Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

Alice Bishop, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text

‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is the literary equivalent of a concept album. Instead of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, it features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bushfire.

It is possibly the most quintessentially Australian book I’ve ever read. It hums with vernacular, cultural references — models of cars, brands of ice-cream, the names of TV shows — flora and fauna that are only found on this island continent.

And yet it deals with the universal theme of what happens to people and their communities in the wake of a natural disaster.

Inspired by fire

Taking the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 (in which 180 people lost their lives) as her inspiration, Bishop explores the tragedy from almost every conceivable angle: those that stayed and fought to save their homes, the nurses who looked after the injured, the firefighters who fought the blaze, the people who lost loved ones, those that survived but felt guilty because of it.

There are 47 stories divided into three sections (all named after the wind that wreaked so much havoc — Prevailing, Southerly and Northerly); most are a few pages long, several are just a few lines and read like exquisite poetry:

In the Ashes

People think it takes away everything, but the colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: greys stronger than railway steel, blue-black charcoals, and oranges like tangerines—baked rust by dashboard sun.

All are written with a forensic eye for detail, often focused on finding beauty in grief. There are recurring themes — the intensity of the flames which were so hot they melted metal, the wind shifts, the loss of livestock, the important role that emergency services and community organisations played, those that lost everything having to wear donated clothing that didn’t fit properly — that build a consistent picture of an emergency situation that quickly turned to tragedy.

In fact, the picture that builds is emotionally intense, so much so that I could only read A Constant Hum in small doses, say three or four stories at a time, for this is not a book to plow through, but one to savour, to cogitate on, to mull over.

In the Acknowledgements, Bishop reveals that her family lost a house in the East Kilmore fire on Black Saturday. “I can’t imagine how it would really feel to lose family / friends / a partner in that way—what it would still feel like, today,” she says. I think this beautifully rendered collection demonstrates that she can imagine that kind of loss and she can write about it with care, kindness and great authenticity.

If you liked this, you might also like

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper: a true-crime tale about the arsonist responsible for one of the most devastating fires on Black Saturday, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2019. Note it’s only available in the UK in eBook form, but you can buy the physical book direct from the Melbourne-based publisher Text.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Mary Costello, Publisher, Setting, short stories, TBR40

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 176 pages; 2015.

Short story collections don’t come much better than Mary Costello’s The China Factory.

First published in 2012, then reprinted in 2015, this volume contains 12 stories, each of which is richly evocative and deeply moving.

There are recurring themes  — of longing, of missed opportunities, of loneliness and guilt — all told through the eyes of ordinary people, from a teenage girl about to embark on her first summer job to a teacher on the brink of retirement.

Relationships in crisis

It’s largely peopled by long-term married couples who have settled into their individual routines and grown apart. Through Costello’s perceptive eye she is able to reveal those small life-changing moments that alter forever a couple’s relationship.

For instance, in Things I See, Annie witnesses her husband, Don, having sex with her sister, Lucy, on the kitchen worktop, but decides to never mention it because she feels she has far too much to lose. Romy, in Room in Her Head, makes a similar decision when she discovers that her husband has a son he’s never told her about.

In Insomniac, Andrew and Ann rarely talk, and Andrew, the insomniac of the title, secretly leaves the house on the nights he cannot sleep to drive around town. When he confesses that he once spent the night with a female police officer, Ann regrets ever asking him, “Tell me what you think about. Tell me what you do here at night.”

There are other stories of infidelities, both physical and psychological. For instance, in The Astral Plane an unhappy wife, E, wants more from her marriage but doesn’t quite know what that “more” might entail. When she strikes up an email correspondence with a man in New York she falls in love with him despite never having met or heard his voice.

While in Sleeping with a Stranger, a happily married school inspector takes a shine to a young teacher but keeps the relationship wholly professional. But a decade or more later, when he spots her at a conference, he takes her back to his hotel room.

Coming of age tales

But least you think all the stories are about sexual encounters, they’re not. Costello does a nice line in coming-of-age stories too.

In the lead story, a 17-year-old girl takes a summer job at a china factory sponging clay cups and her world opens up into one of gossip and petty rivalries between her all-female co-workers. When she strikes up a platonic friendship with a lonely bachelor no one much likes and later gets a promotion for being so good at her menial job, her colleagues shun her for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

And in You Fill Up My Senses a young girl growing up on a sheep farm becomes distraught when she sees the male lambs being castrated for the first time, opening up her eyes to the harsher reality of farming life.

