Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

‘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’]

‘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.

A Fiction Round-Up 2012

In Seasonal/End of year on December 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

-Decided by Richard T. Watson

‘Tis the season to be making lists and round-ups of the previous year, so it’s just the right time for a look back over the year for Sabotage Reviews and our fiction coverage. Arguably, we could do this at any time of year, but it seems more fashionable in December.

Our Poetry Editor, (now Dr) Claire Trévien, has already given her best bits and highlights from Sabotage’s poetry coverage, which you can read here. Now it’s my turn.

Following last year’s pattern of giving a ‘Top Ten’ [or Three] of most-viewed reviews, I’ve prepared a list of the most successful fiction reviews of Sabotage’s 2012. The publications might be considered as Christmas presents for that special reader in your life…? Just a thought.

#1 I Wrote This For You
A printed selection of posts from Jon Ellis’ and Ian Thomas’s blog I Wrote This For You, which the two men have composed through a process of intercontinental collaboration. There’s a narrative and a theme, but much of it is left up to the reader – Ian Thomas claiming that ”There’s no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself”. Our reviewer, Ian Chung, praised the way that ”Thomas and Ellis seem to have distilled something of what it means to remain profoundly human in a digital society”.

#2 Acquired for Development By…
A hyper-local collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction based around and inspired by the London Borough of Hackney, and published by Influx Press. Our reviewer, John McGhee said: ”The collection neatly pinpoints some of the most critical tensions in modern urban life – tradition versus innovation, the real versus the perceived, the modern versus the post-modern – and sees how these play out in a borough perceived as both lawless and cool.”

#3 Armchair/Shotgun #3
Following the success of Armchair/Shotgun #2 in this year’s Saboteur Awards, their third instalment has also been popular. Our reviewer, Rory O’Sullivan, had this to say of the New York-based collection of poetry, pictures and short stories: ”The magazine manages to embrace so many art forms and yet remain a predominantly literary offering; storytelling is at the heart of literature, and indeed central to this publication’s mission statement”.

On a more subjective and personal note (as if the previous paragraphs have been really objective), I was pleased that the winner of this year’s Saboteur Awards in May was the second issue of Armchair/Shotgun, a review from Sabotage’s Fiction stable, and that their third issue also got a very positive review. We also got a rather lovely mention over on the Guardian website, thanks to Dan Holloway.

If you’re looking for more round-ups of Sabotage activity this year, why not have a look at the results of this year’s Saboteur Awards?

This is also a good time to thank all of our reviewer team for their hard work in the past twelve months, and to thank you all for supporting the independent and often low-budget publishing we cover on Sabotage. So thank you all. Well done you.

Oh, and have a happy Christmas.

Armchair/Shotgun: Issue 3

In Magazine on November 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm

-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-

Had you the misfortune, lack of foresight or ignorance to miss either Issue 1 or 2 of Armchair/Shotgun, all is not lost: for the Brooklyn-based magazine has returned and has come up trumps again – surpassing the expectations laid down by the first two instalments, as this literary compendium continues to go from strength to strength.

The cover of Armchair/Shotgun 3

An issue of Armchair/Shotgun is a gathering of bite-size literature, poems, visual art and authorial insight. The latest issue features four short stories, as many miniature clusters of poetry, a photo-essay, a collection of Steve Chellis paintings and an interview with writer Reif Larsen – a piece on which the issue, and the magazine at large, appears to hang its hat.

One of the magazine’s managing editors, John M Cusick, extracts some of the madness behind Larsen’s method, revealing some genuinely interesting thoughts about what authors have to go through in their lives and the lengths it can sometimes take in order to craft a story. Budding writers should take note, but Larsen also fits neatly with what Armchair/Shotgun are all about – and understanding why Cusick speaks to him is to understand the magazine’s philosophy.

Their dialogue delves into a number of concepts that are clearly important to the magazine: the relationship between content and form; the doors that post-modern art has opened for the traditional writer, the roles that marginalia and visual art have to play within the written form; and the importance of telling a story for storytelling’s sake. The penny drops, and suddenly the many components of Issue 3 fall into place – that the purity of story is at the heart of what this magazine stands for.

And they really commit to it. Fiction submissions are stripped of their signature and sender, and the strength of a candidate’s submission is based on the strength of their piece alone; the veil of anonymity is only lifted when the editors have settled on the issue’s content. Once the names behind the short-form prose were finally revealed, Issue 3 threw up a fascinating coincidence: the entirety of its contributors form an all-female cast.

