Book Review: UnAmerican Activities

UnAmerican Activities, by James Miller, is a collection of ten interlinked short stories set in contemporary America. They tell of drug users and porn stars, college kids and religious fanatics, vampires and republicans. The dark, beating heart of the book explores the ingrained beliefs that drive so many to behave irrationally. Despite the perversions depicted the stories are somehow highly entertaining. It was an unexpected delight to find this such a captivating read.

The book opens with an ‘UnPrologue’ which explains the origins of the stories that follow. It sets the tone and is a story in itself. The reader is then introduced to the first of a cast of characters who will appear intermittently throughout the collection. Each story stands alone but it is the wider plot arc that kept me so engaged.

The first, Eat My Face, is a tale of drug users and gun toting criminals. Their backstories may garner a degree of sympathy but they do little to help themselves with the choices they make. High on meth, crack and alcohol they stoke their paranoias, sharing stories of vampires invading the higher echelons of influence, decrying those they blame for the sorry state of the world as they perceive it to be.

“Usurping the white man’s power. Taking our place. Overturning the order.”

Hope’s End takes an ex-pat Professor of Ancient American Cultures at Cornell on a road trip alongside a young student with whom he is having an affair. In Iowa they are arrested for indecency, thus preventing the academic from reaching his destination, an archaeological discovery in Dakota where a strange sickness is afflicting those involved in the dig. There are strange goings on at both locations, a pastiche of Midwestern American values and beliefs.

Exploding Zombie Cock completes the trio of introductory stories. It is set among wealthy students in New York playing host to a marine due to leave for a tour of Afghanistan and looking for a good time before he faces life threatening combat. When the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend shows interest in the personable young soldier jealousy rears its head. A potion from a witchdoctor in Haiti that has been gathering dust in a cupboard is deployed, with unexpected effects.

Pour Out The Vials introduces a family of religious extremists who believe the goings on in Dakota signify the coming of Armageddon. This is not the first time they have seen such signs and their teenage daughter has grown inured to the prophecies her mother makes through an alcoholic haze. With her father at church and her mother in a stupor she watches videos posted on a cultish blog, of strange happenings that are not explained.

The Kiss Of The Nephilim brings a vampire into the cast of characters. After everything that has gone before this makes sense, bringing to the fore the dark humour of these tales. The fantastical beings and events appear no more ridiculous than the recognisable actions and prejudices of the more everyday population. Behaviours are disturbingly familiar.

With five stories remaining there are still plenty of characters to get to know: a bounty hunter with a sideline in vampire slaying; an internet porn star convinced she can retain ownership of her body; a hellfire preacher decrying the wider population’s fake churches, determined to drive these false Christians back to what he considers righteous ways, by whatever means.

The final story offers a humorous dig at the author’s own circle and neatly rounds up what has been a clever, incendiary, ludicrous in places but always entertaining wider tale. There is an UnEpilogue which confirms that this was never meant to be of a work of fiction in the style taught in creative writing workshops.

“there’s no clear trajectory from beginning through middle to crisis and then on to acute crisis – you know, the moment in the story when all seems lost and from where things go on to climax and resolution, the five acts”

It is undoubtedly stronger for its originality, clever without being clever for its own sake.

This is a rollicking ride through the hinterlands of America – I suspect the author loves the country whilst recognising its many hypocrisies and failures. As a work of literature it is impressive in its lightly presented depth. A subversive, deliciously indecorous, gratifying read.

UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink.


Book Review: You Should Come With Me Now

“You think you see the real world. But you don’t.”

You Should Come With Me Now, by M. John Harrison, is a collection of forty-two short stories written by one of the pioneers of New Wave Fiction. It is his first published collection of short fiction for over fifteen years. The stories offer an unsettling view of a world that is at times surreal. In many ways they depict the negative, stripping back experiences and emotions to show how skewed accepted behaviour can be. The cast of characters vary in time and place but share a need to find a personal space where they can be a version of themselves each considers authentic. Some attempt to reinvent themselves and those they interact with to achieve this. The self-involvement of protagonists is dissected demonstrating how much is ignored if not fitting the narrative a person creates.

Slightly longer stories are interspersed with flash fiction. My favourite of these micro stories was Jackdaw Bingo which depicts a time when aliens arrive on earth and seek the dominant species to interact with and learn from. It is amusingly perceptive, as are many of these tales.

Another that deals with alien invasion is The Crisis in which London’s financial sector is taken over and the authorities, as ever, seek those willing to sacrifice themselves for what is claimed to be the common good.