All in all, The China Factory is a powerful collection of haunting stories, showcasing Costello’s talent for capturing the darker side of life and looking at the myriad and profound emotions that love, and the loss of love, can unleash.

This is my 2nd book for Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. It is also my 11th book for #TBR40. I bought it when it was reprinted because I’d loved her novel, Academy Street, so much — it was my book of the year in 2014 — and wanted to read more by this exceptional writer.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Small Circle of Beings’ by Damon Galgut

Small Circle of Beings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 224 pages; 2012.

First published in 2005, Small Circle of Beings, by Damon Galgut, comprises a novella and four short stories.

All five narratives in the book venture into very dark territory and all are set within the confines of the family unit, what Galgut terms a “small circle of beings”.

Childhood illness

It is the titular novella which is perhaps the most disturbing story of them all. In it we meet a cowardly mother who fails to take her nine-year-old child to hospital when he is seriously ill because she puts her needs before her son’s: she is scared of the city and does not want to leave their secluded home on a dusty road in the mountains. Her husband, a farmer, is no better. He is emotionally detached, “keeps his distance and speaks of silly things”. He does not love his son.

When a doctor pronounces that there is nothing wrong with their child they accept his proclamation, but things get worse and David is later found to have a strange growth in his throat, which puts his life at risk.

In this account of two parents struggling to come to terms with their son’s illness in vastly different ways, Galgut throws a light on the tensions and strains between husbands and wives forced to confront their greatest fears: the loss of a child. He shows how different priorities — a mother’s over a father’s, for instance — can have devastating consequences for all involved, and how incidents from our childhood can have far-reaching repercussions long into our adult lives.

Written in delicate prose from the mother’s point of view, Small Circle of Beings wavers between claustrophobia and anxiety, love and anger. It is emotionally complex and the reader will find themselves torn between empathising with the mother and hating her for her passivity. I came away from it feeling a mix of heart ache and oppression. It is one of the most memorable novellas I have ever read.

Four stories

The four short stories that follow — Lovers, Shadows, The Clay Ox and Rick — tread similar territory, focusing on dysfunctional families, abusive parents, domestic violence and exploitation of black South Africans, all with an uncanny eye for detail and an emphasis on observational nuance.

There’s not much light relief, but it’s not Galgut’s style to shy away from humanity’s deepest flaws and failings. What he presents is ordinary white people thrust into extraordinary situations. He lets them manage for awhile, then has them flounder and it’s while they’re floundering, struggling to make sense of a new situation, that he looks at what happens to them under stress or when they think their power or sense of entitlement is under threat. The result is not always pretty.

Small Circle of Beings is a book filled with hatred, violence and antagonism. But for all the angry emotion portrayed here, Galgut is a superb stylist, making every word count and creating light-as-a-cloud prose that feels as if it might float off the page. I loved it.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Greengrass, John Murray, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ by Jessie Greengrass

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

Fiction – paperback; John Murray Originals; 192 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Solitude and loneliness are common threads that run throughout the 12 short stories in this collection, by debut author Jessie Greengrass, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

The self-titled story, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, sets the scene for all that follows, for each tale is written in the same precise, almost cold, but always elegant style with nary an adjective to be seen. There’s a certain kind of melancholia at work here — and a clarity that defies the often convoluted sentence structure.

Yet the subject matter varies wildly from story to story and even the time periods swing between past, present and future. Nothing feels predictable and starting each new story feels like going on an unexpected adventure into unexplored territory: you’re never sure where it’s going to take you.

And yet, despite the characters being (mainly) nameless (sometimes we don’t even know their gender, nor their age), it’s easy to identify with them, to empathise with their circumstances, their predicaments, their successes and their failures. Everything feels deeply personal, if somewhat quirky.

Some personal favourites

A handful of stories stand out. The lead one, of a hunter who reveals his role in the demise of the Great Auk, is a haunting tale of loss, greed and cruelty, but it’s tinged with unexpected comic moments, too, such as this description of the birds:

… they were clumsy, they waddled, their walk was ungainly; they swayed and rolled as they struggled to put one flat foot upon the rock in front of the other and often they fell over. We caught them up and pulled the feathers that we needed and then let them go half-plucked and even then they would not run but only stand bemused and blinking and naked where we put them. And then later they would die of their own accord.

Humour is well used in the story All the Other Jobs, too. In this short tale a discontented narrator, paralysed by indecision, dreams of running away and leading a new, more productive life. Who doesn’t recognise this kind of thoroughly modern 21st century behaviour?

