Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘self published’

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

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

-Reviewed by Claudia Haberberg-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

‘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.

‘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.

‘Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume #1’ by Michael Stutz

In Novel on April 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Circuits of the Wind Volume #1 is the first in this trilogy by Michael Stutz, which will cover computer communication’s rise from an obscure by-product of telephonic connections to the now-ubiquitous high-speed internet. Stutz’s blurb claims that he ‘coined the term ‘net generation”, which makes it sound like he knows what he’s talking about, and even raises the hint of this trilogy being a tad autobiographical. These books attempt to provide a personal narrative for the information age, trying to impose on it an overall meaning and poeticism missing from more usual computing histories.

Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume 1 - Michael Stutz

Starting from an almost pre-consciousness age, Circuits of the Wind narrates the life of Raymond Valentine, an American whose life seems – through coincidence of birth, if nothing else – to be intrinsically linked with the growth of home computer technology and, ultimately, the internet. In Second Grade, he discovers arcade and home computer games in their infancy. His babyhood fascination with the home telephone flowers into a desire to become a hacker, with a home computer and modem, which will enable him to ‘call out and connect, [to] know the ways and [to] walk the winds like ghosts’.

It’s rather like a gradual biography of internet communication (Volume #1 being set in the 60s, 70s and 80s, before the internet as we know it today). Ray grows up as the reach of computers and phone lines extends, expanding with his adolescent body in ways he doesn’t fully understand but that he can see opening up a future world of adult promise. If you think that makes it sound like a geeky, teenage boy coming-of-age story, then you’re not far wrong. Circuits of the Wind is deeply embedded in external modems and old-school computer hard disks, recalling a time when teenage boys dreamed of ‘accidentally’ gaining access to the Pentagon’s mainframes (cf. Wargames) and hacking consisted of a few bits of metal across the house’s phone line. There’s a certain geeky appeal to Ray’s existence, and just enough computing/internet jargon to reel in geeks without losing the less technically-minded reader.

Ray’s is a life slightly disconnected from immediate reality, existing instead in a world spreading outwards and away from Ray’s physical location. His world (and, increasingly, these days, our world) is one of telephone lines and faraway places, of connections and information flying through the air. It’s a world with a vast amount of information readily available, where a person (like Ray) can know about many things, people and places without actually experiencing them tangibly. Stutz captures the thrill of first receiving a computer screen message from hundreds of miles away, and the desolation when that access is revoked and our horizons are suddenly reduced back to the merely physical.

His life’s disconnection includes relationships, which Ray struggles with as he gets older. Or at least, he struggles with relationships with more than a couple of friends in ‘real life’ – his online social life thrives. It’s a situation any modern Facebook/MySpace/Twitter addict will recognise, perhaps with a guilty half-shrug or sheepish smile; Ray chats with people across America, but feels isolated and ostracised when offline.

At times, Stutz tries to do a little more than tie together the parallel biographies of Ray and the internet. The narrator of Circuits of the Wind starts taking lengthy paragraphs to inject some poetic meaning into the story, and to condense longer periods of time into the book – as though the reader must have a constant stream of narrative about Ray and no part of his life can be left untold. It’s as if Stutz doesn’t want to leave a break in the plot, so rather than go from event to event he gives us everything without pausing except for new chapters. At times this technique is reminiscent of the modern internet’s unremitting stream of data and information, which needs sifting and sorting.

The next two instalments of the Circuits of the Wind series pursues Ray’s life into the internet-enabled 1990s, with increasingly advanced graphics and quicker connection times. Whether he’ll manage to make anything of himself, or while away more hours in front of a computer screen, remains to be seen – and bears a resemblance (and a warning?) to procrastinators everywhere.

‘I Wrote This For You’ by Iain Thomas & Jon Ellis

In Object on March 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

The digital age has seen the emergence of sites like Frank Warren’s PostSecret (2005) and Iain Thomas’s I Wrote This For You (2007) that have acquired loyal online followings. PostSecret made the leap from digital to print within a year of the site’s founding, and the book series now consists of five volumes. By contrast, it has taken just over four years for I Wrote This For You to make the transition into print. Published by Central Avenue, the book version of I Wrote This For You features selected entries from the site, as well as several that are exclusive to the print volume.

