Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Elinor Walpole’

‘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.


‘The Syllabus of Errors’ by Ashley Stokes

In anthology, Short Stories on January 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Described as ‘Twelve stories of obsession, loss and getting in a state’ Ashley Stokes’s The Syllabus of Errors is a collection of unnerving tales about people struggling to cope with their disappointments. Having read Stokes’s ‘The Swan King’ in the process of reviewing Unthology #2 for Sabotage in 2011 and found it an intriguing and melancholy read, I was keen to see if The Syllabus of Errors followed in this trend. Stokes doesn’t disappoint with these stories and each, like ‘The Swan King’, challenges you to read between the lines though you can’t help but rush forwards as the momentum pulls you towards the climax of the story.

The Syllabus of Errors, Ashley Stokes, published by Unthank Books

As well as the themes mentioned above, the stories are linked by an almost academic fascination with language, naming and categorising. The Syllabus of Errors even introduces a couple of playful new terms, used by different characters in a few stories, such as the unforgettable adjective ‘shoutybollocks’, presumably referring to an obnoxious and overbearing individual. Teachers and intellectuals also form the main source matter for the material – from students given to over-analysis to self-deprecating teachers who are thwarted in their desires by those they resent as intellectually inferior.

Despite the humour however all the stories have a dark, disturbing edge, epitomised in the first story of the collection. ‘Island Gardens’ serves as a statement of intent for The Syllabus of Errors with its delicate balance of paranoia, insecurity, disappointment, wry humour and unnerving tension. Unfortunately for the protagonist, and for all the characters in the collection, it seems that though their hopes may never be realised, their fears almost certainly will be, however self-deprecatingly the protagonist may try to foresee this eventuality.

In ‘Island Gardens’ our narrator, mild-mannered English teacher Grant Woods, is waiting for his maybe-girlfriend ‘V’ in the centre of a London that he barely recognises. Killing time and to stave off nerves he ponders how homogenised his surroundings have become since his last time in London, which has been newly populated by what he calls ‘Adverts’ and ‘Loomparettes’- young people wearing gaudy labels or excess tanning lotion.

‘V liked these words as well. She said she enjoyed learning all of the silly names
he gave to things and people’.

As Grant indulges in nostalgic musings, he creates wry character sketches of the surrounding people, and an ill-judged hesitation while fantasising about the back-stories of a couple indulging in public displays of affection turns the situation from a daydream tinged with anxiety into a tense and inexplicable manhunt.

Grant has been experiencing ‘ahnen’, the ‘sensation that something is wrong without knowledge of its cause’ throughout his wait, but he is in denial that the threat he faces isn’t the disappointment in love that he fears, but rather that of senseless, unprovoked violence that he refused to give credence to from the surrounding people.

‘You well bate, blood,’ said the boy, separating his fingers and stabbing his thumb upwards.
‘Pardon?’ Said Grant. As he stood up it crossed his mind that back in Alex’s unforgiving pool hall world this one’s opening shot would have been a ‘Reverse English’.

Grant and his antagonist, the ‘Reverse English’, are lost in translation, and Grant inadvertently escalates the situation by refusing to be threatened by someone he still considers an extension of his daydream – safely labelled and given a fantasy history, thus neutralised. But he has misjudged the ‘Reverse English’ entirely and Grant’s refusal to be drawn further into confrontation has consequences.

‘Abyssinia’ follows in this trend of intelligent, lovelorn academics trapped in a dialogue that wrongfoots them. ‘Abyssinia’ opens with Mellis, a disgraced lecturer, waking up in hospital in urine-stained trousers and piecing together the events that have landed him there while preparing for his final act of defiance. A more visceral tale than ‘Island Gardens’, ‘Abyssinia’ plumbs the physical as well as emotional humiliation of its protagonist and extends the character sketches to farcical levels.

