Book Review: Quartier Perdu

Quartier Perdu, by Sean O’Brien, is a collection of eighteen short stories. Many play on the suppressed fears of academics and writers – their desire for acclaim and to build a creative legacy. From within the rich, dark undercurrents much humour percolates. The author touches lightly on jealousies and ego yet gets to the heart of a quiet desperation. Those who regard themselves as successful bask in the company of:

“others wearing a thin blanket of carefully nursed resentment at their unsuccess”

The themes are vivid, often surreal. There is violence in association.

The collection opens with a story about an unbalanced relationship. Set in London during the Second World War, two young women employed by the BBC are vying for the attention of a colleague. In an attempt to gain the upper hand Vicky declares she has had enough and is going home, expecting Ray to accompany her. She ends up leaving alone. Unsure of her bearings she gets caught up in an air raid. Escaping underground she meets a ferryman. Their journey is cathartic.

The Sea-God is set in a remote, Greek bay at the end of the holiday season. A creative writing tutor has completed his contractual obligations and is enjoying a few days holiday. He is aware that, after close to twenty years, his star is on the wane.

“he and the public had begun to grow bored with his work, but readers of thrillers were a loyal bunch and would not wholly desert him for a while yet. After all, they had worked their way into their fifties with his books reliably to hand every summer. Why change now?”

Finding a journal in a drawer by his bedside he starts to translate the German text. His dreams become more vivid; his hosts pay him more attention. When a storm blows in he finds himself trapped in what many would regard as an idyll. He struggles to understand if what is happening to him can be real.

Several of the stories rely on drug taking to blur the edges between fear and reality. These drugs may be recreational, sinister, or administered by medical practitioners. There are those claiming to want to help. The protagonists struggle to retain control of their own minds and to convince others of their right to agency despite observed behaviour.

The legacy of dead writers is shown to be deeply personal and affecting. Quartier Perdu sees a young academic drawn into the dark world of the writer she has chosen to study for her PhD. Revenant explores the impact on a writer who believes he was the subject of another’s famous work.

Libraries feature in several of the stories. In The Good Stuff an academic is tasked with going through the meticulously maintained back catalogue of a recently deceased, prolific and popular author – one he does not regard as of much literary merit – to judge what should be bid for by his university. He discovers a sinister deal, one that could have ongoing consequences which would be hard to explain.

Ex Libris is a delicious dig at critics. A wealthy author takes exception to published views on his work and seeks vengeance.

Keeping Count is another tale of revenge. A self satisfied, aging poet agrees to be Master of Ceremonies at the interment of a supposed friend’s ashes.

“Of course, there was really nobody else to fill the role. He had gravitas, and he could still speak in sentences.”

As he muses on his plan to bed the widow he comes to realise that she has her own agenda.

A Green Shade is a wonderful satire on the modernisation of institutions of tertiary education. A new Head of Department, Todd, is using concerns over Health and Safety to cancel the long-standing tradition of an annual play. A retiring professor – whose Chair in Renaissance Studies will not be replaced – plans a swansong with the help of other discarded staff members who understand the true value of education.

“Todd’s Mission Vision, or whatever he was calling it, was of a merger with Media and Communications. ‘Let’s make English useful again!’ was his motto.”

An ancient play is resurrected and performed literally.

The final story, The Aspen Grove, introduces a writer in retirement who has settled in a quiet English backwater where he is trying to write a novel no one is pushing him for.

“People knew he wrote. He was said to have been working on a book for some years. Faced with his impermeable politeness on the topic, people had given up telling him that if they too had time on their hands like him they would also write books.”

Observing the habits of the locals living around him he misunderstands what actions are acceptable and suffers the consequences.

The writing in this collection is witty and at times piercing but always compelling. By blurring the edges of what may be defined as an individual’s reality, many ideas and their impact are touched upon. Carefully crafted to tell a story with penetrating understatement, this was an entertaining if occasionally sardonic read.

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

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Book Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, is a collection of nine short stories, some of which are standalone and others interlinked. It opens with a triptych involving the writer of a highly successful fantasy series and her one time boyfriend who became a moderately successful poet. The jealousies and elitism of the literary world feature. There is desire for recognition and esteem but also commercial success.

