Book Review: Exercises in Control

Exercises in Control, by Annabel Banks, is a collection of a dozen short stories from an author whose writing style brought to mind that of M. John Harrison, although these are neither fantasy nor science fiction. The stories have an unsettling and elusive quality that requires the reader to delve beyond what is obvious and engage with characters who are slippery and complex. There is an undercurrent of violence that manifests in actions against the narrators and those they encounter.

The collection opens with an impressive tale titled Payment to the Universe. A cleaner is working alone in deserted offices. Against instruction she enters a room and must make a decision about what she finds there. The sparse prose conveys her reasoning and packs a punch.

I was less impressed with Susan Frankie Marla Me. A woman describes outings with friends and the copying of behaviours that alter depending on who she is with. My aversion likely stems from the fact that I couldn’t warm to any of the characters or what they were doing in each situation.

Exercises in Control is a strong story but contained an upsetting element of animal cruelty that I would prefer not to now have in my head. A train station guard is watching a woman who he regularly sees on his shift. Curious to find out how she reacts, he stage manages a scenario and then observes from his unseen vantage point. His apparent lack of feeling, other than to satisfy his own needs, is shocking.

Rite of Passage recounts a weird date on a beach in Cornwall.

It is one of several stories that detail people behaving strangely. Men think violent thoughts that they sometimes act upon. Women self-harm in a variety of ways. If the stories are about self control – or its deliberate absence – then this comes with a need to exert power, to push against the strictures that family or society attempt to impose. There is a lack of hope, a struggle to cope, in many of the lives depicted.

Limitations turned me off with its sexual description in the opening lines – a man looking forward to seeing a woman again because of “how wet she gets.” Few of the men featured in any of the stories are given likeable traits.

Free Body Diagram features a woman who hitchhikes as a means of courting danger. She is a serial dater with no interest in forming a relationship. I enjoyed the ambiguous ending.

The Higgins Method is a violent interpretation of My Fair Lady. It has a quietly inserted side thread on how we treat and judge celebrities.

I enjoyed the oddness of Momentum with its suggestion of something inexplicable in a local man’s homemade box of tricks.

The oddness in With Compliments was more difficult to navigate. The character jumps lost me in places – who was who – although several of the scenarios resonated.

Harmless offers a wickedly delicious comeuppance for a man who tells a random woman he encounters to smile, expecting to be paid attention. I felt guilt at my feelings over the outcome and the woman’s reaction.

A Theory Concerning Light and Colours has an intriguing premise and unnerving ending but didn’t entirely hold my interest.

The closing story, Common Codes, features a man who wishes to impress a woman and ends up losing control of a lie he tells. I wondered what would happen next.

Seven of these stories have previously been published in literary magazines with some nominated for awards. From what I had heard of the writer I expected to enjoy her work. Perhaps it was this that led to my ambivalence with the overall collection. There is much that is admirable in the style and structure of the writing, which has obvious power and depth. Nevertheless, I struggled to engage with too much of the development. The inherent violence and relentlessly flawed character traits marred my enjoyment. A book that may benefit from rereading.

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

Book Review: How Pale the Winter Has Made Us

Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site in 1988. The city sits on the border, formed by the River Rhine, between France and Germany. Over many years it has come under both countries’ jurisdictions but is currently French. It is the official seat of the European Parliament. It has a long history of excellence in higher-education with its university boasting many famous alumni including nineteen Nobel Laureates.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, by Adam Scovell, is set in Strasbourg and the place is as strong a character as any of the people the author has created. Narrated by Isabelle, an English academic, it opens a few days after her partner, who she had been staying with for several weeks, sets off to travel in South America. Isabelle has imminent plans to return to England where she is to take up a hard won post at her university. Alone in her partner’s flat she receives news that her father has committed suicide, hanging himself from a tree in Crystal Palace. Isabelle was not close to either of her parents – the failed artist father and the harridan mother – but finds herself haunted by grief in the form of a shadowy and threatening figure, the Erl-King.

Ignoring all attempts to communicate, including emails and texts from her mother and employer, Isabelle sets out to map aspects of the history of Strasbourg from the perspective of its famous inhabitants – including Gutenberg, Goethe and Jean-Hans Arp. She offers no explanation for her behaviour, suppressing any feelings of responsibility. The reader may ponder if her reaction is driven by innate self-destruction or self-preservation.

Isabelle chooses the subjects of her research from statues she passes when out wandering the streets, or plaques she spots on the walls of historic buildings. She visits coffee shops and mines the internet, hiding out in her partner’s flat that she has not, after all, vacated. She talks to street vendors, the homeless, and strangers she encounters who show an interest in the tokens she accumulates – photographs, postcards and examples of writer’s work. She immerses herself in this research in an attempt to block out thoughts of her dead father, hanging from a tree. Her mother’s cruel jibes relentlessly seep in – resentment at being sidelined by her child, attributing blame even for existing along with dereliction of perceived duty.