Mellis’s character weaves a dystopian narrative that flits back and forth in a framework of aspirations and hopes frustrated by bureaucracy, coloured by the fog of alcohol abuse and its requisite humiliating half-memories. Facing up to the events that have led to his most recent rampage he recalls a significant stand-off between himself and his HR manager, who is pioneering a new era for their institution (earning him comparisons with Mussolini) and who is also his love rival:

‘Now, you know why we’ve called this meeting, because we spoke last year about your redeployment…’
career ending […]
‘…and we did ask you to supply us with your CV so that we can assess what you can do for us…’
what else you can rob from me

As well as sharing the analysis of language, its meaning and interpretation that is in ‘Island Gardens’ (and there are a few moments where the protagonist mentions certain ‘types’ as well for good measure) ‘Abyssinia’ is also another tale reprimanding the protagonist for daring to dream of romance, a theme that unites all the stories in this collection. All the tales are:

‘embroiled in the oldest and most mysterious story of all. A boy strikes out, following some girl or light or icon or whispered promise, and whatever he does, whatever he finds, whatever he overcomes, whatever the frontiers he crosses, he never comes back’.

Overall The Syllabus of Errors is a tense, exciting and thought-provoking series of stories from the point of view of the alienated or underdog, encompassing humorous experiments in form such as ‘A Short Story about a Short Film’ and full of references to the return of the repressed and the major wars of the twentieth century – especially World War II and its Nazis, Fascists and Communists. There is also sharp criticism of the current state of society – the ‘types’ that Stokes’s characters see all around them are obnoxious, self-interested and materialistic, and many of the stories are set against a backdrop of recession and its effect on the arts and society, with all its accompanying ill-advised and compromising stop-gap measures.

‘Nothing Doing’ by Willie Smith

In anthology, Short Stories on June 4, 2012 at 9:14 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Willie Smith’s Nothing Doing is a collection of short stories that claim to ‘anatomise America’s most vivid perversions and outsider fantasies with unmatched precision and wit’. Flagrantly offensive at times, the stories are wildly imaginative as they veer into the depths of some of the most disgusting and disturbing situations imaginable, located uncomfortably in the workplace or family home.

Nothing Doing by Willie Smith reviewed by Elinor Walpole

The collection was written over a period of thirty years, with many of the stories sharing themes and dialogue and seeming to interlink with each other; there are recurring visions of bestiality (particularly with ‘man’s best friend’); the image of the father passed out, self-anaesthetised in front of the television after a few too many beers; and more shockingly parental rape also rears its ugly head. Historical influences tinge the narrative- there are references to Vietnam, the Cold War, to changing vocabulary, attitudes and emerging drugs, and a child’s reaction to the Second World War and the Nazis.

One of the most restrained stories in the collection, the eponymous ‘Nothing Doing’, has a similar tone to the short stories of David Foster Wallace in its deconstruction of the bureaucracy of society (but without as many asides and footnotes). The story focuses on the palpable consequences of bounced ‘G-forms’, computer-generated forms that are supposed to automatically evaluate and allocate welfare to the people that need it, and the inevitable bug that errors arise due to human error or otherwise:

Meaning you the client shall eat chickenshit until such time as the worker, the input operator and their leadworkers and supervisors learn how to make the paper flow.

Comparing this tale with ‘Benny Saves the Day’, is to see a different mass impact from a glitch in the system. The world of greetings card manufacture is portrayed as an incredibly stressful, competitive environment where our pep-pill-popping protagonist struggles to ‘keep a clean slate, a new greeting card verse can arrive at any time’. Within the industry of manufactured emotions he writes a card that ‘triggers a pregnancy avalanche’ and crisis overpopulation. In ‘Nothing Doing’ human endeavour results not in births but an uncontrollable amount of bogus deaths. Due to simple input error of ‘8’ rather than the Greek symbol theta; “you terminate client due to crime-related death”. In ‘Nothing Doing’ an excess of bureaucracy is robbing people of their benefits and systematically ‘killing them off’, conversely in ‘Benny Saves the Day’ the protagonist is forced to take drastic action to bring about ‘a nosedive in production of the single greatest threat to life on earth: Americans’.

Other stories in the collection share similar themes but contrast vividly- ‘Genuine Imitation’ is a shocking tale told in comic staccato tone, throwing images of historic violence into the arena of the family home. A young boy is inspired to ‘play Hitler’ with his friends, dressing up and dreaming of ways to brainwash the people while planning genocide, somehow results in the rape of both his parents. This disturbing vignette is followed immediately in the collection by the more ponderous ‘Special on the Jews’ in which we see a different young boy questioning a documentary on the Holocaust and wondering about his own German, possibly Jewish, heritage. His thoughts on the fate of the Jews are contrasted by his father’s enraged outbursts on the advertising that interrupts the programme as “the most disgusting invention of modern civilisation” despite the content of the programme he is watching, compounded by the even more inappropriate jingle that recurs “You can trust your car to/ The man who wears the star”.

