Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

In Short Stories on October 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

-Reviewed by Andie Berryman

Mosaic of Air is a lesbian collection originally released in 1992 with its re-release in 2013. So why re-issue stories from a particular era, in this case the 1980s: would the stories now be a bit dated? In her foreword, author Cherry Potts examines this decision herself, she points out which particular lines are now mercifully obsolete (such as ”He couldn’t very well marry Phillip, could he?”), but also points to the stories which still, sadly, portray elements of contemporary lesbian life.

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

There’s a short piece called ‘Second Glance’ about a woman ‘cautiously searching for the cues’ before speaking to a woman in a bar (which the author points to in the foreword), I passed it around some LGBT friends (in their 20s and 30s) to gauge a reaction, they all read the piece, nodding their heads and simply saying ‘yes’.

The ground-breaking era of the second wave of feminism and the elements of women’s lives is present throughout the collection. In ‘The Ballad of Polly and Ann’ that element is incest. Not many words are wasted on the perpetrator, rather the main protagonist’s unorthodox journey takes precedence. This (to my mind) mirrors the rise of rape crisis centres during the 1970s and 1980s, which started life primarily tackling incestuous abuse.

Then there’s the reclaiming of myths. The great joy in reading a Feminist collection like this is the re-imagining, from Woolf to Winterson, Cherry Potts also reimagines Helen of Troy as a mere beautiful pawn in the powerplay of the ancient world, but who, like most women in today’s society, negotiates the system. If you read nothing else in this book you must read ‘Arachne’s Daughters’; this takes apart a myth about Arachne (a human) challenging Athene (the goddess): ‘ ”Now, can you believe anyone would be so stupid?” ‘. It’s set as a speech given at a women-only meeting with a clever twist on why so many women shouldn’t fear spiders despite the extra legs and pincers ‘ ”Forgot something though didn’t they?…[Men]… How many Cancers and Scorpios are in the audience?” ‘.

Throughout is the filling of silence through the writing of experience. That’s quite clearly laid out in ‘Winter Festival’, a piece about being alone on what should be a day of being with a loved one: ‘ ”A day like any other, except perhaps for our expectations of it: unreasonable, companionable expectations”. One couldn’t imagine that story being relevant to the here and now, but it’s happening somewhere, to someone.

Another element in the canon of feminist writing is science fiction. There always seems to be a reaching out to space, a place which shouldn’t replicate patriarchal norms, but somehow does and distorts them slightly. ‘Mosaic of Air’ is an interesting parable featuring a proto-post-feminist lead, a computer programmer whose programme becomes sentient which surprisingly encases an abortion debate.

There is longing, there is the blessing of lust requited, written to my mind on a low frequency; this is what happened, it’s important that it’s displayed as an everyday facet of life. Cherry Potts’ writing quite rightly points out that lesbian life has been portrayed like an old postcard left behind the carriage clock on the mantelpiece for years; visitors have noticed it and yet not bothered to pick it up and discover the message on it, because it’s from Hebden Bridge and not Brighton’s clubs.

Above The Parapet by Alison Lock

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on September 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by David Sheridan-

‘Only a moment ago she had been enjoying the twist of her spoon in the syrup jar and watching the golden slick drizzle onto her waffle.’

So opens Above the Parapet, a collection of short stories from Alison Lock. It’s a telling sentence, and perhaps more so than the author intends.

Above the Parapet Alison Lock

It took me a lot of effort to get into Above the Parapet. I started reading it, which was fun, because it’s a series of evocative, emotional vignettes about a variety of (mostly) interesting characters, told with painstaking, utterly engaging attention to detail. But then I kept right on reading it, which was a mistake. Don’t get angry yet – you’ll see what I mean.

In ‘Ashes for Roses’, a woman and her brother cultivate roses for a garden show with a spectacularly passive-aggressive unspoken rivalry, while in the background, the memory of Eyjafjallajökull’s ash-cloud rises ominously. When freak weather conditions aim the debris-cloud at that same garden show, an Act of God of such startling precision and non sequitur as to more properly belong to Left Behind, we are first introduced to the surreal character of these stories.

‘The Mission’ introduces an improbably virtuous young man named Gabriel, who’s about to be let fly into the sky beneath nine hundred helium balloons. The angel imagery isn’t subtle, but then it’s not meant to be: as he descends, wings sprout from his shoulders and he flies back to the town, invigorated and empowered. The story’s bizarrely parochial idea of virtue also offers some sharp comments on English life.

These two stories ground surreal elements in the real world. That’s cool. I can get behind that. The next, ‘The Inventions of Mr. Pitikus’, tells a surreal story in a (kinda) realistic rendering of a surreal world – and within a sentence or two, Lock has established that her collection, while anchored in reality, will roam far across the multidimensional possibility-spaces of the surreal.

But that’s not Lock’s strength. She never seems sure if the dystopian surrealism is a means to an end, or the end in itself. In ‘… Mr. Pitikus’ the world itself is surreal, providing a safely pseudo-mythological backdrop for a climate-change fable. In ‘Tweed’ and ‘The Drowning’, two evocative second-person experiences, exegetic surrealism is used to illustrate the mercurial nature of memory, and it works far too well (before Above the Parapet, I’d never seen this kind of hypnagogic experience done well, and was sceptical about the possibility; Lock’s attempt is valiant, but my scepticism remains).

