Book Review: Best British Short Stories 2019 (Edited by Nicholas Royle)

Nicholas Royle has read far and wide to put together this collection, his 9th as editor.

The book contains 20 stories. Many appealed to me but some, whilst well written, did not really grab my attention. To some extent, I think this may have been a distinct sense of similarity I felt I could detect in the stories. Obviously, this is nothing to do with the writers and more to do with the choices made by Nicholas Royle as editor.

Whilst I won’t give a review of each story, for the sake of brevity, I’ll mention a few.

  • The Husband and the Wife go to the Seaside by Melissa Wan – The married couple in this story are just referred to as ‘the husband’ and ‘the wife’ throughout. The couple go on a trip in an attempt to rekindle their marriage. The story touches on male dominance, sex and immigration.
  • Cuts by Stephen Sharp – This is as searing story told as a stream of consciousness which looks at psychosis. It is a relentless, driving, multi-faceted, scary and exhausting tale. For me, it is the best story in the entire book.
  • The Heights of Sleep by Sam Thompson – This is another excellent story about books, writing and influences in which one of the messages is ‘don’t meet your heroes’. It contained a great quote:
  • In a review, there are so many ways to be lazy, dishonest, timid, ignorant, bullying, spurious, inexact, ungenerous or unjust, and so few ways to be true.

  • I suspect, as a reviewer, I may be guilty of many, if not all of the above.
    • Beyond Dead by Nigel Humphreys – After some thought and a quick Google search, I determined that this was a story of Robespierre in the after life. This is a good, well-written story.
      Reality by John Lanchester is a first person inner monologue of Iona, a reality TV contestant. Appearances for Iona is all, she is constantly manoeuvring and considering how her looks, words and actions will be perceived to others. This story made me wonder if reality TV is ‘unreal’ or just a magnified reflection of how we all act on a day to day basis in our real lives, albeit for a smaller audience.
      On Day 21, by Ruby Cowling, is the story of a young mother struggling with 3 children. She is distracted by the certainty and control she can exert over technology in her life where she feels she has little control over much else.
      Cluster by Naomi Booth and Optics by Ren Watson are also stories which feature struggling mothers. Whilst the stories are well written, read one after another they did start to feel a bit ‘samey’.
      Sitcom by Kieran Delaney tells an unusual story about a plot for sitcoms in which a prisoner reaches a tremendous age behind bars. It’s an interesting idea but I couldn’t help being pedantic and thinking ‘it’s not really a sitcom though’.

    Based on my experience, I think this book may best be enjoyed by dipping in and out and reading one or two stories at a time. Taken all together, I started to see patterns and similarities in the writing which was distracting and detracted from the enjoyment of some of the stories, which did not deserve to be dismissed or viewed negatively.

    The Best British Short Stories 2019 is published by Salt.

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    Book Review: Scarlet Traces – An Anthology Based on War of the Worlds. Edited by Ian Edginton

    Collections of short stories are a mainstay of science fiction; they come in many guises; year’s bests, newcomers, stories based on a theme (apocalyptic, military SF etc), translations and anthologies inspired by past greats.

    This collection of stories falls into the last category as all stories are inspired by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and, more specifically, how the events of that book affected life in Britain, at the turn of the 20th Century, after the failure of the Martian invasion.

    War of the Worlds arose from a discussion Wells had with his brother Frank about the impact of British imperialism on indigenous Tasmanians. Invasion literature was popular at the time and Wells work can be seen as a commentary on evolutionary theory (Wells was taught by T.H. Huxley, a major advocate of Darwinism), British Imperialism and Victorian fears and prejudices.

    Ian Edginton, the editor of this collection, was attracted by the lack of hero in the original book. The protagonist was an unnamed ‘everyman’. As Edginton points out, the protagonist ‘had a day job’.

    Edginton has previously written a comic book, called Scarlet Traces, in which Martian technology was ‘reverse engineered’ to serve the British Empire.

    The first story is by Stephen Baxter, whose own book ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was released in 2017 as a sequel to War of the Worlds. Baxter’s story is entitled ‘Going up the blue’, which is a reference to the blue gel that soldiers are immersed in to protect them and provide oxygen in flight to Mars. The British Empire is taking the fight to Mars in a show of jingoism and hubris. The main protagonists are two women, Diane Simms and Bea Currie; the viewpoint switches between Operation Stumps, a battle with the Martians and a future in which the outcome of the battle is examined and a sinister secret revealed.

    ‘Something sweet in the superstitions’ by I.N.J. Culbard is a well constructed tale of an American door-to-door salesman hawking knock-off Martian technology. Trying to escape his past he seems only to succeed in losing his pride.

    ‘The Martian Waste Land’ by Adam Roberts features T.S Eliot, who is told by the government that he is in demand with the Martians. He is also told that his modernist poetry could literally be lethal to the Martians and is asked to carry out a recital for the greater good of the Empire. However, there is a case of mistaken identity. Roberts story is farcical and funny.