I Wrote This For You

For those unfamiliar with I Wrote This For You, the site is a transcontinental collaboration between Jon Ellis and Iain Thomas (aka @pleasefindthis), with the former providing the images and the latter writing the captions, which are always addressed to a person only ever referred to as ‘You’. The two men communicate online but have never met in person, as Thomas lives in South Africa and, until recently, Ellis was based in Japan (he now lives in Hamburg, Germany). For further insight into the thinking that underpins the project, read the HESO Magazine interview with Ellis or listen to Thomas’s talk at TEDxJohannesburg in 2009:

 

In a blog entry written on the day of the book’s launch, Thomas explains that the four different sections of the book version of I Wrote This For You ‘collect the posts into four distinct phases that describe, hopefully, the human condition. Sun is about looking for love or the potential for love. Moon is about the act of being in love. Stars is the loss of that love. Rain is about rediscovering hope in life, at the end of that cycle.’ Out of this arrangement, I suppose an oblique sort of narrative does emerge along those lines, especially with the last three posts (‘The Day You Read This’, ‘The Arrivals Lounge’, ‘The Last Thing You Said’). On the whole though, each picture and its accompanying caption still exist primarily as self-contained instances of what Thomas calls ‘ambiguous micro-stories’ in his TEDxJohannesburg talk. He goes on to explain that ‘by leaving out things like gender, age, race, location, people apply the stories to themselves’.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this stripping away of detail that allows the posts to acquire a certain universalised/universalising resonance, as though they capture something intrinsic about the experience of being ‘you’. Some of the post titles alone are already brilliant, e.g. ‘The Circus Is Cheaper When It Rains’, ‘The Place Sentences Go To Die’, or my personal favourite, ‘The Shop That Lets You Rent Happiness’. At their shortest, the captions themselves read like haiku (‘The Things That Are Left’: The world made me cold. You made me water. // One day we’ll be clouds.) or epigrams (‘The Skeletons In The Sea’: Truth is the last thing I can take because it’s the last thing you took.), while the slightly longer ones work much like prose poems (‘The Simple Shattering Of Water’: ‘It’s because you and them were made of the same pieces. And afterwards, when you put yourself back together, some piece of them remained.)

Ultimately, Thomas suggests in his talk, ‘There’s no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself.’ This is where the true power of a project like I Wrote This For You lies. At the risk of courting the scorn of those who would prefer to remain fashionably cynical, I would like to suggest that I Wrote This For You is an inspirational book and project. Not in the trite sense of cheap and easy Hallmark-style sentimentality, but because working together, Thomas and Ellis seem to have distilled something of what it means to remain profoundly human in a digital society. It is difficult to summarise the effect of I Wrote This For You beyond that, so I would definitely recommend visiting the project site  for a taste of the duo’s work, treating the book version as one possible shaping of the project into an overarching narrative.

‘Kindling’ by Stephen Livingston

In anthology, Short Stories on March 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Kindling Stephen Livingston
Stephen Livingston’s short story ‘Choose Your Future’ was one of the winning seventeen stories to appear in Scotland Into the New Era, a collection of short stories published by Canongate that celebrated the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This story also heads up Kindling, the writer’s first collection of a dozen stories. It’s a fitting reappearance for the short as Scotland reappraises her political powers and role within the Union. I bought Scotland Into the New Era when it first came out back in 2000. It’s interesting reading ‘Choose Your Future’ again, a story effectively date stamped by its decade, being somewhat wrought from the tracks of Trainspotting. Written in the second person you are told it is “decision time…time for you to choose.” A Ewan McGregor hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mark Renton delivers the question, but Donald Dewar (Scotland’s First Minister at the time) dressed as a clown is also present to offer advice. Bill Drummond, Ian Wilmut, Dolly the Sheep all appear to convince you to choose a future. It’s an accomplished tale, a little derivative perhaps, but Livingston sweeps you along fairly effortlessly.

