disappear into a prison or onto a train. Krall captures with remarkable simplicity the feeling of living in a society (the Warsaw ghetto, say) where people can just vanish, while those who remain share the unspoken knowledge that the vanished are taken to be killed. It’s a culture of silence that the American troops who liberate the Mauthasen camp can’t get their heads around: ‘It would be unthinkable in the States. No one would ever go along with it. […] With the trains, with the transports…no Jewish community in the States would ever go along with it’.

Krall’s prose style, translated into English by Philip Boehm, in Chasing the King of Hearts can be dry and matter-of-fact, but it lends itself well to the stoicism displayed by Izolda. Every death – and there are plenty, so many in fact that it’s easy for the reader to become desensitised to them – seems to leave her too a little more dead inside. But that helps make her emotionally resilient, and her frequent assertions of ‘she’s gone, he’s gone, but we’re still here’ may sound cold, but they are the mental/emotional defence of someone who knows they’re surrounded by death and mustn’t be dragged down by it. She needs to keep strong in order to stop her husband becoming a statistic of Auschwitz.

What the American troops don’t understand is that ‘going along with it’ has kept Izolda alive – whether it’s allowing occupying soldiers a quick grope and a fumble, or keeping quiet when a neighbour or friend disappears, Izolda and those who survive have in some outward way allowed the Nazis their will.

Inwardly, though, there’s a fire of resistance that they keep hidden. For many, it manifests itself in smuggling relatives out of or black market goods into the ghetto. They have different reasons for defying the regime, personal gain being a common one, but others have more to do with the common thread of humanity binding together the inhabitants of the ghetto (and of the wider world, though it seems not to be felt by the Nazi characters). Izolda’s cause is her husband, Shayek, first in Auschwitz and then in Mauthausen. Crucially – even though she is once arrested as a member of the Polish underground – she has no interest in nationalism nor in fighting for Poland against the occupier; hers is a personal cause, in amongst all the national/racial politics, and her love for her husband drives a story unconcerned with dry details like the dates of battles and who was in charge when. The war and the Holocaust are background detail, an obstacle to Izolda and Shayek being together, but not the story itself: this is a love story in extreme adversity, not a history book.

Krall could have just left it there, with Chasing the King of Hearts being a love story in the Holocaust, a tale of human survival and love against the odds. But she takes it further, and her story of survival at any cost comes back to question the cost and the impact of the Holocaust on the survivors. The Holocaust, the Nazi persecution of the Jews, wasn’t an isolated historical event; it didn’t get cut off by the end of World War Two. The actions of the Nazis reach down through the decades that followed, and the survivors of those few years of extermination carry those years as a burden. As well as the physical symptoms of their suffering and torture, some (to specify anyone in this case would be a spoiler) carry around survivor’s guilt and the mental scarring inevitable in people who go through Hell.

As if to further demonstrate – quietly, subtly, with just a hint left for the reader – that racial/religious discrimination isn’t limited to persecution of the Jews in the 1940s, Krall drops in a few mentions of Israeli checkpoints and Palestinians who ‘assure [the checkpoint guard] he’s going to work, and she has to guess which one will work and which will blow himself up’. In the image of a people locked up in their own areas of town, lying to armed guards so they can earn money to eat, there’s an echo – a faint one – of the Warsaw ghetto. It’s just a hint, but a thought-provoking one.

With Chasing the King of Hearts Peirene Press continue their efforts to bring the best of foreign-language European literature to English-reading audiences, and this time they’ve given us a touching, tense and heart-breaking human story told amid the most important and devastating story to affect Europe in living memory. Krall demonstrates that it’s through our human relationships we can survive terrible adversity, and it is those common threads of humanity we must remember if we are to avoid more genocide.

Interview with Robert James Russell (Sea of Trees)

In Conversation, Novella on August 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

-Robert James Russell spoke to Ian Chung

Author Bio: Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, Thunderclap! Magazine,, and LITSNACK, among others. Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012) is his first novella.

Robert James Russell black and white

What inspired you to set Sea of Trees in Japan, and specifically, in Aokigahara?

