Book Review: Best British Short Stories 2018

Edited by Nicholas Royle, this 2018 collection of twenty short stories is the eighth in an annual series published by Salt. It provides eclectic and engaging reading with stories selected from a range of authors, although as the title suggests to qualify for inclusion all contributors must be British. The stories have previously appeared in a wide variety of print and online magazines and anthologies.

The collection opens with Payman’s Trio, written by the late Colette De Curzon, and one of several chilling tales. Set in last century’s post war London the voice is appropriately evocative of the time period, somehow deferential when compared to contemporary writing. The story begins with the purchase of a second hand book that places an uncanny musical score into the hands of a musician. When he and his friends perform the piece they realise the folly of their curiosity.

Although written by British authors quite a number of the stories are set abroad. A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica, by Adam O’Riordan, tells of a faltering long distance relationship that culminates in the titular event. It is the characters’ thoughts, behaviour and observations more than a plot that provide interest.

Trio for Four Voices, by Jane McLaughlin, is another character driven tale located abroad. Tension is maintained as the narrator is drawn into the scheming of a family staying in the same hotel. Like the previous offering, the temporary nature of the setting adds an element of dislocation.

In contrast, How to be an Alcoholic, by William Thirsk-Gaskill, features a narrator very much stuck at home, although whose actions are inexorably leading to a crisis that may cast him adrift. It is a story of self-inflicted breakdown that he observes whilst lacking the will to change.

We Are Methodists, by Alison MacLeod, introduces a plumber with a terrible history who decides to share his dark background with his client, a stranger recently moved into her new home. Unburdening to loved ones risks their judgement and a change of perception. A stranger’s reaction can be more straightforward to deal with.

Life Grabs, by Adrian Slatcher, is a disturbing tale of a man whose young son disappeared many years ago. Desperate to know what became of the boy he resorts to desperate measures.

Dog People, by M John Harrison, is taken from a collection by the author I reviewed last year – You Should Come With Me Now

Skin, by Jo Mazelis, is set in New York and details the swan song of a relationship. Told from the woman’s point of view there is a refreshing lack of blame when she recognises her boyfriend’s true nature.

Cwtch, by Conrad Williams, is a dark tale of the effects on a family of a tragedy that continues to haunt a surviving twin. The denouement may have been telegraphed but was still chilling.

And Three Things Bumped, by Kelly Creighton, exposes how memories are twisted in the telling. A taxi driver chats about his life unaware that his client has heard previous versions.

In Dark Places, by Wyl Menmuir, is set underground in an area long popular with cavers. A honeymooning couple have booked a guided tour beyond the popular caverns. Tourists display interest in macabre history from their sanitised safety. Written by the author of The Many, it is narrated by those who have inhabited the caves for centuries.

The War, by Owen Booth, is a thoughtful if somewhat depressing take on the many causes and effects of conflict – of man’s self-indulgence and damaging self-pity.

And What If All Your Blood Ran Cold, by Tania Hershman, is set in a hospital where medics are experimenting with raising the dead. I wonder if this was inspired by actual medical research.

The Homing Instinct, by Mike Fox, features the homeless and their precarious survival. It highlights how those offering help are doing so on their own terms.

“a more formal prayer followed by a short homily from the verger was over. This they tolerated: food mostly came with God attached.”

Mask, by Brian Howell, is set in Japan where a man is attracted to a dental nurse. Sexual predilections can be weird.

Sister, by CD Rose, is another story of twins, one of whom goes missing. Even loving and supportive families cannot always offer the help needed.

Waiting For The Runners, by Chloe Turner, is a tale of family betrayal in a small community. A mother must decide how to behave when her lonely son finds a new friend.

Swatch, by Eley Williams, is taken from the previously reviewed Attrib. (and other stories), published by Influx and winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

The Last Dare, by Lisa Tuttle, is set in Texas where a grandmother returns to visit her family. It involves a spooky house and missing children, a memory from childhood brought back around Halloween.

