Book Review: Splice 1

Splice was set up by Daniel Davis Wood in 2017 (you may read more about their aims here). It has three main pillars: a small press that publishes short story collections by outstanding writers; online, in-depth book reviews; a biennial anthology showcasing previously unpublished work by three of the press’s authors, each of who selects and introduces the work of another writer deserving more attention. These selected writers will then be

“commissioned to publish new work in future and to nominate new and interesting writers of their own.

In essence, the anthology functions as a way of consolidating the Splice community and broadening its scope.”

Splice 1, as its title suggests, is the first anthology. It opens with a foreword by the editor, Daniel Davis Wood, who also writes the introduction to the work of the three Splice authors included: Dana Diehl, Michael Conley, Thomas Chadwick. After each introduction there is a complete short story from the author plus an extract from a further work by them (the full second story is available to read on the Splice website). The author then introduces their chosen writer whose contribution is presented in the same format – a short story and an extract.

Having read and reviewed the three featured authors’ short story collections, it was interesting to read the editor’s take on their work – what drew him to want to publish them. The short stories included here are all impressive examples of the form. One features an apartment that is carpeted in three feet of soil. Another has a character whose hair starts to talk when he allows it to grow. A story written entirely in dialogue is set on what I assume is a distant planet. Fantastical though these concepts may be they do not read as fantasy. The authors have grasped the essence of writing fiction and created distinctive and mesmeric voices.

As a reader I will have personal preferences but can recognise fine writing even in those stories I don’t enjoy so much. The final writer, Victoria Mansfield, includes vivid imagery that I found unpleasant in Whitegoods for Your Daughters. She describes sex, food and even travelling by public transport in ways that made me recoil. Yet I can appreciate her way with words and the emotional resonance. For those less squeamish than me her work may be better appreciated.

Despite such a strong field, my choice of standout story was by Abi Hynes. A conversation recorded before the end of the experiment presents man and alien attempting to communicate. The arrogance of humans is skillfully foiled by the encounter. Man is trying so hard to be reasonable, failing to comprehend the purpose and place in this new world that he has been granted. It is a fabulous tale, perfectly paced, both humorous and tragic.

Honourable mentions must go to Dana Diehl’s The Earth Room and Renée Bibby’s That Boy. Both stories draw the reader into the day to day difficulties individuals face and how they regard themselves, particularly when dealing with others. They are quirky and clever but never too much of either. The tales flow and entertain while offering much to consider.

I also enjoyed Thomas Chadwick’s The Unsuccessful Candidate. Office workers rarely wish to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of becoming a target for blame. The idea that someone could turn up daily for work, despite being rejected at interview, and co-workers would be flummoxed about how to deal with them, was just delicious, especially as the successful candidate was proving far from ideal.

The extracts included in the anthology provide tantalising tasters. I must find time to seek out the rest of Thomas Chadwick’s Politics. It opens

“David killed the Queen. It was nothing personal he said. It was just politics. All he wanted was to make a political statement about the abuse of power in the country”

The media twists the facts to fit their agendas. Peers are interviewed and quoted out of context.

“”Who told you that?”
“We can’t say.”
“Was it Charles? Because if anyone needs locking up, it’s Charles. He thinks wealth trickles down. He knows all the verses of the national anthem. He sleeps beside a copy of Atlas Shrugged.”
David was told that for all his sins Charles had not shot the Queen.”

Splice 1 provides excellent and varied reading. It is also a fine introduction to a literary endeavour that deserves wider attention from readers.

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

Book Review: Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.

The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.

The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.

The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.

In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.

“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”

Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.

It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.

Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:

“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”

Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.

Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.

Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.

Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: Wakenhyrst

Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver, is loosely woven around facts and folklore from rural Suffolk and a supposedly enlightened England. Many of the attitudes and behaviours depicted were still pervasive in the not too distant past. The author has located the titular hamlet close to ancient fens that locals both enjoy and fear. Its church, St Guthlaf’s, was originally built in the Middle Ages. Much of the story is set in Edwardian times when a wealthy landowner and respected historian, Edward Stearne, ruled his family home, Wake’s End, with a stern hand (such Dickensian naming). The tale is told by his daughter, Maud, who by 1966 was the only survivor and lived as a recluse in what was by then a house in disrepair.

The book opens in this later time with a journalist visiting Maud to try to learn more of a murder she witnessed as a teenager that led to her father’s incarceration at Broadmoor. Written in tabloid style, the short exposition is followed by a series of letters between Maud and an art historian, Dr Robin Hunter, who is eager to access a notebook in which Edward Stearne may have written about his inspiration for famous paintings he produced while locked away in the asylum. Maud has no wish to have anything more to do with the outside world after her experience with the journalist. It is only when a violent storm puts her home at risk that she agrees to tell Dr Hunter about her childhood and the events that led to her father’s undoing.

