Book Review: Flare and Falter

Flare and Falter, by Michael Conley, is a collection of thirty-five short stories which present a somewhat cynical interpretation of man’s reaction to a wide variety of imaginative scenarios. Many are disturbing but all are written with an underlying dark humour. They brought to mind short stories by M. John Harrison but offer more clearly pertinent and piercing insights. They are, in a nutshell, brilliantly written.

The book opens with a memorable first line:

“He wakes to an echoing quack.”

This first story is titled Antidaephobia, a word that I was entertained to discover means “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”. Throughout the narrative is the question of whether the duck exists. As with many tales in the collection what emerges could be interpreted as metaphorical. In trying to avoid a fear, it breeds.

If the beginning of this first story drew me into the collection it was the final line in the second offering, Marked, that had me hooked. The alphabet falls from the sky permanently marking all it lands on. Although at first newsworthy, the world quickly moves on with people accepting change and continuing with their lives. In their lack of curiosity as to what the strange event may mean, what has been missed?

There are many stories that resonate with current events. When It Starts explores the suppression of news, Krill Rations the suppression of freedom.

The God Quetzalcoatl Has Retired and Now Runs a Pub in South Manchester is exactly what it says in the lengthy title. The god settles into life on earth, observing the behaviour of his pub clientele. He registers to vote in an election but then questions the wisdom of the exercise – of democracy itself.

“He doesn’t think much of either main party, but he does notice that the most objectionable people in the pub all seem to belong to the same side, so he registers in order to vote for their opponents. He marks his x with a pencil tied to a piece of string […] He looks at the pencil, the string. How can we be trusted to elect leaders if we can’t be trusted not to walk off with the fucking pencil?”

A number of stories reference the same character – a feared despot – and progress from the point of view of one of his body doubles. Given how many of these tyrants are currently in power around the world it is hard to guess which provided the inspiration.

Other stories explore reactions to beings considered different. Man likes to feel superior. When his position is threatened, violence ensues.

Toddler Ninety-Six is deliciously disturbing. A child in a scientific experiment does not behave as expected, however long they are given. The reaction of those who observe this quiet rebellion is disquieting and believable.

There is a series of stories involving robots which begin with the trope of lifelike and apparently submissive female ‘dolls’. Men may be drawn to violence if faced with an invading army wielding guns and explosives. They become easily overpowered when apparently consequence free sex is made available.

Robots also appear as waitresses, the predictable algorithms under which they operate generating anger from those who resent their presence. In Amok one man enacts a small, angry and futile mutiny when faced with such technology.

In Speed Dating this is taken a step further. People become paranoid about being tricked into dating “one of them”. Is this a necessary step to ensure the continuation of the race or a metaphor for supremacists who resent encroachment by or acceptance of any they deem different and therefore threatening?

The dying of bees is explored with a suggestion that robotic bees – “wound up during the night by poor people” – may be a solution if this serves to benefit senior staff at the Ministry. Bee keepers are regarded as troublesome and therefore expendable.

“Real bees would exist only in poetry.”

Dispatches From the Last Great War of Good vs. Evil questions how to define good and evil. As war progresses, atrocities on both sides increase as each enacts desperate bids for the upper hand, whatever the consequences.

Silence Is Golden depicts an inexplicable cruelty. If such behaviour were not known to happen it would be hard to believe, being senseless and upsetting.

Man’s selfishness is demonstrated to fine effect in All The Little Yous. The world is changed for the better, for all but one person. Those who feel hard done by will not always accept a wider good.

The People looks at the variety and multitude of street protests.

“The only ones who never get involved are the people wearing expensive suits, who remain in their high-rise apartments, silently high-fiving and taking all the most exhilarating drugs.”

There are stories of parents and children, the variations in how they come to regard the other due to perceived selfishness. There are stories of relationships in which casual and disturbing cruelties are accepted because this is now how society operates, whatever disquiet is privately felt.

As for the War ponders how a remote community may be reached when roads are impassable for most of the year.

