Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Richard T. Watson’

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

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

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

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

Chasing the King of Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Sweet Home’ by Carys Bray

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

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

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

Sweet Home by Carys Bray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Lovers’ Lies’ (ed. Katy Darby and Cherry Potts)

In anthology on July 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

With a colourful, cheerful front cover, somewhat at odds with its ominous, dark-sounding title, Lovers’ Lies is a varied and multi-faceted anthology from Arachne Press. The lies – or stories – have all been contributed by members of the Liars’ League monthly events held in London (with franchises in Leeds, New York and Hong Kong), where the stories are read aloud by actors. Those appearing in Lovers’ Lies are united by the theme of love, and have been selected from five years of events.

Lovers' Lies Arachne Press

As you’d expect from asking a collection of writers to respond to such a wide-ranging theme, there’s a wealth of variety here. No two stories are quite the same, nor do they even seem to have much in common, except that someone feels love at some point. But the differences are actually an advantage, and as a result the anthology isn’t slavishly devoted to its theme; it has the freedom to take off on tangents and flights of fancy. Love is treated as a springboard rather than an anchor to hold the anthology in place.

The Lovers’ Lies are often short and snappy stories, quick to read but leaving a lasting, heartfelt impression. They deal perhaps with an obvious and common theme (”not another love story!” I hear you cry), but each story has a different take and few of them handle their theme in an obvious way.

Alright, so there’s some fairly standard boy-meets-girl stuff, for example Michael McLoughlin’s ‘The Sacred Duty of Mexican Mothers’ – which livens things up by having the boy almost more interested in seducing the girl’s mother, half an eye on persuading her to let him have a second date and more. That’s not to say that the sultry Mexican air doesn’t throb with some hormonal, teenage desire, but McLoughlin raises the bar with his boy who is ‘at least two steps ahead of any mother in Mexico’.

Alongside all that, though, there’s some thwarted desire – in ‘Takeaway’ by Alison Willis – some girl-meets-girl stories – like ‘Taking Flight’ by Catherine Sharpe and Jessica Lott’s ‘Dara’ – as well as doses of loneliness – in Mi L Holliday’s ‘Surf and Turf’ – and plenty of heartbreak – for example, in Clare Sandling’s ‘Under the Influence’ and ‘Monsieur Fromage’ by Rosalind Stopps. As the title may imply, that last one features a man selling cheeses, but it still manages to be a touching story of a marriage inevitably collapsing inwards despite the desperate desire to stay together.

In amongst the heartbreak, though, there’s some room for humour. Rosalind Stopps, with her other entry, supplies some of this in ‘How to Survive The Olympics With a Broken Heart’, providing its story through a series of tips specific to one particular break-up. It also captures some of the cynicism surrounding the London Olympics before they actually started and national euphoria kicked in. Meanwhile, there’s a certain dark humour in possibly the kinkiest story here, ‘By the Horns’, with its tragic Spanish matador role-play, courtesy of Darren Lee.

Lovers’ Lies, as a collection of love stories, doesn’t neglect the realm of high romance either. Co-editor Cherry Potts provides a story with overtones of Tennyson and epic loves played out across a lifetime in the surprisingly small and closed world of neighbouring farming estates. ‘Mirror’ takes place with the First World War in the distance, but able to act only as a sideshow to the real conflicts and dramas playing out in rural England and in the hearts of two men.

Not all of the types of love involved in Lovers’ Lies are passionate, romantic affairs, and it’s more true and balanced for that. So we’ve got the slow-burner love that’s more comfort than passion in ‘Mrs Murdoch and Mr Smith’ by Peter Higgins, or the decades-old love that overcomes impending death in Nathan Good’s ‘Games I’ve Played and the People I’ve Played Them With’. Then there’s the almost magic-realism of ‘Skin Deep’ (Michelle Shine, featuring a mermaid) or ‘This Isn’t Heat’ (Richard Smyth, featuring a Buddha statue playing Cupid in sweltering Manhattan), and the tolerance built up over years together in Rob Cox’s ‘Things’.

Rebecca Gould’s ‘Speaking in Tongues’ makes a good stab at capturing the changeable nature of love and the way a relationship can be seen so differently from different angles. In a rich, concentrated little story she touches on the divides between East and West and between men and women, but her protagonist is doing more than learning about the new culture she finds herself in; she’s learning about the man she loves and about love itself. More than that, she’s learning about truth and lies and the gap between translation, which isn’t quite either.