I spent a lot of time on the internet, cycling through a set series of websites, letting my eyes drift down one page and then another without any effort to read or absorb, past even passive consumption. I found this so comforting. Hours would recede in the clicking of links without me retaining any clear impression of what I had been looking at. It was a kind of abnegation, a loss of self in the expectation of each loading page, the small reward of its arrival after the brief wait so much more satisfying than any of the information it might contain.

My favourite story has to be Winter, 2058, a strangely haunting tale set in the future that reads like something John Wyndham might have dreamed up. Here, on the edge of the North York Moors, the narrator must guard watch over an “intrusion” site, an area where mysterious phenomena occur — odd lights and sounds, changes in temperature — that cause people to disappear or befuddles their brains:

We were told that when an intrusion was entering the active phase of its cycle the first thing we would notice would be that things would feel colder. Not just the temperature but the world itself: we would feel that the world had become colder, that something had been stripped away from it, some quality of receptiveness or responsiveness which had previously made it home. The feeling would bloom slowly from unease into fear.

This eerie story of displacement, of the unknowable power of nature, of a bid to make sense of something unexplained  is wholly mesmirising from start to finish. You become immersed in a kind of supernatural fairytale in which nothing quite makes sense and it leaves you with a deep sense of dread. I suspect it’s a metaphor for learning that no matter how many friends and family we might have we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. How deep is that?

As you might have guessed, I was very much impressed by this tantalising collection of odd, often quirky, tales. There’s a deeply philosophical bent to them, perhaps no surprise given the author studied philosophy, and richly humane, filled with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They’re also hugely imaginative and quite unlike anything I’ve read before. More please.

This is my 4th and final book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories

‘Merciless Gods’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 336 pages; 2014.

Christos Tsiolkas has a reputation as a bold writer of daring, often controversial, fiction. Merciless Gods, first published in Australia in 2014 but recently released in the UK, is a collection of short stories that continues Tsiolkas’ trademark flare for writing edgy stories about taboo subjects.

Unsettling stories

There are 15 stories in the collection — and they’re not for the faint hearted. Even those that are “tame” by Tsiolkas’ standards are still confronting and unsettling. There are tales about homophobia, racism, revenge, death, grief, power, parenthood, friendship and family. And most are set in the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

The range and breadth of the collection is one of its great strengths, because each story has its own distinctive “voice”:  we hear from brothers, mothers, students, immigrants, young lovers, lost souls. Some are in the first person, others in the third person.

Many taboo subjects are addressed, from male rape to drug addiction, but while the writing is fearless — Tsiolksas doesn’t hold back on detail or imagery — it’s usually with a view to shining a light on injustice, bigotry and prejudice. In other words, these aren’t gratuitous tales; there’s a message at their core even if the reader might need to be shaken out of their own complacency to find them.

Tsiolkas is at his best concentrating on his “pet” subjects — what it is to be gay, the fraught and complicated relationships between generations, and cultural baggage that comes from being the child of an immigrant. But he also writes powerful stories about heterosexual couples and friendship — the opening story, Merciless Gods, for instance, is a horrifying glimpse of the competitive spirit between young adults and what happens when you take things too far (and is highly reminiscent of Wayne Macauley’s Demons).

No weak link

When I write about short story collections I tend to highlight a handful of stand-out stories, but it’s hard to do that with this book because they’re all so good: there isn’t a weak link in the chain, so to speak. Of course, some are more hard-hitting and stomach churning than others.

I found the final story distasteful (I won’t name it here because it has a term in it that will generate lots of spam), but only because it presented an unfamiliar world of anonymous male sex (which, to be honest, I’d rather not know about), but it did make me think about the ways in which some people pick and choose when to follow their religion and how leading a less-than-honest life can be psychologically damaging.

I felt the same way about Genetic Material in which a man visits his father in a nursing home and then does something rather shocking, not because he wants to but because he feels that it’s the most kind thing he can do. But it made me shudder and want to take a long cold shower.

Even the less confronting stories are, well, still confronting. In Sticks, Stones a hard-working mother realises she hates her teenage son after she hears him call a girl in his class with Downs Syndrome something rather offensive. Instead of dealing with the situation and ticking her son off and explaining why his language is unacceptable, she chooses to humiliate him instead.

In Tourists, Trina and Bill, a young married couple visiting New York, have a falling out over a racist term that Bill mutters about a gallery attendant who annoys him. The tension between the pair — Trina’s anger and horror, Bill’s shame and confusion — are expertly captured in a story that clearly shows how the stress of travel can cause people to misbehave badly. This is made all the more ironic given the pair are trying not to look like obvious tourists — despite their distinctive accents and attire.