“nobody has yet been up the mountain to tell the people of the village who to hate and why”

Kraken explores the national reaction when a murderous creature attaches itself to a bridge and feeds on passers by. The eventual solution to the problem is short term. Man’s approach to nature may not be deliberately malevolent but is usually short sighted and focused on the problems of today rather than longer term effects.

Not all the tales deal with such serious subjects. Who Are International Moon Team takes a delightful swipe at music fans who are convinced their knowledge and taste, especially if not pandering to widely enjoyed pop culture, is significant and superior.

Many of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet provide recognisable slices of life while asking apposite questions. Familiar problems and scenarios are presented in weird and wonderful confections. This is a clever, at times twisted, but always entertaining read.

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

Advertisements

Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

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

Book Review: Our Dreams Might Align

Our Dreams Might Align, by Dana Diehl, is a collection of sixteen short stories and the first book to be released by Splice, a new Birmingham based small press. The collection explores the challenges and complexities of relationships along with their inherent loneliness. Descriptions are rich, often dreamlike. Human life is portrayed as a search for hope beyond what is currently being experienced. Lovers feel conflicted when they realise each desires differing outcomes. Parents and children grow apart as they seek paths the other has no wish to traverse.

Astronauts tells the story of a family dealing with its patriarch’s journey to outer space. The mother is left to cope alone with their son while her husband goes adventuring. She misses him yet adapts to his absence. On his return she must accept that this experience will be the pivotal moment of his life. Her hopes and dreams remain shadowed by his legend.

Burn looks at the relationship between two sisters. The younger had wanted to be just like the elder but has been hurt by a lack of perceived loyalty in the past – care for sisterly feelings. In projecting expectations the younger feels let down and seeks signs of regret in her sibling. It is her own needs that have shaped how she regards her sister’s behaviour.

Swarm tells the story of newly weds who move to a remote ranch straight from their wedding. After the excitement and bustle of preparation, the wife must face a future with a husband whose plans may not readily align with her’s. She is now a girl with a boy, the trajectory of her life, the decision she makes, tied to his needs.

“She felt the slope of her life plateau. Getting married had been so easy, everything moving toward it, marriage the next obvious step, no one asking what happened in the after.”

Another Time offers a variety of alternative endings for  the reader to choose from. I enjoyed reading each of these and pondering the directions life can take following an event or decision, often unexpected.

To Date a Time Traveler looks at selfishness in a relationship between two college students. The girl finds the boy interesting and supports his choices and actions, neglecting her friends. It is not long until she realises how little her needs are now being considered as their day to day actions increasingly revolve around him.

The Mother is one of several stories that explores the parent and child relationship, where desired and loved children are born and raised but then gain independence.

“a mother’s body is a house full of rooms that are always being left”

Once He Was a Man takes a wry look at the desire for immortality. A husband buys into a technological promise that his essence will be uploaded into an everlasting beam of light that will travel through infinity. His wife is more sceptical.

“What does a beam of light do all day?”

Going Mean looks at another marriage where the wife feels shackled by her husband’s expectations of her compliance. She looks to the dangerous forest behind their home and ponders the trade-off between safety and freedom.

Loneliness within relationships is a recurring theme. Individuals project their hopes onto loved ones. Expectations of other’s behaviour leads to disillusionment. For reasons unknown there are numerous references to being within the belly of a whale, including one story in which brothers end up there. Wild creatures feature in many of the tales.

The writing is fluid and engaging. Although somewhat bleak, the relationships depicted are recognisable and cleverly presented. These imaginative portrayals were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice – do check out their work:

Website: What is Splice?
Twitter: @thisissplice

Book Review: Chains

Chains: Unheard Voices is an anthology of eleven short stories. It is the first offering from a new independent publisher whose stated aim is:

“to empower writers who have been pushed to the margins by the mainstream”

The tales included here are challenging, poignant, and at times disturbing. The diverse range of voices are quietly resonant.