The setting came to me before the story did, actually. I had read an article about Aokigahara and just found it fascinating – a place where the trees grow together so closely, where there are hardly any animals and that has this long and macabre history of death. As a setting – even as a character, which I think it ultimately becomes in the book – it was just too fascinating to pass up. So I did a great deal of research, read as much as I could about it as well as the epidemic of suicide in Japan, and the story formed around that, defined by a place just so magnetic and mysterious and eerie. As the story came together, it became about more than just death, but about relationships and communication (specifically the breakdown of communication in its many forms), and anchoring all of my stories in Aokigahara was the perfect way for me to do that: the fact that it’s very real, and all of the things that happen there – people killing themselves regularly, groups of people coming in to look for them, others there to collect their valuables – is far more unsettling than anything I could have imagined.

The main narrative of the novella is alternated with other short vignettes, recounting the stories of other people who chose to end their lives at Aokigahara. What prompted this structure? Would you ever consider expanding any of them into something longer?

Well, a couple things prompted it: When I first started writing the story, it was just the Bill/Junko narrative, and while that was the basis for everything, and their dynamic very important to what I was trying to say, I found that I really needed to break it up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous (you can only have so much walking around in a forest). I also think, since that is the main narrative, breaking up particularly tense sections with another story, giving your mind a rest, makes you think more about it and process what you just read, and that helps the story progress in a much smoother way. The vignettes ended up becoming some of my favorite elements of the book, truthfully, and are as important to me as the main narrative. I don’t strive to answer questions about why people commit suicide, or offer any solutions, but to open up a dialog about it, using the forest as a character, a mythic place they feel drawn to. And it is in these vignettes, I think, that you start to really grasp the magnitude of the place, the cultural reasons why people may choose to kill themselves, and you’re able to apply that to the Bill/Junko story – so some of the subtext becomes text and helps you understand Junko’s state of mind.

As far as expanding, it’s an interesting idea, but I probably wouldn’t. One of the reasons I tried to keep the vignettes short was so as not to dwell too much on death – I tried really hard to strike a balance of just enough characterization and death. Too much of the latter and I think it would have been too distracting. Too much of the former and you sort of forget the place of mind the characters are in and it loses its focus.

Could you say something about the process of getting Sea of Trees published with Winter Goose Publishing? Was there any particular reason you chose them?

I had actually submitted another book to them, and while they liked my writing, the book wasn’t quite their style, so they asked if I had something else. I did – Sea of Trees – and they were quick to respond with an acceptance. I ultimately chose them because from the very beginning they showed me an enthusiasm about the book and working with me that was very refreshing. Being in publishing myself, I’ve seen what some publishers don’t (or can’t) offer – some so bogged down that they can barely pay attention to their writers – so it was great to find one so eager and that so obviously loved books and writing and sharing all of that with an audience. That was very important to me, and really, it’s been an absolute honor working with them.

You are one of the brains behind Midwestern Gothic, and now, MG Press. Some time ago, I also reviewed the first publication from MG Press, Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth, and interviewed him. What led to your selecting Scott’s work for publication? More generally, what sort of work are you looking for at Midwestern Gothic and MG Press?

Scott’s collection stood out to us as the exact thing we were looking for – not only is he wildly talented, but the stories are diverse and represent, even if not physically set in the Midwest, our sensibilities here. Part of our mission is not just highlighting people living here in the Midwest, but how the culture sticks with you no matter where you go – I’ve heard so many stories from folks who move away and can’t quite get the Midwest out of their systems, which fascinates me. I think that’s prevalent in Scott’s writing, and a testament to the uniqueness of the region. Moreover, his stories contain a breadth of themes and images – a little bit of everything – which we found works well with a collection to keep people reading. If every story was the same, for instance, I think it would be a much tougher sell/read. Last, his work was polished: it came to us in a wonderful state, fully-fleshed out, which I can’t tell you enough is very important when submitting.

In general, I think a lot of what I stated previously goes for what we’re looking for in Midwestern Gothic – stories don’t necessarily need to be set here, but be recognizable as Midwest-influenced. We don’t care if the story is light or dark, we just want real life, and this portrait we’re trying to paint of the Midwest is, ideally, represented by various voices, various stories and experiences, to better flesh our home. So as long as there is some connection here, even slight, we want to read it. I think I can say that the only thing we’re not specifically looking for is genre fiction – we have published some stories with slight genre bends to them, but nothing overtly so. The idea again is that we want to see real life here, good, bad and ugly, and while genre fiction is great and there is a place for it, we feel reality is interesting enough and really want to get to the bottom of that.

What is your next project as a writer and/or editor, and could you share something about it?

