Category Archives: Short stories

I wondered if you could ever rely on someone who makes their living selling fizzy drinks door to door.

I Stole the Rain, by Elisa Ruotolo and translated by Lisa McCreadle

Originally I was writing this up for an (overdue) August round-up post, but this was an unexpectedly good read and I think it deserves better than that. So, here’s a short post just on this.

I Stole the Rain is an ebook only short story collection published by Frisch & Co, who I think are now defunct but who specialised in translated European fiction.

Ruotolo is new to me and doesn’t seem to have much else in print in English. On the strength of the three stories here that’s rather a shame. Although short, I thought this one of the better short story collections I’ve read this year and the common setting – Campania in Southern Italy – adds to the interest.

The first, I am Super Legend, is about a young man who becomes a champion of the local village football league. He gets talent spotted for regional training, but can he adapt to the demands of the real game as opposed to the local variant he’s been used to?

The Black Eagles were a football team. Our team. Except it wasn’t signed up for any kind of tournament. It didn’t follow rules on transfers, first and second legs. As far as it was concerned there were no friendlies, half-times, or league tables. There was no nothing. Only a dirt pitch – nobody knew where it started and where it ended, it was all bumps and gravel, and if you fell on it, your knees would never be the same again – and two posts without a net that were put back up by a carpenter every time they fell down.

I have absolutely no interest in football. I never have had. Even so, I thought this just a blisteringly good story. Well written, evocative, and powerful. It leaves as many questions as it answers, as many of the best stories do.

The next, The Child Comes Home, is about an elderly woman forced by circumstance to take up her grandmother Candida’s old profession of buying gold under the counter in Naples and selling it illegally. In part it’s an exploration of the compromises forced on us by time, which makes it sound bleak save that it really isn’t.

The jewelers’ district had changed a bit, particularly the faces, and in the  shops now it was easy to find the grandchildren, the employees, the new owners where someone had left. Only one place had stayed exactly the same, down to the tiniest detail, and an old man in a wheelchair, when he heard the name Candida, had turned around and asked what had become of her. The truth, obvious to many, had made him cry.

To add to that potential bleakness there’s the fact that the woman’s only son went missing as a child, leaving her bereft and leading to her husband walking out unable to cope with the aftermath. In a marvellous line she reflects on that disappearance having split her life “in two like an old fruit which falls to the ground when the season is over”.

The years passed and she slowly built up a new life for herself – a small life, but her own. Then a young man turns up at her door…

All this could be quite desolate, but it’s balanced with a quiet late-life romance she finds with an equally elderly man with a pacemaker and his own losses and late-night worries. I thought it all rather lovely.

The third story, Look at Me, was my least favourite. I suspect in another collection it would have seemed stronger, but after Super and Child it had a fair bit to live up to. It may be worth noting that the review in Words without Borders in contrast thought this the strongest.

A man looks back on his childhood, and remembers his father’s only friend, Cesare. Cesare was a big man, clumsy, socially awkward and with a speech defect that left him mute. He was also desperately lonely and his few attempts at dates were inevitable disasters.

Then Cesare fell in love with the housekeeper, Silvia, and lacking spoken words he wrote to her. The narrator, then a boy, found the letter and replied on her behalf. And with that was born a romance which meant everything to Cesare, and which Silvia was quite unaware of. I won’t say more.

This is a small book from a small publisher and it has no physical release. I don’t think it’s had that much attention – it’s simply very easy to miss. So, I can’t promise that anyone reading this would like the collection as much as I did, but I do think it at least merits taking a look at just in case you do.

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Filed under Italian fiction, Naples, Ruotolo, Elisa, Short stories

I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs.

It’s been a little while since my last update. I’ve had holiday (Bologna, always lovely) and started a new job (Cabinet Office, fascinating). Between all that I’ve not really had a lot of spare time.

Even so, with the time off between jobs and my holiday July ended up being a fairly reading-heavy month. Ten books! Some short I admit, some very short in fact, but still, ten!

Here they are.

The Gigolo, by Francoise Sagan and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

This is one of those little Penguin pocket editions – a handful of Sagan shorts. Sagan is always enjoyable and this was no exception.

The title story is about an aging woman’s relationship with her younger lover. He loves her, she pays his rent. It’s a nicely observed little tale about the clash between society’s expectations and private emotions.

The second tale is about a wife who returns home early from a trip to find signs that her seemingly trustworthy husband may be having an affair. There’s a sting in the tale, which I guessed early, but it’s still well written and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

For the past ten years, she had talked about pot plants, gardenias, verandahs and lawns, and for the past ten years David had said nothing in reply.

