Book Review: White Spines

white spines

Nicholas Royle collects books. He does not choose titles he wishes to read, although often he will read them. What he seeks is an aesthetic. He trawls second-hand bookshops, including charity shops, searching for suitable spines to place on his bookshelves. He could buy on-line but this doesn’t appeal. The potential for discovery when browsing eclectically curated displays in shops is a part of the pleasure he derives from his pursuit.

White Spines focuses on his Picador collection, from when the imprint was mostly consistent in cover design (1970s to 1990s). He also finds what he describes as anomalies, adding these to the back of the double stacked white shelves on which he places his finds. Although pleased when a book is in good condition, he values inscriptions and inclusions – ephemera placed by a previous owner between pages and then forgotten when the book is donated.

This is very much a book for lovers of books. Royle takes the reader on a journey around the country describing where and how he found particular titles. There is an element of memoir as he has been collecting these books for decades. His various jobs over this time have granted him access to those in the writing business – authors, publishers, agents – whose names and works will be familiar. Knowing of his obsession, some have gifted him white spine Picadors. Royle cites one incident when he solicited such books as payment, something the author involved may have subsequently regretted agreeing to.

When travelling, for whatever reason, visits to second-hand bookshops feature. Finds are described lovingly, cover artwork appreciated. There are occasional transcripts of overheard conversations, or of interviews conducted as additional research. A digression into the issues faced when another author shares your name was of interest. Short sections describe some of Royle’s dreams.

There is a degree of melancholy looking back at the time when Picador published these uniform editions, when there was more trust and freedom amongst those tasked with choosing authors and titles. Of course, it is only with hindsight that readers can see how certain of the writers and artists found lasting success. There were also those whose work was pulped without telling them.

This history certainly adds to the appeal of the book, but it is Royle’s knowledge and ability to write with enthusiasm that draws the reader in. An enjoyable window into the life of an unapologetic collector. A call to appreciate books for more than their words.

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

my picadors

Book Review: London Gothic

Nicholas Royle has been described by a Sunday Times reviewer as a ‘craftsman of disquiet’. London Gothic, his latest short story collection, provides a fine example of why he deserves such praise. Across fifteen deliciously disturbing tales, written between 2000 and the present day, he offers glimpses of contemporary London as seen through the lenses of artists – and other residents the aspiring and successful brush up against. Settings include: flats carved from once spacious houses, hipster style art galleries, and a ‘country house’ hotel. Alongside an undercurrent of the macabre there is much humour. Royle is not afraid to poke fun at his peers and those they may venerate.

The collection opens with Welcome, an apparently jolly letter to new home owners that quickly sets the scene for the author’s ability to summon unease.

There follow a number of stories that explore how little can be known of other’s reasoning – the perturbing methods they employ to solve troubling issues.

The Neighbours tells of a burgeoning relationship that stalls when the man feels shadowed by another couple paying too close attention. Much is inferred but the reader is trusted to reach their own conclusion.

This lack of spoon-feeding is a strength in these tales. Undertows pervade with questions hanging over what is real and what a product of a character’s history, personality and concerns.

The Old Bakery is something rather different, and a strong addition. In it, a sub-editor is working on a piece commissioned for a Sunday Supplement in which a wealthy couple are showing the space they have created from the titular building. The tone of the interview is faux-humble, exacerbated by the writer’s collusion and sycophancy. It is a wonderful take-down of smug artistes, nepotism, and the jealousy of those not included within inner circles.

Another story that strays from the themes of hauntings, doppelgängers and murder is Constraints. It harnesses a form that is somewhat experimental yet has been made to work.

Lesser known histories of the city add to the colour and flavour of many of the tales. Buildings referenced may or may not exist in real life but are still familiar. Changes have been made over time to structure and interior but they retain glimpses of what they once were. Incomers will try to cash in on the nostalgia this generates.

The author frequently plays with his reader, most obviously in the story, London. This includes a description that appeared to meander into rather boring detail, followed by a rejoinder for the inevitable lapse in attention.

“Go ahead. Skim. I’m just telling you what I saw. It might be important. It might not.”

Suitably chastised, I reread the paragraph. I will not spoil by saying if this were necessary.

Several stories contain elements that could be regarded as self-referential, challenging the reader to admit to a conceit that they believe they might know something of the author. I enjoyed the playfulness with which these were introduced.