Well, we’re in the midst of working on our next MG Press title (a novel), which we should be announcing late summer/early fall – a lot of our energy is going into that right now, in addition to prepping Issue 11 of the journal, which is a Creative Nonfiction issue (our first foray into CN). Personally, I’m shopping around a new novel that I’m really excited for. In addition, I’m in the midst of a short story deluge (writing and submitting), so that’s been taking up a lot of time too.

What question do you wish I had asked, and could you answer it?

What is your spirit animal?
I wish I could say something ferocious like a lion or a black bear or an alligator, but I’ve taken a lot of online tests and I always seem to get a crow or morning dove. And those tests are always right.

[ED: Ian’s review of Robert’s collection, Sea of Trees can be read here]

‘I Think We Should Both Start Seeing Other Worlds’ by Neil Fraser Addison

In Novella on June 4, 2013 at 10:03 pm

-Reviewed by Claudia Haberberg-

I cannot help but feel that the title of Neil Fraser Addison’s I Think We Should Both Start Seeing Other Worlds is a little misleading. With a title like that, I would have expected…well…more worlds. Not necessarily literal other worlds or planets, but perhaps a few more diverse conceptual locations to explore. There is only one explicit other world, and the rest is frankly rather confusing.

The ‘other world’ we see is Ruby Island, the place where a nation of celebrities make absurd, desperate, and increasingly futile attempts to reclaim their former wealth. It is put to us in a series of vignettes, where a cast of characters largely unconnected by real world culture – P. Diddy, Dan Brown, Jamiroquai and ‘the lead singer of nickleback [sic]’ to name but a few – sell their possessions and mount improbable advertising campaigns to promote donation drives.

At their best, these vignettes are witty, incisive and surreal, with insightful and funny critiques of such cultural monoliths as reality TV and the music industry. I particularly enjoyed a glimpse into ‘the lead singer of nickleback[sic]’’s creative process: ‘He thinks he can employ all of his financial misery during the recording session by disguising it as a woman and pretending that this woman has recently broken his heart. Tania will be his codename for the fact that he is now cash-poor.’ (Some might argue that said lead singer presents rather an easy target, considering that it is as much a meme to poke fun at Nickelback now as it was to poke fun at Creed ten years ago, but that is another discussion for another time.)

Much of the time, however, this carefully constructed absurdity becomes a little baffling.
Whilst the amorphous collection of major and minor celebrities named in the stories is stylistically interesting up to a point, one wonders if they might not benefit from having a closer real world link. I am not entirely convinced that obscurity serves the surrealist aesthetic very well.

Another connecting character – distinct but tied to Ruby Island – is Frank Ahoy, a writer whose desperate attempts to garner attention from publishing houses, film studios and various famous individuals seem to attract critical acclaim and government hostility in their own right. Some of Ahoy’s letters have something of the faintly poetic about them, such as pushing writers off semi-metaphorical cliffs in order to establish one’s own writerly supremacy. Many are reminiscent of those occasional, slightly off-the-wall complaint letters to banks or customer service that sometimes find their way onto the Internet, or some of the more bizarre covering letters of the past few years.

I link the Ruby Island stories and Frank Ahoy’s letters together not only because they reference each other in the text itself, but because these seem to hold the largest mirror up to a world in the grip of both an economic and an identity crisis. The parallels are evident, particularly in the incomprehensible attempts of the super-rich to boost recovery, but I’m not completely sure of how successful they are. I feel that I raised my eyebrow more often than I nodded along.

There are various other short stories scattered across this narrative landscape, many of which deal with human relationships and celebrity (again), but they are not particularly memorable. Another recurrent character, Giddi Stavanger – who reads like a melange of Bjork and Tracey Emin – creates stolen, overblown art and is simultaneously aware and unaware of how ultimately pseudo-intellectual and artificial it all is. I cannot help but wonder whether the author recognises himself in this character at all. This collection has moments of charm, humour and insight. However, as a whole, it left me confused and more than a little irritated.

‘The Middle’ by Django Wylie

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 10:10 am

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

The Middle is a short, powerful book about journeys, both actual and metaphorical, through hope and failure, but ultimately towards the suggestion, at least, of some kind of redemption. The characters, a boy – actually in his late teens – a man who feels the breath of middle age on his neck, and an old man facing his last journey, are un-named, but never simple ciphers; they are recognisably and uncomfortably real, and may well be looking out of a mirror at you at various times in your life.