The final, redemptive twist of Jason Jackson’s ‘A Time and Place Unknown’, the last, sci-fi, entry in Lovers’ Lies, leaves the anthology with a final note of optimism. It ends by letting us believe that love is a force for good and that it can overcome time, space and perhaps even death itself. Over the course of its 138 pages Lovers’ Lies shows both the darker side of love and the way it brings out the best in us. If that was the intention of the Arachne Press editors, then they’ve done a fine job.

Saboteur Awards 2013: Fiction

In Saboteur Awards on June 5, 2013 at 11:10 am

-In which Richard T. Watson sums up the Fiction side of the Saboteur 2013 Awards

A Sabotuer rosette, from @jsamlarose's Twitter

A Sabotuer rosette, from @jsamlarose’s Twitter

The first of the Fiction stable’s awards was for the Best Short Story Collection by a single author. Four out of five nominees were traditionally-printed books, while one (Superbard’s The Flood) was designed specifically for the iPad and featured a range of interactive multimedia elements. Our voters listed its advantages as: ‘Imagination, lyricism and originality – merging classic storytelling and classic stories with a modern, nerdy scientist twist and a wicked sense of humour.’ and ‘Because it’s simply brilliant, adored the story telling and the little sea shanty, singer had a great voice. Loved it and want more please.’

The titles alone in this category deserve some awards. From The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes to Tania Hershman’s My Mother was an Upright Piano and the winner, All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten by Tony Williams, all were quirky but somehow appropriate. Meanwhile, Fog and Other Stories featured (as described by anonymous voters) a ‘Fascinating collection of stories and images of “fog” in all its forms. Ms. Egan has a great way of expressing the personalities of the characters’ in a collection that is ‘metaphorically alluring and humanistic’.

Our voters thought Syllabus deserved to win because ‘[Stokes is] a proper, bastard, full bore writer. These are stories that are true to themselves whilst showing a wide, deep range of influence and level of expressive dexterity. They’re an antidote to all the lame, colourless half formed stories[…]

Voter comments for My Mother… focused on the originality of Hershman’s writing, her ‘stunning prose’, ‘fresh, new voice’ and her stories as ‘little nuggets of solid gold, always witty, wise and warm’, with one saying: ‘Flash fiction can never get better than this. Tania is an exceptionally talented writer – someone to watch out for.’

But the winner was Tony Williams, for some of the following reasons:
‘Because the stories are rich with surprises and they are silly and clever and fun and disturbing. They take you in unexpected directions and you want to go on reading – that’s why it should win.’
‘Tony Williams is really an extremely cool dude. As well as being a super original and funny writer he’s also a really engaging performer. I’m really excited his short fiction’s being published… and by Salt, too!’

saboteur awards - short story collection

The nominees for our Best Magazine Award ranged from the long-running Rising, to the very new, like Lummox and the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Art, or Alliterati with its focus on young writers, via last year’s Saboteur Award winners Armchair/Shotgun, with their third issue. All of them feature a range of short fiction, poetry and often visual artwork, sometimes with non-fiction in the form of interviews or reviews.

Lummox and Lakeview both had their first issues nominated, with voter comments highlighting Lummox’s quality of entries. Lakeview, the category’s runner-up, was described as ‘A diverse blend of traditional and experimental arts. Beautifully illustrated. Excellent work by new and established writers.’ and our review indicated it had promise to go on to even better things, echoing the anonymous comment that Lakeview was ‘A breath of fresh air, no clichés and obvious choices. Here to stay.’

The tenth issue of Alliterati was described as ‘A beautiful magazine created by passionate people, with pretty much no funding. Shows a true passion for the arts’ and praised for bringing ‘art and creative writing together in an innovative way and inspires people across the globe! A great use of the new digital marketplace!’ Comments also stressed the varied nature of the magazine’s content and readership.

The follow-up to last year’s winner, Armchair/Shotgun #2, was the third edition of the Brooklyn-based magazine, described as having ‘A continued dedication to both a fantastic product and the kind of writing that makes you feel publishing isn’t dead.’ Other praise declared: ‘They have a strong vision, strong writing and art, and their interview feature is especially strong.’