Of those, J.E. Reich makes a stunning debut with ‘Days of Sound’. It tells the story of a British journalist whose quest to find out more about an Islamic terrorist – responsible for assassinating an American journalist live on the internet – whom he knew from his school days, takes him down the avenues of a North London upbringing. The assignment ends – in the story, at least – by telling us how this British reporter came to lose his hearing. The power of the human faculty is brought into focus, as the journalist tries to find something in his home environment – the same home in which he played chess with the future terrorist – to trigger a lead. In the years following his ‘days of sound’, we are not only left to wonder if his other senses will one day lead him to an answer, but feel sympathy for a man who is unable to fully communicate with the woman he loves.

The primary senses are also the thrust of Debbie Ann Ice’s amusing and heart-warming tale, ‘Scrabble’. Young girl Liz is brought over to see her mother’s friend’s daughter, Elsa. She and her mother both think Liz is deaf, but their deadpan visitor can actually understand everything they are saying perfectly well. Liz doesn’t play this to her advantage as mischievously as we might hope or expect, and only does so once she’s reunited with her mother at the end of the story. Liz’s time with Elsa starts with a game of Scrabble. Like her hearing, there’s little wrong with her literacy, either, for she thrashes her opponent. That’s despite the condescending interjections of Elsa’s mother:

“Malefic?” Her mama continued, still behind me, still eating. “Is that a word? I wonder if she meant malleable. We’ll let it go. It’s best maybe to let her win.”

They then head out for an afternoon swim at the local pool. Liz manages not to react when a boy repeatedly shouts “I want to fuck you” at her, much to the amusement of everyone around them. But once out of their earshot, she’s the one who has the last laugh.

A young child is also the subject of Sarah Goffman’s ironically-titled ‘Eddie by Himself’. The story is a snapshot into the the struggle of Eddie’s parents to manage his wandering tendencies – accompanied by his imaginary friend, Hansel – and unpredictable reverie. Unlike his surly sister, Eddie eagerly anticipates the family’s camping trip to the woods. Before they set off, we are given clues about Eddie’s affinity for the natural world and all things outdoors – something that gets the better of him when he wanders into the thick of the forest. It’s a charming tale of an innocent mind giving into curiosity, and one that wonderfully conveys the power of the imagination.

So far, the short-form prose largely goes against the tone of Issue 2. There, the reader was largely greeted with a succession of stabbings, trailer park strife, motherfuckers and car chases.

But those impatient to uncover Armchair/Shotgun‘s sinister streak will be satisfied after reading ‘Pick Up’ by Diana Clark. Sharing a similar feel to the tale that closes Issue 2, it charts the journey of a troubled soul behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. A woman is ostracised from her husband since he got a fifteen-year-old pregnant, and after driving off in her former man’s uncomfortable pick-up truck, depravity ensues as she undertakes (not all willingly) a number of bizarre and sick sexual pursuits. From masturbating while driving through the provincial night, to offering one’s body to get out of prison, the closing piece of Issue 3 will raise a few eyebrows and turn a few stomachs.

Another parallel with Issue 2 is Andrew Wertz’s photo essay, ‘Twelve photographs’. Twelve urban landscapes situated in towns between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania provide a haunting journey through places devoid of any human life, as if in a post-apocalyptic silence. Fans of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later will enjoy this inclusion. In almost all the photos, something appears in the image that does not actually stand in front of the camera – such as a reflection, a light source or a shadow. For example, the silhouette of a street light and telephone wires lean eerily across the photo of an empty sidewalk in Schuylerville, New York state, a photo that bleaches across the front cover of this issue.

The second piece of visual art comes from Steve Chellis, whose seven paintings and illustrations are introduced by a helpful few paragraphs by managing editor Laura McMillan. One’s instinct is to decipher the story behind each piece, which range in style from Impressionist to Gothic. Fathoming the story behind the painting is, of course, a major reason we enjoy art at all – but Chellis appears to derive pleasure out of the futility of this search: “parts don’t always add up, but why should they?”, he asks us.

Elliott BatTzedek, Daniele Lapidoth and Alison Campbell make multiple contributions to poetry, while four more poets (Liana Jahan Imam, Alanna Bailey, Genevieve Burger-Weiser and Inge Hoonte) each earn a solitary inclusion.