‘Recycling’ is another prize-winning story. It concerns a household battling to keep itself together. Angela attends school, whilst her mother Mags has turned to alcohol after finding out her husband was having an affair with one of his students.

Oh, the irony of it all. Her working to support the family while he researched his doctorate in Moral Philosophy and tutored undergraduates in Ethics.

This is a technique that Livingston favours, labouring little nuggets of circumstantial information so that they ultimately appear contrived or caricatured. Sometimes he pulls it off, but a few stories in, I found it lessening the impact the story could have made. This short ends with the mum determined to make a new go of it. “Recycle herself.” Underscoring the title of the story here is unnecessary. The few remaining paragraphs that follow are poignantly understated and handled much more dexterously. Mags takes the first few steps of regaining control of her own life and mending broken bonds with her daughter. It’s well handled but undone by those loose words thrown down beforehand.

The writer has a good ear for rhythm of speech in dialect. The next short, ‘The Waster’s Tale’, won the EndPapers Tales Series prize. A modern inebriated Canterbury Tale, relocated to Glasgow and written in the local first person. Wine for breakfast, the pub for lunch, a club for supper and topped off with a short stay in a police cell. The following morning begins afresh with a quest for picking mushrooms. Livingston creates a memorable character and the tale is well-paced and funny:

Jist aroon the corner fae the scaffoldin’ buildin’ there wiz a nice comfy lookin’ bush, so ah jumps intae it an’ right enough it wiz really comfy. The branches hud jist enough give in them tae support ma body weight an act like a springy mattress. John dived intae the bush beside mae an’ agreed it wiz a good place tae lie aboot.

By turn, ‘The Wheel of Justice’ is a clumsy, farcical story. Yes, this is supposed to be satire, but it doesn’t excuse the heavy handedness of the text. A TV game show whereby previously wronged contestants can exact revenge by winning the opportunity to execute someone on death row. Rainbow, the ‘executionee…flashes a feral smile’. The host is a Christian fundamentalist Bob Vicarage (geddit?) who asks the questions:

“…what former football star was acquitted after murdering his wife and her…” Bzzz. “Yes Davor.”
“It was J.J. Simpleton, Bob.” The crowd go wild, split between cries of “the bitch deserved it” and outrage at the failure of the judicial system.

This could have been a memorable story for all the right reasons. It’s a clever enough conceit undone by the writer’s inability to trust his readers’ intelligence. Everything gets spelled out. It annoyed me. Perhaps this was the intention, crank up the ridiculousness to show how close reality actually measures up. Ironically his point would have been made much more explicitly simply by turning down the volume. Instead it’s like playing a game of poker with all your cards face up.

Kindling is an inadequate collection. Some pieces shine but even they can be let down by some sloppy writing – the plane ‘dropped like a stone into the East River’. It’s unoriginal and detracting. I get the feeling that Livingston has more to offer, but he’ll need to up his game. The reader will only forgive so many times before s/he closes the cover for good.

‘Uncle Mildred and Other Stories’ by Ian Ayris

In anthology, Short Stories on March 4, 2012 at 11:09 am

-Reviewed by Jarvis Slacks

[Author Ian Ayris is donating proceeds from Uncle Mildred to cancer charities in the UK and US – Ed.]

When I teach Creative Writing, I try and frame the lectures in a way that the students can internalize. Writing, I tell them, is the movement of information from the writer to the reader. It is the writer’s job to make sure that the information is given to the reader in a clear and concise way. However, it is the reader’s job to try and understand what the writer is trying to say. There is a symbiosis taking place, allowing the piece to be understood and appreciated in its fullest. But, when it comes to Creative Writing, a question always comes up: How can you judge a creative text? It is the writer’s vision of the world. How can you say that it’s either right or wrong? I tell them, as straight faced as I can, that writing is about that judgment. It is the ability to appreciate the text and understand it and convey that understanding. If the reader doesn’t like it, the writer has to understand that and move past it. There are other issues, issues of style and taste. It’s a huge soup. The soup might be exactly what the cook wanted. But, if it tastes bad, it tastes bad. It’s the relationship between the writer and the reader that matters, and the genre that the writer is working in. This relationship is important and should be understood by both the reader and the writer. With all that in mind, Uncle Mildred and Other Stories is like classic, violent noir-fiction. If you like that taste, you’ll love these stories. But, be careful if you don’t.