The strongest pieces are the purely sensory, the experiential vignettes painted in exquisite detail. ‘The Hanging Tree’, probably my favourite piece in the book, tells the last story of a hangman who, having performed his last duty, takes a short walk through a broken world before making the leap from the gallows to join his victims. This is a syrup moment, and I find myself rereading it – not, as with ‘The Drowning’, in bafflement, but because each re-reading is another spoonful on my waffle. Watch it drip, watch it gleam.

This is a good time to talk about dystopia. Lock’s blurb calls her characters’ world ‘dystopian’, but I don’t see that. Very few of her characters are happy to be living in their world, and it’s clear that something awful has happened offscreen that’s left many of her protagonists struggling in various states of post-civilised subsistence. But those various states – some, like ‘Seraph’ and ‘Erthenta’, envision vast ecological catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation, while others, like ‘Bugs’, portray a changing climate that’s little more than a nuisance – occur at different times, or in different worlds, or something. The difference is great enough to leave the reader a little adrift. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature have been so codified that it’s possible to portray them with shared reference, using very little explicit storytelling. Lock mostly tries this, but the trouble with shared-reference backgrounds is that you can’t keep changing them from story to story, then put the stories in anachronic order and expect a reader to keep ploughing on through. It’s disconcerting, and maybe that’s alright – but worse, it’s disengaging. I find myself, a life-long Asimov fan, missing his warm fireside-chat introductions. They would do this collection a world of good.

Of course, shared-reference storytelling allows an author to evoke powerful memes with a whisper – and Lock does so, repeatedly, with themes of death and heaven. Her characters’ deaths, when they come, are not always clear. Some of them just drift off, and their friends and surroundings with them, up into the sky where it’s bright and peaceful. In ‘Eggshell’, the most coherent of the several stories to feature dreamlike scenarios, a dead village presents itself as it was. The church with the crooked steeple stands as tall as it once did, and the ancestors of its present inhabitants go about their lives as if nothing ever changed for them. It’s beautiful, and when the story snaps back to the mortal realm, I don’t want it to. The same post-mortal experience occurs again and again, and these moments are some of the strongest in the entire collection.

This is Lock’s real strength: the experiential quality of her vignettes leaves a mental after-image which takes time to fade. That’s why it’s difficult, even jarring, to jump from one apocalypse to another, but it’s not a fatal flaw for the book: it just necessitates a different reading strategy. If you’re reading this book, don’t go at it one-story-after-another. Leave a gap. Read one a day, though perhaps not right before bedtime. These stories deserve the time it takes to consider them: the time it takes to watch the syrup drizzle. Give them time to digest, and when you’re hungry for more, go back without preconceptions. When you do, you’ll like what you get.

Cars & Girls #FEMNOIR Sampler (ed. Evangaline Jennings & Tee Tyson)

In Short Stories on September 18, 2013 at 11:10 am

-Reviewed by Andie Berryman

Gun-toting and out for revenge, the main characters in Cars and Girls are fully fleshed out through the course of their quests for revenge, put in impossible situations caused by patriarchal constructs and shooting their way out.

cars and girls

At first glance it seems genders are flipped i.e Arnie becomes Amanda, Stallone becomes Suzy. It becomes clear that the narrative throughout is that of ‘don’t be a victim, do something about it!’. But how to achieve that in a so-called post-modern world still ruled by patriarchal institutions?

In ‘500’ by Zoe Spencer, we find ourselves riding shotgun in a sleek sports car driven by the aristocratic Emily. Emily has social capital, money and happens to be a handy shot (shooting on different country estates whilst growing up). Her father is killed by a man who wants to make her his possession and will go to extreme lengths, so Emily must first escape her gilded cage of security detail in order to get to him first. Spencer cleverly sets the main part of her story in Oxfordshire and takes us to locations that Emily wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, such as Oxford. Emily is smart and knows that her status will allow her story to be heard by the media and police, if she gets caught it’s likely she’ll get away with it.

Holly Hellbound (‘Roadrunner’ Tee Tyson) knows her status will only bring her certain death when she wreaks her revenge, so she takes it anyway. As a white trash version of Tarantino’s The Bride from the Kill Bill series, Holly exacts her vengeance and finds redemption along the way, knowing full well it doesn’t matter to the authorities what horrific abuse triggered the bloodshed, the fact that she kills people who ‘matter’ is enough to send her to the chair. Out of the collection, Tee Tyson’s writing excited me the most, Tyson perfectly (ahem) executes the fast, furious pace of her story and had me shaking with adrenalin, as if I were riding along with Holly, putting the pedal to the metal in her Daddy’s lime green road-runner.

Daddy’s pride and joy also plays a part in a night of perfect revenge exacted in Madeline Harvey’s ‘Barracuda’, an unadulterated tale of a woman (Etta) teaching her younger sister about the art of revenge in small town America. This tale seemed simplistic at first until I realised this story was the spine that held the pages of the collection together. The main narrative running through the collection is not that of pure revenge, it is about a key feminist action: I’m standing up to this so you don’t have to. The secondary narrative is that of the love interests (or as the writings go, fuck interests), the male love interests are considered briefly, used and then cast aside as women portrayed as love interests in action films generally are. The women lead characters are leads in every sense, they know what they want and get what they want.