Campbell’s two poems come off the back of Reich’s life-affirming ‘Days of Sound’ and this is an intelligent placement, for ‘Body’ and ‘Cemetery’ each deal with human functions and senses. True to their word after Sabotage recently interviewed Armchair/Shotgun, the poetry included in Issue 3 supports their view that the difference between free verse and traditional form should be recognised. Lapidoth’s ‘Neither’ and ‘Both’ appear somewhere betwixt the two because they are presented in organised stanzas yet still convey a loose structure, while BatTzedek couldn’t strike this balance better, with the sombre ‘After pain has taken you’ erring on the classic and contrasting heavily with ‘Earth Day’ – a lightning-quick, stream-of-conscience consideration of the relationship between a man and his pets.

Like Issue 2, the sections of poetry, prose and visual art are punctuated by agreeable etchings and illustrations. The space occupied in the last issue by old-fashioned maps is now filled with drawings of animal anatomies, parts of the human skeleton, a cross-section of half a tree trunk, and a detailed illustration of the human ear – each providing something unexpected, quirky and interesting to linger on before absorbing what comes next in the magazine.

It is this marginalia that adds to the significance of Larsen’s interview and brings home what Armchair/Shotgun are trying to do. The magazine manages to embrace so many art forms and yet remain a predominantly literary offering; storytelling is at the heart of literature, and indeed central to this publication’s mission statement. But by including the minutiae and everything outside of the verbal domain, Armchair/Shotgun show they really know how to enrich a reader’s experience.

‘Losses’ by Robert Wexelblatt

In Novella on October 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

At first glance, the description of Robert Wexelblatt’s Losses on the Vagabondage Press website sounds promising: ‘A single father who is a new IRS agent, his cherished and imaginative little girl, a divorced woman having second thoughts about motherhood, a couple who think two ways about becoming parents, a mysterious and crooked financial wizard – these are the people from whose relationships, enterprises, gains, and losses this story is woven.’ With such a range of characters, one might be forgiven for expecting Losses to use them to provide a healthy dose of domestic-meets-business intrigue, or perhaps some sort of social-cum-corporate satire, in the vein of Max Barry’s novels Jennifer Government and Company.

Losses by Robert Wexelblatt

Unfortunately, this is precisely where Losses falls short, as the novella’s length does not really permit a great deal of narrative complexity in order to service so many characters. Two storylines proceeding in parallel move the novella’s action forward, one involving the narrator uncovering a tax scam, the other concerning his relationship with his daughter, Augusta. The two are kept largely separate until the final chapters, when a plot twist reveals that they have been connected all along. However, this attempt to tie all of the characters together, while not exactly predictable, is also not particularly convincing. If anything, it comes off as somewhat anticlimactic, the narrative equivalent of a deus ex machina that the first ten chapters have given no indication of, only for the final three to hurriedly push it to the forefront and retroactively alter the reader’s perspective of the preceding writing.

Hence, by the end of Losses, the characters remain largely reducible to the stereotypical descriptions given on the publisher’s website. This is a shame, given that Wexelblatt’s breezy first-person narration actually makes for lively, highly readable prose. This quality shines through most in the scenes featuring the father-daughter relationship, e.g. in the opening paragraph’s wry description: ‘Like most children, Gus was a first-rate abstract expressionist up ‘til the age of three, whereupon she was made into a fifth-rate realist. Now she likes to create what she calls ‘designs’. Or when following a call from Augusta’s mother, announcing her intention to sue for custody of her daughter, Augusta tells the narrator, “Oh Daddy! The way I see it, you need me more than I need Mommy. […] But what’s all this stuff about needing? Faker [i.e. Augusta’s imaginary friend] says that grown-ups say you need when they really mean I want.”

Ultimately, although Wexelblatt’s writing style does make Losses an entertaining read while it lasts, I still found myself wishing that both plot and characters had been given more room to breathe. Then the two halves of the narrator’s life, the domestic and the business, and the storylines tied to them, would likely have felt more organically connected within the wider narrative, instead of seeming as if they had to be shoehorned to fit together. If this all sounds like nitpicking, it is only because I think the material Wexelblatt is working with in Losses contains unexplored potential, and more importantly, what writing there is here actually suggests that he ought to be up to the task.

‘The Space Between Things’ by Charlie Hill

In Novella on September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Like a time-lapse recording, a sound recording, of a period and time when people were drawn together by a combination of narcotics, techno and a swelling anti-establishment noise-mongering, Charlie Hill’s The Space Between Things vividly documents a growing counter-culture movement. The account is fictional but so grounded in early-90s historical accuracy that it is difficult to believe that this story didn’t occur. Hill writes with a charm that doesn’t alienate the reader who is either too young to remember or was just never part of the scene at the time.