Maybe longevity gave the edge to winner (by just four votes), Rising, with many voter comments stressing a consistency and a willingness to take risks. One longer comment runs: ‘Rising has always unfailingly supported new and emerging writers alongside more established ones. Rising is brave and doesn’t shy away from bold subject matter or experimental forms. Every issue feels new, not just on the pulse, but Rising feels as if it were the pulse itself.’

Best Magazine Rising

Our category for Best Fiction Anthology catered for multiple-authored collections of short fiction, sometimes organised around a theme by an editor or publisher, but always representing the best of a wide range of submissions.

We had the world’s first ‘post-experimental’ collection from Bartleby Snopes, Post-Experimentalism, with its stated aim of providing literary satisfaction while transcending storytelling genres. Voters emphasised its innovation, with one saying: ‘Not only is this an innovative and entertaining anthology, but Post-Experimentalism seeks to bring forth a new movement in the literary world.’

The Dalkey Archive anthology, Best European Fiction 2013, is the latest in an annual series by the American publisher, showcasing what they consider to be the best foreign-language fiction in English translation. Voters called it diverse, refreshing and an ‘incredibly important anthology of fiction in translation, refreshing the staid Anglo scene. High production values (as ever) from Dalkey, bringing a diversity of voices and styles that expand the mind and bookshelf.’

The young, Scarborough-based Valley Press put forward an anthology featuring young writers under the age of twenty-five writing about their take on modern society. Front Lines was praised for the vitality of its young writers, with our own review expressing relief that the short story was in good hands with a new generation. One voter commented that: ‘The quality of work in both the writing and the editing in Front Lines by Valley Press is testament to how well small publishers can do in this new age of publishing.’

The category’s runner-up was Unthology #3, the third anthology from Unthank Books, and the third to be well-received by a Sabotage reviewer. Voters praised the variety and experimental nature of stories, as well as the overall quality and cohesiveness of the anthology as a whole. One described it as: ‘A variety of fresh new British writing talent is given vital oxygen by this consistently high quality volume’. Another said ‘the third collection picks up where the second left off and goes further still. Wonderful and eclectic. Can’t wait for the fourth.’

The theme for the winner was clear. Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud falls very much within the oral/aural storytelling mould, with stories deliberately designed for reading out loud – whether in the reader’s head or literally out loud – and short enough to appear in front of an audience without them getting restless. Editor Jonathan Taylor’s introduction places the collection in a tradition stretching back at least as far as Dickens’ public performances of his novels, and probably as far as primitive camp fire storytellers. Voters commented on the range and breadth of stories and of writers, as well as the collection’s more-ish nature. One said: ‘This collection deserves to win because, quite simply, the quality of the writing is very high throughout, as opposed to in part, which is so often the case with fiction anthologies. Credit must go to Salt Publishing. They have quickly become synonymous with unearthing new talent and this collection builds on that reputation.’

Best Fiction Anthology: Overheard

The Best Novella category also featured a young field, including Sally Ashton, Luke Kennard, Alan Cunningham, Jason Rolfe and Django Wylie.

Sally Ashton’s Controller told the story of a young English woman paying her way as an artistic life model in Spain. It never shies away from the visceral, and is a graphic tale of eroticism and exploitation. One voter said: ‘This is one of the most unique and disturbing stories I have read in a very long time. Clever, erotic, and disturbing.’

Django Wylie’s The Middle strikes a chord with disappointed commuters everywhere, with our reviewer calling it a ‘stunning novella, sometimes heartbreaking, but always funny’. One voter said: ‘Such wonderful language and and an extremely enjoyable read. Left me wanting more!’, with another calling it a ‘great intelligent piece of writing’.

Runner-up Alan Cunningham’s Count from Zero to One Hundred is an intimate exploration of the life of a disabled male narrator, praised by voters for its honesty and insight. Its autobiographical feel extends to memoir-like passages and almost travel-writing sections as the narrator encounters the cities of London, Dublin, Budapest and Berlin. One voter said ‘The subject matter is at times painfully honest and the writing style captivating and entertaining’, and another that the novella was ‘thought-provoking and poetic. Something truly special which stays with you’.