Lastly there’s a tale about a dying man being comforted by his wife as he thinks about past affairs. I had actually completely forgotten that one and the description comes from Amazon, so probably not the strongest of the three…

Anyway, it’s a fun little collection and perfect for popping into a pocket on a summer’s day.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

This is the last of Leckie’s space operatic trilogy. I talked about the first two here and here. If you’ve read number two and liked it, you’ll like this. If you haven’t, you probably won’t. I thought it brought it all together pretty well and left the right amount unresolved (I hate overly neat endings).

I don’t know if the trilogy is a future classic – space opera can age badly quite quickly – but I think it at least has potential to be. This is proper old-fashioned widescreen SF, but with a modern feel to it and good characters, setting and story.

The Beautiful Summer, by Cesare Pavese, unknown translator

Penguin doesn’t identify the translator for this as best I can tell, which I think is pretty shabby.

Ginia is a sixteen year-old in Fascist Italy, caught between the fading ties of childhood and the daunting allure of the adult world – or at least what adolescents think is the adult world (more sex, bars and late night conversations; less early alarms, work deadlines and crying children).

She becomes involved through a friend with an artist who the reader can plainly tell just isn’t as in to her as she is to him. Pavese captures brilliantly and with sympathy her conflicting emotions – on one side her desire to do what pleases the artist and to become part of his world; on the other her fear of the consequences and her growing sense of self and of her own life.

I read this while out in Italy and it is pretty much a perfect summer read. Cleanly written and plotted. Nothing happens here that will surprise you but as with Sagan it’s very much about the emotions of the journey rather than the destination.

My only criticism is that I do wonder how much it will stay in memory. Sagan still feels sharp to me, but I don’t have a sense yet whether this will in say a month’s time.

Finally, I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of any female readers who’ve tried this. It’s written by a man and I think the reviews I’ve read are also by men, but it’s about female experience and I did wonder if it was a slightly anodyne, idealised, version of that experience. There’s none of the intensity or desire one finds in say Duras. Does it get it right?

Grant also wrote about this here, and I think others have too so views and links welcome in the comments.

The Red Tenda of Bologna, by John Berger

This is another pocket Penguin. Here it’s a typically well written sort-of-memoir by John Berger. A short meditation on memory triggered by familiar locations. It’s slight, and honestly I’ve already largely forgotten it, but I do remember enjoying it while reading it. An ice cream of a book – it may not last but it’s enjoyable at the time in the heat.

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

This is a sort of non-fiction precursor to Szerb’s marvellous Journey by Moonlight. A tired and troubled Szerb holidays in Fascist Italy for what he’s very aware is likely the last time (and I think it really was his last time).

He experiences crowded sites, bad rooms, stultifying heat and the rising tide of fascism about him. It’s slight but the sense that Szerb’s world, the civilised world, is being overrun gives it a certain power and makes it regrettably timely.

I arrived at a bad moment. It was Ferragosto, the 15th of August, and to cap it all there were outdoor games in the Arena for which the whole of Italy had turned up, travelling on spectacularly discounted tickets. In the city you no sooner worked your way past one Italian tourist than you bumped into another. It was like being in Salzburg – a cut-price, petty-bourgeois, Fascist Salzburg.

There’s a lovely coda to it all about the importance of carving out a place for yourself in an increasingly maddened and hostile world. Szerb, a bookish intellectual, saw no place for himself in a Europe dominated by extremists, ultra-nationalists and a rising tide of unreason. So he had to make a place, however fleeting, however fragile.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Next up was some distinctly gloomy hard-SF. In this novel a spaceship spirals through the galaxy creating wormholes for a humanity that may long since have gone extinct. Members of the crew are only woken for the more difficult jobs, a handful only each time, and because their ship must travel slower than light that means tens of thousands of years pass between each job.

The ship travels on, now tens of millions of years from its original launch. In all that time nobody’s got in touch, nobody’s said thanks or come home. If humanity still exists it must surely be nothing like the people who launched the mission all those years ago. Utterly transformed; alien.

Some of the crew now want to bring the mission to an end, find some new purpose, but how do you mount a revolt against a permanently awake shipboard AI when the conspirators are separated by millennia of frozen sleep?

I liked this, but it eventually becomes apparent it’s intended to be part of a series, which I hadn’t realised. The result is that it doesn’t really have that satisfying an ending, leaving lots open for the next book. Still, I’ll read that next book and the ideas are interesting.

There are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry

This was, I believe, Barry’s first published short story collection. I’ve previously written about his marvellous City of Bohane here and a bit about his equally marvellous short story collection Dark Lies the Island here.

For me, Kingdoms wasn’t as strong as Island, but then nor should it be – it came earlier and he’s developed as a writer since. Island has a powerful sense of place as you’d expect from Barry, and he persuasively captures the lives of Ireland’s lost and lonely.

Barry’s taste for the occasional grotesquerie shows more here than in Island, where that element is present but used more sparingly and to better effect. The dark humour I’ve grown to expect from Barry shows here and is as enjoyable as ever.