The collection opens with Epilogue in which a family are trying to cope with an attempted suicide. Although lacking somewhat in depth, the prejudices and concerns of those trying to make sense of what has happened shine through.

Incubus explores the impact of dementia, death, and the effects of illness on the aspirations of a teenager. An inexplicable visitor helps put potential futures in perspective.

There are stories set in the past, present and the future. The impact of bullying, of both adults and children, is approached from differing perspectives, as are prejudices against single mothers and those living in poverty.

Crawl is a particularly powerful piece with its twisted take on foodbanks and the way donors respond to their own supposed beneficence, how they are encouraged to treat those they feed.

Several stories deal with alleged terrorists and miscreants. There are depictions of attempts to dehumanise and the effect on victims. The rule of law is accorded little respect.

Anchor is a chilling tale of the warped outlook of a domestic abuse survivor. They have not perhaps survived in any meaningful sense.

In amongst these challenging subjects is the delightful Help, My Dog Is Isaac Newton which takes a playful look at reincarnation from the point of view of an elderly widower. I enjoyed the protagonists observations on and attitudes to the recent influx of Hindu neighbours.

The final story, Identity, offers a window into the cost of fighting for woman’s suffrage. This follows a tale set in a tinderbox township on the eve of elections. The dangers to women living in different ages yet willing to fight for what they believe in is sobering.

The writing in these stories is fresh and varied, the subjects worth pondering. I have read stronger voices elsewhere, but these deserve to be heard.

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

Book Review: The Dominant Animal

The Dominant Animal, by Kathryn Scanlan, is a collection of thirty-six short stories portraying ordinary if atypical aspects of the lives of fictional Americans. There is a detached and disturbing undercurrent as individuals’ private moments are observed. The raw imagery appears somewhat shocking in our carefully curated and sanitised social world.

A Deformity Story is set during a lunch where friends are gathered in a restaurant and the narrator wishes to share an anecdote. How often in social situations are participants performing to the crowd?

“I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.”

People and the things they interact with are presented as grotesques, as, to conclude, is the behaviour of the friends.

Colonial Revival condenses a life into three pages. A man returns from a war, builds a business and home, marries, has children. The hollowness and futility of what many would aspire to and be admired for is brought to the fore by the lack of emotion. There is kindness and there is death – and time moves inexorably on.

Surroundings are described and, at times, enjoyed but many of the lives are lived without apparent beauty. Humans encountered are disturbing, their distasteful aspects presented unadorned and without obvious recourse. There are moments of horror – one story includes the sexual abuse of a baby – but even the more mundane lack hope of uplifting. And yet, the characters mostly accept their lot. It is, perhaps, this reader who looked for succour.

To give an example, descriptions of foodstuffs are of bagged, wet, congealed, oily concoctions. Taste is rarely mentioned. There appears little desire to create pleasure. The characters are mostly insular and focused on self.

Small Pink Female describes what its narrator considers a typical date.

“I’ve courted in the traditional fashion, of course – coming together on evenings arranged in advance, in the dark, on padded seats, facing the huge brash rectangle, or else in simulated candlelight, knees tucked beneath a drooping white cloth, enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.”

Where is the excitement? the potential for fun?

Salad Days describes a relationship, its beginnings where everything, however ordinary, feels like a prize. Inevitably this cannot last. Dissatisfaction leads to violence.

Within these pages parents dislike their children and children their parents. Couples tolerate derided behaviour and take part in activities they do not enjoy. Those who manage to escape rarely find anything better. In Bait-And-Switch a couple carelessly destroy the comfort they have unexpectedly been granted.

The subjects may appear hollow and dark but there is a breathtaking honesty in the layers of meaning, however challenging this is to absorb. I was left feeling bereft at the humanity presented, yet in awe of the skills apparent in the author’s writing.

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

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: The Book of Havana

“‘What does a woman think about,’ I ask, ‘when she believes nothing and no one can hurt her?'”