The final story in the collection, ‘Crown Victoria’ by Evangeline Jennings, delivers a wonderful twist surpassing anything the film The Sixth Sense and its ilk could deliver. Once again we are out for revenge, this time in a decommissioned American police car circumnavigating the Southern states in America. This story completely emphasises the tedium of the double-checking women face in real life, the removal of possibilities of violence, the back-up plans and the constant communication check-ins. This story is cleverly placed as it teaches the reader (by the end) never to settle in a familiar fictional routine.

Writing portrayed as post-modernist is supposed be be knowing, you’re supposed to know what happens at the end as soon as you read the first chapter. What this collection does is spell out what the oxymoron of Post-feminism is, and indeed the button badge ‘I’ll be a Post Feminist in a post patriarchal society’ seems apt. I’m going to dispense with any more academic phrasing and simply say, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, I loved that the characters got their revenge, I love how the lead characters (less one) got a happy ending. I heard there’s a new Cars & Girls Vol 2 out soon; my first thought was ‘Shut up and take my money!’.

‘Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës’ (ed. A. J. Ashworth)

In anthology, Poetry, Short Stories on September 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

A.J.Ashworth, the editor of Red Room – a collection of short stories (and a poem) ‘all inspired by the Brontës, their lives, their work’ – writes in her introduction to the collection that ‘[t]he Brontës fascinate us’. There is no doubt this is the case, despite the passage of over a hundred and fifty years since the death of Charlotte, the last Brontë sister. Such continued adoration was recently evidenced by a story in the Telegraph, concerning the sale of a Charlotte Brontë letter, written to an admirer of Jane Eyre, which fetched around £24,000. It was with interest, then, and a shared love of some Brontë texts, that I approached Red Room, a collection of stories ‘written by some of the best short story writers in Britain today’.

Red Room Bronte

A percentage of the sales of the anthology will raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust in Thornton. Trustees and readers will not be disappointed by their efforts. This is a marvellous little book; the stories themselves only take up about 120 pages, but they are brilliant evocations of the Brontë novels, poems, or scenes from their lives. The book contains a useful list of biographies at the end and – cleverly included by the editor – a collection of notes recording the inspiration behind the stories, helping the reader understand how each writer came to construct their story, and the Brontë novel/poem/experience that they took as their springboard.

A couple of the writers in the collection I was familiar with – Man Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore and Saboteur-nominated Tania Hershman. Moore’s story, ‘Stonecrop’ takes its inspiration from a line in Wuthering Heights, and portrays a timid, dominated young girl who turns out to be not so innocent or naïve after all. Hershman’s story, ‘A Shower of Curates’, takes the first lines of all the Brontë novels to create a mid-Victorian remembrance; that is, a kind of diary entry written by a nameless male. A fun exercise for the reader would be to go back to the Brontë novels and see where Hershman used the first lines and how they inspired her.

David Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’ is a hauntingly brilliant piece of writing, one of the best stories I have read this year. His intention had been to provide ‘a sort of utopian answering back against [the] cruelty’. He is achingly effective in depicting a damaged, broken child in Ashton, who had been hurt by people unknown to the extent that he ‘shook as though under the skin he was packed with raddling ice’. Mute though not uncommunicative, Ashton is sent to a children’s home, standing on the moors in a ‘scoop of frozen stillness’, in order to recover. Surrounded by snow and ice, he does not see desolation or isolation in the moors; instead, the snowfall opens up chinks in his silent defence – ‘nothing very concrete or easily describable, more like a shift of light over a surface of ice, snow or water.’ The rugged landscape of the moors emblemised the passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights; in ‘Ashton and Elaine’, Constantine teases out the nurturing, less violent benefits of the moors. Ashton’s slowly developing relationship with Elaine and her family is handled tenderly, never mawkishly, even during the very moving scene when Ashton finally speaks. This is a lovely story, containing passages that I returned to and read again because of their understated beauty.

Equally powerful is Sarah Dobbs’ ‘Behind all the Closed Doors’, which ‘was written as an attempt to understand the grief that goes with losing a parent at such a young age.’ Dobbs doesn’t specify which – if any – Brontë novel or poem she singles out for inspiration, but the impact of her story loses none of its resonance for that. Through gradual hints and suggestions, we learn that young Henry’s mother has died. Random adults care for him, an uncle who ‘looks a bit like Dad. If Dad’s features had been smudged away like the numbers on the board’. Henry’s life has disintegrated. He goes to sleep dressed in his school uniform. In a powerful reflection of the family’s now-shattered life, he cuts his mother’s favourite book – presumably Wuthering Heights – to pieces. Although riddled with grief, the story has comic passages (said uncle, mashing eggs in the kitchen smells of ‘poo and pepper’), and captures the probing, inquisitive nature of a child’s bereavement.

Felicity Skelton’s imagining of an amorous meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Napoleon is also well written (‘The Curate’s Wife – A Fantasy’); Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Emily B’ is disarmingly subtle yet powerful with its portrait of the Brontë sister. A gorgeous opening: ‘Too much rain/in the blood. Too much/cloud in the lungs.’