“You can’t be the rulers if you have no country to rule.”

There are dreams, ghosts, psychodrama. There are manipulations and powerplay between individuals and those granted authority, the acceptance of such in exchange for what is regarded as a safe existence.

“The strangest thing, he says in a kind of gentle wonder, is to live in a time like this, both bland and rotten”

My view of the world is not as negative as is depicted but I can appreciate the sentiments to which the author gives rein. There is little explanation which adds to the potency of each vignette.

In Autotelia offers an alternative view of a future society where entrance to London requires strictly controlled medical checks. Told from the point of view of a doctor who has distanced herself from the disturbing nature of this work it ends with an outsiders view of the doctor. How challenging to be confronted with what others see.

Psychoarcheolgy is an amusing take on the discovery of the skeletal remains of the famous under construction sites.

“dig for the evidence, develop the interactive exhibit, crowdsource the story the public wants to hear. It’s the contemporary equivalent of the religious relics industry”

“Why have we suddenly started digging them up like this? […] All they mean to us is what we want them to mean.”

Dog People portrays the rise and fall of a sexual relationship alongside the complexities of family ties. In this interpretation hope is transient, resentments forever bubbling to the surface.

Although described as science fiction or fantasy, and many of the stories are not of our world, the leaps of imagination within each tale enable the author to parody real life politics, capitalism, and even his own domain, the literary elite. Many of the characters exude a quiet desperation, a distancing of themselves from other’s expectations.

A wide variety of subjects are covered with a few recurring themes. In a collection of this size there will be stories that resonate and others generating a less visceral response. I was amused, challenged and, at time, confused. Overall though my first foray into this award winning author’s work impressed.

Probably best dipped into rather than gorged in a sitting. A varied, intriguing read.

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press.

Book Review: The Iron Age

The Iron Age, by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), is a story of a childhood. It begins in 1950s Finland when the narrator is four years old. She lives on a small farm with her war damaged father, stoic mother, angry grandmother and two older brothers. Neighbouring farms are owned by wider family, some more well off than others but all reliant on the land. Properties are connected by dirt tracks and a lake. The log cabins lack running water and electricity. The people raise, grow or make the bulk of what they need. Life is hard, made moreso for the unnamed child by her father’s volatility.

Of course, the child knows of no other way. She observes the behaviour of those around her, the anger and resentments the adults feel. Her language is simple yet conveys the tradition and attitudes under which they all live. Told with a dry, dark humour, day to day life passes and the seasons turn.

Money is tight so Father travels to distant towns after harvest has been gathered to find work. He returns with gifts and dreams for a future which he berates his country for failing to provide. This future he talks of appears a myth to the child, much like his stories from the past which he shares repeatedly with local visitors. She listens avidly but with a lack of understanding, shown to effect by her literal interpretations.

Eventually there is a row so bitter the family must move away. Father takes them to a distant town and then onwards to Sweden where everything changes. They do not speak the language, the child must attend school. Books become a solace, her voice a hindrance.

Mother strikes out for a degree of independence of which Father disapproves. His traditional attitudes are now as anachronistic as the clothes he chose to impress, viewed askance by the Swedish.

The child has little control over the detail of her existence yet she harbours her secrets, survives by living inside her head. The denouement felt sudden, perhaps because I didn’t want the story to end.

Told in sparse, droll language this is a beautifully painted portrayal of the transience of time and place when young. The illustrations work perfectly with the text, adding an extra dimension. A fable like depiction of unbelonging that I recommend you read.

The Iron Age is published by Tramp Press.

Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.




Book Review: Gaudy Bauble

“A placebo is a medically ineffectual substance. But ineffectuals had been running this show”

Gaudy Bauble, by Isabel Waidner, is described as queer avant-garde fiction. Its cast of characters would be QUILTBAG if they accepted labels. Reading this book it appears few labels can be applied.

The story opens in a small, 10th floor council flat in central London where Bela Gotterbaum has been tasked with writing the script for a new 8-part television series, working title Querbird. The flat is home and workshop for director/producer Tracey B. Lulip who is preparing to film a pilot for Channel 4. The TV broadcaster routinely commissions diverse producers to provide innovative and representative programming. Most of their advance has gone to the Bela, a feminist, transgender activist, who then disappears. Two PIs arrive to investigate. Mayhem ensues.