The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill

The Space Between Things is a story about people. About how we find people and lose people. Sometimes, it’s not until they are gone, or in danger of slipping away, that we appreciate the role they have had on shaping our existence and world view. Arch and Vee spend the night together after meeting at a party. When he awakens, she has left. They are both out with their respective partners when they bump into each other the following day. Ella, Arch’s girlfriend quickly figures out what happened the previous night and dumps him. It takes some time for Vee to make an appearance again, but during her absence Arch finds himself replaying things she said to him the night they were together. The Space Between Things explores a spectrum of politics and questions individual and collective commitment.

Arch is a bit of a dabbler, in blow, music and poetry. He lives in Moseley where the ‘young radicals’ once lived and a place which ‘had the political in its petals. Back then, everyone was trying to make sense of the world…There was even a culture you could counter.’

But the fight has been sucked out by more than a decade of Tory rule. Thatcher has just resigned and an air of directionlessness permeates:

‘…by the time she’d gone she’d won. They’d won. Worn us all down. There was no politics.’

Instead the inhabitants of Moseley turn to partying. There is an open house culture. Arch moves from party to party, and we meet a kaleidoscopic array of Moseley’s residents. The variety of drugs increases and Arch’s musical tastes develop. The parties become more sophisticated, sound systems are ferried across locations. When Arch decides to go to a free festival in Castlemorton his outlook is changed forever. It’s not just the combination of ecstasy and techno; it’s the realisation of what people can do when they work together – a free festival:

‘Fuck Glastonbury,’ says Sorrell, ‘Glastonbury’s all about money, yeah? This is about love and respect. And party people.’

People across cultures are brought together: the travellers and the ‘scallies’ or as Arch is corrects, the ‘cheesies…cheesy quavers – ravers.’ In two days of discovery, of techno and ecstasy, he recognises there is a bond amongst the people. They have a sense of unity and togetherness. Eventually when the police come to dismantle the site, people stay behind to help the local council with the clean up, strengthening Arch’s belief in community and the possibility of a new political movement. Unfortunately rave culture has become staple fare for the mainstream media and this has got the Tory government worried. The Criminal Justice Bill seeks to destroy that which Arch and his mates partied so hard to create. Partying has reawakened their political activism.

Arch receives a postcard from Vee postmarked Split and we get our first inkling that she has a different set of political priorities. When she returns, it’s through the silences of her time in what was formerly Yugoslavia that we begin to piece together the hidden narrative. The juxtaposition of what motivates people; erosion of personal liberties against humanitarian war crimes is neatly teased out. Arch’s arguments are genuine and real enough, yet poorly formed and ill-thought through. Vee is frustrated at the level of engagement he and his Moseley-ites have with the outside world:

‘What gets my goat is that some people, people like you Arch, for Christ’s sake, supposedly sussed, politically active educated people, people like Moseley, are so precious and cosseted and wrapped-up in themselves that they’ll march for the right to party but need stirring-up about genocide.’

The author never brow-beats and it’d be wrong to think that this is a tub-thumping novel. It is anything but. The characters may be loosely sketched but they are oh-so vibrantly drawn. The names evoke classic comic creations: Nervous Mark, Jimmy Wibble, Shifnal Phil and Little Bill. The dialogue is energetic and the novel races along effortlessly. In places the novel is very humorous if not bewitchingly funny:

‘I don’t trust him. He has the conviction of the dim.’

‘I know what you mean,’ I said, ‘there’s definitely something missing. And all that running around he does. He’s got far too much energy if you ask me. He’s a bit like a more sinister version of Kenny Loggins, on the quiet.’

At its heart though, The Space Between Things is about Vee and the impact she has on Arch’s life. Early on she cautions against the Beat movement, or rather ‘what it’s become. That whole Beat vibe’s just a bit of an excuse for self-indulgence now, isn’t it?’ It’s a note that resonates loudly at the end of the book. Educate yourself and choose your battles carefully. Make it your duty to know. Don’t just accept what you are palm-fed, and if you are ready to commit, make sure it’s for a worthwhile cause. The Space Between Things is an accomplished and relevant novel which deserves to be widely read.

[Charlie Hill will be co-hosting the PowWow LitFest in Birmingham on September 23rd, an event featuring Joel Lane, whose work has been reviewed by Sabotage last year – Ed.]

‘Goldfish Tears’ by Curtis Ackie

In Short Stories on August 30, 2012 at 11:51 am

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

Goldfish Tears by Curtis Ackie
Arguably, one approach to the short story is to take ordinary people and show extraordinary events happening to them – after all, we don’t want to read stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things. In Curtis Ackie’s Goldfish Tears, nearly all of the characters are extraordinary to start with, ensuring that his tales start with a high interest factor and go on from there. It’s a good technique.