London plays with many aspects of mise en abyme. The tale told is not always straightforward but provides much to reflect on.

The collection concludes with The Vote. Set in a hotel it is an allegory for Brexit but avoiding the usual bile and blame. Characters were pigeon-holed by newspapers. The Times man may have been ‘a former Guardian reader’ who ‘tired of that paper’s obsession with certain issues’. He can socialise with the Telegraph man, if only for their brief stay in this shifting space.

“The Times man was still in the game, still a player, a stakeholder. But he knew that he and the Telegraph man were basically from the same stock. They could get on. Their wives could get on. This was how the country worked.”

Mostly though the stories in this collection avoid any hint of politics, reflecting more on class and culture – and the chasms these create. They offer up a dark underbelly lurking within everyday situations. Fabulous, at times chilling, storytelling to curl up with as the evenings draw in.

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

Book Review: Mother

Mother: A Memoir, by Nicholas Royle, is what it says on the cover – the author’s memories of his mother. These are not presented in a linear manner. Rather, they are reminiscences – echoes – that, realistically, cannot include every thought and feeling from each incident recalled. The portrayal of the mother alters a little with each retelling. What emerges is an impression of a spirited woman who was many things – as people are. In looking at her through the eyes of her son, several decades after her death, the reader becomes aware of how much he venerated her. Whilst acknowledging what others may regard as flaws, he saw her influence over the family and many of those who knew her.

Kathleen McAdam came from Scottish lineage and remained close to her wider family throughout her life. She was a nurse, continuing to work after the birth of her two sons. Kathleen married Maxwell Royle. Maxwell was the son of artists yet attended a public school. They had contacts amongst the famous of the time. Their boys were raised to free range but in relative privilege.

As a mother, Kathleen supported her children’s chosen pursuits, fiercely guarding their interests from any complaints made about their activities. Her conversation drew in many of the friends they brought to the house. At no time in this memoir does her son raise any suggestion of resentment over what she expected of him in terms of time and attention.

Another picture that emerges of Kathleen is that of her sitting at the kitchen table – chain smoking, doing crosswords or reading. There is mention of her love life and how she flirted with admirers – Maxwell may also have had a dalliance. Their son offers no hint of what he thought of this at the time or later.

The memoir opens with the impact on the family of Kathleen’s descent into dementia – an illness that led to her slow demise. The author ponders if this could have been precipitated by the death of his brother. This latter tragedy changed all of their lives. The dynamic woman became a shell of herself, existing but without her trademark spark or energy.

Chapters offer not just memories of Kathleen but of the family – at home and on travels. Details are provided of their ancestry including photographs of previous generations. Nicholas and his brother, Simon, were close to cousins and regularly visited their relatives. The impression offered is one of time capsuled properties with space to roam and menageries of animals. Although appreciative, the descriptions make no attempt to make this upbringing appear idyllic.

Mention is made of misbehaviour – of expulsions from school and experiments verging on the cruel. Punishments at home, if they happened, are not disclosed.

The complexity of family life comes through in the short chapters and recollections of changing scenes across many decades. Although there is obvious emotion, particularly in dealing with illness and death, much of the writing is framed as factual.

And this is the book’s strength. The reader is left to form their own impressions. It matters not what they think of Kathleen. This is her story told from her surviving son’s perspective. It would appear that, until the end, to him she was everything he needed her to be.

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

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.

Book Review: An English Guide to Birdwatching

An English Guide to Birdwatching, by Nicholas Royle, is a novel that plays with words in a manner that makes it a challenge to describe, and in places to read. Written in two distinct parts, albeit with the occasional cross reference and a shared conclusion, it poses interesting questions, mesa and meta, about reactions to literature and those who curate it. Although fiction, it draws heavily on reality, including roles for the author and his Manchester based namesake. It delves into the conceits of the literary world – its creators, teachers and those who consider themselves intellectually superior, who task themselves with what they believe to be essential deconstruction, being, in their own minds at least, uniquely qualified to ensure literary quality is policed.

Scattered throughout the book are line drawing illustrations of birds, a subject referenced throughout.

The story opens by introducing the reader to Silas Woodlock, a recently retired undertaker moving from Croydon in London to Seaford in East Sussex with his wife, Ethel. The elderly couple take some time to settle into their new abode. There are amusing observations on how the ‘old codgers’ prevalent on the south coast of England view one another, how they do not recognise themselves in their fellow aged beings.