In his first foray into prose writing, Holophin, Luke Kennard creates a believable sci-fi future-world where nations have been superseded by corporations and everyone carries a personal, semi-autonomous computer behind their ear. Voters praised the originality, wit and humour of Holophin. One voter described it thus: ‘It’s a small but terrifying satire, an ingenious idea, with all kinds of philosophical consequence, and it rips along joyfully and oddly, with some brilliant handbrake turns (the Proppian folktale for god’s sake!). It’s just ingenious, cleverly playful and masterfully unsung about itself.’

Both the runner-up and the winner were published by Penned in the Margins, who went on to collect the award for Most Innovative Publisher. Unthank Books were also nominated in three different categories.

Best Novella Holophin

‘Pressed By Unseen Feet’ (ed. Rose Drew & Alan Gillott)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on May 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Around ten per cent of York’s working population is employed in tourism, directly or indirectly, and more than a handful of those are employed in the city’s competitive ghost story industry. The historic centre is crammed with ghost tours, the spooks seeping through ancient cobblestone streets that have seen Romans, Vikings, Saxons and generations of people since. York is a city proud of its long history – last year celebrating the 800th anniversary of its city charter – and its streets, like the lawns of TS Eliot’s poem, have often been ‘pressed by unseen feet’.

Pressed By Unseen Feet

York-based Stairwell Books has put together an anthology of prose and poetry taking its title (Pressed By Unseen Feet: An Anthology of Ghostly Writing) from Eliot, and offering up a series of chilling stories and spooky poems from Yorkshire writers. They are stories from the stones of York, or occasionally ghosts from farther afield. These are mostly concerned with things seen out of the corner of your eye, or poetic landscapes haunted by a feeling of unease or even just a memory.

Over the centuries, we’ve understood ghosts to be many different things. Sometimes, the souls of the dead, caught between this world and the next, that haven’t managed to pass on, to Heaven or Hell, maybe because they have unfinished business with the living. Or they’re memories of the dead, of those we cared about who have gone forever but somehow remain. Or guides/guardians from a higher plane of existence, hanging around to help mere mortals get through the process of living. Occasionally, as in Pressed By Unseen Feet, they appear as figures from history, when the distant past bleeds into our modern times. Then sometimes they’re something else even harder to describe and explain.

For example, ‘Cavern’ by Pauline Quirk, has as its narrator the spirit of a cave – its conscious essence, if you like. Like many of the other entries in Pressed By Unseen Feet the story hints at a world beyond human or mortal comprehension, pointing to a consciousness that can’t be explained by rational thinking or science. The anthology as a whole urges the reader to push the boundaries of our understanding and open ourselves up to the possibilities of a world we can’t fully explain. It asks what’s so special about the rational world in the first place, and suggests we’re limited by mortal blinkers.

Jim Fairfoot’s ‘Existential Pizza’ is another entry that asks the reader to look at the world in another way – it’s about what it sounds like it’s about – calling into question the reliability of the traditional five senses and rationality. What evidence do you need that the pizza is, in fact, a pizza? Like much of Pressed…, this debunks rational thinking with something not quite explicable.

On the other side (of the coin, perhaps, but maybe a spookier ‘other side’), there are the entries that imply we live our lives surrounded by the memories and debris of former lives – our own, those of people we knew, or of our ancestors. A lot of the entries set outside of York, for example, focus on the memory of the stones or of buildings. John Coopey’s poem ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ ties ghosts to the memory of a physical place, a sort of collective consciousness of a shared history – shared with other people and with a specific place. In this case, it’s a football stadium – and there’s an attendant sense of loss as Spurs get ready to move to a new ground – but it’s a feeling that applies in countless situations. Meanwhile John Gilham writes about Roman sandals and the ghostly shades in the mud of the Thames, in his poem ‘The Fish-Eyes of the Dead’. These are perhaps Pressed by Unseen Feet‘s more credible kinds of ghost story in an anthology that contains plenty of stories of the shiver-down-the-spine variety, and poems haunted by loss.

In a smart combination of the traditional ghost story with the more subtle ghost-as-memory story, Andrew Brown delivers one of his excellent and touching tales from a nursing home. In ‘The Return of Uncle Clarrie’, Clarrie’s retelling of childhood trauma – and a ghostly encounter – forces a turning point in his life, in which he himself has barely played any part for decades.

