Book Review: Mayhem and Death

Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory, is a collection of short stories, of varying length, from a writer whose bio informs us, ‘There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.’ Her writing reflects this. It is rich in imagery, powerful and shadowed. Deep within the bowels of her carefully chosen words, reflections of the ordinary are made dark, lonely, threatening. However inspiring the view on the surface of an individual’s life may be, under McClory’s piercing gaze its desolate depths are revealed.

Yet these stories are deliciously compelling, an antidote for those who baulk at the recent trend for ‘Up Lit’, who wish to challenge their fears in our troubled times rather than escape them. Whilst offering a hat tip to the macabre in places, this collection revels in the living. Told with a scent of folklore in style, the tales remain vividly contemporary.

Automaton Town is one of the more surreal stories. The setting evokes a large country house – lawns, ballroom, servants. A model of a town is purchased, transported with some difficulty and set up for viewing. A key winds the mechanism and its components start to move. The resident family, riveted in their plush chairs, soon recognise the lives being modelled as actions and truths that generally go unnoticed are exhibited for all to see.

Such inventive thinking threads its way through many of the tales. In A Voice Spoke to Me at Night the narrator encounters a figure from the past and ponders why they have been chosen for this visitation. Their life is mundane, at times lonely, but largely nondescript. What is revealed is the generally unacknowledged determination of individuals to continue, however pointless daily life can at times appear. The tale is wistful yet retains a spirit of optimism.

Elements of the prose are akin to poetry and many of the stories allow for a degree of interpretation. The Expectation of a Job Well Done could be a metaphor for the sacrifices required to attain desired achievements, and how these will transform the subject. The protagonist willingly follows the instructions he is given, performing to an audience who remain indifferent to the damage he inflicts on himself. By the end he has become ‘other than he had been in all his days thus far’. It is not clear if these changes will be considered an improvement.

A favourite story of mine was The Romantic Comedy which opens with ‘You want the wrong things.’ The protagonist is the epitome of every heroine of romantic films, now determined to no longer acquiesce to her assigned role.

No more smiling on cue. No more men standing too close explaining how to exist, believing, if left to your own devices, you’d not quite manage such a feat.

She rides her horse away from the ‘town of unacknowledged debasement’ where she is regarded by a man who offers roses and then feels anger at her decision to choose autonomy.

Another tale I particularly enjoyed was Take Care, I Love You. This transcribes a section from the Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox and answers each point as though it were a questionnaire about the everyday. Somehow this innovative structure works, offering snapshots of how alienating modern living can be. It is poignant yet wryly amusing.

The collection finishes with a longer work, picking up on characters from the opening story. Powdered Milk imagines an experimental, deep water station that has been set up to study how a group of people would survive long term if cut off from everyone else, as would happen on a long space flight. Initially the carefully selected volunteers have internet access and regular supply drops. When these cease they are entirely on their own, not knowing if this cutoff has been planned, if it is a failure in the technology, or if there has been some cataclysmic event above. Thus they cannot be sure if their situation will ever change, if this is it until death. As a study in the purpose of hope, the need for a possibility of change, I found this story fascinating.

The themes and their presentation throughout are full, rich and impressive in scope and inventive thinking. There is a degree of experimentation but each tale remains accessible. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

Book Review: Nasty Women


“Take a moment and ask yourself who are the real Nasty Women? Those of us who struggle to empower all women or those of us who empower men that ensure we remain second class citizens?”

Nasty Women is a collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. The contributors come from a variety of cultures, their points of view percipient in reflecting the particular challenges they have encountered due to their: gender, appearance, physical ability, creed.

Each account details the daily aggressions the authors have faced from family, friends and strangers. These are both verbal and physical, sometimes well intentioned but always damaging. Women of colour have their hair touched as though an animal in a petting zoo. Curvy women have their bottoms pinched, their waists grasped. Fat women are berated for eating, advised of a new diet plan, told how good they looked that time they lost some weight. Muslim women are required to defend themselves by those whose perceptions of their beliefs are certain yet skewed.

Many of the authors ponder the cost to their mental well-being of the expectations in which they were raised. Women are required to be good and this equates to being considered attractive, compliant and subservient, especially by men. White male privilege and those who uphold it, fearful perhaps at a perceived threat to the benefits they take as their due, requires that women abide by their definition of the ‘natural order’. Arguments for change are granted validity only if men suffer too.

Much of the harassment detailed is blamed on the survivor for the way they act or look. They are told that if they would only be good then they would be safe, with little thought by the advisers and accusers as to what they would be safe from. Why it is considered acceptable that women are required to live their lives under constant threat of attack?

The accounts by women who suffer different experiences to mine were enlightening. By listening and responding appropriately to such first hand experiences, conduct may be adjusted. Those that gave voice to ordeals I have suffered offered comfort. So ingrained is the demand that women cope and remain silent, it is rare to find discussion let alone acknowledgement of how widespread and damaging these accepted behaviours are.

It is not just men who perpetuate the patriarchy and silence dissent. In her essay, Choices, Rowan C. Clarke relates how her mother instilled in her the belief that she was abnormal because she did not appear concerned enough about losing weight, being pretty and desirable to boys.

“I hated myself. My mother has always been very opinionated and everybody’s actions were judged through her particular morality lens. It was hard work to please my mother. She would get so enraged when I didn’t act the way she wanted me to. […] Why couldn’t I just be normal and make her proud?”

In the age of Trump and his ilk it seems more important than ever to recognise and share experiences and to call out the damage that attempting to silence women will cause. If speaking out for tolerance and equality makes me nasty, then I wear that badge with pride.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.