Dazzle, by Iain Robinson, involves an adulterer whose wish for absolution manifests itself. Comeuppance is rarely this direct.

For those wishing to dip their toes into short stories currently available in a variety of mediums this collection offers an excellent primer. As a fan of the literary format I found it a well curated and enjoyable read.

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

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Book Review: Takeaway

“they reckon about a hundred people in London account for something like fifty percent of all the ambulance callouts. It’s like they want a gold membership card, or a special closeness with their god, the fear of death.”

Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard, offers an uncompromising look at the realities facing an NHS ambulance driver in contemporary London. The honesty is shocking in places so used have we become to expressing thoughts in language deemed acceptable by those who have made it their business to police such things. The tales told are refreshingly devoid of standard public censorship. Although at times derogatory it is to expectations and behaviours rather than people.

Written in the voice of an experienced ambulance driver, part of a team that has established an inner detector honing in on who may actually benefit from hospital treatment, the anecdotes recounted bring to light how often ambulance callouts are unnecessary. Prospective patients are drunk, on drugs, suffering indigestion or simply seeking attention. Families do not wish to deal with difficult or messy relatives. They want the problem of responsibility to be taken away. When a true emergency happens – a heart attack, attempted suicide or road traffic accident – sometimes the kinder action is to accept the inevitable. Those looking on increasingly expect a miracle, as seen on TV.

“we’re judged on how many of those dead people we can bring back to life. Most of those dead people are dead for a reason. Forty years of smoking, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. […] Only five percent of people come back when we do CPR and the rest of it. Out of that, how many of them actually have a quality of life? A tiny amount. […] The natural way of dying is the heart stops beating, oxygen stops going to the brain, the brain cuts out. As you’re going through that dying process, your head is most likely producing some psychedlic, drug, and you imagine you see a tunnel of light or the gates of heaven. Imagine you’re going through that relatively blissful drug experience, and some [f- c-] starts trying to reverse it […] your relatively pleasant death is turned into this brutal forty-minute procedure […] I feel sorry for the people for whom it’s their last experience on this planet.”

The ambulance teams have regulars – patients with complex issues that cannot be sorted by a visit to A&E. The drivers must also circumvent a bureaucracy that values public perception, targets and adherence to listed procedures over what may be of longer term benefit to the patient. There are run-ins with the police, with violent criminals, and with privileged office workers on a night out who require protection from the effects of their own idiocy.

When an ambulance is called – say to pick up an elderly person who has fallen over because carers are not allowed to lift people, or because a woman is suffering vaginal bleeding (monthly?) – that vehicle becomes, for a time, unavailable. This is rarely a concern as callouts missed are unlikely to be time critical. Knowing this the drivers are not always rushing to get back to work.

Although trying to act in a calm and professional manner drivers are human and can become enraged by the way they and the services they offer are treated, especially when they decline to comply with self-entitled expectations and problem shifting.

Written as a series of short and fascinating examples of cases, this book provides mordant entertainment through attitudes and reactions to incidents. It is also food for thought about how each reader would wish to be treated should they one day require an ambulance team’s skills and services.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Morbid Books.

Book Review: Sal

Sal, by Mick Kitson, tells the story of thirteen year old Sal Brown who runs away with her ten year old sister, Peppa, following horrific events at their flat in coastal Scotland. Sal is determined to keep her little sister safe and to ensure that Peppa does not suffer the abuse that Sal has endured for years. They have been unable to seek outside help as siblings put into the care system are too often separated. Sal has looked after Peppa since she was a baby alongside caring for their alcoholic mother. The threat of care has been used many times to ensure the girls do not report their mother’s neglect, nor the way her current boyfriend treats them.

Sal is not like other children. She carefully orders all that is inside her head and conducts research to gain in depth knowledge of facts that interest her. When her mind wanders she becomes disorientated and struggles to breath. She rarely smiles.