Despite its long and solemn history, its famous city walls and countless tales of the dead, York has its amusing quirks, and so does Pressed by Unseen Feet: ‘Game Over’ by Ed Cooke. It’s a funny, off-the-wall warning about the dangers of technology and human nature, with a very British take on nuclear apocalypse. It’s a little dark, yet perfectly pitched. But it’s not spooky, ghostly or creepy, nor does it have any obvious connection with York or Yorkshire. But it is brilliant, all the same.

That aside, Pressed by Unseen Feet succeeds in giving the reader a taste of the ghosts we often create for ourselves: half-remembered lives, departed loved ones, and the flicker in the peripheral vision that we can never quite place. It hints at those we’ve lost but not really lost, sitting beside us, with their lives (or some sort of life) still going on around us, only occasionally seen.

Overheard: Stories To Read Aloud (ed. Jonathan Taylor)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on May 21, 2013 at 3:00 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

The earliest stories were told through word-of-mouth, and passed on with slight variations by being told over and again to new generations. Imagine narrating to groups of rapt listeners, probably huddled round a fire in their cave, hoping the power of the spoken word can hold back the terrors of the night. These were tales to make sense of the world around early mankind, told simply and in a way that connects with something basic and primitive inside us. Salt’s anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud aims to reconnect with that spoken heritage, and asks a scattering of modern writers to contribute their stories in the good old style.

Overheard Jonthan Taylor

That’s not to say that Overheard‘s stories are fairy tales or myths for the campfire. Nor are there Homeric epics or tales spread out over a thousand and one nights. But like our fireside storyteller, there’s an awareness of the ‘physical power of words’ (in the anthology that opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Power of Words) The focus is on clear, linear narratives, strong focal characters with a clear voice and stories short enough to read aloud to an audience without them getting restless.

Overheard offers a punchy read, with a lot of short, sharp stories from some writers who’re on top of their game. Some are snappy, bitesize, only a page or so, while others take some more chewing. But all of them draw the reader into a contained world, leave their mark, and then move on. And in case you missed the place of the anthology in the oral tradition, editor Jonathan Taylor has arranged the stories in sections with names like Crying Stories, Singing Stories and Whispering Stories.

There are sincere stories of family heartache and support (Sara-Mae Tuson‘s ‘Ill Angels Haunt Me’, Gemma Seltzer‘s ‘My Sister Like This’ or Kate Pullinger’s ‘Estranged and Unanticipated’), alongside the Kafka-esque transformation of PJ Carnehan’s ‘A Changed Man’ – a transformed man who wishes he’d only turned into a beetle – and the fantastical in Catherine Rogers’ folklore-inspired ‘The Derby Poet’ or the downright odd narrator of ‘Frank’ by Claire Baldwin.

Despite Overheard‘s Western bias, there are some stories from elsewhere. In ‘Good Advice is Better than Rubies’, Salman Rushdie contributes a lovingly-constructed depiction of the Tuesday Women at India’s British Consulate, and evokes the dusty India where the rules are there but not always obeyed and the people get by in the gaps between them. Hanif Kureshi‘s ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ offers a different take on the viral beheading videos which so often finish off hostage-takings in the Middle East, and is both uncomfortable and fascinating.

There’s Adam Roberts‘ sci-fi hymn in rhyming couplets, ‘McAuley’s Hymn’, which blends an element of mystical devotion with a touching story of personal loss and sacrifice in a universe at once familiar and yet unique. In just a few pages, Roberts creates his world and, in the space of a single human soul, dramatises the age-old battle between religious morality and science. Religious devotion is taken to a more disturbing extreme by the narrator in Jane Holland‘s ‘The Cell’, which beautifully evokes the isolation of a nun’s cell and her gradual descent into either madness or anther spiritual plane. Rather beautifully, Holland lets the reader see this as both a loss of health and also an outcome to be desired and welcomed.

As with the best short stories, some of the strongest moments in Overheard come when writers drop hints but leave their reader (or listener, of course) to fill in the blanks. For example, Taylor’s own short and sweet ‘Synesthetic Schmidt’ does an excellent job of expressing its character’s long-held guilt, beautifully capturing the physical sensation and effects, giving just enough clues without spoiling it with explicit explanation.

With such a strong line-up of writers assembled, a mix of well-known and less well-known names, Taylor presents a quality anthology. As well as those already mentioned, there are entries from Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernières, Tania Hershman (author of Saboteur 2013-nominated My Mother Was An Upright Piano) and Joel Lane (whose own collection we’ve reviewed here).