The Middle Django Wylie

The boy is on the London Tube on the way to Heathrow. We witness his surveillance of the types around him with their cheap clothes, electronic gizmos and air of failure and disappointment. I like the timelessness of his gaze and passing conclusions, that Holden Caulfield-like contempt of the world of phonies, the notion that youth knows best. The boy contemplates his possible futures:

The choice was stark, and the outcomes bleak: drop out and probably end up in the Argos stock room, or keep trudging on for the entitlement to spend eight hours a day in an artificially-lit office.

The writing is superb, with some great metaphors: the Tube as a ‘living Rubik’s cube’, the ‘wandering nihilism of late adolescence’, a ‘pint-sized Terry Waite – a Terry Lightweight’, and this gem:

He’d once heard some motivational speaker on the radio who’d been going on about how opportunity was always knocking. The problem was, the boy thought, so are salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses. He couldn’t help but
wish it used the bell.

Despite its resigned tone, its consideration of failure and suicide put off partly because he has to get his farewell note to hit exactly the right spot, the boy’s narrative is a celebration of youth. With all its flaws, youth still doesn’t hold the terrors of ageing.

The empty pointlessness in politics, culture, academia and student life falls under his pitiless gaze, but he never loses sight of where he is going, and you get the impression that he gets taken along with it all somewhat helplessly but, importantly, with the spark of indignation in knowing that he goes unwillingly. He refers to God as ‘our dear creator’, and notes the self-serving nature of ‘a god that would change water into wine to inebriate some broads at a wedding but ignore the cries of those on board United 93, or suffering Mamma Mia the Musical’.

Stuff like this makes it one of the funniest books I’ve read on the modern condition.

Like any sensitive, misunderstood young man, the boy wants to write, and he has a refreshingly honest take on it:

All he wanted was the chance to call himself a writer to girls in the pub (it sounded better than unemployed), and to possibly see his name, or that of his ridiculous nom de plume, in bookshops.

Those who people the boy’s journey distract him from his thoughts, but they prompt new ones too. These people – painted unforgettably in a few lines – serve a catalytic purpose in the narrative. Were they to be without this purpose, then they might just have appeared to be the butt of what might seem cheap jokes – I like them anyway, I should say – but they put the finishing touches to each thought, and start the next.

The boy’s aim of getting to Paris may only be a dream. It may also be better left as one. His journey reminds me of an episode in J K Huysman’s Against Nature, when his hero Des Esseintes starts for London but then, surrounded by English travellers in the waiting room at the Gare du Nord, realises that he has got the essence of it.

In part two,‘the man’ is at the airport. He starts off thinking about his regrets, not writing a novel – like the boy – and not making it with the band he was once in. Time has stolen everything from him, he reflects, ‘like Lehman Bros’, has delivered him away from his dreams into the clutches of wife, children and mortgage.

Unlike the boy, the man seems to have reached the stage at which he will get on a plane. Like the boy, he makes a fantasy out of his New York trip, all the while the reality of it – a dull business meeting – in the corner of his mind.

He ponders one of the many crises of capitalism, and his place in it:

Providence had given him everything, and yet everything was not enough. In fact, nothing was ever enough. Having more things created more opportunities for it all to malfunction… the man couldn’t help but think he had been the compliant architect in the construction of his own suffocating prison.

The man’s story has the most melancholic turn to it. The cheerfulness is missing from the humour, and, more chillingly, hope is also absent. We can believe the boy when he dreams, can accept that he may well turn his life into something. The man has lost that optimism. Like the boy, he has escape in mind, and sees himself ‘disappearing; reinventing himself’, but we can’t take this as a serious proposition at any time.

‘The old man’ is also fixed on travel in part three, though we can assume that this journey is probably going to be his last:

It would be a stretch to say that the old man couldn’t wait for the final throes of his earthly existence, but he wasn’t particularly enamoured with the idea of
hanging around too long. Hospital life was inane and dull – it was just like real life.

Doctors are sinister and vulpine, and the old man’s fellow-patients are sheeplike, content to waste their final hours in watching daytime TV. However, my main impression of this part was that the old man had regained the comic, but also generous, eye of the boy in this sequence, which could be depressing, but isn’t.

The old man is another who regrets the not-done. There is yet another unwritten book here – but at least it got a little further than those of the man and the boy. He also thinks of ‘unimpregnated woman’ and, a comic note of chill, the people he didn’t kill in a spree.

