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: Gamble

Gamble, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, is a darkly compelling tale of an ordinary family unravelling. The narrative centres around the preoccupations of Greg Gamble, a middle aged husband, father and teacher. Greg no longer finds his wife, Carolyn, attractive but stays with her to avoid his daughter, Isabelle, becoming ‘one of those sorts of children’. He had no wish to become a father but has accepted the role, trying over the years to tamp down the resentments that occasionally bubble to the surface when he interacts with the girl. He has developed habits that he knows irritate, using them at times to satisfy his urge to needle.

When the story opens Greg is staring out his living room window (not lounge as his wife calls it) watching a young woman unload boxes from a van. Mesmerised by thoughts of the woman his cup of tea has gone cold. He sets it on the arm of a chair when he leaves for work knowing that his wife will be annoyed by such behaviour. Greg is aware of his body, the increasing aches and pains, the slight nausea he often now feels. He does not wish to be seen as aging but knows he is.

On arriving at the school where he teaches Greg feels unwell and is advised to go home. Stopping on the way for wine and cigarettes he spots the van with the young woman in the passenger seat. On a whim he drives away from his home, feeling reckless, thinking about the woman and the man she was with, he in derogatory terms.

Greg casts himself in many roles, preoccupied with what he has become. He thinks of the poetry he has written, of the young women he has encountered, of how he appears to himself and them. Given that he has stayed with his wife, despite what she has become to him, he believes he deserves the vices he chooses to indulge.

Lurking within the undertow of his thoughts lies the canal near his home, black and oily, reflecting its surrounds, bordered by mud, hiding its depths. It is a recurring and effective metaphor. The canal also reminds Greg of a pivotal event, one he cannot bring himself to regret despite its outcome.

Carolyn and Isabelle appear as irritants in Greg’s increasingly self-centred imaginings and dissipation. Their actions jar against his wish to retreat from their expectations of him as husband and father. The reader can sense an approaching crisis but when it comes it still shocks. They too will have been lulled into the blinkered landscape of Greg’s self-absorption.

The writing is nuanced, layered and unsettling. The tense of the narrative, the repetition of ‘He’ll say’ as events are recounted, suggests that Greg is to be called to account.

A quietly chilling depiction of what lies just below the surface of an outwardly ordinary and respectable family. A desolate yet riveting read.

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

Book Review: Missing

Missing, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Jessie Noon, a middle aged women living in a Scottish border town who works from home as a literary translator. Jessie has been married twice and has a grown up son. She now lives alone with her cat and dog. She believes her house harbours a ghost. She tries to keep her thoughts and feelings in order by following daily and weekly routines.

Much of the action involves the ordinary: Jessie attends a professional conference, shops for groceries, walks her dog, enters into a new relationship. Throughout there exists an undercurrent of darkness, gaps in the narrative. The sense of unease is palpable.

Interspersed with the contemporary tale are chapters set in 1985 when Jessie was eighteen. Her big sister, Gail, would call on her sibling to mind her five year old daughter, Eleanor. Although sometimes resentful of the expectation that she would help, Jessie was fond of the little girl. She did not always treat her as Gail requested, giving Eleanor cola to drink and making promises she couldn’t keep. Jessie’s relationship with her family is now strained.

At the heart of the tale are the words people use, so often misconstrued causing pain. Jessie struggles to maintain relationships despite her desires and good intentions. She understands how people regard her but cannot change what has been done or said. Others choose to leave or cut contact. Jessie may have moved location but must still find ways to live with herself.

There is a tension in the writing, a disconnect between the personal world Jessie inhabits, the expectations of those she encounters, and her desire to somehow fit in. When a postcard arrives telling her ‘I’m on my way home’ it is unclear who is sending or where home may be. The reader is offered glimpses but the portrayal of Jessie remains elusive. Subliminally she may believe her treatment by others is deserved.

This is a glorious evocation of alienation and misunderstanding. Jessie could be deemed tragic but she is also a survivor. The author has created a masterpiece. A haunting tale of devastating insight and depth.

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

Book Review: You

You, by Phil Whitaker, tells the story of a father whose teenage daughter cut him out of her life after he left her mother. Told in flashbacks as he makes his way across the country to meet her for the first time in seven years, unsure if she will turn up at the rendezvous, it is a tale of inherited hurts and modern manipulation. The premise may sound familiar but its execution soars above similar tales, offering the reader an incisive portrayal of family breakdown and the damage caused by a vindictive parent from a father’s point of view.

