Robyn Reviews: We Ride Upon Sticks

‘We Ride Upon Sticks’ chronicles the Danvers School Hockey Team in 1989 as, fed up of losing almost every game, they resort to witchcraft to try and make it to state finals. It’s written in first person plural – ‘we’ – an unusual choice, but one that invites the reader to feel like a part of the team themselves. The chapters are broken down into games – each following a specific game of the season – but also into characters, with each starring in at least one chapter. This is a very unique book, and one that requires thought, but those that like books with a bit of experimentation will likely love it.

The book starts at pre-season summer camp, a place all the school sports teams go to train and play ‘friendly’ matches that indicate how good a season they’re likely to have. As usual, Danvers hockey team – consisting of ten girls and one token boy – are being thrashed. Their goalie, Mel Boucher, has had enough. Deciding to turn to the ancestors of Danvers – of Salem Witch Trials fame – she performs a ritual, signing her name in an Emilio Estevez notebook. The next match, Mel breaks the record for the most saves made in a game – and thus begins the Danvers hockey team’s descent into witchcraft, complete with a symbolic piece of blue sock tied around their arms and regular sacrifices to appease their new benefactor, Emilio.

“A sea of adolescence streamed by, each of us in our own way trying to both fit in and stand out.”

The entire book is part satirical homage to the 1980s, and absolutely packed with 80s references. As a child of the 90s, I missed essentially all of these references – I suspect the book is much funnier with them, but it’s still enjoyable without. Similarly, each character is a slightly subverted stereotype of the typical senior class of a 1980s American High School. There’s Mel, the slightly butch character everyone is convinced is a lesbian; Girl Cory, the rich entitled white girl with the stepfather who spoils her rotten; Jen Fiorenza, the wannabe It Girl who can’t quite make herself as cool as Girl Cory; Julie Minh Kaling, the devout Catholic; Heather Houston, the Nerd. Then there’s Boy Cory, Jen’s sidekick whose parents just wish would be a bit more of A Man; AJ Johnson, the Black girl in a majority White town who won’t be your token; Little Smitty, the Good Girl who’s starting to figure out it’s fun to rebel; Sue Yoon, who dyes her hair exotic colours and dreams of being an actress; Becca Bjelica, whose big breasts must make her a slut, and finally Abby Putnam, the uncontested Leader and the only one with any real sporting talent. Seem a lot to take in? It is – this is a book full of character names, to the extent that it can get overwhelming, but by the end the reader knows each character intimately.

Writing a book about a hockey team who become a coven of witches from the perspective of the team as a whole – rather than focusing on one or two characters in it – is a huge ask, and where this falls down slightly is the execution. It takes a while to sort out who each character is, and how they fit in. The use of the first-person plural perspective also makes the reader slightly detached from each character – you become part of the team, but you’re an outsider peeking into every other team members’ life.

The ending flashes forward thirty years to a reunion in 2020. It’s interesting seeing where each character ends up, but it also replaces the climax the entire book is building up to which something that feels far less satisfying. (However, there’s a certain scene involving their return to the hockey pitch which is absolutely hilarious and I’m glad exists. No spoilers, but if you’ve read it, it involves a certain rabbit).

Overall, this is an ambitious book that straddles the line between fantasy and literary fiction. The execution isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a brave idea and a highly entertaining read. Recommended for fans of 1980s nostalgia, coming-of-age stories, witchcraft, and experimental literature.

Published by Pantheon Books
Hardback: March 2020, Paperback: February 2021

This book is not currently published in the UK, but is available in the UK through Blackwells and some other bookstores.

Book Review: Lou Ham

Lou Ham: Racing Anthropocene Statements, by Paul Hawkins, takes appropriated text from the world of Formula One Motor Racing and creates a series of commentaries. Each page contains just a few lines, staccato sharp experimental poetry that is scathing towards the attitudes of those who participate in the activity. The result is to provoke the reader to consider why it continues, and why the drivers remain so revered.

Climate chaos is a recurring theme, as is the money involved and the hollowness of the spectacle. In stripping away the hype, the inane and damaging nature of motor sport is brought to the fore.

None of the entries are straightforward text given the structure of their transmission. The humour is mocking yet effective in portraying the self-satisfaction of the driver, encouraged and facilitated by their team. The statements are the driver’s voice, divided into countries on the race calendar.

From ‘5 spain’

i’m happy with qualifying
fanfares should be ten yelps
i veered
i’m disrespectful

i was really happy with it
well i did get the win
it’s been a loudmouth of work

i was in teasels about it
still there’s no need
to get emotional
i got everything i could

a big congratultions
to this tearaway

The narrative builds, a sardonic exposure of a meaningless and detrimental spectacle, a costly entertainment. That cost is complex, and it is this that the percipient text delves into.

This is protest poetry that immerses the reader in the glittery, grubby world of wealth generation and its transient frontmen. Racing pollutes not just the planet but its participants. A challenging, persuasive read.

Book Review: Tumours

Tumours, by Chay Collins, is a challenging work of fiction to pin down. Narrated in the first person it describes a surreal and disturbing journey undertaken by four companions being paid by a government agency to take part in an experiment. As the story begins the narrator ingests what he describes as spawn from a beast. The effect of this substance is to distort his perceptions. He feels threatened by his surroundings, including creatures encountered. He seeks out tumours that he believes must be killed.

Amongst the four are a scientist and a temptress. Their expedition takes them to a restaurant and then a hotel. The narrator desires sex. Breaking away from his companions he allows his disturbed instincts to guide his actions. In doing so he threatens the veracity of the experiment. His companions are unhappy that their access to payment for their participation may now be compromised.

Interactions are skewed by a mind bending awareness of light and sound. Insights are distorted and frenetically intense. Those encountered are described viscerally although the portrayals are unreliable. The narrators drug addled sensations offer ambiguous interpretation.

The presentation of the prose changes in font, line balance and includes a scattering of blank pages at pivotal moments. These add the the power and distortion of what is being described.

At less than a hundred pages this is a short work of fiction. It provides unsettling, compulsive reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Ampersand Publishing.