Django Wylie has given us a stunning novella, sometimes heartbreaking, but always funny. ‘Start over’, the last page exhorts us (before we go on to a playlist of music I don’t feel qualified to comment on – though I will be investigating it) and I wanted to, and I will.

‘Controller’ by Sally Ashton

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on May 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

In the absence of words and common language, much of human communication happens through non-verbal means: body language, gestures and looks, for example. So it seems right that Sally Ashton’s debut novella, Controller, which follows its protagonist into an alien and foreign city whose language she learns as she goes along, should feature so much looking and touching and sense of watching oneself. The words just fall away.

Controller Sally Ashton

Laura has arrived in Spain, apparently on a whim, understanding very little Spanish, and her first encounter (in the novella, at least) has the same alienating effect on the non-Spanish-speaking reader as it must do on her. Sure, you can go to Google Translate and find out what the little old lady in the cafe is saying, or you can throw yourself into Ashton’s world and accept that Laura doesn’t entirely understand, and neither should you. You can join her in trying to navigate through a series of polite smiles, guesses, physical gestures and half-meanings: the non-verbal language of those who can’t speak to each other.

She’s not the only one to struggle. Ashton also introduces Bea, the Argentine immigrant whose venereal infection and sexual history have left her almost mute with strangers. She, however, has an eloquent non-verbal vocabulary, and – despite her other difficulties – communicates with Laura, through touch and smell, a message of human togetherness in the midst of a culture and a place neither of them can connect with.

Also on the list of isolated people failing to connect with the world is Eric, the Dutch painter whose chest is a network of scar tissue and whose disability leaves his left arm floating about according to its own will, almost at random. This is a man whose life has been spent in visually recording the world and its suffering, and it is in him that we have the greatest hint as to the controller of the novella’s title. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a fellow foreigner, he speaks English to Laura, but English in an abrupt, infinitive-heavy style. Even with her blindfold on, Laura’s internal gaze reflects Eric’s external gaze, which explores and intrudes upon every part of her exposed body. Just how far can an artist go with his model before he crosses the line into abuse and exploitation of her submissiveness?

Laura’s money comes from being a still life model, and this is the second reason – along with her unavoidably foreign appearance – that makes her often the object of staring, of gazing and of probing eyes. Eric’s eyes explore every curve of her frequently naked body, and she herself is forever imagining what she looks like from outside, picturing her legs touching each other under her dress or the painful angles her back has been bent into. It all gives Controller a visceral quality; this is a novella very much concerned with its protagonist’s body and her relationship with it, as well as her physical relation with the outside world and how she communicates with both.

Beyond Laura’s internal gaze, the novella’s prose is brief and almost bleak. There’s a sense of being in a Spanish coastal town that isn’t a major tourist destination – the sea, the landscape and the language stretch out into the distance with no peaks or splashes of colour, simmering quietly in siesta sunshine. Sentences are often brief, disconnected from surrounding context and wandering through an alien landscape just as Laura wanders the foreign city. This style lends the novella a heavy emphasis on its protagonist and her perspective, rather than any specific location or experience of the world.

Not one for the squeamish, Controller revels in almost literally anatomising the relationship between an artist’s model and her body, and also between the model and the artist, at the deliberate expense of their relationship with the outside world.

‘Synthetic Saints’ by Jason Rolfe

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

If my reading career has taught me anything, it is that for a book to survive in the current publishing climate, it needs to bring something extraordinary and unique to the reading audience. Jason Rolfe’s bold and experimental novella, Synthetic Saints, certainly caters to this industry requirement. The futuristic text catapults you into a somewhat terrifying version of our future both as a planet and a civilisation in which humans are accompanied by their synthetics, a term used to describe a simulated human, if you will.

The short text follows the journey of protagonist Alex Hargreaves, who is a security specialist for the ISA. After losing communication with a Deep Space Observatory, Alex and his synthetic partner Persephone are sent to investigate what happened to the data analyst, Amanda Hayes, that was in charge of this particular station. We are informed before the novella begins that each data analyst within this kind of position runs their respective observatories alone and that they work on a six-month rotation period. Naturally, the feelings of isolation and depression are over-whelming in such a unique situation thus, Alex makes no secret of the fact that accidental death and suicide are common amongst those who adopt the role. With this startling reality in mind, Alex and Persephone are on a journey to identify which of the above options has occurred this time.

Jason Rolfe Synthetic Saints

Alongside the difficulties faced in his professional life, Alex is also burdened by his personal one. We learn that he once had a wife and a daughter, both of whom are now deceased; due to a memory manipulation program that is mandatory for Alex’s line of work, these are not memories that fade over time but rather stay as fresh now as they were on the days they were made.