Ultimately though, when I came to write this I realised that every story I remembered clearly came from Island, not Kingdoms. If I hadn’t read Island I suspect this would have blown me away. As it is, it’s clear that I read Barry in the wrong order and for me Island is simply the better collection.

The Weird and the Eerie, by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher was a cultural commentator who wrote a number of highly regarded essays including his excellent Capitalist Realism. Here he examines what he argues are two different horror traditions, I’ll let you guess what he calls them…

The weird here is horror that comes from the intrusion of the other into the ordinary (I’m simplifying heavily here). It is something present that should be absent, perhaps which shouldn’t be at all.

The eerie by contrast is the absence of that which ought to be there. For example, the sound of a woman crying but heard from an empty room. However, Fisher also cites “failure of absence” as a manifestation of the eerie – something present where nothing should be present, which seems awfully close to the weird on this taxonomy.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t remotely persuaded that these genuinely are two different traditions in horror fiction and film. Rather, this seemed to me a canter through a bunch of books, TV shows and films that Fisher grew up with and loved (and fair enough, I grew up with them and loved them too), and which he then hung a post-hoc critical framework on. I thought many of his examples of one form could easily have been used for the other and the entire distinction felt artificial, and worse, not useful.

Driven, by James Sallis

This is the wholly unnecessary sequel to Drive, in which Driver turns out to be as good at unarmed combat as he is at driving. Years after the first book he finds himself being hunted by professional thugs and hit-men. He effortlessly kills them all with his bare hands and turns the tables to hunt down the hunters. I found it unconvincing and a bit silly.

Childless, by Ignát Hermann and translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick

This novella is part of a series of short classics being published on Kindle. One of the better things about that platform is the ease with which it allows publishers to release books that might not be profitable enough to merit a full hardcopy release.

Here it’s the tale of a successful and happily married banker whose life lacks lacks the one thing he feels would give it meaning – a child. Then he reads a personal letter of his wife’s and everything changes…

That makes it sound potentially rather dark and usually these sorts of stories are, but what’s unusual here is that it’s a story of basically good people who’ve caused pain more through failure to trust than through desire.

Unfortunately, the kindle copy did have a fair few typographical errors, but even so it’s definitely worth a read. David Hebblethwaite wrote about it a bit more here.

The Four Devils, by Herman Bang and translated by Marie Ottillie Heyl

This was my last book of the month and is another of those short classics on Kindle. Here it’s the story of four trapeze artists whose tight-knit world is thrown into a tangle of resentment and desire when one of them begins an affair with a local noblewoman.

It’s well written, deeply physical (as you’d expect given their profession) and has a sense of inevitability as compelling as a trapeze artist’s leap across the void. It costs literally less than a cup of coffee and if the Kindle form factor isn’t a problem for you I strongly recommend it. It also doesn’t have the typographical issues that Childless did. David Hebblethwaite wrote about this too, here.

And that’s it! A packed month in terms of reading and in terms of life too. Hopefully soon I can catch up on what others have been reading and some of the posts I’ve missed over the past few weeks.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Berger, John, Czech fiction, Danish fiction, Fisher, Mark, French, Irish fiction, Leckie, Ann, Pavese, Cesare, Sagan, Françoise, Sallis, James, SF, Short stories, Szerb, Antal, Travel writing

My name is Frances Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.

April roundup

This is hopefully the last of my roundup posts for a  while – after this I hope to go back to the more usual single-book posts. April saw me busy again at work with a closing while at the same time preparing to resign so that I could move on. That meant I focused on books that would help distract me. Here’s my April reading:

Tower, by Ken Bruen and RF Coleman

This is a classic cinematic tale of two friends who fall into a life of crime and find themselves on opposite sides. Nick is a hard-bitten hard-drinking Irish-American. His best friend Todd is colder, more calculating, and Jewish. Ethnicity matters in the New York criminal underworld (and in most underworlds for that matter) and while both of them end up working for Irish-American gangster Boyle it’s Nick that becomes Boyle’s favourite.

What follows is a twisted tale that opens with the killing of Boyle’s vicious ex-IRA right-hand man Griffin then backtracks to how everyone got there. We first see Nick’s view on events and then the same events from Todd’s very different perspective. Along the way you see their friendship stretched and tested.

Technically it’s very well done. You can’t see the joins between the two writers and the story rattles along at a hell of a clip. The problem for me was that there’s a thin line between classic and cliché and for me it fell a bit on the wrong side of the divide. Perhaps it’s because I don’t entirely understand this odd romanticising of Irish-Americans that seems so prevalent in the US (though the book to its credit does touch on the point that most of these proud Irish-Americans have never actually been to Ireland).

It’s fast moving, brutal and has solid if broad characterisation. I think a lot of readers would love it but it wasn’t quite me. Guy’s more positive review is here.

Laura, by Vera Caspary

Onto another Guy recommendation, but this time a much better match for me. Laura is an interesting noir tale about a detective investigating the murder of a New York ad executive and well-known party girl. As he does so it becomes apparent that he’s falling in love with her, or at least with his idea of who she was.