Uncle Mildred and Other Stories by Ian Ayris

Uncle Mildred and Other Stories has some beautifully written stories, some of them with very wonderful heavy meanings. They all have a violent turn, revealing a darkness that glides underneath our reality. Stories like these, wonderfully written with deep, dark undertones, forces the reader to think about how violence, the darkness in our souls, sips out unexpectedly. The author, Ian Ayris, does a fantastic job creepily drawing you into his worlds and then bashing the world in with different objects. This genre of fiction, which I typically call “Gore-fiction” works to push upon the reader the ideas of random violence and evil intent. But, it can seem a bit formulaic.

For example, the title story, ‘Uncle Mildred’, is about a boy remembering the time he spent with his Uncle. There is some wonderful writing that I’d like to share, about the character’s young experiences making models.

“After Uncle Mildred had his funny turn, he went off into a world of his own. Dad reckoned he should have been put in a nuthouse, but Mum weren’t havin none of that. She cleared out the box-room and Uncle Mildred moved in there. And that was it for the models. Too busy paintin his nails and puttin his hair up to be bothered with em. So, I grew up. And I left me model-making days behind. A man’s gotta graduate, you know, move on to bigger and better things.”

Almost directly after that, the character kills his mother. With a shovel.

I have no clue why the character did that or why the writer made him do that. I honestly thought I was reading a sincere look into a character’s past, a reflective piece about a young boy trying to grow up. Why it shifted to a patricide is beyond me. Did the writer have a hard time trying to end the story? Or am I supposed to learn something about the human condition by reading about a guy stuffing his mother, father and uncle like foxes?

The subsequent story, ‘Surf Rider’, isn’t as pretty and doesn’t hide itself in smart language. It is simply a story about two strangers going to a bar, planning on some sort of evil deeds but then being murdered themselves. ‘By the Dim and Flaring Lamps’ continues the trend. After reading all of them, I disliked all of them. It wasn’t the violence, the murdering, the torture and death. That didn’t bother me and I understand that there’s a robust market for that time of thing. What bothered me was that it wasn’t done very well. Nothing was clever or it was trying too hard to be clever. And, just when I thought someone might not die in a story, they died. Each story ended exactly like I thought it would, with a twist of movement and a turn toward violence. There is nothing wrong with that. But it could become a bit dull towards the end, especially after the formula is revealed properly.

Still, Mr. Ayris works with this set-up well, and the collection is a notable read for fans of this type of writing. I would prefer to see something a bit more daring with this, where the writer and the reader are both trying to figure out the concrete nuisances of violence and not the abstract randomness of violence. True, the world is both random and violent, which makes the case that the writer should work even harder to put some order to the world.

‘Hellhound On My Trail’ by D. J. Butler

In Novella on February 29, 2012 at 11:30 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Hellhound on my trail - D. J. Butler

In Hellhound on My Trail, the first instalment of his Rock Band Fights Evil pulp fiction serial, D. J. Butler introduces us to a motley crew of musicians engaged in a battle with the powers of darkness. Clocking in at ten chapters, the installment makes for a quick but highly entertaining read. Butler throws the reader right into the thick of the action within the first couple of pages, as the titular Hellhound bursts out and interrupts the band mid-set. The pace does not let up thereafter, effectively making Hellhound on My Trail one extended fight scene, albeit with enough tantalising plot reveals scattered throughout to keep things interesting.