The narrative has a sense of dislocation. Isabelle is trying to piece together aspects of Strasbourg’s history as she herself gradually fragments. In stepping off life’s conveyor belt she chooses isolation but cannot quite escape the haunting knowledge and memories. Through the months of winter she sinks into grief, shrinking and fading as her research builds.

The writing is elusive in places but also an appreciative evocation of the city. The urban landscape, culture and people are portrayed with an eye to what is often overlooked by tourists. Amidst the bleakness of Isabelle’s internal trajectory, there is colour in the language, such as when Isabelle is book shopping:

“I picked each volume up, noticing the beautiful texture of the paper used for many of their covers; as if the book had just been printed in the back room of the shop and left out like freshly baked bread.”

Jarring comments from Isabelle’s mother are interspersed with Isabelle’s personal reflections – an effective device for showing how the most hurtful words cannot be unheard. There are also reproductions of certain photographs Isabelle collects, those that prompted her to research the circumstances of the moment captured. These include intersections between people – the successful and the frustrated – and art in its many incarnations.

My early impressions of this book were that it was a slow burn as I sought to connect with its voice. The further in I went the more I realised I was chasing a shadowy spirit, one with haunting potential. Alongside the history of Strasbourg – which may well make readers wish to visit – is a study of grief in a family lacking mutual respect and support. That none of this is presented plainly makes the unwrapping of meaning more rewarding. A poignant, intriguing and ultimately satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Car Park Life

“For me, the true discovery is rarely the place itself – a location on a map or a building – but in understanding empirically that there are worlds hidden in plain sight, which can become visible if we bother to lift our veils and see the Britain that is, not an idealised Britain that never was.”

Between 2015 and 2018, Gareth E. Rees travelled the length and breadth of Britain visiting retail car parks. His fascination with these spaces began in Hastings, outside his local Morrisons supermarket, where he noticed the variety of activities taking place unregarded by busy shoppers. He decided to explore, especially around the edges of design decisions and consumer behaviour. He recognised that his fascination was perhaps as deviant as many of the exploits beheld.

“The problem has always been that hills don’t interest me as much as streets. Trees not as much as pylons. Foliage not as much as litter. It’s an issue, I know. I’m not proud.”

Divided into chapters that are bookended by photographs the author took on his travels, many details shared are of the ordinary but depicted in ways few readers may have considered. There are musings on people’s actions – their attitudes – and the window this offers on modern societal thinking. The author is not averse to mocking himself.

From his vantage point in the car park, Rees considers the architecture of various outlets. He observes how heritage buildings have been recommissioned – sterilised yet presented as somehow authentic. This neatening for consumers and tourists – the refreshing of blackened walls that once contained widespread misery – reflects how history is often remembered.

“In this country we prefer to dwell among facsimiles and facades, reassured by the convenient lie of the past.”

Activities in car parks include: drug deals, road rage, petrolhead races, sexual pursuits. People scurrying between shops and their cars – rushing to park and then to leave – cannot help but display their animal instincts. They compete for ownership, control and supremacy. They are suspicious of Rees for not behaving as expected.

Given the subject matter, the writing is inexplicably funny (kudos to the author). I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled The Ancestor which is set around Amesbury. Whilst providing an amusing potted history of the place, it hones in on ways in which we attempt to acknowledge and celebrate past events. This is observation rather than overt criticism.

In a chapter titled The Joy of Parking, Rees considers why vast retail car parks came to be provided and now themselves prove a draw to their users.

“Experience the joy of 7,000 free parking spaces.”

“Although I’ll admit that there is some ambiguity in the statement. Does the joy come from parking free of charge, or from the knowledge that 7,000 parking spaces are freely available?”

“I will enjoy their parking spaces without parking and without rewarding them with a purchase for their efforts. I won’t even sneak inside to buy a sandwich. It’s everything they don’t want. I’m an aberration, a freeloader”

There have been many books in recent years that draw attention to issues which make their authors despair of the choices others make that they disagree with. Rees mentions current affairs that worry and depress him but there is no hectoring. Rather these are personal, humble reflections offering a wider, longer term view.

The self-deprecating musings wrap around witty yet piercing insights on behaviours that may be frowned upon if considered – mostly they go unnoticed by those caught up in their own concerns. The news site stories quoted are shocking if unsurprising. Dangers lurk while people pass by unaware.

A poignant yet entertaining story about an urban adventurer and the discoveries he makes, including the many ways in which people break the rules in these widely frequented public spaces. Retail car parks and their margins will now be viewed through a recalibrated lens. Compelling, original and highly recommended.