There’s a wonderful cast, many of whom get chapters from their point of view. Laura’s best friend, Lydecker, is a fat and rather effete newspaper columnist who prides himself on having taken the small-town girl Laura once was and making her the in-demand socialite she was when she died. He’s a fun character: arch, self-satisfied, prissy but always intelligent. The question is, does he have his own agenda?

The detective,  Mark McPherson, is straight from the hardboiled school of fiction. He’s a man’s man, straight-shooting and straight-talking, but he’s the only one in this world who is. Laura’s intended, Shelby, is good looking and ambitious but was he only with Laura for her money? Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell, is highly-strung and at first seems fragile but McPherson soon discovers that she’s absolute poison.

Motives multiply and the facts increasingly don’t add up. Laura’s movements on the night of her death don’t make sense and everyone seems to be lying. Just with that this would be a great mystery, but it’s also a great character study as Laura emerges from the confusion as a woman making her own way without children or husband or  compromise.

I’ve barely touched on the plot and that’s intentional – while I guessed the ending there was plenty I didn’t guess along the way and if you haven’t seen either of the films (I haven’t) it’s best to come to this unspoiled. Highly recommended.

Guy’s review is here. The cover above isn’t the one I have by the way, I just thought it very good and that it captured the book better than most I saw.

Black Wings has my Angel, by Elliot Chaze

This has got a lot of attention of late due to an NYRB release. I read it as part of a double-ebook edition with Chaze’s One is a Lonely Number, which I slightly preferred to Angel.

That’s not to say that Angel isn’t good. It’s absolutely solid noir with an escaped convict (Tim Sunblade) planning one last big job with a high-class hooker (Virginia) that he met on the road. They’re both deadly and while they may, maybe, come to love each other neither can trust the other an inch.

Chaze does something interesting here in having the whole novel written by Tim Sunblade with the benefit of hindsight. That allows Chaze from time to time to drop in ominous hints which make it quite clear in broad terms what happens to the characters, just not how or why. For most of the book they spend so much energy trying to rip each other off and even trying to kill each other that you start to wonder how anyone will make it to the end.

It’s a truly excellent noir with great characterisation and plotting. I only slightly prefer Lonely as this one depends a little on some bad luck, whereas in Lonely I felt everything that happened came clearly from the character’s choices. Still, that’s a quibble and both are excellent.

Jacqui’s rather good review from JacquiWine’s Blog is here.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the leading hard SF authors around. I used to be a massive fan but got out of the habit somehow. I picked this one up as it’s actually two separate novellas and shorter than his usual 400-page-plus megatomes (for all I love the genre, SF really does measure books by the yard).

Diamond Dogs is a story about an attempt by a team of mercenaries to explore a strange alien tower on a dead planet. The tower sets increasingly complex mathematical puzzles in each room – solve them and you get to go deeper into the tower; fail and the results are bloody and as time goes on lethal.

As setups go it’s not particularly original and Reynolds plainly knows that, but it is well done. The story is more about obsession and what the various characters are prepared to do to progress, even though the benefits of doing so are unclear at best and increasingly look like they may be non-existent. Here the SF element matters as it allows the mercenaries to adapt themselves as they go further into the tower – replacing lost limbs with cybernetic replacements; augmenting their brains by altering their cognition to boost mathematical ability at the expense of less immediately useful traits. As the story draws to its close it’s questionable whether those remaining are even meaningfully human anymore.

Diamond Dogs reminded me of why I used to like Reynolds so much. It’s solid high-concept SF and led me quickly onto Turqoise Days. Here scholars on a remote planet investigate a Solaris-like ocean/lifeform. Things get literally and figuratively stirred up when for the first time in over a hundred years a spaceship comes from another solar system. The question is, why has the ship come and do its passengers have ulterior motives for visiting such an out-of-the-way colony?

Reynolds tells his story through one particular character who’s lost her higher-achieving sister in an incident on the ocean surface, but who hopes/dreams that her sister may in some sense still be alive as part of the alien organism. Reynolds therefore mixes in issues of sibling rivalry with exploration of alien biomes and again questions of what it means to be human. It’s top stuff, though it’s also again proper hard SF so if you’re not already into the genre I think it would be a tough read.

The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross

By this point I was mid-closing so I tried another of Stross’s Laundry novels for light relief. This is actually one of the better regarded in the sequence as best I can tell (or at least is seen as a solid entry), but I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The problem wasn’t so much the book as that I’d read another from the same series literally less than a month before. Stross doesn’t assume the reader has read that previous book so there’s summaries of what happened (which are annoying if you’ve just read it) and the humour is very similar which is fine if spaced out but a bit samey if taken too quickly in succession.