To begin with I felt a slight apprehension at reading what appeared to be yet another generic science fiction novella, in which the world has dramatically changed for the worse. However as I delved deeper into the tale I slowly found myself drawn into a truly fascinating scenario which is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the brilliant character of Alex Hargreaves. The emotion that is weaved throughout the consciousness of this individual is over-powering; his thoughts frequently return to the loss of his wife and daughter, memories which he fails to escape, ultimately meaning that we also fail to escape them. As Alex returns to his daughter’s accident and his wife’s suicide, we inevitably feel the pain with him, making this a much more forceful story than I initially anticipated it being.

In addition to his role as the emotionally tortured widower, Alex also adopts the role of detective. Throughout the duration of the novella Alex is constantly discovering clues and deciphering information that ultimately leads us to the complex resolution to the text. After finishing the text, I did feel somewhat inclined to conclude that it what a hybrid of both science fiction and detective fiction; the futuristic nature of the text is integral to our reading of it, therefore it cannot be simply overlooked, but the ‘Whodunit’ principle is also prominent within this text. While on paper the genres may not seem to be soul mates, Rolfe has combined them to create something truly entertaining.

Overall I felt that Synthetic Saints was a thoroughly interesting read and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for something that offers a more unique take on literary genres.

‘Holophin’ by Luke Kennard

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

In Luke Kennard’s debut novella, the Holophin is a tiny, incredibly-powerful, highly-personalised computer. While humanity has forever been developing tools and technology to make life easier – the wheel, the plough, the sail, the loom, the steam engine, the computer, the telephone – in recent decades the drive has also been to make these tools individual, for example the mobile phone as opposed to the household landline. At the same time, those devices are capable of an increasing number of tasks; the mobile takes/makes calls, but also sends messages (texts and emails), takes photos, surfs the web (including social media), keeps a calendar, plans routes, plays games, wakes us up, plays music and videos, writes/edits documents and can probably do far more as well. What’s more, it fits in your pocket and you can take it almost everywhere.

But with a rise in technological capabilities comes a rise in fear of that technology and what it can do to humans. I don’t mean the dangers of radiation from phone masts or handsets – though that probably should be a concern – I mean the fears that technology is becoming increasingly autonomous and has begun to run our lives, that people genuinely believe they can’t live without their smartphones, that civilisation would collapse without wi-fi access and that vast data servers hold swathes of information about every technology user on the planet. The other day I even saw a TV news report claiming that governments – obeying their ‘corporate masters’ – can (indeed, are obliged to) track individuals’ locations to within a hundred metres, using their mobile phone signals.

Maybe those fears are unfounded, but even if we aren’t heading towards a Terminator-style war when the machines finally take over, there’s no denying the increasing presence and ubiquity of technology in the developed world.

Luke Kennard's Holophin reviewed

Luke Kennard’s advert for a Holophin

At the same time, we’re bombarded with adverts for products that offer simple solutions to complicated problems (solutions made possible by advancing technology): combat the signs of ageing with this easy-to-use lotion; become sexually irresistible with this deodorant; buy this game and train your brain to be smarter! Those are just generic ones: the internet and Google can quite easily give each user specific ads based on your previous buying habits, your browser history and subject headings from your email inbox (though some of its choices can still be charmingly bizarre). You can chose to see this as a useful, personalised internet experience, or as technology’s further encroachment into your life.

As if with that in mind, Kennard’s novella opens with an advert for the Holophin, a dolphin-shaped sticker of immense (at least partly autonomous) processing power that promises help with, among other things, ‘weight loss or gain; confidence; alleviation of social anxiety […] happiness; concentration and focus […] insomnia, anti-social behaviour, addictions and phobias’ as well as grief management and self-discipline. On top of all that, the Holophin provides a built-in(to the brain) media centre and personal organiser which can not only arrange meetings with other people’s Holophins, but even attend them for the wearer too. If the creeping dominance of smartphones worries you, the Holophin is your worst nightmare, Kennard’s extrapolation from modern fears and trends. But at least it’s a cute dolphin shape.

