Book Review: The Liar’s Dictionary

“To name a thing is to know a thing. There’s power there.”

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams, is framed around two timelines. It is a love story of sorts alongside a modern day mystery, set in the headquarters of a London based publishing company. The writing is razor sharp and flashing with humour. The plays on words and their ever changing meanings add zest to the wry depiction of characters’ foibles and failings.

The contemporary timeline focuses on a young intern named Mallory. She is the only employee at what remains of Swansby’s Publishing – besides the owner and editor, David Swansby. Mallory’s job includes answering the telephone – fielding daily calls from a person threatening to blow up the building, a person who claims to want her dead.

After a few weeks at Swansby’s, Mallory is given a task in addition to her work looking over David’s efforts at digitising the contents of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. She is to seek out mountweasels – fake entries sometimes inserted in text to protect copyright. David has come to fear that, for unknown reasons, his dictionary may contain an unusually large number of these inventions. He wishes Mallory to delve into the archives in hope of discovering a link between them, or even a list, that the made-up words may be removed from the online edition.

The earlier timeline is set in Swansby’s Publishing’s heyday, at the end of the nineteenth century. It opens with Peter Winceworth – a lexicographer currently working on words beginning with the letter S – attending his company mandated elocution lesson. Peter has a lisp – except he doesn’t really. For no good reason that he can explain, he manufactured this fake speech impediment in childhood. His penultimate elocution lesson is taking place in the shadow of a raging hangover. Peter will go on to have a particularly strange day.

Mallory lives with Pip – a lover she describes as her flatmate when Pip meets David during a bomb scare. Peter is also in the throes of a romantic entanglement. He met Sophia at the previous night’s party and, unusually, found he could talk and she would listen. These two couples and their relationships weave through the story of Swansby’s dictionary. The absurdities of working life, and limitations people accept, are excavated to fine effect.

Scattered throughout the text are passing references to animal cruelty that I found disturbing. Mostly though this is an erudite and humorous tale that both mocks and celebrates language. Usage may be deemed correct (or not) but all words are invented and, over time, meanings change. The way words are used can define how a person is perceived and treated.

I found the contemporary tale more engaging but recognise how deft the narrative is across both timelines. There were many words being checked by staff for Swansby’s dictionary that were new to me. I hope that at least some of these turn out to be mountweasels.

A cleverly constructed and amusing read. Recommended in particular to those who enjoy wordplay.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann.


Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

From the festival programme:

Are short stories enjoying a renaissance? Did they ever go away? What can they do that novels can’t? And how does it feel to write one that works?

The long life of short fiction brought together three critically acclaimed short story writers, all of whose collections I recommend you read.

Little Island Press publish David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On which I described in my review as “challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing”.

Influx Books publish Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In which I described as “personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.”

Influx Press also publish Eley Williams Republic of Consciousness Prize winning collection Attrib. which I described as offering “much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression.”

The event was chaired by Sam Jordison, the first of four he ran that I attended. I wondered if he thought I was stalking him.

Eley and Clare each opened by reading from their collections. David treated us to a new, as yet unpublished work. They then got down to the business of discussing the short story which, as was pointed out, the media regularly declares is either disappearing or enjoying a renaissance.

Eley suggested that there is an expectation that short stories are a sideline to novel writing. Yet readers seek out short stories in journals, or read serialised novels, perhaps due to available attention spans. Usually publishers ask for a novel so kudos to Kit and Gary at Influx, currently in the audience, for publishing these.

Clare agreed saying agents have asked for a novel. She started writing what became her collection for a live art festival. She enjoyed the experience so kept writing them. As short stories weren’t what the big publishers were after she approached a small press.

Sam asked Clare if, as a successful novel writer, this required a different process. Clare described writing a novel as like having a long term illness. Short stories are fun to write.

Sam: Do you have any idea where the story will go?

Clare: Yes. I like to plan but also to rebel against that.

David explained that he creates a story world and allows the language to grow within that. He starts with an idea, perhaps a memory or people he knows. He will then rewrite the story. He is nosy, listening for things that become seeds he can grow, craft and develop. Sometimes he throws them away as they are awful.

Eley compared short stories to poetry. They can pivot on a word. There is a sense of ricochet, resonance, a call and response within the text that can be playful. It’s okay to use unfamiliar words so long as they are looked after, rearranged and played with to effect.

Sam asked about the different expectations of what a reader can take.

Clare suggested that those who don’t read so much may not pick up a short story collection. She too mentioned her work as akin to prose poetry and the importance of an image or a word.

David talked of a novel offering immersion, although not all deliver this. A short story requires a rhythm in the composition. It is more noticeable if the author gets this wrong making it overreaching, overfussy, overworked. When they do work though a short story can be amazing, vivid, alive. The reader is left with a huge amount to cope with emotionally. It can be haunting and discomfiting. Not all readers want this.

The audience were invited to ask questions. It was mentioned that Tessa Hadley has said she approaches a novel as a series of short stories. Another writer stated that writing a good short story is harder than writing a novel. What do our three writers think of this?

David said that Tessa is wonderful as a short story writer and as a novelist. His answer was to do whatever gets the words down.

Clare told us that she did sort of the same thing with her novel which made it easier to write. Both forms are hard in different ways. It is easier to finish a short story but not necessarily to ensure it is good enough.

David mentioned that he is still writing a particular short story after eight years. He likes Anne Williams work. She will take many years to write a half page story to get the rhythm right.

Eley told us that she hasn’t yet finished writing a novel.