If I were a Trustee of The Brontë Birthplace Trust, I would be proud to have Red Room as a means of raising funds. This is a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read.

‘London Lies’ (ed. Cherry Potts & Katy Darby)

In anthology, Short Stories on September 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

-Reviewed by Claudia Haberberg-

The Liars’ League is a monthly live literature night held in central London, where actors read stories that have been written for the event. I specify this for those who, like me, are not particularly hip to the live literature scene. London Lies is a collection of stories by nineteen authors who have been showcased in the event’s six-year lifespan, and pays homage to the city where it has made its home.

London Lies Arachne Press

There is a lot to be done with a theme of ‘London‘, even for those authors who do not live here. As someone who was born and brought up in London, and has lived there for the best part of 26 years, it would have been easy to take it somewhat personally if this collection had in any way failed to deliver. Luckily, this is one of the most enjoyable story collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading in several years.

It is clear that the Liars’ League is a select group. Each piece, lasting only a few pages, boasts a completeness that only an accomplished writer can achieve. The breadth of styles, settings and subject matter is excellent. We have repeat viewings of the same film; we have a ‘two blokes in a pub’ story gone horrifically wrong; we have a football riot and a street party of two; we have an apocalypse scenario and a mysterious plague. Many writers have published more than one story in this same book, and they are skilfully arranged – and written – so that we are never given a chance to tire of one person’s voice.

In some ways, the consistently high quality of London Lies makes it difficult to review. Every time I have sat down to start writing, I’ve wanted to highlight different stories. I will, however, begin with a constant favourite: as a lover of fairytales, I particularly enjoyed Emily Cleaver’s ‘The Frog’, a 21st century re-imagining of the story of the Frog Prince. It is, by turns, disturbing and sad, bringing some of the realities of modern dating into harsh relief. Several stories in this anthology are about romance and dating, but this was by far my favourite – like London, it is older than the hills at the same time as being new.

Those stories that are either faintly surreal, or introduce an element of the bizarre to an otherwise regular situation, are the ones that have stayed with me most easily. ‘The Escape’ (Cleaver again), in which an ordinary London market is introduced to the bull chases of Seville by a strange and ill-conceived prank, is one of the more memorable. ‘Rat’ (Liam Hogan), a story about talking rats, reminded me of nothing so much as Terry Pratchett, but the concept of every Londoner having a rat familiar was sweet and the twist in the tale was very well presented.

This is not to say that the more realistic stories are less impressive. There was something sweetly convincing about the idea of riot police turning up to a street party held in the rain (‘O Happy Day’, David Bausor); something thrilling about Simon Hodgson’s ‘Thieves We Were’, a story of Irish gangsters in the 1930s; and something horribly compelling and familiar about David Mildon’s ‘Red’, in which children of football fans are taunted simply for cheering for the ‘wrong’ team. This last, in particular, shows how unfriendly and forbidding this city can be to those who’ve come from outside. This story was immediate, well-paced, and left plenty of food for thought.

If someone asked me to define London, I would unhesitatingly point to the ethnic and cultural diversity of its population. One of the things I love most about my city is that people from all over the world, and from across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, rub shoulders together on a daily basis. If anything is missing from London Lies, it is a firm sense of that diversity. The love stories appear to focus on heterosexual couples, and any characters from minority ethnic backgrounds tend to be incidental. I would love to see a little more of the richness of London’s people in future anthologies from the Liars’ League.

[Ed: Review edited to credit David Bausor for ‘O Happy Day’]

‘Kontakte and Other Stories’ by Jonathan Taylor

In Short Stories on September 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm

-Reviewed by Ralph Jones

If music be the food of love, Jonathan Taylor probably receives a lot of Valentine’s cards. His short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories is infused with musicality and manages, much like a good tune, to linger in the head long after it is over.

It is clear that Taylor is an author profoundly aware of the history and ambitions of his storytelling. In an article on the topic he provides an interesting dissection of the symbiotic nature of music and fiction, and with this cross-over in mind his commitment to ‘challenging, subverting and reinventing’ conventional language is commendable. As he notes, the association between the two art forms has a history that can claim figures like Poe, Balzac, Strauss and Schubert as its participants. Writers wish to write poetry that is musical but composers still aspire to convey poetry in their music. The genre has such a presence that there is in fact a New York publisher whose speciality is ‘musical fiction’.

Kontakte Jonathan Taylor

Kontakte…, then, is already intriguing its readers before it begins. And it proceeds with a confidence and an elegant style. At times it is difficult to suspend one’s disbelief to the point at which one accepts music and various operas being so readily and unselfconsciously referenced in everyday conversation, but Taylor’s stories don’t occupy a place in an entirely real world; the dial has been swivelled somewhat, the tuning altered. This doesn’t excuse the dialogue being clunky on occasion – ‘For God’s or Osiris’s or whoever’s sake’ – but neither does it prevent Taylor from successfully bringing a humour and a poignancy to the often surreal premises. Indeed, Taylor’s gift for the comic is one of the elements that make Kontakte such a pleasure to read; of an Egyptologist’s erotic close encounter with a friend’s wife, he writes, ‘He’s not used to having to interact with people born after Christ’.