Once Sal decided she would need to take Peppa away for her own safety she set about preparing everything they might need. Using Youtube videos and other internet sites she taught herself new skills, gathered together necessary clothes and equipment, and planned every element of their escape in detail.

Sal believed they would be safest living in a remote forested area, building a shelter and hunting for food as she had watched the likes of Bear Grylls do on television. Her experience of the police convinced her that they are not clever enough to work out where the girls will have gone, so long as they limit the trail left and stay hidden. It is people who are dangerous. Missing city girls are not expected to be capable of wild living.

The tale is told in Sal’s voice so the reader understands the practical nature of her thinking. In flashbacks the reasons for the girls’ escape is revealed. It is a devastating indictment of a system that should be functioning to protect vulnerable children, dealing with causes rather than the effects.

Sal and Peppa’s life in the forest presents difficulties that Sal shows skill and creativity in attempting to overcome. Peppa is a livewire and lacks Sal’s wary reticence. The younger girl is more willing to trust and befriend. The forests of Western Scotland may be remote but they attract walkers and holidaymakers. The sisters have been reported missing and triggered a media campaign. They run risks if they are seen.

The story is beautifully told with characters introduced to demonstrate that human kindness exists and that even badly damaged people need not turn bad. The rule of law and authority is shown to be a blunt instrument that requires a humane interpretation, too often lacking.

This is a deceptively simple, nuanced tale that I sat up late to finish, needing to know the outcome of Sal’s actions and ongoing behaviour. It is a story that is both heart-warming and heart-rending.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Mick Kitson will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Adelle Stripe on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.

Book Review: Strangers With The Same Dream

“I did my best. I came up short. Can any of you claim otherwise?”

Strangers With The Same Dream, by Alison Pick, is set in 1921 when the first kibbutzim were being established on land that would one day form a part of Israel. The tale provides some understanding of why the pioneering Jews felt entitled to settle in Palestine. It acknowledges the righteous anger their actions ignited among those they displaced, whose families had lived there for generations.

The story is told from three points of view.

Ida is a young Russian fleeing persecution following her father’s brutal murder, whose mother was assaulted by the perpetrators and thereafter encouraged her daughter to go ahead of her and her younger child to help found a homeland where Jews could live safely and feel they belong.

David is the de facto leader of the new kibbutz who, a decade previously, was among pioneers founding another community. He was required to leave following the death of a young girl.

Hannah is David’s wife and has to live with the anguish of collective decisions made in the name of expediency and equality, which rob women of autonomy over their bodies and offspring.

In coming to this story I bring decades old memories of a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz during which I worked in the younger children’s accommodation block. As a non Jew I have always struggled to understand why, over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted. If my reading of this book is correct it is, to some extent, because they believe they are God’s chosen people and therefore have rights above other races and religions. They appear to regard Jewishness as their nation more than where they reside, wishing to breed only amongst themselves and preserve the ancient bloodline they believe goes back to biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah. They seek peaceful acceptance, to be allowed to contribute and function within society, but choose not to fully assimilate. They are not, of course, the only cultural entity seeking to hold themselves apart. And yet, exclusion fuels resentment.

The story opens with a narrator, a ghost, informing the reader that they did not commit suicide as those left behind were led to understand. This Being wishes the truth to be known claiming their honour is at stake.

Part One is Ida’s story. We are introduced to her in the straggly line of new settlers, mainly male and from Russia or Germany, as they wind their way through the Palestinian mountains. They reach the swampy lands where their new kibbutz is to be founded. They are challenged by the resident Arabs. The supplies the Jews carry includes barbed wire. Within the collective, workers may be regarded as equal but there will be a need to protect the land they are taking from those who many look down on with disdain, and also fear.

David tells the new settlers that they must surrender their possessions, that all will be shared and used according to need. This first test of the Utopian ideal lays bare the contamination of human desire and possessiveness. Ida has brought with her valuable candlesticks, heirlooms entrusted to her by her now longed for mother. Ida knows that if she surrenders them they will be sold to raise necessary funds. Jewish customs on high days make use of many revered objects yet the kibbutz ethos demands a relinquishing of personal assets and desires, for the common good.