In ‘Hyperactive Before My Time’ another young mind is inspired by recent historical events to recreate Russian surgical experiments on his own pet dog. After seeing an article in Life magazine on the advances of Communist science and the creation of a two headed dog our protagonist impulsively sets to action in order to somehow do one better, despite his young age. The narrative voice is sickening in its naïve and earnest tone that follows the child’s decision-making process as though none of his apparently well-intentioned actions will have any consequences but positive ones that will bring him glory and save the nation. The story takes a strange turn when surgery turns to bestiality in the quest for a more ground-breaking advantage on the Russians, perhaps inspired by the boy’s emerging awareness of sexuality as he comments on the gossip about his neighbour’s ‘part of the boy it isn’t polite to discuss’ and witnesses dogs mating; “Why not graft onto a human an entire dog? Use the peg between my own legs – known to science as the penis…Such a gambit would never occur to the Russians, mired in their Communist rules”.

Nothing Doing delivers an insight into the more perverse view on how the developments of twentieth century history have impacted the American psyche, from the industry of commercially manufactured emotions through to the Cold War. Childish postwar curiosity and removal from the immediate horror of war has obviously taken its hold on the imaginations of Smith’s young characters – will they be victim or oppressor? Those seem to be their given roles as they sense impending threat. Often there is nobody to oppress but in the immediate vicinity – resulting in sexually violent and iconoclastic attacks on the family. Nothing Doing is thought-provoking but at times goes too far as it heaps grotesque image upon grotesque image with seeming flippancy. However as the stories set out to undermine those taken-for-granted standards in the face of what the world is really like, they succeed in showing how ‘normal’ life can foster some very abnormal tendencies.

‘Border Run’ by Simon Lewis

In Novel on April 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Simon Lewis’s Border Run is a pacy read that tells the story of two gap year travellers, Jake and Will, who embark upon an ‘adventurette’ in the jungle on the borders of China and Burma that turns nasty. We see events unfold from the viewpoint of Will, an insecure young man keen to prove his adventurous spirit to validate himself in his ex-girlfriend’s eyes. Lewis’s writing conjures up the self-reflexive Facebook generation perfectly, with Will analysing each experience in terms of its ability to impress back home. Jake even berates Will for mediating his experiences through the lens; ‘take that camera off your face. Stop using it like a shield’.

Will and Jake’s personalities contrast with one another, the uptight and slightly neurotic young man to carefree and footloose lad. The novel opens with Jake excitedly proposing a roadtrip with a stranger, the bait for Will being a photogenic waterfall. The bait for Jake is somewhat different; the temptation of ‘walking marriage’ with girls who live in the borderlands. Will is disappointed at the first sight of their promised paradise, his vision clouded by his resentment towards the carefree Jake for having commandeered their carefully planned itinerary. He jumps to negative conclusions, seeing the place as ‘a hopeless mass of green detail’ before they come upon their real destination.
Border Run Simon Lewis
The novel is full of vivid descriptions seen through Will’s keen eye as a photographer. The luscious settings, a smattering of technical photography language and the odd detail such as their snacking on ‘Cashew Savageness nuts and Lonely God crisps’ recreate the curious traveller’s wonder. Will captures every moment as it unfolds for its physical beauty, but more importantly for him as proof of his experiences for how they might rate as a Facebook album. Later his relentless documenting of every detail becomes his protection as he casts himself in the role of witness.

Will’s unease about the impulsive trip is overridden by his desire to impress, and when things start to heat up he ‘told himself to relax and be more like Jake, carefree, easy in his body, going with the flow’. However Will’s premonition that things are too good to be true doesn’t take long to be proven right. As soon as evidence starts to appear that perhaps Howard, their tour guide, isn’t quite as altruistic as he’s made himself out to be Will assumes the moral high ground and begins to weigh up his options considering his irresponsible travelling companions, and finds himself having to constantly adjust to increasingly perilous situations until he’s no longer sure where his loyalty lies.

Short chapters and playful cliffhangers keep the story moving rapidly as the situation spirals out of control. The narrative is dialogue driven, from Will’s cringeworthy non-conversation with a nubile tribal girl to increasingly awkward interchanges between himself and Howard that become more tense as Will tries to make sense of the turn of events and his position within it. Despite this Will makes an unexpectedly sympathetic protagonist. We follow his agonising decision-making process from one uncomfortable situation through another, from the trivial to the perilous.