He is able also to skip seamlessly from the comic to the intensely moving, and to juggle the two within the same piece. ‘Musica Somni’, ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’, and ‘A Rondo in Letters’ are particularly touching pieces, all of them drawing out portraits of loss in isolated individuals. The latter two are written in letter format; their inclusion is a slight peculiarity, sitting back to back and occupying as they do almost half of a collection comprising thirteen stories. It is difficult not to feel that they somewhat dominate the book, both on account of their length but also because they are that much more affecting. This is by no means to denigrate the other pieces, many of which are more stylistically ambitious (it is tempting to think of the letter template as a little too easy), but ‘A Rondo in Letters’ and ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ are those that linger longest in the mind after reading. It would be very interesting to read a collection of Taylor’s written entirely in letters, such is the ease with which he masters the technique.

Where Taylor experiments with form – in ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Tonight’s Concert Will Commence in Fifteen Minutes’ – the results are decidedly less successful. A great deal of this mercifully brief story makes use of a technique in which each sentence begins by using exactly the same words as those used in the previous, before going on to embellish by adding some of its own. The result – faithfully representative of a Tchaikovskian rhythm though it may be – is an uphill struggle for the reader, who by the end has read a huge number of the same words in the same order with no real reward. In the afore-mentioned article, Taylor himself acknowledges that ‘the stylistic techniques of echoing music in a narrative might become tiresome over longer reading periods’; these periods are not as long as he imagines. The book’s blurb explains that the stories seek ‘to reconnect the language of storytelling with that of song, opera, symphony’, and for the most part they are commendably efficient; but this seems like too much of a strain, a song that one wouldn’t find oneself singing in the shower.

By and large the pieces are strongest when they prioritise human emotions most obviously – leaving the music to play a supporting role – as opposed to when they cite specific pieces of music and are therefore somewhat reliant on an appreciation of these references in order to have maximum impact; it is only very occasionally, when the music is thrust forward into the spotlight, that the joins begin to show and the writing seems to have been shaped to fit a theme. A familiarity with the various cited works would no doubt enhance one’s enjoyment of Kontakte but Taylor is a good enough writer for this not to be a problem, and for the collection to sound a true and resounding note.

‘Sweet Home’ by Carys Bray

In Short Stories on August 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Few of us can remember our childhoods vividly and clearly, every memory of every day as clear as, say, last week. We’re not necessarily consciously selective in our memories, but we do tend to hold onto the highlights and lowlights to stitch together some sort of narrative of our early lives. There’s a textbook example of this in ‘Dancing in the Kitchen’, the sixth story in Carys Bray’s engaging debut collection of short stories, Sweet Home.

Sweet Home by Carys Bray

‘Dancing in the Kitchen’ is the collection’s shortest story, but also its most heart-breaking and most emblematic of what’s going on throughout. Quite simply, there’s a mother dancing in her kitchen – but in her head she’s constructing the director’s cut of how this scene would appear in the film of her life, especially at the moment when her son comes in. The subtle variations of each new take reflect the process of selective editing we carry out on our memories, and the desire to leave happy memories for children to carry into their adult lives. That’s one key concern at the heart of Sweet Home; what memories our children have and how they construct the narratives of their lives with them. But there’s also the self-image of the mother, how she’s seen by her child – and arguably by the imaginary camera lens – and how the scene reflects on her as a parent.

Parents (mostly mothers) and parenting crop up with reassuring, predictable frequency, but that’s hardly surprising considering the title, Sweet Home, and the emphasis on domestic settings. These are stories of families, highlights and lowlights of childhoods that will later become part of a patchwork fabric of remembered early life. That seems especially the case in the collection’s opening number, ‘Everything A Parent Needs To Know’, in which a young daughter destined for a childhood of lowlights, despite her mum’s best efforts, collects a few more embarrassing swimming memories. At the same time, mum is being reminded of all the parenting manuals she’s read and how they seem to not quite be helping in her situation.

The awkward mother-daughter relationship in ‘Everything A Parent Needs To Know’ is echoed time and again through a collection featuring lots of mothers and their relationships with their children (including the odd, highly commercial relationships on display in the coyly semi-sci-fi ‘The Baby Aisle’). There’s a sense that mothers are often working out motherhood as they go along, and perhaps feel as though they aren’t doing a terribly good job. Whether that’s all in their minds, a lack of support from fathers (absent or otherwise) or just a failure to live up to society’s expectation of mothers is another question.

If that makes Sweet Home sound a bit grim or bleak, don’t worry. Every story is lovingly-crafted and a genuine pleasure to read – this is a strong collection that I’m struggling to do justice to. It probes, more or less delicately, at the heart of the embracing family unit; the mother, and her relationship with her children. In doing so, it lets the reader inside some of those families, drawing them in with characters whose intimate thoughts are at once naïve, charming and touching. This is especially true of the children: ‘Bed Rest’ and ‘Scaling Never’ in particular have young narrators with child worldviews that are thoroughly believably and compelling – both are also ever so slightly heart-breaking.