So asks one of the male characters in a story from this collection. I pull out this particular quote because many of the stories depict men regarding women only in terms of their own sexual gratification. Acts are, in places, described in vivid detail. The women are ‘taken’, and in ways that they object to, although the writers then portray them as having found it pleasurable. These scenes are a little too close to male fantasy land for my tastes. As anyone who follows my reviews will be aware, I do not wish to encounter graphic sexual imagery in my reading material. I too ponder if women’s thinking would alter if we could be confident of our agency and safety.

Having got that out of the way let’s look at the many positives in this short story collection. It is the latest addition to Comma Press’s A City in Short Fiction series. The ten writers featured belong to different generations so have experienced life in Cuba from different eras.

The book opens with an introduction to the country and its capital city. Over the centuries Cuba has been occupied and had its assets plundered by Spain and, briefly, Britain who introduced slavery as a means of increasing production of goods taken. The wealth generated was then squandered in endless European wars. The revolutionary triumph of 1959 halted international interference although support from the Soviet Union was required following a US embargo. Cuba suffered a lengthy period of deprivation when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. With the ending of the Castro dynasty hope emerged for a better future for the country and its people, quickly dashed with the arrival of Trump.

All of this has had an an effect on the morale and psychology of the people who must continue to live within deteriorating infrastructure. Tourism is one of the few industries unaffected by events of the last few decades but brings with it comparison and discontent. Many residents wish to leave creating difficult relationships with those who stay. Havana has become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.

The stories in the collection offer

“A textual kaleidoscope of different sensitivities, and multiple observation points, hinting at the many layers and complexities developed by Cuban society over the last 30 years”

It opens with Into Tiny Pieces. Set in 1977, this tale offers a picture of a city where neighbours act as spies for the state and lives are lived in fear. A patriotic couple wish to replace their flag, throwing the old one away before the new one is purchased. Such an act is viewed as rebellion and retribution is threatened. The man blames his wife for the difficulties they now face but fears for her safety if he voices such an opinion. Although offering a thought-provoking portrayal of life in Cuba at that time, the ending felt somewhat abrupt.

Love in the Big City tells of a country boy who travels to Havana with no real plans for how he will survive once there. He meets abject characters, and is complicit in his dissipation.

All Because of that Fucking Spanish Kid is an incredible story about a professional killer employed to plant bombs by the CIA. Inspired by watching The Day of the Jackal the killer feels no remorse for his actions, believing he is relieving his victims of a need to live their unhappy lives. The writing is powerful – this is my favourite in the collection.

The Trinity of Havana portrays the endless bureaucracy that ensures people are employed but little gets done in a bloated state system. A women is trying to register her ownership of the home her family have lived in for generations. The procedures she must follow are endlessly detailed and stymied at every turn.

My Night conflates the dreams a newly graduated student has with his lived reality on a night out with a friend. This and the following two stories require the reader to go with the narrative inside the heads of the male protagonists. A degree of sympathy may be evoked given the limitations of their lives but their two dimensional attitudes towards women irritated this reader.

The List was more to my tastes, exploring the impact of emigration on those left behind. I also enjoyed Of Princesses and Dragons which, although depicting a couple, looks at their wider relationship and expectations.

The final story, You’re Leaving Then, chronicles a break-up that the man is struggling to process. He regards what is happening as a defeat. I felt little sympathy.

These tales provide a picture of life in a country that has endured isolation and hardship. Reading it as a British woman I am aware that the criticisms I make may be a result of failure to empathise with cultural differences and the lack of progress in Cuban personal attitudes as well as opportunity. The writing is authentic and often bold, the protagonists desires and difficulties honestly portrayed. I would have preferred more from a female perspective, how they feel about the way men view them, but the struggles chronicled focus on aspiration in a place where choices are limited and pleasures are sought as a balm. The selfishly portrayed sexual attitudes may be, depressingly, tenable.

One of the aims of this series is to offer the reader a better understanding of a city from the point of view of its residents. In this the book succeeds. Given my reaction to what I have learned I feel no desire to visit Havana. The stories were educative but I found them dispiriting.

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