Border Run is an engaging, humorous novel that forces our modern Young Werther-like protagonist away from introverted self-analysis and into the thrust of the action, until finally he is forced to really test his limits and what he believes himself capable of.

‘Rogue’s Gallery’ by Robert Barnard

In Short Stories on February 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Robert Barnard’s Rogue’s Gallery is a collection of dark short stories and unnerving mysteries. Although renowned for his crime writing Barnard’s tales in this offering do not feature many crime capers or detectives (except our Nordic dog-detective in ‘Where Mongrels Fear to Tread’) so rather than the thrill of the chase the focus is instead on forbidden urges and desires. The unifying theme of the collection seems to be unusual families with tales of absent parents, incest, and parricide.

Robert Barnard's Rogue's Gallery

Barnard’s storytelling style is to really bring out a character’s point of view in an ambivalent and precarious situation, tracking the decision making process carefully. The purposeful third person prose takes precedence over description, setting and details, working to lead you by the hand down the twisted path. However it also has the effect of blending the stories together into one homogenous mass; although the voices are different there is not much variety in the storytelling style. This has its own charm with each story having a predictable trajectory, and repeated momentum, but it also serves to make the stories feel paradoxically ‘safe’ despite the disturbing subject matter.

Those that I personally liked the most were those that dealt with discomfiting family dynamics; the other areas that were explored in the collection impressed me less. The supernatural powers of a cursed painting was fun but wound up where expected and a re-imagining of the Hamlet story and Mozart’s experiences in pre-Victorian England I found a little glib and in the case of the Hamlet pastiche, tedious. While some may find the reinvention of Hamlet as ‘Hammy’ who ‘spent most of his time in amateur dramatics…which is how he acquired the diminutive of his name’ hilarious, I found it off-putting.

There are also self-reflexive parts of the narrative that reference the writer’s dedication to his chosen form such as ‘Was it some kind of crime novel, where the reader is offered information but in a way calculated to mislead?’ And in another tale ‘This was going to be one of those in which the wrong suspect is fitted up for a murder he, or in fact she, didn’t do’.

Overall Rogue’s Gallery is an entertaining package of short stories that makes good light reading but isn’t challenging enough for my taste. My criticism would be that the stories feel burdened by twists that are just a little bit too predictable. Although in some of the stories this predictability throws over the tale a sense of wry humour, in others it feels like it weighs the story down. The collection reads like a series of playful experiments in form where some are more successful than others, but there are genuinely moving moments and passages of great pathos among them. Literary Review says ‘Barnard always makes it look so easy’ and this ease does come across in the writing, but also imbues a lack of depth.

Fiction Reviews: A 2011 ‘Top Ten’

In Seasonal/End of year on December 17, 2011 at 10:05 am

-Decided by Richard T. Watson

It’s the time of year for lists again: lists of things, lists of people, lists of events and occasionally, just occasionally, lists of lists. I think lists of lists are my favourite.

It’s also a time to look for Christmas presents. Sabotage’s own Claire Trévien has already provided a Top Ten list of pamphlets for the poetry-lover in your life (or soon-to-be poetry-lover, once you’ve wowed them with your poetry pamphlet selection), so now here’s a list of suggestions from Sabotage’s fiction division. A Christmas Top Ten, if you like, of prose presents for the people in your life who like a bit of short story or novella every now and then.

I say it’s a Christmas Top Ten… It’s not a Top Ten based on any sort of reader feedback, bestseller charts or in-depth critical reading on my part. [The critical thinking has mostly been done by Sabotage’s reviewers, who are a lovely and hard-working bunch – thanks, guys!] I’m basing my list roughly on our most popular reviews on Sabotage, so maybe even if you don’t get the books themselves you can enjoy the reviews while hiding away from the family over Christmas and New Year. But y’know, the books are worth getting hold of too.

It’s more of a ‘Who did well this year’ list. Oh, and there’s only three entries, not ten. So, maybe a Christmas Sabotage Fiction Top Three…

1. Armchair/Shotgun #2 (indeed, all of their issues, but we covered the second) has an admirably egalitarian attitude to authorship, claiming: ‘Good writing does not know one MFA program from another. It does not know a PhD from a high school dropout…and it does not care what you have written before. Good writing knows only story.’ Good storytelling is central to Armchair/Shotgun #2, with our reviewer (Rory O’Sullivan) saying: ‘Many of the pieces illustrate grassroots story-telling at its very best […] and there is a freshness and a spice to this collection that brings to mind the originality of the Beat generation.’