Unusually for a short story collection, there are no stories that stand out as weaker than any of the others. One or two perhaps don’t seem to fit the domestic theme implied by the title – the giggly teenage girls in ‘Under Cover’, for example, detract from what’s otherwise a story of a very down-to-earth and honest love, tinged with inevitable loss in more than one sense. The fantasises of potential future boyfriends feel like they come a different story from the widow remembering her husband, and the twinning of the two narratives doesn’t quite hold together.

All of that may have implied that there’s a darkness running through Sweet Home, something hidden under the cover of happy families. Indeed, many of the stories reflect this rot at the core, and we all know the sweetest foods are the ones that cause the most rot. The title story, ‘Sweet Home’, shows this best. It’s a brilliantly observed modern take on the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale, that takes the idea of a sweet home literally, but also manages to say something far darker about prejudice, xenophobia and the way wider family units band together against outsiders. Bray not only updates the stories of childhood, but expertly exposes the foibles of middle England.

Bray’s stylistic signature is probably her trick of giving the reader a little detail and letting that half-sentence stand in for a wealth of lived experience. Little hints here and there give the reader enough to fill in details of much longer stories. It’s economical and very smart. For example, the woman who works at a bag shop ‘when I’m not taking time off to rest’ (a comment whose significance spirals the more we learn about why she needs time off and why the story is called ‘Just in Case’ – a title with delicious double-meaning). In ‘Wooden Mum’, mum sits outside her young son’s bedroom door until he’s asleep, ‘to stop him coming downstairs’ – in the story’s first sentence, Bray has told us all we need to know about this mother-son relationship and given the first taste of the son’s autistic behaviour.

Like the best fairy tales, Bray’s Sweet Home stories have a dark undercurrent that’s occasionally exposed. This is a writer who understands people, mothers especially, and how their early memories shape the fabric of their later lives. She’s working on a novel, and if the skill on display in Sweet Home is anything to go by, that novel will be well worth the read.

‘Sea of Trees’ by Robert James Russell

In Short Stories on August 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Sea of Trees, Robert James Russell’s debut novella, takes its name from Aokigahara, the Japanese forest that is also the setting for the novella’s narrative action. Aokigahara has become notable for the number of suicides that take place in the forest, and the primary narrative of Sea of Trees follows Bill, an American college student, and Junko, his Japanese girlfriend, as they move through the forest, attempting to locate any traces of her sister Izumi, who went missing there. This central story is told in alternating fashion with other vignettes that recount the circumstances leading up to other Aokigahara suicides.

Sea of Trees

This structure, which nests what are effectively flash fictions within the longer novella, is one of the key strengths of Sea of Trees, in terms of how it helps with the pacing of the Bill/Junko narrative. According to Russell, in the course of his writing, what emerged was a conscious decision ‘to break [the narrative] up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous’, as well as to provide some breathing space for the reader: ‘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.’ What is also interesting about these vignettes is how fully formed most of them read on the page, whilst seeming capable of being expanded into longer narratives of their own. This possibly serves as a parallel to the knowledge buried within Junko that is steadily revealed to Bill, as the characters delve ever deeper into the forest depths.

In this sense, Bill functions as a proxy for the reader, both of whom are kept wondering as to Junko’s real motivations right until the novella’s shocking denouement. Yet even at that point, conventional narrative closure is denied to us, since we learn about the painful truth that overshadowed Izumi and Junko’s lives from a final vignette – rather than as part of the main Bill/Junko narrative – that is itself derived from a journal given by Junko to Bill. Arguably, this renders the Bill/Junko narrative into a vignette of its own, one which speaks of the internalised logic of suicide and its inexorable, terrible consequences.

What holds this delicate structural balancing act together is Russell’s assured command of language. The writing in Sea of Trees displays both clarity and economy. Consider the very first paragraph of the novella:

She touches the bark of a tree, traces it with her fingers like she’s familiar with it, seen it before. I see her only barely through the endless green, slivers of her that pop into view for a moment. I stop and take a drink of water, hot and tired, but force a smile, pretending as if I’m enjoying this as much as she seems to be, just in case she’s looking.

In just three sentences, Russell has already foreshadowed the events of the rest of the novella. Junko is here being linked to the tactile, to the concrete signs and evidence of Izumi’s presence in Aokigahara that she has come here expressly to find, whereas Bill is portrayed as being concerned with the surface, with what can be glimpsed. Even then, he does not grasp the full picture, since he ‘barely’ sees ‘slivers’ of Junko ‘for a moment’. In that final clause, ‘just in case she’s looking’, the seed is also laid for the main source of conflict between the characters throughout Sea of Trees, i.e. Junko’s accusation that Bill does not truly understand why they are in Aokigahara and what they have come to do.

Ultimately, what Russell attempts is not so much to explain why Aokigahara manifests this curious appeal as a suicide destination or why the people committing suicide there make that choice, but rather to simply present this without judgement as an ongoing phenomenon, leaving readers to come to their own conclusions. On the whole, Sea of Trees makes for a confident debut and an enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to whatever Russell comes up with next.