The best sci-fi takes our modern-day fears and concerns and puts them in a different context, allowing us to see ourselves from a new angle, without the potentially comforting surrounds of the modern world. We can consider Hatsuka and Max – the young characters in Holophin – with a disinterest that would be much harder when considering our own use of, say, a smartphone. In his first novella, Kennard is able to explore the idea of politely domineering technology as well as looking at how that technology can develop a life of its own and raise rather deeper questions. One of the Holophins has started writing poetry, and another is working on the first Holophin novel – where do we consider these endeavours in the context of art as a means of human expression and creativity? And how much are humans actually limited by their reliance on technology: for example, how much do we now rely on autocorrect and autofill functions when typing, rather than remembering how to spell for ourselves?

As in good sci-fi, the setting here feels contemporary, it could be the early twenty-first century – except for the occasional references to, say, the fact that countries no longer have any meaning and corporations are everything (do you use an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android? a Microsoft computer or an Apple one?); corporations that fight over sales and staff like nations used to fight over resources and territory. There’s a hint of Margaret Attwood’s Oryx & Crake in the grooming of highly intelligent youngsters by powerful, quasi-governmental corporations hungry for technological developments – exposing the idea of nations as just one way of organising people; here, corporations provide schools, and education is paid for by working a shift or two in the factory. Who needs a government when the corporation provides its own housing, security, schools, shops and employment opportunities? The Cadbury brothers would be proud.

The dangers of powerful computers plugged right into the brain become apparent when Hatsuka loses all grip on reality and the novella’s narrative fragments. It’s at this point that Holophin becomes rather less accessible and more of a surreal whirl through fantasy, the subconscious, virtual reality and corporate competition.

Whether you’re left wanting a Holophin of your own probably depends on your attitude to technology’s impact on our lives. Is it an enhancement and a helper, or insidious and a threat? Holophin lets you believe either, but carries a warning that we’re bound to find out one way or the other eventually.

‘Bodies Made of Smoke’ by J Bradley

In Novella on April 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Reviewing J Bradley’s Bodies Made of Smoke is is rather a challenge when you haven’t seen Highlander: The Series. A quick internet search after having read the novella explained a few things that just didn’t seem to fit with the internal logic of the story, but there were still many things that I had the sneaking suspicion would have made far more sense if I’d had the background knowledge from the TV series to have put them in context for me.

Bodies Made of Smoke

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novella – with its rapid sketches flitting between scenes of corny love poetry composition, brutal duelling, mysterious midnight acquisitions of substances in Mason jars and odd commemorative papiermache heads with ‘cum faces’ hidden under beds. The deceptively slight, script-like construction of the novella packs in apparently disparate storylines taking places across centuries that weave in tighter towards the novella’s climax in a vicious (and confessedly, at times baffling) duel.

Gods, mortals, immortals and fate are dealt with in a swaggering, sexually charged and often crude tone. The very opening of the novella lays it out for us (and is an original take on the opening voiceover lines from the Highlander series, the internet informs me):

‘With enough Clan MacGregor in me, I’m all fuckin’ Highlander. That’s right baby and I know that ass ain’t hallowed, so tonight there can only be one in that ass. There can only be one.’

This sums up the concerns of the novella for us nicely; we are at once given the in-your-face, sexually domineering tone of voice while also, for those well-versed in the Highlander series, given the key to unlock many of the mysteries of the text – for example why the two central characters, Sarah and Tom, engage in the ritual beheadings that lead to them being investigated by the police. For an uninitiated reader like myself this is one of many mysteries that engaged me with the story, and introduces a detective-story element, but not one that seems to be satisfactorily resolved.

Some of the time-travelling scenes also jar slightly; we are introduced to the classical Greek Gods Hephaestos and Atropos and given the back stories in little snippets that lead up to their modern day incarnations. For example, Hephaestos’ desire to be immortal and cheat death, in the form of Atropos, in the modern times of unbelievers by concealing themselves in the human bodies of our central characters (amongst apparently many others through the ages). We are taken back to Roman times when their power is on the wane as their identities are being transformed, then suddenly thrust into their secretive modern-day guises of mysterious ‘pocket universes’ and objects imbued with great powers, and their having to make use of humans as ‘meat puppets’. While giving vital context, the tone of the classically set scenes just aren’t as convincing or dynamic as those set in the present day.

In contrast to the classical construct of gods playing wantonly with mortals, we have the defiant responses of the human characters to having being ‘hijacked’, in Sarah’s case by one of another gender, creating bizarrely comical schizophrenic moments as they challenge their actions:

You will not have sex with that boy.

“Why not? Afraid you might like a dick inside of you? I thought Greek men were into boy-on-boy action.”