Adult content

I’ll be the first to admit that Merciless Gods isn’t for everyone — the content is very much of the adult kind. But if you have read Tsiolkas’ work before, you will know what to expect.

And even if you haven’t, but you like your fiction to take you out of your comfort zone, to present viewpoints and stories that will make you think, unsettle you and leave you with a lingering sense of disquiet, it’s definitely one to add to the wishlist.

For another take on this collection, please see Simon Savidge’s review.

This is my 37th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Abigail Ulman, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories, USA

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman

Hot Little Hands
UK (& Canadian) edition of Hot Little Hands

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 352 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When ColmTóibín is quoted on the front of your novel…well, that seems like a pretty solid endorsement to me. “I love how up-to-the-minute and street-wise the stories are, and how frank about sex and girls,” he writes of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection Hot Little Hands

Of course, we all know that a lot of so-called endorsements of this kind are incestuous in the sense that they come from authors sharing the same publishing house — but in this case the connection is even closer. Tóibín was one of Ulman’s tutors during her stint at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction. I guess you could look at this in two ways: either Tóibín is simply being kind and supportive of his former student, or he genuinely believes her stuff is the real thing. Having read the book, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Blurred lines

There are nine self-contained stories in this collection, most of which are set in Melbourne (where Ulman was born and raised), as well as a handful in the US (where Ulman has studied) and one in Vladivostok. All are about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world — with mixed results. Many of the characters are growing up too quickly and entering the tricky worlds of sex and adulthood before their time; others, such as Claire, a character who stars in several of the stories, are in their mid-twenties and acting immaturely, almost as if they want to remain little girls forever. It is this blurring of the line between adolescence and adulthood that Ulman captures so perfectly — and which makes these stories so effortlessly readable and richly authentic.

Hot Little Hands Australian edition
The Australian edition of Hot Little Hands

I loved all of the stories — for different reasons — but there are a handful that stand out. The Russian story Warm Ups is a spine-chilling tale about a group of four young gymnasts invited to the US to attend a promotional tour. It’s told from the perspective of 13-year-old Kira, whose parents cough up the airfare for the trip because they know this could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Kira trains hard and is talented. She’s full of infectious energy and love — for her boyfriend, her mum, her dad, her grandmother and her cat. She’s sad to leave her family behind, but she’s also excited about the prospect of seeing America. But when the girls arrive in San Diego accompanied by Coach Zhukov and his assistant Xenia things don’t go quite as everyone expected…  It’s goose-bumpingly horrifying — and not in a spell-everything-out way, but in a let’s-leave-things-unsaid-and-you-can-figure-it-out-for-yourself way. *Shudder*

(Another story, Your Charm Won’t Help You Here, about Claire being detained by Customs on her return to the US, is equally chilling. I’d actually like to see Ulman tackle a full-scale suspense novel or psychological thriller; I think she’d be brilliant at it.)

Another story that I particularly liked was Head to Toe — at 62 pages, the longest in the collection — about a pair of 15-year-old girls and what they get up to on their school holidays. It’s one of those stories in which not much seems to happen — they go to a couple of parties, they hang out in a shopping centre, they attend a horse camp for which they’re far too old — and yet so much is encapsulated by their sullen moods, their snappy dialogue, the “wisdom” they impart to younger girls and the ways in which they relate to the adults in their lives — that there’s much more going on than meets the eye. From the opening line — “Elise and Jenni lost their virginity at twelve and thirteen, respectively” — you know that these are street wise teens and yet they shun their peers to attend a horse-riding camp in the country because they still have that kind of affection and passion for horses that little girls possess and to which they seem desperate to cling to for as long as possible. No sooner are they back in the city than they’re attending parties, getting drunk and having sex. Again, it’s another story about blurred lines.

Hot-little-hands-USedition
The US edition of Hot Little Hands

Smart, sassy stories

I could go on… but I won’t. Let’s just say this is a collection of smart, sassy stories about young women. There’s sex and alcohol and parties and messy, muddled relationships with boyfriends and lovers. It’s disquieting in places, a little unnerving in others. It’s thrilling and wryly funny. Some readers may cringe in recognition of the behaviours depicted here. Others, like me, may want to reach into the pages and have a quiet (or perhaps a loud) word in certain ears.

Interestingly, despite covering similar ground to another short story collection I read earlier in the year — Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight — this one was so much more engaging and eloquent. Indeed, I found it totally absorbing and loved spending time with these intriguing characters.

This is my 29th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 20th for #AWW2016.