This parsimonious manner of expanding the in-story universe actually reminded me of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, in which lead protagonist Harry Dresden, private investigator and wizard, has the misfortune of constantly having to wrestle with the supernatural underbelly of Chicago. A compelling first-person narration has allowed that series to spin out its narrative twists and turns for 13 books and counting. Butler looks set to do something similar with Rock Band Fights Evil, since at the time of writing this review, the next two instalments, Snake Handlin’ Man and Crow Jane, are already available on Amazon and Smashwords (see the series website). The difference here from The Dresden Files is that each instalment appears to track the unfolding story from a different character’s perspective.

In the case of Hellhound on My Trail, that character is the hapless bass player Mike, whose position as the regular guy suddenly confronted by the supernatural mirrors the reader’s experience of the story as it develops. Mike starts off as someone who is just filling in for the band’s previous bass player. A life-and-death fight scene later, he learns the bass player was impaled on the player’s own instrument. A page after that revelation, he also finds out that he has the Left Hand of God on him, and while that means he is condemned to Hell, it is also the reason why Jim, the band’s enigmatic singer, has allowed him to tag along with the band, in the wake of the Hellhound’s completely destroying their gig venue. Jim himself is a fascinating character, who spends most of the story in silence while dealing damage to various minions of Hell. However, it turns out that Jim is one of the Devil’s progeny and he cannot speak because the fallen angels are listening out for him, whereas singing is perfectly fine for him because ‘[t]hey can’t even hear singing…They can’t hear any music. Music is Heaven’s gift to the angels, and when they rebel, they lose it entirely.’

While I really enjoyed the overall idea of a rock band that fights evil because of personal vendettas against the forces of darkness, changes its name for each performance and can never be signed by a record label, there were a few elements of Hellhound on My Trail that nagged at me. One such was Mike’s dead brother, Chuy, whose ghost haunts Mike throughout the story. What started out as a promising plot device (‘He hadn’t seen his brother’s ghost all day, and he needed a drink to keep things that way’) seemed to be sidelined once the supernatural action fully got underway. Even when Chuy pops back up at the most inconvenient of times for Mike (like while trying to escape the spawn of Hell), it is still hard to believe Mike’s tortured feelings regarding his brother.

Another problem was the overall lack of character development. Pretty much all the characters can be boiled down to some individual quirk. Besides Mike and Jim, the band consists of Eddie (the guitarist) who sold his soul to (unintentionally) become the world’s most awesome tambourine player, Twitch (the drummer) who is a transmogrifying fairy, and Adrian (the resident wizard) who is cursed with narcolepsy that appears to kick in whenever he tries to perform too many spells. It might seem unfair to criticise a work of pulp fiction for lack of character depth, but I would imagine there is still a limit to how far the quirks can propel the story without beginning to wear thin on the reader. That said, I expect these are minor issues that Butler will begin to resolve as the succeeding serial instalments flesh out more of this rock band’s gripping story. If Hellhound on My Trail is anything to go by, they should prove to be exciting reads.

‘Living Room Stories’ by Andy Harrod

In anthology, Object, Short Stories on January 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm

-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan–

Living Rooms Stories is the literary sister of a set of instrumental tracks by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds (Living Room Songs), for which he recorded a piece a day for seven days in his Reykjavik apartment. Andy Harrod’s literary counterpart comprises of short stories, each influenced by one of Arnalds’ compositions, following a couple as they contend with their own and each other’s emotions.

Arnald’s music (consisting largely of piano arrangements that accompany delicate violin, viola and cello performances) is inspiring, and I feel it would be a struggle to not pen something of real quality off the back of it. But it’s having the idea to set it to ‘story’ in the first place that makes Harrod’s endeavours all the more fabulous.

Living Room Stories is thus a highly original project. And you sense this before reading a single word: each story is written on the back of square card and they are presented in a neat vinyl record sleeve that is a nod to the collection’s musical influence.

Living Room Stories, Andy Harrod, reviewed for Sabotage by Rory O'Sullivan

On the piece of card that introduces the collection, Harrod tells us that Arnald’s first song, Fyrsta, “flowed through me; I pictured a couple, I felt love’’. The corresponding story, ‘beginnings’, raises the curtain beautifully for what follows.