The story here focuses on a team of quantitative analysts who are infected with vampirism and used as tools in an ancient conflict between two much older vampires. It’s better and cleverer than it sounds when summarised like that, but I just shouldn’t have read it so soon after the previous one.

I do plan to continue with the series, but probably not until much later this year or more likely 2019 or so.

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

April was arguably my Guy Savage reading month. After the Stross I wanted something a bit more purely literary and thought it time to try one of the Brookner’s Guy’s been recommending of late.

Look at Me is from the 1980s and features a slightly shy young woman Frances who works in a medical library. She falls in with one of the doctors who use the library, the effortlessly charming Nick Fraser, and with his wife Alix.

Nick and Alix are a golden couple and their life is one of endless meals out and high-spirited friends and drama and excitement. Frances, who Nick and Alix immediately start calling Fanny, is too inexperienced to see quite how shallow Nick is or quite how selfish Alix.

Everyone here is well drawn and there are some tremendous set-piece scenes, from an early dinner out with Nick and Alix where Fanny is plunged breathlessly into the dazzle of their lives to much later in the book an absolutely devastating Christmas visit by Fanny to retired librarian Mrs Morpeth. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Brookner can write, but all the same she definitely can.

I was less persuaded by Fanny as a character, mostly as I just didn’t believe her voice was that of a twenty-something year old. She felt middle aged to me, perhaps slightly older, and while there are good reasons in the book why she is so staid and so quiet it still didn’t quite ring true to me.

Similarly, while Fanny has her challenges it’s made clear that she’s independently wealthy, young, moderately pretty and highly intelligent. That’s not a bad combo to be getting on with, which made me slightly unpersuaded that her options in life were as few as the evidently thinks and thus her need for Nick and Alix as great as it seems.

So, while I respected this and was impressed by the craft, I didn’t love it. It reminded me of so much English literary fiction – a beautifully written account of the lives of highly privileged people who could as easily be living in the 1960s as the 1980s as the 2010s for all the outside world touches them.

For all that criticism, don’t be put off. It’s very well written and there’s an ocean of quiet but deep characterisation here. It’s one of Guy’s favourite Brookner’s and if you’ve any interest in her as a writer is probably worth your time. It’s also fair to say that it’s holding up well in memory – it’s one of those novels that continue to unpack after you’ve read them. Guy’s review is here.

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry

That leaves me with my final read of the month, which is a bit of a cheat as while I finished it in April I’d been reading it off and on for absolutely ages. It’s a Kevin Barry short story collection and it’s hugely impressive both in terms of range and Barry’s command of the form.

The stories here vary from the opener which is a micro-portrait of a young man building up the courage to kiss a girl after a party; to stories of tedious bar-patrons talking endlessly about the best route from one town to another while outside torrential rain threatens to flood the whole place; to a pair of elderly serial killers; to a romance which changes the fate of an IRA bomber; to a petty criminal on the run who decides to hole up with decidedly the wrong people; to, well, much more besides.

Barry is I think one of the better short story writers out there today and this is a top quality collection. The tales often feature elements of the grotesque and are often blackly funny, but Barry’s eye for character and phrase ground them. As soon as I finished it I bought his other collection, Little Kingdoms, because I wanted more Kevin Barry short stories in my life.

And that’s it! May started with Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations which was very good indeed. I’m now on China Miéville’s The City and the City (no, I haven’t seen the TV show yet, but just from the trailers the lead in the book now looks like David Morrissey to me. Funny how powerful TV imagery can be).

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Brookner, Anita, Chaze, Elliot, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir, Novellas, Reynolds, Alastair, SF, Short stories

Six bullets and a gun to take me to Mexico. That’s all I’ve got now. And it’s a long, long way.

January roundup

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post much – I’ve been busy at work and then looking to move jobs (which I’ll be doing in July). Between the two I’ve not been able to be online much.

So, by way of catch-up I thought I’d do a series of three posts summarising my reading in January through March. Today’s covers January.

If you read through this post I’m guessing it’ll be obvious which book I took the title quote for this roundup from…

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

My first book of the year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, the second in her Ancillary trilogy (SF writers and trilogies…). It’s a direct sequel to her highly regarded Ancillary Justice and I enjoyed it tremendously although the general view that it’s not quite as strong as the original is probably fair. I wrote a bit about Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is a much more contained novel than Justice. For a far future space opera it has an awful lot of dinner and tea parties and there’s much more focus on the culture of Leckie’s setting, all of which I liked but it does make it inevitably a little bit less thrilling than the original. I still definitely plan to read the third in the sequence.

The Duel, by Joseph Conrad

This was one that Guy recommended – his review is here. It’s a really nicely executed little novella about a duel between two Napoleonic officers which lasts over twenty years off and on. It inspired the film of the same name.

The Melville House edition, which is the one I read, comes with copious end notes and historical background material much of which is genuinely fascinating and if the concept interests you even slightly this is an absolute must read. It’s a lot of fun, if fun is the right word.

The Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I’d read a lot about it so had a look at the book. Sadly I remain rather untidy. To be fair I haven’t implemented any of Marie Kondo’s rules so this may not be entirely her fault.

Rain, by W. Somerset Maugham

This is quite a famous Maugham novella and but for being a little over 50 pages long would fit easily into one of the Far Eastern Tales collections. It features various colonial types trapped on a small island for several weeks when their sea journey is interrupted by extreme bad weather.

Tensions rise, particularly when a rather puritanical religious couple object to sharing the limited island accommodation with a fellow passenger they suspect of being a prostitute. It’s classic Maugham – powerfully written with strong characters and yet an extremely easy read. He’s famous for his short stories for good reason.

That’s not the cover I have by the way – mine is much plainer. I just thought that one rather good and it does actually capture part of the story (the racier part, but publishers do have to sell books…).

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

A man becomes accidentally involved in a deadly attempt to smuggle defence secrets to foreign powers. There’s some good passages particularly as the hero is tracked across the Scottish highlands, but by the end it depends heavily on extraordinary coincidence and the proper authorities continuing to keep the hero involved long after he should have been thanked and sent home.

The Hitchcock film is better and neatly sidesteps the various massive jumps of logic in the book. This is my second Buchan and I’ve not liked either, so while I wouldn’t argue with those who love him I think I can say at this point that I’m not the right reader for him.

Again that’s not the cover I had, but it’s great isn’t it?

King City, Lee Goldberg

This is a solidly efficient thriller by Lee Goldberg about an honest cop who irritates his less honest superiors so much that they despatch him to an inner-city hellhole without any useful backup or support.

Naturally he doesn’t just get killed on day one and the two very junior cops he’s given turn out to be more useful than they look. It’s Hollywood stuff done rather by the numbers and nothing in it will surprise you, but it’s well done Hollywood stuff done by the numbers.

So, while that might all sound a bit dismissive, I actually somewhat recommend it provided you want what Goldberg is selling. I preferred his Watch Me Die though which was a bit more fun so if you’ve never tried him I’d start with that.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

I’ve reviewed a lot of Richard Morgan here and I’m something of a fan. This marked a departure by him from pure SF to more traditional sword and sorcery fantasy. It’s full of traditional Morgan traits including hyper-violence and strong sexual content, but none of that was ever what I read him for and I thought the story here depended more on that material than his SF did.

Anyway, it’s (of course) part of a trilogy and I’ve picked up the second. There’s some linkages to his SF work so I suspect by the end I’ll discover it’s all set in the distant future and isn’t really fantasy at all, but I’m not sure how much I care. I trust him as a writer though so I’ll stick with the journey.

One is a Lonely Number, by Elliot Chaze

Chaze is famous for Black Wings has my Angel, which I read in April, but I actually preferred this. A con on the run comes to a small town where he finds himself caught between two women each crazy in their own special way. It’s full-on classic noir with an evidently doomed protagonist and a whole lot of bad choices.

If you have any fondness for slightly pulpy noir it’s one of the good ones. Worth checking out. Here’s an early quote:

It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he always needed a cigaret desperately, afterwards.

January summary

My January reading reflects the fact I was absolutely flat-out at work. It’s heavy on genre reads and shorter reads, and I don’t think any of them will make my end of year list (except maybe the Chaze). February however was much stronger – I’ll post on that tomorrow.

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Crime, Goldberg, Lee, Leckie, Ann, Maugham, W Somerset, Morand, Paul, SF, Short stories

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short stories, Spy Fiction

Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window.

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

I took a bit of convincing to read this one. It’s a series of short stories that take Cornish folklore and place it into a contemporary setting: a woman transforming into a standing stone; a wife whose husband was kidnapped by mermaids; giants and ghosts and spirits. It all sounded a bit urban fantasy to me – a genre I’ve never taken to.

Diving Belles though is a superb short story collection; genuinely original and exciting. It’s warm and well written and firmly rooted in a very physical sense of place. Wood has subsequently written a novel, Weathering, and I’ll absolutely be picking it up once I’ve finished my #TBR20.

Diving Belles

The title story here gives a good sense of how the collection works. Iris’s sailor husband was lost decades ago, enchanted away by mermaids. Now a woman in her village has set up a business that can reunite wives for a while with their stolen husbands, perhaps even bringing them back to land. It involves lowering the wife down to sea in a diving bell, and a friend has bought Iris a voucher entitling her to three attempts.

It sounds twee, or it did to me anyway, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the mythic. Mermaids and gift vouchers. Of course it’s also all terribly metaphorical: when Iris sees her husband he’s not aged a day while she’s now an old woman, just as all those we lose remain forever young in our memories because they can no longer age.

What sells it all is the prose:

Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.