Many of Ackie’s characters are afflicted in some way. The everyday fears and paranoias that people harbour under the surface are brought to the fore of their lives, and given an external force that can be resisted, but, often, not overcome. If this sounds as if Ackie has a fatalistic approach to the trials of existence, it may be true. And yet there is an overall cheerfulness in his writing that mostly lifts what would otherwise be rather downbeat stories.

Karin, the character in the opening tale, ‘Ordeal by Water’, is fixed to her armchair by an unknown force, as water rises around her. Her thoughts range from the dramatic – she may be immobilised against her will – to the mundane – a worry that the water will stain the walls, but at least this shows the optimistic belief that she will survive the ordeal. Her thoughts are assaulted by older fears, of the dark, of spiders, of school bullies, and she also focuses on both tender and damaging moments with an ex. The author gives these pointers to pinpoint the internal damage. We aren’t told where the water comes from, and, if you buy into Ackie’s creations, it doesn’t matter. You could decide it’s a metaphor for tears, but, again, it doesn’t matter: the stories demand that you accept the here and now of them.

I hesitate to use the words ‘magic realism’ to describe these stories. I think ‘absurdist’ is a better term. Both need to be done well to avoid looking like parody. Ackie is mostly successful in this, though I think some of the scenes in the last story, ‘Carnival Evening’, go a little too far in depicting people acting out everyday expressions: instead of dancing, a dancer cuts a rug with scissors, while a drinker, rather than drink, pours his beer onto a whistle to wet it – you get the idea; it’s absurd and funny, but makes a small point about language rather than serving the story. Luckily, the story is strong enough to carry itself, that of another ostensibly powerless woman assaulted in her own home by outside forces; the assaults in this case may come from dreams, but – again, if you accept the writer’s scheme – have a more immediate, frightening reality.

Both ‘The Bath of Mary’ and ‘Birthmark Like a Scar’ deal with attitudes to disability. The latter is a rant, a bigot’s efforts to get others to share his distaste for disabled people. It may have the people of the former Yugoslavia in its sights (the writer lives in Zagreb, Croatia) but you could substitute the birthmark for almost any attribute and see the story as a comment on prejudice. It works as a story because of the imagery, the language, and the latent sense of comeback on the narrator: ”Whatever I was doing the collection of collapsed angles that made up her face would pop up to spook me.” ‘The Bath of Mary’ looks at disability from a different angle: Henrietta prevails upon her wacky scientist husband to invent something to reverse her disability – the science is highly questionable, which I love. Again, you just go with it if the story’s done well. Ackie is, in some small way, trying to address disabled people’s views of their own disabilities.

Many of the stories here can partly be summed up by some lines from the opening of ‘Undone’:

The uncertainty of my whereabouts wouldn’t bother me half as much if I knew who I was. What I find most distressing is this vague sense that something is wrong, and for that to be true everything must at one point have been quite the opposite.

This is another tale featuring the inability to move, and to talk, and revealing a formless, irresistible antagonist. It then takes shape as a recognisable monster, who finally leaves the narrator alone; it seems that his lingering ‘sense that something is wrong’ is an even worse fate.

Another signifier of internal damage is personified in Sragnàc, the protagonist in ‘Shadowplay’, who wonders if it is ”at all normal for (hallucinations) to occur spontaneously in the sane”. Sragnàc’s independently-minded shadow seeks to embarrass him socially and at work – though Sragnàc is too vain and self-sufficient ever to be truly embarrassed – in a tale full of literary and cultural references. He finally faces the choice of whether to keep fighting it or to give in to it. Is the shadow supposed to be his conscience? Possibly, and that can serve as a satisfying answer, but, as in most of the other tales here, the literal answer is irrelevant.

My favourite story was ‘Oh, Blue Hag’. Egon admires his twin sister Eugenie so much that he seeks to become her, using invasive, conscience-free dishonesty and subterfuge. It is a story that goes beyond the ostensibly comic to the tragedy of his longing, his self-hatred and his selfishness. A wish-fulfilment fantasy, as in ‘The Bath of Mary’, the story seems to reach a conclusion that both satisfied me as a reader and still leaves me wondering what else might happen.

Curtis Ackie tells modern fairy tales, messing with our ordinary perceptions and knowledge to do so. Most of the stories are illustrated expertly by Lorena Matić in a style that wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s book; while not absolutely essential in a book of short stories, they add to the unreal atmosphere of what is a very assured and entertaining collection of stories.