In tableaus through the turning of the seasons the reader is offered glimpses of the challenges faced by the idealistic young people as they drain and clear the land for ploughing and planting whilst going hungry and sleeping in tents. Ida falls in love with Levi who becomes sick. Her early decisions come back to haunt her, and wreak wider damage she could not have foreseen.

From time to time further groups of settlers arrive. They are swarmed not for the skills and effort they offer the collective but for the effects they carry and must submit to be shared. There are resentments as talents do not receive the wider recognition they may achieve elsewhere. There are power plays at work as secrets are used as leverage.

Part Two is David’s story and was the most challenging to read as he is an intensely self-centred character. We learn why he had to leave the kibbutz he helped to found, and then how the events recounted in Ida’s tale are viewed through his eyes. David is the embodiment of the weaknesses of many men: lust, ego, a need for attention and laudation.

“All a boy wanted from his mother was comfort, and to be the centre of her universe. It was this they were trying to get back to their whole lives.”

There is an undercurrent of discontent, disagreements over how best to achieve the ideals for which the settlers strive, and what these may mean for the individual.

David talks of equality and freedom yet seeks out only the beautiful women. He regards them as existing for his gratification, including somewhat disturbingly his daughter, Ruth. Although he becomes irritated by the child’s demands he muses that he is pleased she is a girl rather than a boy. He quashes thoughts of his ineptitude as a leader and fears being eclipsed.

The third and final part tells the same story from Hannah’s point of view. By now we know that she has had to live through heartache due to David’s actions but not yet the extent of his betrayal and its terrible consequences. In such closed communities secrets will not stay buried. They bubble to the surface, expelled in part due to guilt and mistaken belief that others grant them the same attention and importance as the bearer.

The structure of the story is a familiar device jarred slightly by the occasional interjections from the ghost narrator. It is a compelling tale to read but not one that is entirely satisfying. David is almost too stereotypically unlikable (“It was not love, it was appetite.”) and there are many limited snapshots of characters whose roles then peter out.

What is offered though is an understanding of how the kibbutzim were created: the hardships endured by the founders in their quest for a homeland, how the land was taken. Having lived in one, albeit briefly and as an outsider, it would appear the discontents I observed in the 1980s existed from what was reminisced about, particularly by the more elderly kibbutzniks, as the exemplary beginning. As a fictionalised history of the region this makes for interesting reading.

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

Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: Weight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Why then did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried? I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed of light power – to break that gravitational pull.”

Each time we tell a story from our lives we tell it anew. Aspects may remain but nuances change. Our present is heavy with all that has gone before and all we aspire to become. We each carry the weight of our individual worlds.

In the introduction to Weight, the author writes

“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended.”

Thus we get a retelling of the tale redolent with Winterson’s personal experiences of living under the burden of her upbringing, and the great effort required to be someone who does not meekly follow what is be expected. Atlas’s burden was a punishment for daring to defy the gods. Winterson wished to step out from under the world she had been moulded to inhabit.

“We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.”

The story opens with an exploration of space and time, the creation of the universe. It introduces Atlas, the offspring of Poseidon and Mother Earth. Atlas was one of the Titans, half man and half god. He resided within the perfection of Atlantis until this was no longer enough.

“Everything that man invents he soon turns to his own destruction. You could have chosen differently. You did not.”

Atlas fought the gods for what he regarded as his freedom. His punishment was to forevermore carry the weight of the world he loved on his shoulders.

The reader is then introduced to Heracles, the Hero of the World. This hero is depicted as unusually strong whilst embodying every weak trait known to man. He is crude and lacks control of his desires and appetites. His part of the story makes for unpleasant reading.