Maud’s story opens in 1906 when she is six years old. Her beloved mother has gone into labour, a regular event that often leads to a baby born dead. Maud has just the one sibling, Richard, who she regards with contempt. Her handsome father is a pious man whom she fears but longs to impress. Maud’s childish beliefs are coloured by the church’s teachings and the tales told of the fen by household servants. As God has not listened to her pleas for help, she prays to the fen that her mother may survive.

St Guthlaf’s church contains gorgoyles, sculptures and carvings that date back to medieval times. These include animals, mythical creatures and devils intended to warn sinners to repent. Much of the church’s vivid artwork would have been painted over by the Puritans. When Edward donates a sizeable sum of money to enable improvements to the building he unwittingly unleashes forces in the form of an historic mural known as a Doom.

Maud is starved of affection and pours out her love on an injured magpie that she sets free but continues to feed. The only animals her father will tolerate are the horses required to pull his carriage. Rebelling against the strictures enforced by Edward’s many rules, Maud takes to wandering the fen, something he forbids. There is suggestion of an event from his childhood that led to him hating and fearing the place.

As the years pass Maud must cope with grief and the impossible love she feels for a young gardener in her father’s employ. Being female she is regarded as lacking sense, despite her obvious intelligence. Her father allows her to help him with menial tasks in his work but assumes she is incapable of comprehension. Maud secretly reads the journals he keeps and is appalled to discover his true nature, and where this leads.

Journal entries are included verbatim throughout the text. The window this offers into the attitudes of an Edwardian gentleman are disturbing. When Edward becomes obsessed and potentially dangerous, Maud finds she has nowhere to turn – her concerns repeatedly dismissed as hysteria. Her father is affected by the doom and the fen, by his guilt and knowledge of church history. Maud soon realises how precarious her situation is.

The author taps into the shadows and cracks that generate fear in the dark even rational minds struggle to dismiss. As the story progresses these elements build providing an undercurrent of unease. It is not so much what is true that matters as what is believed and feared.

The effects of class and gender divides offer a stark background for a beguiling tale of arrogance and misdirected fervour. At its heart though is a story of a house and a fen, each emanating secrets and rich histories that colour the lives of inhabitants across generations. Whilst not quite as tightly woven and therefore on par with the author’s previous work – the spellbinding Dark Matter this was a compelling and creepy tale that I enjoyed reading.

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus.

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

Book Review: All the Beggars Riding

“Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell”

All the Beggars Riding, by Lucy Caldwell, is a tale told by thirty-eight year old Lara Moorhouse, an agency carer who has lived in London all her life. She is writing down her memories as a way to come to terms with how she was raised, and the effect this has had on her life since. What prompted the project was a television documentary Lara watched, on Chernobyl, made a decade after the disaster and focusing on survivors. Lara has been taking one of her patients to a weekly creative writing class where she listens in to the advice given. She finds that she learns a great deal about herself and her wider family by recreating their past selves.

The book is divided into sections that focus on: the inspiration for the story; Lara as a child; her mother, Jane; what happened next. As Jane died a year previously much of the narrative is an imagined account of events. Lara comes to realise is that all memoir is essentially fiction.

“it’s going to be impossible to get inside the past, to really be true to it. We can only see it from the outside, squinting back at it, and it changes utterly depending on the mood and circumstances and point from which we happen to be regarding it.”

Although trying her best to tell her story in a manner that makes sense to the reader, Lara struggles to write a linear narrative. There are too many interdependencies and unknowns. Children rarely understand their parents as people rather than in relation to themselves – and vice versa.

“lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory; the mind doesn’t work like that. We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.”

Lara and her little brother, Alfie, lived in a flat in Earls Court until Lara was twelve. Their mother was mostly their sole carer as their father, a surgeon, worked in Belfast more often than at the private clinic in Harley Street that employed him. It drew in wealthy patients wanting ‘an Irish surgeon’ for the skills learned in Belfast due to the Troubles.

The summer Lara turned twelve her family went on their only ever holiday – to Fuengirola. It was not a success. The fallout from this was that Lara learned the truth of her parents’ relationship. Her father, Patrick, had another family in Belfast. When, four months later, he was killed in an accident, the Earls Court flat was sold by his wife and the Moorhouses were cast adrift.

Lara’s anger at her parents for raising their children in this way colours her subsequent development. In confronting her memories and trying to piece together why Jane and Patrick acted as they did she seeks closure but also understanding. All her mother ever told her was that she loved their father. Lara needs to unravel how and why their family set-up lasted as long as it did without change.

The writing is fluid and piercing, getting to the heart of easily fractured relationships between parents and their children. All are individuals yet rarely treated in this way within a family unit. Alfie has reacted to the same circumstances very differently to his sister. Jane and her mother also had a troubled relationship that proved difficult to bridge. Across the generations, concern and expectation hammer in wedges. When Lara tried to talk to her mother, just before she died, she was met with resentment.

“You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you? Trap me with my own words.”

Parents cannot fully know at the time the lasting impact their actions will have on their children. Children cannot fully know the personal factors at play that drove decisions made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, both its voice and structure. A gratifying and resonant read that makes me want to seek out more of the author’s work.