Diving Belles is a strong opener to the collection, and it’s immediately followed by Countless Stones which is just as solid. Here Rita has woken up to find that she’s transforming into a standing stone, as has happened to her before and as happens to others from time to time in her part of the country.

Rita knows she has a few hours before the transformation is complete, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay transformed for. She therefore prepares to make arrangements: to contact work to let them know she’ll be absent; to empty the fridge of perishables; to make sure she hasn’t left any washing up on the side. As she does so the particularities of transformation are closely described: the feeling of her toe joints hardening; a craving for salt; visions of the other stones she’ll stand among:

Rita filled up the kettle and put it on. There was a cold breeze from nowhere and suddenly she was up on the cliffs with the other standing stones, watching a buzzard rising and circling on its huge spread of wings. Then she was back in front of the kettle again and it had boiled.

Unfortunately, before she can make much by way of preparation Rita gets a call from her ex who needs her help driving him to a house he’s viewing. She dutifully heads out to take care of him even though she knows the weather is worsening and the detour will mean she’ll have to leave some of her own tasks undone.

Again, the metaphor isn’t particularly subtle. Rita is fixed in place, literally unable to move either from her place by the cliffs post-transformation or her relationship with her ex. The story works though because while on the symbolic level it’s pretty straightforward the prose makes it convincingly real. Rita’s particular problem may be magical in nature, but there’s nothing supernatural about a woman who puts someone else’s needs ahead of her own even when her own are more pressing.

Each of the stories combines elements of the prosaic and the fantastic, commingling them so that the extraordinary becomes more a highlighting of the ordinary than something separate to it:

  • an adolescent boy feels awkward about his body, as I once did myself, but here it’s because his father was a giant and he’s still short (he looks up his concerns on the NHS website);
  • a woman unable to let go of her past finds the ghost of a wrecker (the Cornish equivalent of this) in her spare bedroom rifling through her unopened moving boxes, assessing them for salvage value;
  • a woman tries on an eye-cream in her mother’s bathroom, and through its magic realises that her mother isn’t the lonely old lady she thought she was but has a faerie lover and a whole life she was unaware of, separate to her relationship with her daughter.

Not every story is as memorable as those, but most are and I could easily keep picking examples (the old folk’s home for retired witches springs to mind, a more melancholy tale than it at first appears). Another standout that I can’t resist mentioning is Notes from the House Spirits, where nature spirits inhabiting a house consider its various occupants over the years, the humans they don’t understand and can’t really tell apart. It’s a melancholic tale with the reader able to fill in the gaps the spirits can’t, and with the occasional wry stab of humour:

When she can’t find her watch, we find it for her, and put it in the pocket of her coat, but then she shouts that she has already looked in the pocket of her coat. We were only trying to help. It is not our job to find things.

Diving Belles is like little else I’ve read this year, or indeed any year. It stands an excellent chance of being on my end-of-year roundup list, and I can easily imagine returning in future to read it again. For me, this is a future classic, and one we’re lucky enough to get to read while it’s fresh.

Other reviews

David Hebblethwaite first put me on to this one, his blog post about it is here and links to a review he did for Strange Horizons here. Gemma of The Perfectionist Pen also wrote an excellent review of it here.

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Filed under Fantasy, Short stories, Wood, Lucy

You’re old enough to know that the fact that your statement is true only makes it more offensive

Far Eastern Tales, by W. Somerset Maugham

When I was a kid, Maugham was often held out as the model of a great short story writer, almost the definition of one. Along with Saki he was as good as it got. My paternal grandfather, Jim, was a huge fan, as were many of his generation.

Literary reputations though are fragile things, and what seems timeless mastery can for no obvious reason just fall into obscurity. Maugham hasn’t suffered quite that fate, he’s still widely in print after all, but his star has definitely waned.

Perhaps in Maugham’s case it’s because the world he describes so well is no longer one contemporary readers recognise. He was primarily a writer of Britain between the wars, of the declining days of Empire and of a Britain yet to experience post-war Austerity and loss of influence.

Jim was born in 1920. He lived and worked in South Africa for a while, raised his family there, and while as a self-educated proudly working class Glaswegian he wasn’t anything like Maugham’s characters he’d certainly have recognised his world. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Maugham was and is a great writer, but he’s a great writer of a world that’s no longer with us. He writes expertly of a country with few remaining inhabitants.

FarEasternMaugham

Far Eastern Tales is a collection of ten Maugham short stories, all of them set in the British far Eastern colonies. They vary in length and style, from shaggy-dog stories like Mabel to tales of isolation and murder like Footprints in the Jungle. Two of them, Mabel and the End of the Flight, are basically the same story once told as comedy and once as horror (both involve a man mysteriously and relentlessly pursued, in Mabel by a prospective wife and in The End of the Flight by a wronged Sumatran native intent on revenge).

