Reviews galore (including "Punk Fiction", "What Becomes" and "One More Year")

(Galore is a good word, I haven’t used it for ages I don’t think. I like it. Say it aloud – “galore”, it sounds nice.)

Anyway I have a bunch of reviews online and thought I’d link to them in case anyone fancies a read.

WBQ is now available online as well as in print, and I have a few brief reviews there of (amongst others) Sana Krasikov’s “One More Year”, A.L Kennedy’s “What Becomes” and Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Story of a Marriage”. Clicky here.

The July edition of The Short Review is now live. I reviewed “Punk Fiction” for them.

Bang Crunch by Neil Smith

The collection opens with Isolettes and the arresting line 

Blue tube, green tube, clear tube, fat tube.

However, perhaps the author is not sure enough either of his own voice, or of the reader’s ability to get it, so follows up with A Dr Seuss rhyme. Yes, thanks, got that. Never mind, he continues with an image of a premature baby that is so entirely unexpected and yet spot on, that I was astonished. That is just the opening page. 

There is so much here, sometimes too much. The text of Isolettes is thick with puns: 

Nick U Nick off 

The pent-up suite 

If marriage is an institution married people should be institutionalised. 

Pushing through though is a tender understanding for character that gives heart to this and the majority of the other stories. 

Green fluorescent protein is a bittersweet tale about a 17-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexuality. At home his alcoholic mother talks to the ashes of his dead father, at play Ruby-Doo, the skinny bookish science fan he befriends, confuses his feelings. There are more of Smith s accurate descriptions: 

…Ruby-Doo does the fake crowd roar – the hushed wahhhh – I taught him. 

These are people that we meet again in Funny weird or funny ha ha? and whilst I am a huge fan of the short story form it felt like there was such warmth and depth to this trio of unusual characters that I would welcome reading a novel about them. The B9ers are a support group for people who have had benign tumours. Bang Crunch is the story of the extraordinary Eepie Carpetrod, whose rare syndrome makes her live her life in fast forward, aging rapidly, racing towards death. 

Occasionally it seemed to me that Smith thought of a witty phrase and then wrote a paragraph around it.Extremities is an idea that failed in my opinion as he writes of gloves that yearn for a particular hand, and a talking foot. 

The last story, Jaybird is also the longest. It centres on a group of Montreal-based actors. Benoit Doré, a man whose “…laid-back look was a lie. His mussed-up hair came courtesy of a mud putty that had set him back twelve bucks”, mentors a woman who works at an agency looking after actors’ interests, and she uses the opportunity to take revenge on her clients. The story twists nastily along and I read, wincing. At the end though, there is much needed possibility and hope. Like so many collections, the quality is up and down according to the strength of individual stories, but this is a good introduction to Neil Smith, and I look forward to reading more of him.

(I wrote this piece for The Short Review)

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction by Alison MacLeod

I realise that I didn’t post this review when it was first published at The Short Review, so here it is now!

These are indeed fifteen modern tales of attraction in which MacLeod relates stories of love, electricity, hearts, and death. Here is an author unafraid to push at the shape of what a story can be, what it can say.

Some of the stories are surreal and startling, the characters revealing unusual desires. It is because of the author’s skill that we accept the strange urges: Nineteen-year-old Naomi wants to have sex with a dead man in Sacred heart, and she is utterly believable. Gloria craves both electric shock therapy and the doctor who administers it in Live Wire.

Nina ponders her knowledge of penises and describes them thus: “…primitive life forms: single-celled creatures who live, blind and unpigmented, in the pools of caves, sluggishly longing for transformation.” She is very aware of the effect that she has on all males, including her friend’s young son.

Rosie’s tongue is playful and wordy, E-Love: Heloise and Abelard offers up email exchanges between the lovers. It is excellent to see such experimentation with form, and yet it leads to a slightly choppy feel to the collection. Personally I found two stand-out stories to be two of the most conventionally told. They were written with such brilliant illumination, and were both extraordinarily moving. The first is So that the land was darkened, where we witness a relationship over six years, glimpsed in three parts that reveal everything to make this a living, breathing, love affair. I won’t say more for fear of ruining it for you, but I found it powerful and resonant.

Dirty weekend explores a relationship in two parts, one where both characters are full of life and lust, and the other, a couple of years later, with one of them dying as they make a last attempt at a traditional smutty weekend break in Brighton. Even when dealing with such subjects MacLeod never resorts to sentimentality or saccharine.

Oh, and don’t be put off by the cover, it doesn’t do justice to the intelligent and provocative work within!

The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith

A new edition of The Short Review is now up, and includes my review of The Book of Other People.

Zadie Smith has persuaded an impressive roster of writers to respond to her remit to “create a character”, and their names alone should encourage plenty of people to buy this collection.

The book opens with the disappointing Judith Castle by David Mitchell. I am unsure if this was a deliberate pastiche of one of those women’s magazine twist-in-the-tale stories, but it is an obvious and clichéd story about a deluded middle class, middle aged caricature of a woman who has been informed of her lover’s death. Jordan Wellington Lint by Chris Ware unexpectedly moved me. This is one of the two graphic stories, and the illustrations and text combine to produce a heartbreaking portrait of a boy up to the age of 13.

A.L Kennedy’s Frank is typically well written. This story of a broken man has depth and emotion thanks to Kennedy’s attention to detail that adds layer to layer and makes Frank “real.” Hari Kunzru paints a vibrant picture of Magda Mandela. She stands in her lime-green thong shouting on her boyfriends’ doorstep, worrying the neighbours, singing and threatening. “I HAVE A CONDOM. LINE UP. I AM READY.”

Somewhat surprisingly in a book of characters, both Toby Litt and Dave Eggers chose to write about a monster. Both were well written, but neither made much of an impression on this reader. Miranda July writes a tender story of lost opportunity realized too late in Roy Spivey. Spivey, a Hollywood heart-throb who the narrator finds herself sitting next to on a flight, gives her his phone number.

“I felt warm and simple. Nothing bad could ever happen to me while I was holding hands with him, and when he let go I would have the number that ended in four. I’d wanted a number like that my whole life.”

Colm Toibin writes a beautiful mournful story, Donal Webster. Andrew Sean Greer succeeds in capturing a child’s imagination in Newton Wicks. Some stories I read with a “so what?” shrug. Reading taste is subjective, everyone will have his or her own favourites and least liked. My own highlight was Puppy by George Saunders. To be honest I thought he was a writer that I did not “get”, but in this dreadful aching story I was both absorbed and horrified. The two central characters remain with me, and how I wish I could change the outcome. I will definitely explore more of his work.

This book serves as a showcase that will bring new readers to some of these authors and is varied enough that there really will be something for everyone. It is a pity that it seems as if some writers dashed off a character study rather than stopping to create fully rounded stories, but the good ones shine out.