The mortals, yes, but not us. You will not have sex with that boy. Sex with a girl on the other hand…

Sex is a big force behind the text- sex as defiance to the gods that control the mortals, but also sex as the means to reproduction and immortality. Complicating this we also have human relationships, parodically parody distilled with an analysis of Sarah’s bizarre needs balanced against her sexual performance by Tom:

“Well, there’s a law of averages where x is based on hotness and fuck skills and y is how fucking crazy they are. If x exceeds y then stick with them. If y exceeds x, get out”

As humans, Sarah and Tom seem to be searching for one another, attempting to find The One. How much of this is down to their romantic inclinations and how much of this is controlled by the gods for their own ends is hard to tell. We have sketches where Tom is being given professional advice by a love coach as to how to approach Sarah and keep her interest, balanced against wonderfully corny and disturbing love poetry written by the pair, including the unforgettable line ‘When we hump, I want to be your neck stump’.

And it is these beheadings and the papiermache heads, tokens of the killings, that are for me so difficult to analyse; are they killings because of Sarah’s strange fetishes implanted into her as a child by a god that forced her to watch Highlander every night? Because these particular lovers weren’t The One? Or were they killings enacted by a god as punishment for Sarah defiance in having sex with these men? Or were they killings to eliminate the possibility of this lover being the one who is inhabited by Atropos, the Threadcutter and feared rival?

In sum, the form, tone, content and mystery-driven storyline with tantalising ellipses drew me in and I enjoyed reading this piece sometimes because of, and sometimes despite its in-your-face crude sexuality. However the heavy reliance on knowledge of cult references is a stumbling block for readers trying to unpick the meaning of certain actions and relationships. In my view a novella, as a condensed work, can legitimately be slight in its writing while hinting at depths that are skimmed over. But when these depths are whole works that are, or at least seem to be, key to unlocking the mysteries of the text at hand this is frustrating. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps the playing with Highlander is just a facet of character development for Sarah and doesn’t have a wider meaning for the story as a whole, but it does destabilise my analysis of what’s going on based on my understanding of the story as a separate entity. However there is still a lot of enjoyment to be derived from the modern day placement of an age-old epic duel, the bizarre wooing and sexual role-play and the defiant sexuality of the protagonists.

Saboteur Awards 2013

In All of the Above, anthology, Interactive Literature, Magazine, Novella, Object, online chapbook, online magazine, Pamphlets, Performance Poetry, Play of Voices, Saboteur Awards on March 1, 2013 at 9:35 am

Your Pick of this Year’s Best Indie Lit!

Nominations are now closed, you can view the shortlist and vote for the winners here. Buy your tickets here.

Once a year, to mark our birthday, we at Sabotage like to give out some awards to the publications we’ve most enjoyed during the year.

In the past this was restricted to magazines, and it was held solely online.

This year, however, we’ve decided to do things a little differently.

First we’ve BLOWN UP [geddit?] the categories to include spoken word shows, anthologies, pamphlets, innovative publishers, your favourite literary one-off, … And secondly, we want you to vote for the winners!

This is going to happen in two parts:

  1. First you’ve got to nominate your favourites, which is where the contact form below comes in handy. Nominations close on 31st March at midnight (UK time).
  2. The very next day, we’ll be posting a shortlist here made up of the top 5 nominees and we’ll open up a round of voting. Voting will close on 1st May at midnight (UK time).

Then, this is the fun part, we are going to have a PARTY on 29th May at the Book Club, London, where we’ll announce the winners. It’s going to be a big celebration of indie lit in all its glory and we’d love it if you could attend. There’ll also be performances, a mini-book fair, music from LiTTLe MACHINe and our very own critique booth. Ticket details will be here soon.

The small print: the works you vote for have to have been created between 30th April 2012 and now. If you’re voting for a publisher or a spoken word event then they have to have produced something during that time frame, ditto for the one-off literary project.

We’ll be showcasing the shortlisted works on Sabotage: if they haven’t been reviewed yet by us, we’ll make sure they are. Winners get to perform at our event, be interviewed for Sabotage (like these guys did), and feel warm and fuzzy inside.  If you’re looking for inspiration, why not plunge into our archives? Here are some reviews of anthologies, magazines, novellas, pamphlets, spoken word nights and poets, objects, … We strongly encourage you to vote for more than one category.

If anything’s unclear, read our FAQ and do ask!