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

Book Review: This Way to Departures

This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, is a collection of eleven short stories by an author capable of using the form to impressive effect. Each tale is expertly crafted, evoking a passionate response in the reader. That this is achieved by harnessing everyday language and action – nothing feels overdone – makes for an immersive reading experience.

The collection opens with Noir, a tale set in Miami. Laura and Sam are enjoying their fledgling relationship when Laura, a journalist growing bored with her mundane assignments, is approached by a handsome but sad eyed stranger, Miguel from El Salvador. He is trying to track down missing friends.

“I remembered the instructions Inez and I had been handed when, as children, we went out to play in the street: strangers should be left as you found them, sob stories promptly returned to their owners. Somewhere along the way, Inez had decided to dismiss this as cynicism rather than wisdom; no one we knew had ever stayed safe by avoiding risk.”

Laura agrees to help Miguel. To do so she must involve one of Sam’s good friends.

Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months explores the world of youngsters placed under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Every year hundreds disappear. Foster parents take on their role as it is a chance for them to earn a little extra income in areas where jobs are hard to find. Overburdened caseworkers struggle to deal with every query and reported incident. When the papers or television pick up on an individual missing child, the Secretary of the Department must offer a response.

“Every time, the panels have come to the same conclusions – that we must invest more in the programs. And every time, the state has said it cannot provide that funding.”

The story offers a concise indictment of the fickle nature of public outrage and then insouciant acceptance.

Butterfly McQueen on Broadway provides a glimpse of the problems faced by a successful actress of colour when she refuses to take stereotypical roles in films. The titular actress appeared in Gone With the Wind yet ended up accepting any available casual work in Harlem. Her career is compared to another actress of colour who went on to win an Oscar, yet whose story remained peppered with shocking racism.

The Place That He Can Never Return To recalls the narrator’s childhood visits, with their father, to a restaurant frequented by fellow exiles. Here they would be served German food and encouraged to speak the language while being told tales of a homeland, recalled with nostalgia.

The lasting impact of the immigrant experience is a theme that runs through each of these tales.

This Way to Departures is one of several stories set in or around an American campus. Danny was born in Poland but his parents were determined to start afresh somewhere they regarded as better.

“He would know Evanston, Illinois, where his parents tried and tried to become middle class and American. And if they failed, well, they were not the only ones failing to become happy Americans after the war.”

Danny becomes a successful economist but, as a committed socialist, needs to follow his ideals. His wife, who compromises her career for him, must make further difficult choices. Danny thinks he knows what she wants but can only see this through the prism of his own needs.

“He leapt up when he saw me, took me in his arms, gave me more of a clinch than an embrace. At first I half-believed he knew what I was going to tell him, sensed it. But he hadn’t of course. His anticipation – the way he held his breath, watched me carefully, and could barely sit – all that was because he had something to tell me.”

Facsimiles is set in New York City, mid September 2001. The narrator and her girlfriend survive the attacks but, like so many who had worked at the World Trade Centre, were deeply affected. The story is heartbreaking yet beautifully rendered.

The World’s Fair tells of a young couple eager to escape the confines of their neighbourhood – built on what was once landfill – and their stifling upbringing.

“‘All of this,’ she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, ‘it used to be garbage.’
‘When did it stop being garbage?’ I want to ask her.
‘Before you were born,’ she offers, ‘this neighbourhood was beautiful.’
As if my being born ruined it.”

The author captures the hemmed in frustrations teenagers suffer yet never overplays them.

Waiting for Daylight is another campus story exploring the abuse of power. Like the following story, The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, the protagonists are not depicted in the way most books, films or TV shows paint American college kids. There are drugs and sex but these students are more universally real, more nuanced in their wider trials and experiences. Studies may be neglected but their importance feels understood. The difficulty of funding them remains an issue.

The Christmas Story offers a glimpse of the festive season through the eyes of those living with poverty and illness in a capitalist society. The narrator is now grown and living in comfort but the time she recalls is seared in her memory. As a child she lived in an apartment with broken heating. Her Jewish mother would not bow to the conventions of Christmas. The young girl’s furtive prayers to the Jesus she finds in a ‘comic book’ represent just another of life’s empty promises.

Dangers of the Sun covers a court case in which a widow is suing her late husband’s doctor for negligence. Told from the point of view of an old friend, the reader is shown the machinations of the legal system. It is a painful portrayal of distancing.

What these stories have in common is the feeling of disconnection as people grow and change. Many of the characters have roots in different countries. Past experiences haunt what their present can be. The author pierces each topic with intrepid yet empathetic succinctness – I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality and style of her writing.