[ED: Readers interested in Russell’s work should have a look at the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, of which he is co-founder, and Ian’s interview with him here]

‘Time’ (ed. Sam Rawlings)

In anthology, Short Stories on August 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

Time, a relatively new publication from Lazy Gramophone Press, is a unique and endearing collection of prose and poems that have been perfectly paired with complementary artwork. This outstanding collection has successfully drawn together different forms of art, marrying talent in literature and drawing, painting and photography, in order to compile accounts and anecdotes relating to one of mankind’s favourite topics: the union between living life and exactly how much time we have to do so.

Commendation must first be delivered to the editor of this collection, Sam Rawlings, for making such marvellous decisions and for working so closely with an impressive array of skilled artists on this novel concept.

Time cover Sam Rawlings Lazy Gramaphone

The anthology opens with a central story; this effectively lays the foundations for the texts and images that will follow, and the pattern in which they will appear. The short opening for the text explains that the main body of the publication is sectioned into three life periods, childhood, adolescence-adulthood, and old age, and while these sections exist independently of each other, there are frequent and fragile ties that serve to loosely bind one narrative to another, which is a fascinating element to track. Whether it is the use of the same name or merely a hint at the reappearance of a character through a subtle description, there is something that will intricately link one story to another story, or perhaps even to a poem, which will ultimately lead to a link with the central story.

While the basic principles sound somewhat complex on paper, when you observe them being applied in the book, they are not only refreshingly unique but also quite captivating.

I found myself enjoying the contents more as I progressed through the life periods, however there are some truly outstanding pieces to be found in the earlier sections. ‘Eibar’, written by Sam Rawlings and illustrated by Carl Laurence, who incorporates great realism to the piece through his inspired diagram of the main character, was an entry that stood out from the crowd of childhood not simply for its length (it is rather long) but also for its depth of emotion and complete ability to hook the reader into the storyline and life of the central character, who you can empathise with from the opening paragraph. ‘Lemur’, by Guy J Jackson, and ‘Macaulay, My Nephew & Me’, by Inua Ellams, were also welcome additions, with Maria Drummey’s ‘Painting in a Certain Sky’ providing what felt like an appropriate close to this life chapter due to her poignant recollections and rich descriptions, which are further enriched by the accompaniment of Emma Day’s simplistic artwork which complements this piece.

There is an obvious shift in tone that appears in adolescence-adulthood, one that is particularly apparent in Kirsty Alison’s entry, ‘Oscar Wilde Said Youth is Wasted on the Young – so Let’s Get Wasted’, which is illustrated by the talented Lola Dupre who provides a thought-provoking representation of society‘s youths.. This hilarious submission marks a clear transition between the previous age and the one we are now moving into, which is not only amusing and perhaps a little embarrassing, but also somewhat poignant. In truth, all entries into this section warrant commendation for exploring troubling and unavoidable times in this period of life, including the complex emotions that are bound to those character-defining times. While I enjoyed each entry, I do feel inclined to admit my particular adoration for Jo Tedds’ ‘Orphans of the Order’, illustrated by Paul Bloom; these two artists combine their collective talent to create an outstanding contribution that I think many readers will recall long after they have finished reading the collection.

Time story Lazy Gramaphone

For me, old age was the superior age chapter. Both the prose and poetry entirely pulled me into these hilarious, poignant and saddening tales, all of which are equipped with yet more fabulous illustrations that allow these submissions to grow even further off the page. Charlie Cottrell’s ‘Losing It’ was absolutely marvellous! My heartstrings were well and truly plucked within my chest from the beginning of the tale, only to be left feeling somewhat out of tune at the end of the story (something you’ll understand when you read it); this story also provided a clear reference back to the central story, introduced to the reader some two-hundred pages previously. ‘The Dash In-between’, by Claire Fletcher, was another favourite and was, in my opinion, nothing short of inspiring; it is a heart-warming demonstration of the concept of ‘as one door closes, another one opens’, explored in a exceptional and touching manner.

With a short and unexpected burst of poetry and final illustrations the collection is brought to an unwelcome end as you are left with lingering questions, most of which relate to the central story (which I have deliberately withheld information about). ‘Ocean’, a poem written by Sorana Santos is littered with love, faith and empowerment and is a perfect addition to the closing moments of this anthology, complemented greatly by the artistic contribution provided by Kaitlin Beckett, who, alongside Santos, also explores the wonder of the ocean in a visually captivating manner. The final illustration contained in the collection, which is to accompany the poem ‘The Fires’, written by Liz Adams, is aesthetically pleasing in many ways and would certainly be a welcome addition to the wall of any modern art enthusiast. It is a truly outstanding piece that is certainly lingering about in my top five examples of visual art contained within this exciting collection.

Time is a fascinating collection littered with not only wonderful literature but also fabulous illustrations that ultimately make it a credit to any book-lover’s shelves. Lazy Gramophone Press have done a splendid job in combining different styles of art and entangled them through the bond of a common narrative, or at least elements of a common narrative, that allow these pieces to stand united as well as independently. I sincerely hope that there will be another venture similar to this in the future.