Throughout the collection the protagonists are mostly elderly, looking back over their lives with a degree of regret. It is refreshing to have older people portrayed fully rounded – as more than a stereotype or the first impression they give.

The first story is Alphinland in which Constance is mourning the recent death of her husband, Ewan. An ice storm is blowing in and, for the first time, she must deal with the practicalities of the event herself. She still hears Ewan talk to her, offering advice that is prescient. Constance welcomes this interaction. When alive Ewan had been supportive if somewhat condescending of her achievements. She is a prolific author whose books have been developed on multiple media including a popular on line game. Despite its success, her work has long been derided by the literary establishment. Ewan struggled to take what she did seriously. Constance used it as a means of escape and a way to punish those who hurt her, including the woman she blames for the break up of her first serious relationship with a poet who regarded his own work as far superior.

The second story, Revenant, introduces the reader to Gavin and his much younger third wife, Reynolds. Gavin is bored and frustrated by the way she now treats him – like ‘a dysfunctional pet’. He believes women should ‘labour to be beautiful’, and hankers back to the years when they did so and then fell for his charms, accepting the inevitability of his advances even when forced. He is also frustrated that the poems he now writes are past their best. When a young student arranges to interview him he behaves badly – mainly because it is not his work that is the focus of her research.

The final story in the triptych is Dark Lady in which Jorrie indulges her fixation with other people’s deaths. She lives with her twin brother, Tin, who does his best to steer her wilder impulses away from appearing foolish to a casually critical public audience. When Jorrie spots that an old boyfriend, Gavin Putnam, has died she wishes to attend the funeral. Tin reluctantly agrees to accompany her. It proves an enlightening experience as adversaries come together and long held misconceptions are aired.

Lusus Naturae tells the tale of a child who contracts an illness that turns her into a monster. Aware that having such a being in the family will adversely affect her sister’s future prospects the family fake the monster child’s death. She must then live her life out of sight, something she is content to do. Over time, however, this proves a lonely existence. A quest for a mate puts her in deadly danger.

The Freeze Dried Groom offers up another man who feels frustrated that he cannot indulge his desires for the personal attention of beautiful and compliant women. Sam owns an antique shop, buying the contents of storage units as a means of sourcing stock. He also has a sideline. On the day his wife asks him to leave he finds more than he bargained for inside a newly purchased unit. The prospect of risk with potential reward proves hard to resist.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from the author’s novel The Robber Bride. Elderly friends are concerned when an old flame makes a move on the gullible Charis, worrying that he has his eye on her recent inheritance. They had persuaded her to get a dog in the hope it would offer protection. They come to believe that the dog may be more wily than expected.

The Dead Hand Loves You is another tale of a successful writer affected throughout his long life by actions during his college years. Jack Dace is still best known for his first work, a horror story that was subsequently adapted for film. He has never felt quite comfortable with the literary worth of the novel that has provided his wealth, and how he is therefore perceived by those he wishes to impress. He is also resentful that the housemates he had while writing the book have benefited from his material success. He sets out to avenge what he regards as their unfair exploitation.

Stone Mattress is the tale of a serial killer – a woman who has made her fortune by seeking out wealthy but unwell husbands and then bringing about their deaths. Set on an arctic expedition, it was written when the author was on such an adventure as a way of entertaining fellow passengers with a story of how to murder one of their number without getting caught. It is a tale of revenge.

The collection is rounded off with Torching the Dusties, a troubling exploration of what could happen if young people grew so angry with the wealthy elderly, who they blame for making their world so bleak, that they decide to forcibly end their lives. Set in an upmarket care home, the secluded environment is put under siege when protesters cut off supplies and remove staff. The residents rally, but outside the protest is gaining support and momentum.

As may be expected from Margaret Atwood, these stories are skilfully written with many touching but also piercing asides. There is humour and wit, especially around the frustrated entitlement felt by certain men, and the literati. Although I prefer the development and depth of her longer works there is much here that can be dipped into and enjoyed. A well polished, engaging and worthwhile read.

Stone Mattress is published by Bloomsbury.

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.

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.