Clare suggested a novel was just bigger – a marathon rather than a sprint. With any type of writing, every time you think you’ve found an answer it outwits you.

The authors were asked if ordinary life is better represented in short stories.

Eley suggested the form was better for moments, for immersing the reader in a single experience or thought. With a novel that might cause a whiplash effect, which some writers such as Ali Smith can manage well.

David mentioned Italo Calvino who wrote fabulist short stories. Also Donald Barthelme whose ordinary tales would break out into the uncomfortable. All stories concentrate attention on reality, a world of feeling.

Clare talked of moments of conflict. Novels require background, incidentals. Stories are joyful to read if well done.

The authors were asked to choose their Desert Island Short Stories.

Eley mentioned Jonathan Gibbs’ on line personal anthologies to which more than fifty writers have now contributed.

Clare chose Lydia Davies as her collection is huge.

David chose Dubliners as it was Bloomsday, then changed his mind to add a massive book of folk tales from which so many other stories stem.


And with that we were out of time. This was an interesting event featuring three authors whose stories I have very much enjoyed. I hope that others from the audience visited the bookshop and discovered their work for themselves.

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to London for an event that celebrated the brilliant, innovative and vibrant literary fiction being published by the small presses in the UK and Ireland. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been on the judging panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. In reading each of the submissions I have had the opportunity to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Every book that made in onto the longlist deserves to be read. Please consider buying them – if possible direct from the publishers or from an independent bookshop, many of which will post books to readers.

Narrowing the longlist down to a shortlist was incredibly difficult – like having to choose a favourite child. However, the six books selected each deserved their place.

The event on Tuesday, held in the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, brought together publishers, authors, translators, sponsors and an impressive array of interested parties from the book world to discover which title was to be declared the winner. Attendees were treated to wine and canapés as we mingled and chatted, with gentle jazz being played live in the background. The atmosphere was convivial and sparkling with anticipation.

(Photo credit: FMcM)

The first part of the evening saw the prize founder, Neil Griffiths, present ‘The William Gass award for metafiction and for being the best person in publishing, like ever’ to Charles Boyle of CBeditions. Charles later wrote this about his award.

The second part of the evening was the announcement of the winner. Michael Caines of The TLS took to the stage to present the award to Influx Press for Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams.

Gary Budden, Sanya Semakula, Eley Williams and Kit Caless
(Photo credit: Chris Power)

It was pleasing to see my Twitter timeline come alive over the following twenty-four hours as discerning news outlets and other media spread the word. I link here to the press release as published by the contemporary small press who also reviewed each book on the shortlist – do check them out.

Not all of the judges could attend but those that did duly posed for a photo with the winning author.

Sally Shakti-Willow, James Tookey, Jackie Law, Paul Fulcher, Graham Fulcher, Eley Williams, Neil Griffiths, Alan Crilly, Gayle Lazda, Ann Kennedy-Smith
(Photo credit: Robyn Law)

As Little Island Press said, it is a miracle that this prize exists. The miracle happened because of the hard work and dedication of Neil Griffiths, this year ably assisted by James Tookey. From this grateful reader, thank you. Much gratitude also to the many supporters and sponsors who made the prize viable. And huge congratulations to Influx and Eley.

Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams
(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

You may follow The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses on Twitter: RofC Prize (@PrizeRofc)

Click on the photo above to buy the winning book.


(Gratuitous photo of my daughter and I enjoying the evening)

(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)




Book Review: Attrib.

Attrib. (and other stories), by Eley Williams, is a collection of seventeen short stories exploring the difficulties inherent in human communication. The author wields her prose with sensory precision. Her words and the silences between convey both the beauty and the grotesque nature of relationships. They reveal the distance between internal thought processes and their articulation.

Each tale captures a moment and the attendant waterfall of words cascading inside a protagonist’s head. These include simple observations, tangential dreams and unspoken aspirations. The difficulty of conveying even a fraction of understanding demonstrates the limitations of dialogue. A hand held, a kiss or a silence can say more than many words.

The collection opens with The Alphabet in which the narrator is slowly losing their vocabulary due to aphasia. As time passes their abilities deteriorate despite concerted efforts to slow degeneration. The telling is both poignant and piercing.

Swatch presents two young boys sitting in a cramped cupboard during a game of hide and seek. Peter considers objects through a lens coloured by the paints his father utilises. Stuart’s interests as they wait to be found are more prosaic.

I enjoyed Smote for the anguish of the narrator over whether or not to attempt a simple action, the consequences of which they chew on fiercely before having the decision taken from them. I will not pretend to understand all references made, as was the case with several stories, but the undercurrents still resonated.

Birdsong makes a recurring appearance, as does the complexity of lovers’ relationships and their misunderstandings. In And Back Again the protagonist ponders the possibility of proving their devotion by acting out the lyrics of a song despite being told clearly by the object of their affections how ridiculous they would consider such a gesture. The question hovers, who any romantic deed benefits the most.

Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef had me Googling to see if this grotesque practice had any basis in reality. I was distressed to find it did. Also distressing, for similar reasons, was Spines. Although an excellent study of the compromises made in order to maintain relationships the unnecessary and casual cruelty to small creatures had me in tears.

Platform considers a stranger inadvertently captured in a photograph during a moment missed by the narrator at the time due to their own concerns. It is a reminder that the whole world turns wherever we are with our own lives.

These stories offer much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression. The moments of quiet brutality left me raw with their honesty, but this was a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.