Stevie Buchanan now lives in a West Country village but he grew up in the north of England. As he travels to Oxford, where his daughter is studying medicine and the family once lived, he takes her on an imaginary tour of significant places and events from their wider history. In his mind they fly together through time and space to observe her grandparents and parents as children. He wishes her to understand why each of them turned out as they did and how, ultimately, this caused his marriage to fail and her mother to use her children as a means to punish him for not being whatever it was that she needed.

The repercussions of parental actions ripple down through the generations. Parents’ treatment of each other, their attempts to offer what they believe is best for their offspring, perceived favouritism, and the children’s desire for love and to support a parent who is hurting, form a potent mix. The suffering and slights pierce the chrysalis of developing psyches affecting behaviours as the children grow and then become parents themselves.

When Stevie was rejected by his daughter and he came to realise how impotent he was in the face of court orders and social services, he struggled to cope. He joined a support group where other parents in similar circumstances look out for each other. Running through the narrative is a thread on the people he encounters here and their experiences. It makes for sobering reading. These are the parents whose ex-partners wield their children as pawns in their own emotional power plays.

Stevie’s flights with his daughter appear somewhat surreal yet the framework enables the telling of a history that succinctly encompasses the emotional cost of thwarted expectations. Family members and close friends take sides and are sometimes rejected. It is not just the historic damage to his wife that is explained but also Stevie’s reasons for staying as long as he did. Having left, the resulting fallout is better understood alongside the stories of his fellow victims in the support group.

The writing is subtle and concise, causes and reactions vividly expressed without need for lengthy explanations. It is refreshing to read of marriage breakdown from a husband’s point of view, although the focus remains on how the actions of all affect children long term. This is an evocative depiction of family and its reverberations.

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

Book Review: Falling Leaves

“None of the feelings that usually accompanied this transition materialised. I didn’t get the prickly dread at the thought of seeing my mother, or the dull sinking feeling that I was travelling back in time to a place I no longer belonged, that I was getting further and further away from my real life, my world, leaving the present and future behind, that Llangoroth was just a model made out of the past.”

Falling Leaves, by Stefan Mohamed, is a story of time travel. Not of the sort associated with Doctor Who but rather that of aging, and memory, and the pivotal moments in life that are not recognised as such until considered with the benefit of hindsight.

The story opens with a disturbing dream. Twenty-three year old Vanessa, living in London in a gone stale relationship with Stuart, wakes up crying tears of grief yet cannot recall why. She is a graduate and aspiring writer working shifts at a cinema in an attempt to pay her share of the rent. When she tries to write to calm her anxious mind, strange paragraphs flow, vivid and incoherent.

Vanessa contacts her good friend, Alice, but cannot make sense of how she is feeling. Later she has a frightening vision of herself bleeding that quickly disappears. She knows that she has to make changes to her life but baulks at the effort this would entail. She is distracted by a phone call from her beloved Aunt Pauline who is still living in their hometown in Wales. An old friend of Vanessa’s who disappeared without trace seven years ago has turned up on Pauline’s doorstep. Mark looks and dresses exactly as he did when he was sixteen.

Vanessa understands that what Pauline is telling her is impossible but also that she must see for herself this returned boy. When her boss at work will not grant her time off Vanessa quits, pushing aside the future difficulties this will create. Evading Stuart’s questions she travels to Llangoroth, her mind filled with memories of the life she lived with Mark as a teenager. The sense of loss she suffered when he disappeared all but destroyed her, and many of her other relationships.

Pauline, Vanessa and Mark struggle to make sense of the situation so seek answers to some of their questions from Mark’s father. Still traumatised from the secrets and hurt he has been harbouring, his reactions put them in peril. Mark is showing signs of infirmity and Vanessa is still suffering visions. The pair flee to the anonymity of London but in doing so put Stuart and Alice in danger.

It took me some time to connect with the voice of the protagonist. Her language and attitude are that of a contemporary, literate twenty-something year old adult, filled with anger and angst, voicing concern for the future yet often apathetic. Vanessa’s teenage self had indulged in the rave scene and drugs, largely detaching herself from family concerns. Music plays a role, something that may appeal to those with more up to date knowledge than I possess.

As the story unfolds and the tension mounts the tale becomes less about character, becoming more plot driven. It is necessary to indulge the weirder elements in order to enjoy this progression.

Once the scene had been set this became a fast moving and engaging adventure that will appeal to those who enjoyed the author’s Bitter Sixteen trilogy. The exploration of the effects interactions have on others, and of the damage caused by dogmatic beliefs added interest – serious issues are explored in a story that never appears to take itself too seriously.

The style and zest of the prose make this an entertaining, dynamic read.