Niteblade Volume #19

In Magazine, online magazine on August 3, 2012 at 1:34 pm

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

Niteblade is an e-zine of fantasy and horror, published by Rhonda Parrish, which sets out to deliver, in the words of its submission guidelines: “unusual, high quality work that uses language and form to deliver content that will make our hearts miss a beat.” This, its 19th issue, was my first try, and while I would not describe every piece as unusual or high quality, the best ones did fulfil those criteria and will stay with me.

Niteblade 19 cover

The issue’s fiction is an eclectic selection, varied in style and quality, with a couple of gems. A stand-out story is K.V. Taylor’s ‘The Silver Quarter’, a lively adventure centred around a teen boy and girl in a Mediterranean-flavoured fantasy city, both seemingly trapped in the sex trade until they help each other escape. This story eschews the gratuitous grim darkness that seems so beloved of epic fantasy in the Game of Thrones vein; it’s necessarily gritty but doesn’t wallow in it, instead focusing on its characters’ resourcefulness and friendship. Told through the eyes of the boy, Elanzah, who prostitutes himself to a solider in exchange for sword lessons and the empty promise of one day being allowed to join the city’s Elite force, the story manages just the right balance of worldliness and naïveté, shifting in a few sentences from starry-eyed lines like “he smelled like sweat and tobacco. Like falling in love” to the matter-of-fact acknowledgement that “fancy serallos and pimps were better money, but no kind of protection.” This one zings with colour and energy, and is a nice antidote to the gloomy machismo so often found in its genre.

Another strong piece is ‘Three Great Loyalties’ by Lindsey Duncan, which presents an intriguing scene: the wedding of a sorcerer’s daughter to the ghost of a prince, all told through the eyes of the wedding band. At heart it is a story about the complications of marriage when love and politics are at odds, but it certainly comes at the scenario from a novel angle, and I wanted to know more about this world and its rituals. I also liked the way music was used as a narrative device: the observing musicians deliberately use their instruments to soothe or exaggerate tension as events play out.

Nicki Vardon’s ‘Forbidden Fruit’ deserves a mention for its sumptuous language, and for doing an animal point of view well. The narrator is a witch’s cat, whose asides are great fun: “Seventeen years ago my mistress wished for a daughter, so she fed the tree a bullfinch’s heart and ensnared a husband with the harvest. I never heard him complain. Such a waste of a good songbird.” However, despite the rich descriptions of food – “She reaps her orchard to bake tendersweet cherry pies, plucks a pheasant for the spitroast, breaks leaves for smoky tea on the stove” – and striking sexual imagery – “They are quaint creatures, melting into one, sharing each breath, black and ashen hair entwined” – the story could have used a little more meat on its bones, and the ending feels rushed.

The horror pieces have an old-school pulpy feel, which is no bad thing in itself, but for the most part these attempts to marry the colourful, the creepy, and the gruesome – all tied off with the obligatory twist ending – don’t produce anything particularly interesting. A lowlight is Terence Kuch’s ‘Alice’, in which a woman is left by her latest commitment-phobic partner with a “Robo-Doll”, which desperately wants to be loved and, inexplicably, cannot be turned off. She ends up locking it in a cupboard and running off to “the mysterious orient”. The doll, again inexplicably, turns out to be flesh; it dies and decays, the end. ‘Careful what you wish for’ stories are often tiresome, and this one – with its implication that the woman is a terrible person for not wanting an irritating robot baby – especially so.

Of the ‘freaky happenings’ type stories, Wayne Faust’s ‘It Was Limbruner’ is the best: the tale of a photo booth that shows people their future, written in a believably obsessive voice that eventually shows the narrator up for the creep he is.

The poetry is also mixed: Sonya Taaffe’s ‘The Coast Guard’ takes flotsam and jetsam and swells them into mythic forms, conjuring “a ferryman for strand-flung souls / in the tarry seaweed heaps, a salt-stained / and steel-rimmed and cable-knit oracle”. Its rhythm captures the seashore’s “hish and rattle”, and the strangeness of the sea, gorgeously. Far less to my taste was ‘A Hellbound Tragicomedy’ by Stephanie Smith, a poem filled with screams, laughing demons and “ribbons of blood”, with no apparent crafting of sound or metre beyond some irregular rhymes.