2. We’ve had a review of Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories before Sabotage had a fiction division (I’m going to keep calling it a division, until someone suggests a better word), but the follow-up publication, Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories definitely makes this list in its own right. Both collections have been popular on Sabotage, and they sound like really great reads. Certainly if our reviewer’s opinion is anything to go by (and it is). The review (by Tori Truslow) says: ‘this anthology was a marvel to read, a real magical mystery airship tour crewed by rebel mechanics and guerrilla historians. If the first Steam-Powered was daring, the second is dazzling.’

3. My third entry to this list is a bit of a cop-out. We’ve reviewed both of the anthology publications from Unthank Books this year, winningly entitled Unthologies, and both have sounded well worth the read. Ian Chung reviewed Unthology #1 back in April, and agreed that it ‘largely achieves what it sets out to do in terms of ‘showcasing unconventional, unpredictable and experimental stories’ and ‘inject[ing] fresh venom into the shorter form’.’ Then Elinor Walpole reviewed Unthology #2 in October and concluded: ‘With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.’

I’m also going to add this one (Ian Farnell’s review of Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode) in as a consolation fourth place, mainly because it’s amusing and references Bruce Springsteen a few times.

Finally, on a deliberately Christmas-themed note: if you haven’t bought presents yet, can I ask a favour of you? It’s not a difficult one, don’t worry.

If you’re willing to shop online, please have a browse through the retailers on Sabotage’s Spend and Raise page. Spend and Raise allows not-for-profits like Sabotage to raise a bit of cash via the commission on your online Christmas shopping – most importantly, it doesn’t cost you anything extra: you pay the amount you’d pay anyway, and Sabotage is given a percentage. All you have to do is go to the retailers through our Spend and Raise page, instead of directly.

Thanks a bunch, we really appreciate it.

Happy Christmas, and merry reading!

‘Sullom Hill’ by Christopher Kenworthy

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on November 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Sullom Hill is another discomforting tale from Nightjar Press (this one written by Christopher Kenworthy) featuring a young and impressionable narrator who reveals the pecking order in the social structure of small-town teenagers’ friendship. With vivid description that is almost grotesque at times, and a tangible sense of guilt and responsibility, our narrator tells of his time as the friend-in-common and mediator between the school bully and a boy with special needs.

Nightjar Press's Sullom Hill, by Christopher Kenworthy, reviewed for Sabotage by Elinor Walpole

The use of first person narration gives us a direct insight into the reasoning and motivations of our narrator as he attempts to establish himself as a friend of John Stack, the school bully, and simultaneously distance himself from Neil Kingsley, a local boy with mental disabilities whom he is keen not to associate with as a friend any more. We see the sense of guilt that our protagonist has from the start – the story is framed by the image of him hiding from Neil, and trying to reason with himself that ‘it’s to protect Neil from John’.

Neil Kingsley is introduced by our narrator as pathetic, seen by others as ‘stupid’ and ‘slow’, however our narrator seems to feel that there is more beneath the surface. His grotesque description of Neil, with nauseating detail about the state of his lips, reveals not only the way that Neil is viewed as distinctly odd, but also hints at racism in the community, as he is considered by others to be a genetic ‘throwback’. Again, our narrator is sensitive enough to question this – and he is told by his mother that Neil is ‘Not black, but blue’ due to his having been starved of oxygen when he was born, the cause of his learning difficulties. Our narrator sees this blueness more than the supposed blackness as a defining characteristic of Neil, someone is perpetually cold, outside and looking for a friend.

Our protagonist realises that he is not as nice to Neil as he should be, and acknowledges his unease about this, yet goes on to express the stronger pull of being friends with the bully. The narrator looks back on friendship politics, recognising John Stack as a kind serial monogamist in terms of friendship, but our narrator is naïve enough to feel ‘honoured’ to have been chosen as his friend. There is an unbearable and moving tension in the narrative as our protagonist feels his loyalty and morals tested between his friends, knowing that John’s friendship is potentially dangerous but allowing himself to be seduced by it, even when John sets his sights on Neil as a source of fun: ‘Let’s burn the spaz’. Even as John manipulates Neil for fun our narrator is painfully aware of Neil’s perilous position, watching his reactions to John’s teasing closely, trying to second-guess the situation and make sure it doesn’t go too far.