‘More Sawn-Off Tales’ by David Gaffney

In Short Stories on August 3, 2013 at 3:05 pm

-Reviewed by Ralph Jones

Short, Sharp Bursts of Weird

Give David Gaffney 150 words and you’ll be holding his hand as he leads you to some very strange places. More Sawn-off Tales is the second in the writer’s Sawn-off flash fiction series and this collection comprises 73 disquieting stories, each exactly the same in length. Whether describing using crossbows to hunt sheep, or the sound of bass-heavy techno killing an alpaca, Gaffney’s prose carves out a place in the weird corner of the room and doodles contentedly all over it for the afternoon. His miniature stories, creepy and amusing in equal measure, are a glimpse into a hive of the uncanny.

More Sawn-off Tales eyes cover

It must be said of the author that through his collections with Salt he has managed to bring the appealing medium of the tiny story to a much wider audience. Nestling snugly between poetry and conventional short stories, flash fiction deserves the ‘iPad generation’ moniker it has attained. There seems something intrinsically modern about the form (its National Day came, after all, only in 2012) and Gaffney can claim to be one of its most skilled practitioners. In a period in which, to a greater extent than ever before, fiction vies for attention with many multifarious forms of entertainment, flash fiction could well be one of modern literature’s real success stories. ‘No one had a job because everybody made their own things with 3D printers’, Gaffney writes of the future in ‘It Doesn’t Really Matter if Things Die Out’. It is only a mild exaggeration.

First, though, a reservation. In part because they are so short, the stories fall victim at times to various ailments. ‘A Dress Code for Modern Musicians’, for example, feels like a list rather than a narrative; ‘It’s All in Storage’ seems set on a stage only a much longer story can fill; and ‘Let’s See What Rachel’s Been Up To’ is simply too heaving with bizarre references to care much about. It would be intriguing – and, more than that, sometimes necessary – to hear more about the inhabitants of some of Gaffney’s stories, and for this reason the confines of the format serve occasionally to restrict rather than purify the writing. Not the worst criticism for a writer to receive but a reservation nonetheless.

There is so much to enjoy in the writing, however, that the duds don’t leave much of a stain. It is an absolute pleasure to read some of the imagery and allusions with which Gaffney peppers his work and he frequently exhibits a turn of phrase that is simply enchanting. We are treated to lines like ‘You are so bold with cobalt, Terence’ and ‘Izzy removed her clothes and crept towards me like a foal tiptoeing through the snow’. Gaffney knows how to paint a powerful picture and does so time and time again: ‘suddenly my anus became a gaping, gelatinous mouth and the tube wormed up inside me like a long, thin girl swimming up a pipe’ is a sentence Carol Ann Duffy mightn’t be brave enough to set down in print.

Several stories stand tall above the rest as particularly effective syntheses of the comical and the bizarre, or the strange and the profound. ‘The Joke About Todd Pokato’, for example, is sublimely funny; and ‘The Building with the Hole’ offers one of the collection’s most touching lines: ‘she said sunshine was like a friend: at its best on first meetings and farewells’. Shades of Luke Kennard loom into view in some of the pieces – as, for example, in ‘Listed Bridge’ (‘I was able to climax only with the aid of a physical theatre company’) and ‘Happy Birthday, Hee Hee’:

‘It’s not Jim’s birthday,’ Martha explained. ‘It’s just something we say around here.’
‘So what do you say,’ I asked, ‘when it really is someone’s birthday?’
‘We don’t say anything.’

Central to many of the pieces is the concept of borrowing or inhabiting others’ bodies and possessions (‘The Homes of Others’; ‘It Happens Inside’) and breaking up with partners or making fresh starts (‘Bleached Linen Number Four’; ‘Blood in Fight’). More often than not, characters in More Sawn-off Tales are unsatisfied with the hand they have been dealt and are looking for ways to shuffle the deck.

The afore-mentioned Izzy appears twice in the collection, on both occasions able only to have sex under certain strange conditions. Indeed the tales show evidence of a writer preoccupied with not just the bizarre but the sexually perverse: we are witness to fetishists having sex with eyes; a member of a theatre troupe being plastered to a wall with semen; and a couple booking a viewing of a property simply to have sex in it. Is Gaffney visualising a world in which these fixations are commonplace, or hinting that they lurk at the bottom of this one, unacknowledged and suppressed?

Eyes are a subject to which Gaffney returns with macabre relish; a search for the word indicates that it is included 28 times, and indeed 42 of them adorn the front cover of the book. In one story he discusses their transportation, and in another contemplates the logistics of implanting those of an ex-girlfriend into those of a current one. The ‘thorough and professional’ eye of his proofreader is credited at the beginning of the collection but this rubs salt in the wound when it becomes apparent that at least three errors seem to have escaped her grasp: the misspelling of ‘alpaca’ in the title of ‘DJ Stinger and the Ghost Alpcaca’; a character in ‘Blood in Fight’ being called first Maria, then Marie, then Maria again; and inconsistent title formatting. Small oversights, perhaps, but noticeable ones in stories of such brevity.

‘A Dress Code for Modern Musicians’ causes the book to limp out slightly but it has walked so tall thus far that it matters little. By the time one has finished reading Gaffney’s collection one is living deep in the midst of his strange creation, wondering why not everyone in the real world behaves in the same fiendishly weird manner. It’s not that they shouldn’t do so; it’s just that if they did, Gaffney wouldn’t have released More Sawn-off Tales. To escape into his imagination is an experience no amount of 3D printing can replicate.