A longer piece, Dan Campbell’s ‘The Wake of March’ is an interesting one, presenting an eerie agrarian land where “there is something wrong with the year”. It contains frequent echoes of The Waste Land – soil, storms, cocks crowing, crickets, strangers on the road – but is a more cohesive poem than Eliot’s, something that tripped me up on the first reading, as the allusions to something so famously fragmentary seemed to be at odds with its linear thrust. Further readings are rewarding, however, with lingering images like fields “all red with churning, with our offering / winnowed out over the empty acres” hinting at a bloody fertility ritual narrative; the Waste Land (and, by extension, Golden Bough) allusions come into their own, then.

Niteblade smaller imageWho is Niteblade for? Judging by the contents of this issue (although other issues may well have a different balance), it will be enjoyed either by those with very catholic tastes, or fans of traditional horror motifs and imagery, while individual stories and poems might stand out to fans of other styles and fantasy/horror subgenres; personally, I found it a mixed bag with some pleasant surprises.

‘Disc-0’ by Russell Barker

In Novella on July 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Russell Barker initially completed what would become Disc-0 during NaNoWriMo 2008. Having set the novel aside for a couple of years, he has recently revised and self-published it. Unfortunately, although it has an interesting premise, the final product still ends up reading like a first draft. The story begins promisingly enough: ‘And there it was. The holy grail, a copy of The Roaring Parsnips’ one and only single on 12”. For years Danny Clutterbuck had dreamt of this moment and now he held it in his trembling hands.’ Despite supposedly being rare and commanding a high price on the collectors’ market, this vinyl is ultimately never anything more than a MacGuffin to propel the novel’s plot forward.

Although the narrative is kept humming along, its structure is not without problems. For starters, around a dozen characters is clearly too many to service within a novel that clocks in at under 130 pages, so character development tends to remain at the level of stereotype. The narrative also needs to set up the characters’ paths to cross, as their various stories slowly intertwine, thanks to the vinyl’s movements. This sort of narrative structure understandably calls for some suspension of disbelief (e.g. romantic comedies like Love Actually, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, or the globe-spanning coincidence of TV series Touch), but Barker seems unwillingly to trust his readers to appreciate the emerging connections on their own.

So instead, he repeatedly telegraphs them, e.g. ‘For now though their paths hadn’t crossed, so he struck out on his own.’ Later on, the underlying device is made even more explicit with a bit of clunky exposition:

So Barry and Danny sat mere feet away from each other having breakfast, neither realising the impact they were having, and going to have, on each other’s lives. They say that sometimes it is destiny and that you can almost run into that person many times before contact is made, changing your life forever. Whether it is a relationship, a business proposition, or merely a great friend, eventually it will happen, as it was bound to with Barry and Danny.

There are also further inconsistencies in the third-person narrative voice, as in the following passage: ‘He [Danny] got to know Ted a while before this though. It had been inevitable I suppose, what with Ted being the man with access to the records.’ Furthermore, chapters 24 and 25 are in the wrong order, reversing the novel’s chronology of events to no apparent purpose. There is also a moment of unwitting irony near the end of the novel, when Danny begins ‘to worry that he had walked into some schmaltzy film where everyone lived happily ever after. As Danny well knew, that was very rarely the case.’ The problem, of course, is that the whole novel has been playing out various stereotypes and narrative tropes all along, from clueless Danny and the but-they’re-not-gay jokes linked with petty criminal Pat and his two different partners, right down to the fake-out ending, which then devolves into a car chase in the city.

On the whole, Disc-0 could have been the interesting heist novel it clearly aspires towards, but it definitely needs more work to tighten up the storytelling. At times, I also found myself wondering why more was not made of the musical aspect of the plot given Barker’s own experience as a music reviewer, beyond surface details like the vinyl-as-MacGuffin and the brief glimpses into the musical backgrounds of some of the characters. Music does feature in the chapter titles, which are taken from a song lyric (a full list of sources is provided at the end for true audiophiles), typically making some sort of oblique or ironic comment on that chapter’s events. A fun little detail, but not quite enough to make up for the novel’s shortcomings.

‘Acquired for Development by…’ A Hackney Anthology

In anthology on May 30, 2012 at 10:39 am

– Reviewed by John McGhee

“In recent years Hackney has become synonymous with London Cool,” says Invest in Hackney. “Hackney – a crime infested craphole,” counters Your City’s Worst District. Until the new Overground line connected east London to south, my own preconceptions about Hackney lay somewhere between these two extremes.