This is a gratifying and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

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

Book Review: Built on Sand

Built on Sand, by Paul Scraton, is centred on Berlin. It explores the varied effects of an ever evolving place on those who call it home for a time. Told through events in the lives of the author’s friends and acquaintances while he was living there, it looks at, amongst other things: shifting borders and beliefs, dispossession, those who leave and return across generations. It is a story of individuals, their relationships and psychogeography. It portrays the transience of people and what defines them, as much as the place.

The first chapter introduces Annika, a mapmaker whose products are sold in a small number of bookstores and galleries. Her maps are themed to well known historical figures who have links to Berlin, providing details on significant locations during their stays there. Many of the buildings they would have frequented have gone but the street layout remains largely the same. Annika walks the city to gain a feel for what she is attempting to recreate.

“Bad news. Her maps, as a whole, told the story of the city, from its medieval origins on a malarial swamp to fifteenth-century riots, reformation and industrialisation, militarism and nationalism, National Socialism and communism, the Marshall Plan and the European Union.”

This sense of history permeates the city – its numerous destructions and endless rebuilding. The author is interested in the ghosts of the past that linger and how they affect those who pass through today.

The second chapter introduces a trio of men who met as boys living in the GDR and remained friends despite taking very different political paths as men. The author’s girlfriend retains her disdain for Markus in particular as he worked for the Stasi. The author is more interested in learning why Markus chose this path and how what he was required to do has affected him long term.

Other key characters in the narrative include the two young men the author shared a flat with when he first moved to Berlin. Their’s is a story of a close friendship when young that does not survive the changes wrought by passing years. At its heart is a tragedy and its repercussions.

Interesting additions to the cast are young people who were raised outside Germany, whose forebears told them stories of the country as it was then, including the lives and lands lost when they fled as refugees. The children or grandchildren visit and find themselves connected to the place despite it bearing little resemblance to the shared memories.

These personal anecdotes offer a vision of a city that exists only in such memories. Each of the people passing through are creating their own version which they will then carry and polish.

Over time borders are moved, walls built and knocked down, housing provided for workers and subsequently renovated for incomers. Reminders of conflict exist in memorials or the scarring of buildings by bullets or shrapnel. The people who come and go follow changing social and political beliefs. They may fight for what they think is right but this too changes with hindsight.

People are shaped by the stories they grow up with and how they interpret them when exposed to wider thinking. Some will embrace new developments but many hanker after what drew them to settle, even if only for a short while, in any given place. They value its history and the ghosts of their past selves, echoes existing in the shadows of recollection.

The writing has a melancholy edge which befits the many horrors Berlin has witnessed. The diverse reactions to events offer a variety of perspectives to consider. Although a very personal account the narrative offers broad insights, not least the folly of trying to cling to what has already passed by. It is a compelling, humane and intelligent portrayal of a city, its residents and inevitable change.

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

Book Review: Mothlight

Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside other creatures, such as a pupating caterpillar, where they will hatch and feast on the host from the inside out. These body snatchers are referenced in Mothlight – a darkly atmospheric tale of a young academic, Thomas, who becomes obsessed with the past life of an older acquaintance from his childhood.

Thomas first meets Dr Phyllis Ewans when, as a young boy, he accompanies his grandfather to the home she shares with her much older sister, Billie. Thomas notices the dust and disorder in their terraced house along with the many mounted moths hung on the walls. At first he is more taken with the faded glamour and financial generosity of Billie. Phyllis shows little interest in the child until she decides to share with him the details of one of her moth specimens. Thomas is transfixed.

Over time Billie dies and Phyllis moves from The Wirral to London where she continues her research in Lepidoptera. Thomas loses touch until Dr Ewan’s name is mentioned in connection with a paper being prepared at the London university where he is now working. Despite not seeing her for many years, Phyllis’s influence has been pervasive. Thomas lives alone spending what free time he has walking, collecting moths and studying them. He often visits the Welsh hills that Miss Ewan talked of so fondly. At times when he contemplates the vista he feels strangely detached from reality.

On renewing their acquaintance Thomas seeks to uncover more of Miss Ewan’s personal history, in particular why she appeared to hate Billie. He draws on photographs from her past and snippets of their conversation – clues to a story she avoids telling. He recognises that, in many ways, he has followed in her footsteps. He retains an underlying impression that he has experienced the tales she shares with him. There is an echo of the uncanny in their mutual recollection of events when only one of them was there.

The first person narrative offers the reader access to an increasingly disturbed mind. Scattered amongst the pages are the photographs Thomas pores over in what becomes a puzzle he feels a desperate need to solve. He recognises that he is allowing this compulsion to derail his career. He is haunted by a past he has appropriated, or so it seems.

Thomas tells his story looking back after what he describes as an illness. Who is the host and who the parasite in the house holding close the lepidopterist’s secrets? The uncanny elements float through the tale like motes from the slowly disintegrating specimens. The reader cannot help but breath them in.

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