However John is also a somewhat sympathetic figure. John is set up by our narrator as an unpredictable, violent presence, and witnessing him withstand abuse from a teacher leads them to their unlikely friendship. John is shown to have no respect for authority – he smirks in the face of discipline, is manipulative and smart-mouthed, and even leads our narrator astray to threateningly tease an old man down by the canal. They use Neil as a shield to look like ‘good kids’ to others while they are plotting trouble. However John is himself a victim of domestic abuse, and when he allows his new friend an insight into the horror of his home life it is not without a price – and unfortunately it is Neil that has to pay it.

Kenworthy’s storytelling is fraught with the unease of negotiating one’s place in the world and pushing the boundaries of wrong and right. A moving coming of age story about friendship, bullying, disability and domestic abuse through the eyes of a naïve narrator who struggles to take in the significance of what he has seen, and reacts by desperately trying to do whatever it takes to salvage a friendship without acknowledging what he’s seen.

‘Remains’ by G. A. Pickin

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on November 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Pickin’s Remains is a tale of a walker (and a very particular type of walker at that- the protagonist is keen not to be associated with the middle class ‘Walking Business’) who, to his shame, loses his way. Opening with the warning from the third person narrator ‘He had set out too late, and now the light was dying’ the tone is neatly set for the rest of the story as the protagonist faces the challenge of finding his way back to the holiday cottage where he is meeting his friends.

Distinguishing himself from others is important to our protagonist, and his failure to return at a sensible hour is ‘a deviation from his self-image as a seasoned traveller’. The friends to whom he is meant to be returning he met on a gap year, but again he is keen to self-justify that his gap year hadn’t been the cliché of overprivileged students ‘windsurfing, white-water rafting, and bungee jumping with a few days of slumming it watching other people work in the host country’. Rather ‘He had chosen to do something real, something that called for hard graft but was satisfying… that would be of lasting benefit to his own country’.

Remains by GA Pickin, Nightjar Press, reviewed by Elinor Walpole

With the initial rational challenges of a rough and tricky-to-navigate terrain providing a sense of hard-won achievement for our protagonist, as his discomfort grows – he feels the ‘rhythmic nip of a blister’ and has set out without gloves as it is ‘not meant to be gloves weather’. The tone is introspective as our protagonist walks and reflects, his daydreaming the cause of his late return journey. He takes delight in playing out fantasies, channelling the spirit of a long-gone organist as he attempts ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ on a broken instrument discovered at a ruin of a church and its surrounding hamlet, and ruminates on the roles of the past inhabitants, feeling the pastoral history.

The sense connection to nature comes out in the writing as it sensuously describes the elements and increasingly personifies the surroundings as our narrator becomes less aware of his position in relation to civilisation. The wind speaks in ‘chinese whispers’ that become ‘malicious gossip’ escalating to ‘plotting…a secret that concerned him’. The threatening mood is implied from the first page’s mention of ‘the day’s demise’ and as our traveller becomes more disoriented the narrative becomes punctuated with short, dramatic, statements such as ‘the torch went out’. Our protagonist tries to find comfort from reasoning through possibilities of finding his way back to the others in the dark, fighting his physical reactions to the fear that is setting in, and we shiver along with the narrator as his confidence starts to fail. The ruins he has taken pleasure in earlier become the eponymous ‘Remains’, left behind by the dead.

Pickin’s tale is an atmospheric, sensuous and eerie tale with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour that doesn’t prevent you from being drawn into the panic as our protagonist’s rationality becomes distorted as the landscape that he has taken such pleasure from turns cruel.

[Remains, by G. A. Pickin, is a chapbook published by Nightjar Press, who produce limited edition, signed copies of works. This one was released at the same time as Sullom Hill, by Chrisopher Kenworthy, which we’ve reviewed here]

Unthology #2

In anthology, Short Stories on October 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Unthank Books’ second Unthology opens with the note from the editors: ‘We are sure that all of these stories deliver on the surprise factor, engender in us real thought, and enable us to look at the world with different eyes and our balance readjusted’. The collection is formed from a broad sweep of styles, subjects, and lengths with the only unifying motif being, apparently, ‘surprise’.