All the Beggars Riding is published by Faber and Faber.

Book Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the debut novel of an author who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a poignant if somewhat oblique tale set in rural England where a woman is remembering her early life – spent in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the Second World War. An undercurrent of unease permeates prose that paints a picture of a protagonist trying to move forward despite memories shadowed by regret.

The story opens by introducing Etsuko who is being visited by her younger daughter, Niki. They do not mention the elder child, Keiko, immediately. The adult sisters had left the family home some years previously, moving to London and Birmingham respectively. The reader quickly learns that Keiko recently committed suicide and Niki did not attend the funeral. There are tensions in the family.

During Niki’s shorter than hoped for visit her mother recalls a woman, Sachiko, who she knew briefly during the early years of her first marriage, when she was still living in Nagasaki. The city was rebuilding following the devastation of the bomb, although the Americans had not yet all left. Etsuko and her husband, Jiro, lived in one of the newly built apartment blocks and were expecting their first child. The surroundings were wasteland, abutting a river. A few old houses remained and Sachiko moved into one of these with her truculent young daughter.

During this time Jiro’s father, Ogata, was visiting for an unspecified length of time. The reader learns that, traditionally, generations of family in Japan would have lived together.

Ogata is a retired teacher and expresses concern that a former friend of Jiro’s has written an article criticising Ogata and the education system the older man bemoans has been replaced by American style teaching. Ogata believes a son should be defending his father, something Jiro appears keen to avoid – although he does not admit to this.

“We devoted ourselves to ensuring that proper qualities were handed down, that children grew up with the correct attitude to their country, to their fellows. There was a spirit in Japan once, it bound us all together. Just imagine what it must be like being a young boy today. He’s taught no values at school – except perhaps that he should selfishly demand whatever he wants out of life.”

Father and son are in agreement over the role of women – that they should be subservient. Etsuko is living in the manner expected and claiming she is happy. Women who know her question this assertion.

The plot progresses quietly through day to day activities yet offers a depth that resonates. Etsuko is concerned by Sachiko’s apparent neglect of her daughter. Sachiko is eager to leave Japan and is consorting with an American in the hope of achieving this. Her daughter is unhappy with the proposed changes and the turbulence of her mother’s promises and plans.

Scenes from the lives of each character provide evidence of attitudes in Japan at this time and how quickly and radically these had changed. So many in the city had lost family members in the war. Dialogue demonstrates how little could be directly expressed due to ingrained cultural behaviours.

Etsuko’s recollections are shaded by time that has passed and knowledge of where her actions led. Now she finds herself emotionally distanced from Niki and, once again, unsure of how to proceed.

It is impressive how such a short novel can convey so many facets of desire and behaviour – the cost of attaining an outcome and then living with the consequences. Although story development can at times appear cryptic, I found this an affecting and satisfying read.

A Pale View of Hills in published by Faber and Faber.

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

Book Review: The Raven Wheel

The Raven Wheel, by AF Stone, is a hard hitting tale of contemporary teenagers whose lives have gone awry due to the actions of their parents. Set in what the protagonists regard as a backwater, near to Stoke-on Trent, they must deal with the fallout from: drug use, mental health issues, and sexual abuse. The author is direct and unflinching in her portrayal of the cost to families when their loved ones sink through the cracks of society’s accepted behaviours. If help is offered and rejected there is little appetite, or resources, for looking beyond what appears obvious – to treat the cause rather than the effect.

Chapters tell the story from alternate character’s points of view. The book opens by introducing Ria, a fifteen year old who self harms. She wishes to reinvent herself and tries to do so when she meets Tye, a couple of years older and living with his nan and younger brother, Kian, after their dad attempted suicide. Kian misses his mum and struggles to comprehend the damage she could do feeding her addiction, and the damage already done.

These three young people are far from innocents. They experience: run-ins with the police, expulsion from school, under age drinking, theft and joyriding. Their families want better for them despite it being the adult’s actions that precipitated the issues being faced. The cycle of problematic behaviour across generations is difficult to break.

The setting moves to a secure unit where mental health patients are treated or, at least, contained. Those still on the outside try to find ways to move on with their lives as best they can. Each of the characters is desperate for freedom to choose their life trajectory, whatever that may mean. It is not just those locked up who feel imprisoned by circumstances they cannot find a way to change.

Plot development is shocking in places but the author has done a fantastic job in keeping it nuanced as well as real. The fast paced action and unmasking of respectable facades will leave the reader breathless as well as appalled. I’m not sure when I last read a book that is so bleak yet also a solid page turner. The circumstances described mirror those we know exist yet too often turn away from.

A wake up call for more empathy and compassion, even towards those who, at face value, bring down trouble on themselves. No easy answers are offered and there is no shying from the devastating impact of certain actions.

The author has created a compelling story with unforgettable impact. Dark and brutal as it may be, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Book Guild.