We are presented with a scene where a woman is standing below the glow of a street lamp at night. There is a strong feeling of unease. She looks towards the lights of the city further down the hill and, immediately, we are left wondering how she ended up here. Tantalising clues are offered, however:

Turning her focus onto the rain, she notices how it glitters in the light before softly
disturbing the puddle at her feet, reflecting her worn out shoes.
Memories of chalkboards, puzzles and a bearded face fill her.

Allowing a character to recall memories in this way is a rather Proustian device, and is something that features prominently in the stories. Memories are stirred up frequently, summoning emotions – nearly always negative ones – that give these stories their thrust. In ‘month eight’, past torment is roused by the sight of a soft toy cat: “its neck squashed and bare through a desire for safety; a desire for a love that won’t bind and abuse.”

Memory of the past and its role in the present is clearly important to Harrod. In ‘the third person’ music is the instrument of memory recall and provides a direct invitation to the reader to consider the role of the past and how it affects the characters: “she hears the sweep of bows across strings in her head, repeating, repeating. It plucks at her memories”. The story develops in order to follow her thoughts at this point and, by now, a picture of a very troubled soul is being painted.

‘light’ is perhaps the most optimistic of all the stories. Moving on through time, and after stories that chart the couple’s wedding (‘together’) and hosting a gathering with friends (‘home’), ‘light’ winds the clock on even more and we are introduced to their children. As the brother and sister play in the snow with their green balloon (a scene that is described superbly in the opening paragraph), we are told:

Their mother smiles at their playfulness and how simple life can be.

Nearby, the father crosses the finishing line in some sort of race:

His body strains with effort, but it doesn’t hide his smile or the enjoyment in his eyes.
He blows her a kiss as he crosses the line. Looking up he laughs at his children
sliding down the hill.

He never thought that these days would be his.

Beautiful. What’s more, its juxtaposition within a rather downcast narrative (in terms of the whole ensemble) makes this story all-the-more positive. There is, however, an ominous feel at this point. Like Arnalds’ corresponding song, Near Light, something is missing. Perhaps, deep down, the couple aren’t truly at one yet with their happiness and that closure remains a distant goal. The imperfect cadence at end of the song compounds this. Something isn’t right, and imperfection seems to supersede absolute positivity.

Over the course of the collection there are no names, no places. Yet somehow the stories feel so ‘real’. Attachment to objects is limited because of the absence of proper nouns, and this heightens the sense that the emotions explored in the stories are universal and not only confined to the characters who illustrate them. Related to this is Harrod’s extraordinary ability to attach a lyrical and poetic quality to his descriptions.

He likes to give us detail, to invite us into a scene, image or setting. This feels all the more deliberate when you consider that each story weighs in at a mere 15 lines on average, making references to detail all the more meaningful. What is the significance of the mulled wine glass, the ash from her cigarette, the child’s green balloon? Parochial detail is abundant and helps make the characters and their emotions as real as possible.

The order of Arnald’s original pieces has been cleverly re-aligned in order to create a saddening history of our couple. It is more than simply a like-for-like, ‘story for each song’, rehashing of the Icelander’s collection. Rather, it is an artistic interpretation, a beautiful tribute to a fellow artist’s work, and represents an innovative means of finding inspiration.

At its heart, Living Room Stories is a study of love and emotion, characterised by the torment, heartache and hope that consumes our couple.“The focus was on love, love as destructive when conditional … and love as healing when truly unconditional. I wanted to keep this theme uncluttered, for without love I fear we are nothing”, Harrod tells me.

What a collection this is. It would be no exaggeration to say that I have not taken pleasure out of a reading ‘experience’ quite like this before. I think that this was helped by reading each story aloud while listening to the corresponding piece from Arnalds’ collection. Harrod’s work should be regarded as a new form that calls on influences from literature, poetry and music. This project is a stunning marriage of the three, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.