Maugham’s Asia is a lonely place. The British are few and thinly stretched across a vast territory. Issues of race and class bar them from real friendships with the locals, making for intensely parochial ex-pat communities and pockets of men left alone too long in out-of-the-way stations deep in the jungle.

Their ambition was to be like everybody else. Their highest praise was to say that a man was a damned good sort.

As the quote suggests, these aren’t the best and the brightest as a rule. The servants of Empire tend to be bluff and unimaginative sorts. An excess of imagination isn’t an asset when you’re two days from your nearest neighbour, and an unquestioning assumption of your own entitlement and authority can carry a lot of weight when facing down locals with machetes and a grievance.

Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the rather marvellous fourth story, The Door of Opportunity. It features a particularly brilliant young administrator and his adoring wife. They are cultured, intelligent, a cut above what they see as the generality of Colonial mediocrity. He learns the local languages, they dream of championing indigenous arts and combining the best of the world they left with the best of the world they now find themselves in.

Maugham understands, as the couple in The Door of Opportunity do not, that colonialism is an exercise in economic exploitation backed by military might. The British aren’t in Asia to appreciate fine teak-work. They’re there to extract resources and money.

It was with The Door of Opportunity that this collection really started to shine for me. The first tale was much as I expected, featuring a club where people drank gin and played bridge, and an unfolding tale of murder in distant places. The second, Mabel, was easily the weakest, and the third featured a man dying from what he believed to be a native curse. So far it seemed, so as expected.

That third though, P.&O., turned out not to be quite what I thought it would be. Maugham it turns out is an expert at the mid-story swerve, where you discover that the story you thought you were reading isn’t the real story at all.

In P.&O. a middle-aged woman encounters a fellow passenger who slowly declines as the voyage continues, having been promised he’ll never live to see land. That’s fine, but what’s interesting isn’t the supposed curse but the lessons the woman takes from her encounter with another’s mortality.

P.&.O., like many of the stories here, is also a neat study in hypocrisy. Here the first-class passengers on an ocean-liner plan a Christmas party, but don’t wish to appear stand-offish by not inviting those in second-class:

The scheme was at last devised to invite the second-class passengers, but to go to the captain privily and point out to him the advisability of withholding his consent to their coming into the first-class saloon.

After The Door of Opportunity comes The Hidden Talent, a cautionary tale of why sometimes old acquaintances are best left in the past. By this point the collection is seriously on a roll. The Hidden Talent is heartbreaking, probably my favourite of the collection and it shows Maugham’s tremendous insight as a writer. Maugham gets people, and that of course is why he was so highly regarded.

From there we’re off to the races. Before the Party is a deliciously horrifying tale of the gap between public and private lives, brilliantly exposing the acceptance of ugly realities as long as they’re far away and decently covered up. It’s followed by Mr. Know-All, which would be spoiled if I said anything more about it at all but which shows again a nice grasp of complexity of character.

Then comes Neil MacAdam, another candidate for best in the bunch,  featuring a handsome new assistant to a remote museum who is too innocent to recognise the danger the curator’s wife’s interest in him represents. He finds himself in a situation any noir-writer would be proud of, and like any good noir the situation soon takes a deadly momentum of its own as the heat and isolation act as a pressure cooker to deadly effect.

The End of the Flight, which I mentioned above, is a dip in quality again. I admit that I don’t find stories in which natives have apparently supernatural powers terribly exciting, but the real issue is that the reliance on plot leaves less room for Maugham’s gift for motive.

The collection ends though on a high, with The Force of Circumstance in which a new wife  joins her husband on a distant Malay plantation and comes to learn the compromises he made in order to survive the long years before her arrival. Maugham understands hypocrisy, and why unpleasant as it may be it’s sometimes the best option available.

A classic Maugham theme here is the clash of expediency and idealism, romance even. More than one character sees Empire as advertised, as a civilising mission, as a chance to bring culture and order to places sorely in need of it. Maugham however is always aware of the gulf between appearance and reality, never forgetting that our presence is both uninvited and unwanted.

To thrive in Maugham’s Far East you have to be a hypocrite. To be otherwise is either to invite disaster or to embrace brutality. You have to be able to lie to yourself, at least a little, about the realities of what is ultimately an armed occupation. That perhaps was what most surprised me here. I knew Maugham as a writer of Empire, I had no idea however that he saw so clearly the contradictions inherent in it.

Maugham doesn’t condemn his characters or their world, he isn’t that facile and these aren’t polemics (and I have no idea as to his personal politics). Maugham describes, and he doesn’t look away as he does so. That’s probably why, out of fashion as he is, he’s still in print.

Other reviews

None I know of, but if I’ve missed some please let me know in the comments. If you are interested at all in Maugham though, Guy Savage has reviewed him extensively over at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short stories

There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘We’ve lost Baby,’ she screamed.

‘Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?’ asked Clovis lazily.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

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Filed under Saki, Short stories

… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, SF, Short stories

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short stories, Spy Fiction