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

Book Review: The Weaning

The Weaning, by Hannah Vincent, tells the story of a childminder burdened with a terrible history. Bobbi has all the necessary training and certificates. She cherishes the children in her care. She is trying to fill a void in her life with other people’s babies.

The tale opens with an interview. Nikki works in PR, her husband, Rob, is a writer. They want their six month old son, Marcel, to be looked after for a few days each week.

Bobbi quickly settles into their routine. When alone in their home she shows little respect for their privacy or property but grows fond of Marcel. She takes him to the same park where she took her own children when they were young. She daydreams about the boy’s future. A few days a week are not enough to satisfy Bobbi’s need. She will drop everything when Nikki or Rob call on her for help.

At a signing class with Marcel, Bobbi spots a poster asking for child-minding volunteers. A youth worker is running a support group for young people, some of whom have babies. Bobbi applies and, at the first  meeting, is introduced to Kim and Connor. They are being watched by social services who are concerned for the well-being of their little daughter, Jade. To give the young couple some time alone together, Bobbi agrees to babysit.

Back at her flat Bobbi chats to her own children, Lily and Jonny. They are not always receptive. She is also growing closer to a new neighbour, Fox, but worries that her children would disapprove of her being in a relationship. They are difficult enough to communicate with. She will not allow Fox to visit.

Bobbi’s mother is in a care home, her mind drifting away. What is a mother if she cannot be there for her children?

Bobbi seeks an opportunity to bring Marcel and Jade together. Her behaviour is making Nikki wary.

A sense of foreboding permeates the writing. The key elements of Bobbi’s life, which provide its purpose and reason, feel increasingly out of kilter. She makes adjustments others have recommended but is not happy with the changes these bring.

Fox wishes to help Bobbi but believes she must face up to hard truths she has not shared with him. He has been listening to local gossip. In stripping away the scaffolding she has built around her life, her house of cards collapses – the result is devastating.

This book is dark in the best possible way. Even if, as I did, the central tenet is guessed before it is revealed, tension is retained. The denouement packed an unexpected punch. I was momentarily felled.

The writing flows, succinct and penetrating within a structure that perfectly balances compulsive engagement with storytelling. A stunning work that I read in one time forgotten sitting. Highly recommended.

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

Book Review: Nutcase

Nutcase, by Tony Williams, is a retelling of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong. The protagonist is Aidan Wilson, a hard lad born and raised in one of Sheffield’s roughest housing estates. Surrounded by violence and addiction he goes from young trouble maker to convicted criminal to vigilante. His size, strength and willingness to defend family and friends leads him down a road chequered by brutality.

Those living on the estates Aiden roams have low expectations. They deal drugs to make money, steal whatever else they need to use or sell, and get off their faces on alcohol and other drugs at every opportunity. Many of them take on jobs labouring, transporting goods (many stolen), or in the shops and pubs they frequent. Few stick to anything long term. Sex is recreational with babies a byproduct, accepted but with little responsibility.

Aiden is one of five siblings. As they grow up and leave the family home to set up with partners or friends they look out for one another whenever they are able. At times Aiden has his own place to live but there are regular periods when he stays with others for work or to escape trouble. This is accepted practice in his community. There are fallings out and regular fights. Aiden acquires a reputation that is both a threat and a means of survival.

There are girlfriends along the way but they bring their own dramas. When one young girl calls on Aiden to help an abused child he ends up in a situation that will haunt him. As will happen again, the grapevine carries different versions of his involvement. He will struggle to shake off the rumours some delight in spreading.

Aiden moves around the Sheffield and Leeds areas, spends time in prison, moves to Swansea, and gravitates home. He makes enemies, there are deaths, and he is blamed for his apparently uncaring behaviour. Relations of those he thwarts threaten retaliation. Damage to property is a distraction, bodily harm a regular and accepted risk. The violence of the lifestyle is gut-wrenching, the depiction all too believable.

The denouement comes as no surprise with the portrayal offering insight into the attention span and attitudes of the internet age. Few it appears place value on a life that lacks what the middle classes would describe as prospects, especially when that life has been spent recklessly.

The narrative style is almost blasé yet remains jaw droppingly intense. There are occasional asides about the lives minor characters will go on to lead which provide lighter relief. Nevertheless, the majority of what is being depicted remains horrific, especially that it has been normalised throughout the estates. I cannot say if it is realistic but that is certainly how it reads.

I haven’t been as perturbed by a storyline since I read the incredible We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire yet even it has characters who desire a better way of living. Aiden Wilson and his family never seem to consider this a possibility. Given their repeated actions I am guessing this could be a depressingly pragmatic point of view. I am left pondering what it would take to instigate change, if the Aiden Wilsons of our world would even welcome such intervention.

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