A nearby ethical recycling agency for dead pets is visited. An accident with a prop results in a dental repair shop becoming involved. As filming starts the idea for Querbird is abandoned. In its place an independently produced and broadcast TV series will be created with the content evolving from the protagonists misadventures.

Much of what is described is slapstick and surreal with clothes playing a role, not just as costume. More important is the play on language and the visuals evoked. The cast challenge concepts of what a book character can be. The writing embodies atypical scenes and structure.

The 8 part TULIP.TV series makes little sense but this doesn’t prevent it growing an audience. Linear plot-lines and classic narratives could possibly be interpreted, as one character attempts at the end. This reader finished the book without understanding much of what had gone on. Given the playful nature of the presentation perhaps this is the point – the next big thing often emerges from the unconventional.

Would I recommend? Possibly to those who enjoy the kooky and experimental.

Gaudy Bauble is published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals.

Book Review: Die, My Love

Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), is a raw and unflinching journey through the mind of a new wife and mother whose feelings of entrapment are driving her over the edge. Her thoughts are brutal and increasingly desperate as she seeks to find a way to satiate her personal needs. The mind-numbing banality of her day to day existence is proving more than she can take. Her erratic behaviour verges on the dangerous, including for her child.

Over the course of eighteen months the woman struggles through each day in a state of rage against her circumstances. She rails against her husband’s inability to satisfy her, including sexually. She hides in woodland near their home leaving the child with his grandmother or, at times, abandoned. She screams into the void when unable to articulate her needs in a way those close to her find acceptable. She recognises that her actions are beyond the pale but cannot quell the demons stifling her from within.

The narrative exposes the grotesque in the actions of people going about their quotidian lives. Observations of the ordinary are harsh in their candour. The woman displays little moral compass as she searches for a way to survive. She cannot retain the composure needed to present herself to the world as is expected, frequently angering or embarrassing her husband and then proving incandescent at his reactions.

The woman knows that her behaviour is unacceptable and yearns to act in the way others do when confronted with the needs of family. She observes her husband with their son and ponders if they would be better off without her. She suppresses the longing she feels for the freedom this would give her. There is pent up anger towards the man she chose to share her life with for coping whilst her needs remain unmet.

Although competently written this is not a comfortable book to read. Its prose pierces the armour most people don in order to maintain the illusions of happy families. Occasional thoughts, quickly suppressed as horrific, are here given free rein. A passionate, intense and disturbing acknowledgement of the stripping of self that parenthood can bring.

Die, My Love, is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: An Overcoat

“It’s not hard, de Saupicquet once told me, to gain entry into other people’s lives: they generally leave the spare key under the plant pot by the back door, the usual place. But once you’re in, it hits you that they have gone out, and you have no idea when they’ll be coming back.”

An Overcoat, by Jack Robinson, takes episodes from the life of 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, and muses on them from different perspectives. The book is structured in scenes with copious footnotes. Beyle is portrayed existing in an afterlife where he interacts with people from a variety of times, including our own.

Rarely have I read a book that I feel less qualified to review. I had never heard of Beyle, nor am I familiar with many of the other writers mentioned throughout. Those I did recognise wrote works I haven’t read. Thus I came at this blind and offer my thoughts without prior knowledge of the subject being so imaginatively portrayed.

Beyle dons an overcoat as a disguise. Throughout his life he adopted many disguises in the form of pseudonyms, just as readers today create internet usernames. His attempts at masking his identity are compared to modern day habits of changing hair colour when dissatisfied with one’s own. Those who already know a person see through such behaviour instantly. A person may try to reinvent themselves – adopting a new look, name, place or occupation – but in time will revert to whatever they have always been.

Beyle was an inveterate womaniser who was obsessed with his sexual conquests. He desired Mathilde Dembowski, who he met while living in Milan. She rejected his advances. Many of the scenes involve M, her children, Beyle’s attempts at dissimulation.

He wanders the streets of a contemporary town, visits coffee shops, observes tourists, ponders the continuance of existence after death. Although placed in current times many of the scenes are based on what is known of his life, with footnotes providing references and tangential musings. Beyle concocts fantasies involving himself and those around him. There are deliberations on accepted absurdities. The author’s commentary provides nuggets of insight, the vignettes a sympathetic retelling.

Although somewhat rambling and meandering this was a curiously satisfying book to read. There is no story as such, it is more a rumination on a writer and existence. As a reader I felt a little overwhelmed at times due to my lack of knowledge. What I learned of Beyle did not endear him to me, but I enjoyed the playfulness of the portrayal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.