The oral tradition pre-dates the development of writing, so it seems surprising that there aren’t more books like Overheard. We’re used to the idea of poetry being performed out loud and brought to life off the page; less so with prose stories. But with the increasing number of spoken word events across the country, performances of prose are becoming more popular and Overheard is unlikely to be the last such publication.

‘Controller’ by Sally Ashton

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

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

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

Controller Sally Ashton

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Holophin’ by Luke Kennard

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

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

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

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

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

Luke Kennard's Holophin reviewed

Luke Kennard’s advert for a Holophin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

‘The Killing of a Bank Manager’ by Paul Kavanagh

In Novella on November 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

It’s a title that must have sounded very of-the-moment back in 2010, when The Killing of a Bank Manager was first published. Remember when bankers were the bogeymen of Britain’s public consciousness? They’ve since been replaced by phone-hacking journalists and – at the time of writing – a BBC that seems at worst complicit in paedophilia and at best incompetent. But the grotty feel of these public scandals is still right at home in Paul Kavanagh’s diversely worded novella.

The Killing of a Bank Manager by Paul Kavanagh

But don’t go thinking that this is any polemic on the evils of commercial banking. The bank manger appears near the start and the end, but for the rest of his killing is entirely absent. Instead, Kavanagh’s brutal and wide-ranging prose follows the dissatisfied butcher’s apprentice, Henry, who lives opposite the bank. It’s the story of a man in a world of his own, where all the people are somehow like people he’s read about or heard about somewhere else. Disconnected from everyone else’s reality, he’s invented his own by drawing in ideas and thoughts from a dozen other worlds.

We’re told of Henry’s journey around town – and his memories of previous events there – which isn’t a million miles from Harold Bloom’s journey in Joyce’s Ulysses. Henry too meets mythical creatures in human form, gives inside details on the process of digestion and reminds the reader of the close relation between human eating and animal digestion: the butcher holds up a knife ‘dripping blood and piss’.

Like Joyce, Kavanagh’s fond of his lists, listing the bones broken in an attack, the types of flies bursting from Henry’s body, the parts of animals dealt with by the butchers, rivers and things that are fake. Kavanagh’s lists go on for much longer than that one. They take the reader through every detail of, say, the dead animals being chopped by the butcher, layering towards an anatomical whole. Sometimes the list is Henry flailing around the for the right word, each one supplanting the one before. Sometimes, it’s almost as if Kavanagh wants to show you that he’s read up on species of flies.

Kavanagh knows how to write a breakdown; the book is full of physical and mental collapses, related in intimately graphic detail and all fairly unpleasant. It’s as if our main character – he’s not quite hero material, somehow – stumbles from one disorientating full-body shutdown to the next, via a series of increasingly surreal encounters. By the final pages, it’s a wonder that only the bank manager has been killed:

‘Rolling thunder broke his back. Henry was in Signorelli’s torture chamber. He tried to scream. His spine snapped. He felt his vertebrae undulate. Numbness started in the toes, he could not feel the fabric of his socks. His feet felt as though they would be erased. His legs would be next. He was being slowly rubbed out. Soon he would be nothing, not even a smudge.’

Signorelli is just one of the myriad external references Kavanagh – through Henry – draws into the novella. The text is littered with throwaway mentions and inferences from history, literature, art and mythology. Greek myths – Pan, and, yes, Odysseus – Dante, Archimboldo, Yeats, Don Quixote, Cravaggio, Shakespeare, Dali, Picasso, the Bible, Socrates, Euclid, Nostradamus, Persian myths, Petrarch and manuals on witch-hunting, besides many more. It makes his prose well-fertilised with ideas and thoughts that have gone before, though each of them is only ever really turned over, shown the light of day, and reburied. Like the introduction of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – which I didn’t spot being referenced – The Killing of a Bank Manager‘s external references sometimes feel more like an invitation to see how widely the author has read, rather than necessarily being of service to the story.

The Killing of a Bank Manager takes the reader on a modern odyssey through the wide-ranging references of Paul Kavanagh’s reading, with a prose style that keeps them guessing and pulls no punches. Henry’s story flies about all over the place away from the initial concept of his love for the beautician downstairs and his hatred of the bank manager. As the blurb announces, ‘It’s never as simple as just the killing of a bank manager’.