Heracles asks for Atlas’s help, offering a trade that could suit them both. Having got what he requires he tricks Atlas and leaves him with all of time to mull over the lessons learned.

The writing is a mix of the poetic, the profound and the playful. Contemporary elements are woven through to good effect. Heracles’ self-centredness, his ability to quash feelings of guilt over his behaviour, is all too recognisable.

“Every man assumes that what is valuable to himself must be coveted by others.”

I particularly enjoyed the denouement which neatly brought the myth into the modern realm.

Any Cop?: The tale was not as wholly satisfying to read as The Penelopiad, the previous Canon I reviewed, but the layers and musings provide a thoughtful retelling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Night Driver

From Wikipedia: Fritz Haarmann (1879 – 1925) was a German serial killer known as the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Hanover and the Wolf-Man, who committed the sexual assault, murder, mutilation and dismemberment of a minimum of 24 boys and young men. Described by the judge at his trial as being “forever degraded as a citizen”, Haarmann was found guilty of 24 of the 27 murders for which he was tried and sentenced to death. A known homosexual and police informant, his preferred murder method was biting into or through his victims’ throats.

Marcelle Perks has taken Haarmann’s story and reimagined it in a contemporary setting. Her serial killer is called Lars, a lorry driver who seeks the intense sexual thrill he gains from murdering young men picked up on his travels. Lars and his lover, Hans, co-own a nightclub that offers clients drugs and the services of prostitutes. Hans cleans up after Lars, making money from the bodies disposed of. Hans also enjoys the services of the women they employ, his handsome good looks and attentions leading each to believe he cares for them.

Into this murky environment enters Fran, an English woman living in Hanover who is eight months pregnant. She met her husband, Kurt, on a business trip to the Cayman Islands where he was working as an engineer. At the time Fran had a well paid job and a house in London. She was drawn to Kurt by his old-fashioned, movie star good looks, his charm, attentiveness and dry humour. When Fran lost her job she sold her house and moved to be with Kurt. They married and returned to his native Germany, to a suburb where he expected Fran to keep house. Since she fell pregnant Kurt has lost interest in his wife. Alone and frustrated by the limits on integration imposed by the language barrier, Fran is determined to learn to drive that she may regain a little independence. Despite daily lessons she is struggling to master the skills required.

Lars in his lorry comes across Fran on one of her lessons, hassling her slow progress until she loses control. Fran’s instructor reports him to the police but they take no action. In her current state there is a risk to the unborn child leading to leniency from the examiner on her driving test. Shaken by events, Fran has no confidence behind the wheel. Determined to overcome her fear she decides to take Kurt’s car without telling him and practice while he sleeps and the roads are quiet.

On her first night drive Fran meets a young Polish man, Tomek, who is trying to track down his sister, Anna. He is kind to the lonely woman and she is attracted to him. She decides to help in his quest as a reason for them to meet again.

Fran and Tomek visit Dorcas, a prostitute and friend of Anna’s. Both women work for Hans. When Tomek goes missing Fran grows concerned and asks for Dorcas’s help. Neither women are yet aware that the focus of the nightclub’s criminal activity has moved to a more lucrative use of the bodies they dispose of. Their dogged interest in the missing siblings makes them a liability that Hans and Lars come to realise they must deal with.

The structure of the story is episodic as in TV dramas with short chapters divided into scenes shown from key characters’ points of view. The narration is clipped in style which suits the typically British portrayal of the German language and efficient attitude. This idiosyncratic presentation was easier to read in short spurts than one sitting.

Descriptions are vivid and often bloody. Sex is perfunctory. I found Fran’s limited concern for her unborn child difficult to empathise with but her isolation in the face of Kurt’s lack of interest for her well-being was well portrayed. The men at the nightclub are chillingly authentic, their treatment of women as property to be used and then discarded believable. The sociopathic tendencies of the killers was unsettling but fitted well in explaining their warped reasoning.

This is a disturbing tale but one that maintained engagement. That it is inspired by true events gives it an added edge.

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