It is surprising however that Unthology 2’s first short story, ‘Stuck’ by Sarah Evans, seems so normal: a tale about a man who becomes disengaged from the reality of his impending nuptials while at a stag do in Prague. Psychological distance from his bride-to-be and what she means to him (as well as physical distance, the title ‘Stuck’ referring to his being trapped in a foreign country, among other things) is expressed through our narrator’s self-consciousness, an awkwardness that allows us to sympathise and even find reasonable his growing resentment of his fiancée. The story is easily accessible in a melancholy way, casting his marriage as a product of his stumbling through life from one happenstance to another rather than the romanticised result of fate. And if you follow my logic about stumbling there’s a bit of an ironic twist (ahem) at the end…

Unthank Books' Unthology #2, reviewed for Sabotage by Elinor Walpole

From being firmly reminded of the dependably uncertain nature of relationships we are transposed to ‘Differences in Lifts’ by Lander Hawes, a punchy follow-up that investigates what might happen if human nature’s inclination toward self-preservation should be warped into the institutionalised refusal to take responsibility for anyone else, and what happens when someone rebels against the code. Hawes’s vision is a humorous read with the disturbing edge that it’s fairly credible that some of his imagined societal regulators could easily be the next logical step for some of the systems already in place. Take for example an incident our narrator witnesses between a gang of youths and the police ‘it was clear that they’d strayed into a higher credit zone than they could afford, or that they’d stayed too long in a luxury credit zone and their accounts had depleted to zero’. In her ‘127 Permutations’, Stephanie Reid deals with the complexities of relationships by strategically disrupting the harmony of a shared household, occupied by characters A – G, whose acts remain nameless as Reid cleverly strips out character detail to build a skeleton tale peppered with wry insights.

The stand-out story for me in this collection however is ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes, a longer contribution than most in this book and one that gently turns, delicately playing with assumptions about the narrator and the story that unfolds, capturing a period of time where our protagonist is ‘Living through an interlude, an anomaly’ to throw him into (albeit) hazy relief against the background events. I confess I had to read this story twice to really feel I had a grasp on it, the first time to take pleasure in the mystery, and on reading it again to appreciate the subtle way the reader is challenged to accept or dismiss stereotypes in order to get to the heart of the tale. This theme of people not being quite what they seem is picked up again with a less sinister overtone in ‘Nine Hundred and Ninety Something’: ostensibly a bawdy traveller’s anecdote about a brush with a band of gypsies or ‘Romanies’ as the narrator calls them, loathe to offend the reader, conjuring up a story replete with almost David Foster Wallace-like asides and snappy cultural observances and reflections.

Many of the stories share the theme of alienation in some form or other, and seem set in places where human beings find it hard to connect and express themselves appropriately. We veer from dealing with addiction and alcoholism with a comic touch in ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ where the protagonist reveals quite frankly about his drinking ‘I do it because it makes me who I’m meant to be’ to an insight into the minds of the bereaved in ‘Hang Up’ by Shanta Everington, where a lonely woman who visualises herself as a child unwittingly converses with a bereaved father working as a telephone counsellor. ‘Hang Up’ follows a conversation that is unravelling through the counsellor’s distraction and inability to deal with his own issues, and we are left with the uncomfortable thought that the results of his ineptitude could be terrible given the context. ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ is more brutally in your face, creating a caricatured cast of misfits who’ve been flung together haphazardly to rehabilitate while our protagonist decides to make his own use of the ‘therapy’. ‘The Poets of Radial City’ by Paul A Green again deals with appropriate expression – but this time for the identity of a City that proudly declares itself to have an ‘ongoing pulse of literary invention’ while it investigates its own artists on suspicion of verse as a tool for radical sedition. It also presents one of the most interesting uses of the short story form in this collection, breaking the story into chunks of action that run parallel to the Bureau’s close analysis of poems for their potentially dangerous content.

Unthology 2 does, I believe, what it has set out to do; there are such a variety of short stories in the mix that perhaps may not surprise incredibly in all instances but will amuse, disturb and give pause for thought. Not all of the 13 stories on offer are equal in quality, with those that go more down the meanderingly descriptive path or those with a self-consciously abrupt style leaving me a little cold. However the majority made a more substantial use of the form to challenge snap judgements and play with preconceived ideas. With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.