Back in London an editor for the London Literary Gazette, Stephen Osmer, completes an essay and promptly falls off his perch. His untimely death at the age of twenty-seven ensures he will be remembered as brilliant, despite having published little. Known for his ‘intellectual candescence’, his knowledge of Dickens, and his witty if somewhat cutting commentary, he harboured a deep seated jealousy of those who, unlike him, had succeeded in publishing creative work. He was contemptuous of ‘the self-enclosed nature of academic life’ yet lived wholly within his own specialism’s rarefied world. Much like the south coast elderly population, he was unable to recognise himself in those he observed.

Back in Seaford, Silas and Ethel are being driven to distraction by the gulls noisily breeding on their rooftop. In an attempt to get her husband out of the house, Ethel suggests he enrol in a creative writing workshop. As a result he writes a short story – The Gulls – and promptly loses the only copy of his manuscript. He is subsequently incensed when he discovers his words published in an anthology under another’s name.

Alongside these dastardly goings on, the reader is taken back to the final months of Stephen Osman’s life. During this period he had insulted both the Nicholas Royles at an author event in Manchester. When he makes his escape, inadvertently abandoning his beautiful girlfriend, Lucy, she meets southern Nicholas Royle’s wife, Portia. This leads to an invitation to a party for the literati, held at the Royle’s house in Seaford, where the two storylines coalesce. Prior to this is an erotic scene offers up a cliched male fantasy – perhaps an attempt at attaining the Bad Sex In Fiction award once won by the other Nicholas Royle.

Other interactions at the party are more amusing. The attending intellectuals are vying for attention, sorrowful that their kind are not as revered as they once were. The party ends with a somewhat improbable bang after which action returns to London and the creation of Osman’s final essay.

Part two of the book contains seventeen chapters, each titled Hide. Many of these are clever if somewhat dense plays on language and its meaning. The tableau around which these musings are wrapped include elements of surrealism. There is pondering about man’s attitude to killing and eating birds, his belief that he is a higher being despite having existed for a much shorter time. Although interesting ideas and concepts are aired I found part two much less engaging.

The writing wanders in many different directions, much as a stream of consciousness would. The mix of fact and fiction is disconcerting in places as is the inclusion of the two Nicholas Royles. There is plenty to think about, and the author is unafraid to mock himself and his associates. At times I felt the prose became didactic and I have no doubt many references passed me by. Although clever the second part was not always entertaining. Adding it to the novel appeared experimental rather than necessary.

Would I recommend? Perhaps to those who enjoy wordplay – literature lovers unafraid to laugh at their own conceits. I am glad to have been given the opportunity to appraise, even if it wasn’t the easiest of reads.

Book Review: Ornithology

Ornithology, by Nicholas Royle, is a collection of sixteen short stories interwoven with recurring references to birds. Within each plot these avian creatures provide interest, distraction, disturbance. They, along with the human protagonists, are transformed into both predator and prey.

The stories explore ordinary situations and events, places and people. The characters go on holiday, form and break relationships, observe their surroundings from inside homes, rural locations, cities and at work. The locations are as much characters in the tales as the people. The prose radiates quiet menace.

The collection opens with Unfollow. Written in the first person it chronicles an obsession with a woman known only through Twitter and with whom there is little interaction. The narrator and their cat form a deadly pact to gain her attention.

In Murder a group of academics take a holiday together. Their relationship is tenuous having developed mainly through correspondence. The shadow of a couple who do not attend casts an eerie darkness over what should be straightforward diversions.

It is the recurring darkness that makes these stories so delicious to read. It is subtle, creeping through the cracks like an icy breeze.

Several of the stories veer into the surreal. There is violence, transformation, a stretching of possibilities and belief.

In The Nightingale the boundary between people and computers becomes blurred and a hacker takes advantage.

In The Lure, which is set in Paris, a young teacher struggles to translate more than simply spoken language. His minimal contact with others in the city leads him to pursue ill advised interactions, but is he stalker or victim?

Several stories use books to provide a theme that then spills out into action. A knowledge of the many bird species referenced may add further depth. I know little of such things which did not detract from my enjoyment. Throughout I remained engaged.

The writing is fluid and precise with a haunting undercurrent that at times manifests as horror but is more often suggestion. An uncanny, mesmerising read.

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