Acquired for Development by... A Hackney Anthology cover

Clapton. Hoxton. Dalston. Homerton. Haggerston. Shoreditch. Hackney Wick. Hackney Marshes. Stoke Newington. The polarities and paradoxes of Hackney’s districts are surveyed in Acquired for Development By…, an anthology of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry from Influx Press. The stories in Acquired for… are inspired by and set in Hackney and their writers are Hackney citizens by birth or residence. Taken together, these pieces reveal an original cultural history and a leftfield psychogeography of the borough – and an unsettling blueprint for its future. The collection is structured by locality and there are strong indications it would be best read with a copy of the London A-Z at hand.

The non-fiction works particularly well, especially Tim Burrows’ ‘Dalston Kittiwakes’, a sprawling exploration of random connections between places and events centred on the Four Aces reggae club, demolished five years ago to make way for a multi-million pound regeneration of Dalston Square. Burrows avoids making his subject matter feel too insular and inward-looking, and instead chooses to meander through Scotland and Northumbria, wandering as far as Egypt, Jamaica and America’s west coast: a gloriously circuitous narrative. Nell Frizzell’s profile of the River Lea’s canal boat dwellers, ‘Rivers of Change’, is a charming, succinct documentary of a small-scale battle between boaters and the bureaucrats of British Waterways, of lives soundtracked by early morning ‘jaggering coots’. Natalie Hardwick does her best Louis Theroux impersonation for ‘Alevism and Hackney’, an enquiring, sincere portrait of Dalston’s Turkish community.

Slam and performance poets are well represented. Sam Berkson’s Hackney Numbers’ mixes the urban genial with the urban ominous to great effect: kids, neighbours, booze, house parties and violence. There is a chance to revisit Molly Naylor’s sparky monologue Whenever I Blow Up I Think Of You, with two pertinent extracts reprinted here. In Siddhartha Bose’s ‘Wicklove’, memories of the ‘performed bohemia’ of a summer festival sizzle and tumble and Bose’s lines dazzle:

Chicken-shopped, corner-kebabed, glimmer dereliction, Hackney
Wick – chromatic – fizzes, bobs, pops in soap bubbles, like tube-
travellers on a plunkt escalator.

There is a haiku sequence, urgent like graffiti; perceptive flâneurs reconnoitring ‘Dalston Lane’ and ‘Dark Island: Wallis Road 09.03.11’; and a warm-hearted memoir of growing up between Vicky Park and the Murder Mile. There is much wit, darkness and variety in this poetic selection.

Within the constraints of their Hackney setting, the short stories and flash fictions manage to be wonderfully eclectic. At the heart of the anthology is ‘Tautologies’ by Gary Budden, a detouring commentary on identity, the passing of time and the self-contradictions intrinsic to living an art life in Hackney:

I took a certain uncomfortable pleasure in the knowledge that my lifestyle, or at least
part of it, would be considered by some as worthless and pathetic. Derided as left-wing
posturing, or the sad trappings of an adolescence that really should have been let go of.

The impact of passing time on pleasure-seeking lifestyles is also considered in Gareth Rees’ funny and sinister ‘A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes’. This story transcends its high concept – a man falls in love with an electricity pylon – to be a memorable take on the destabilising effect of ‘the pram in the hall’. In a similarly darkly comic style, David Dawkins’ ‘A Hackney Triptych’ comprises three twisty anecdotes that only pretend to be unconnected. Other pieces stray further from the everyday into the absurd. Andrea Watts’ ‘All Gone’ is a modern parable pivoting on a bizarre metamorphosis. Amongst the flash fiction, I most enjoyed Kieran Duddy’s ‘Demolition: Clapton Park Estate 1993’, a snapshot of a life-changing double towerblock blowdown.

Perhaps most ambitious are the three dystopias: ‘The Battle of Kingsland Road’ by Paul Case, ‘The Finest Store’ by Kit Caless and ‘2061’ by Ashlee Christoffersen. All three are entertaining, if somewhat broad, hyperbolic extrapolations. ‘The Battle of Kingsland Road’ documents a future clash between rival Stoke Newington and Hoxton militias through manifestos, memos and transcripts – more parody than serious post-riot commentary. I am a huge fan of the original The Twilight Zone and felt the class-and-consumerism satire ‘The Finest Store’ could have sat perfectly next to the likes of classic TZs like The After-Hours and The Fever. ‘2061’ cleverly plays off different interpretations of the word ‘estate’ (a tract of Council housing, or a slave plantation). Whilst its economic analysis is debateable, ‘2061’ commits fully to its sinister hypotheses, its chilling vision.

Acquired for… is a chorus of rich and diverse east London voices. The collection neatly pinpoints some of the most critical tensions in modern urban life – tradition versus innovation, the real versus the perceived, the modern versus the post-modern – and sees how these play out in a borough perceived as both lawless and cool.