    Emma Beeby is a comic-book writer and author. Her story, ‘The Menagerie’ is an exciting tale about a young Scottish girl, Coira and her toddler brother, Brodie. Their parents run a pub and are fighting English oppression of Scotland at night. Coira has made toys and other gadgets out of found Martian technology, some of it still dangerous. Coira’s relationship with her little brother is touching. Beeby crams in a lot of action in a limited environment.

    ‘Voice for a Generation’ by Nathan Duck, takes as it’s theme the Martian invasion of Venus that was hinted at in War of the Worlds. Wilf is a Venusian boy whose family of refugees is living in Birmingham in 1967. Wilf and his family experience prejudice and racism. Wilf also feels stifled by the expectations of his family which severely limit his ambitions. This has the feel of a 1960’s ‘kitchen sink’ drama.

    Mark Morris’ ‘Spitting Blood’ is a gothic horror featuring ‘Dune’ like giant worms as well as flesh-eating zombies.

    ‘The Mechanical Marionette Mob’ by Maura McHugh (that’s some serious alliteration!) tells the story of Belsa who operates a mechanical puppet show with her associate Waldo. Belsa is highly talented in the use of Martian technology for making robots and prosthetic limbs. Waldo’s respect and love for Belsa is, he feels, not reciprocated. Belsa is approached by a lady called Gisela and her associate Eldon who wishes to get Belsa’s help in making life-like robots as playthings for rich clients. Belsa refuses and both she and Waldo are put in mortal danger. As well as War of the Worlds, this story also takes in the vivisectionist themes of Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. This is a multi-faceted and absorbing story.

    This is a good collection of stories in which the writers have clearly had fun and addressed issues that might have followed the Martian invasion of Britain. Many of the themes still seem current, such as alienation caused by modern technology, discrimination and fear of outsiders. This is a recommended read.

    Scarlet Traces is released by Abaddon Books in September.

    Book Review: The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man – by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris 2019)

    Dave Hutchinson has written the critically acclaimed Europe sequence of books. Whilst this story may have a title that makes it sound like a reboot of a lesser known Marvel super-hero, it is an intriguing slow-burning mystery that has a spectacular ending, which I won’t ruin for potential readers.

    Alex Dolan is a Scottish born tech-journalist living in Boston. The slow death of traditional journalism in the free Information Age has hit him hard and he is struggling to make a living. Financial salvation is offered by Stan Clayton, the world’s fifth richest person. Clayton has something of the ‘Elon Musk’ spirit about him; entrepreneurial, seeking to push the boundaries of technology and looking to inspire people with tales of wonder.

    Clayton has purchased large parts of Iowa on which he has built a particle super-collider. He wants Dolan to write some articles and a book about the project. Dolan is offered the freedom to write what he wants but he is stubborn; Clayton’s wealth and the promise of a large pay-packet don’t impress him. Reluctantly, Dolan agrees to at least consider the offer and to look around the town of Sioux Falls, a town that had fallen on hard times before Clayton started investing heavily in the area. Dolan meets a number of locals, some tell him to get away while he can, others cannot see why he would turn down Clayton’s offer, which involves salary, a line of credit to buy essentials and a house.

    Whilst he is mulling the offer, Dolan is staying in a very plush hotel suite. Whilst there, he hears a strange scrabbling knock at the door, which leads to a visit from the police. Dolan wonders what has happened in the past to make the police interested in such a mundane occurrence. There are other sporadic reports of strange sightings in Sioux Falls but little in the way of detail. The previous occupants of Dolan’s house left in a hurry, leaving lots of their possessions in the basement. Dolan tracks them down and they mention they had a visitation, although it’s not clear whether this was real or imagined.

    Dolan’s research takes him on and around the site of the super-collider, where he spots Larry Day, a scientific genius but an unstable and dangerous personality. Day likes to push boundaries without thoughts about potential consequences.

    During a barbecue he has arranged for friends and neighbours, Dolan’s house catches fire. Whilst evacuating the house, Dolan sees a man made of static. A number of other unfortunate incidents add to the mystery of what is actually happening in Sioux Falls. Dolan believes that Larry Day may have the answer. He attempts to confront him at the super-collider just as an experiment is taking place. And then things become ……weird, and riveting.

    After a measured and slow-paced meander that feels as though it will end with a whodunnit/whatdunnit explanation, the book goes somewhere I was not expecting it to. It’s a fantastic turn and makes the book feel unusual. I was reminded of some Philip K Dick novels in which he took the floor from under you when your expectations may have been set.

    This is a great science fiction book and well worth reading.

    Book Review: Growing Pains by Mike Shooter

    The two sub-headings of this book is ‘Making Sense of Childhood’ and ‘A Psychiatrist’s Story’. In essence, it is a mix of the writer’s professional and (to a lesser extent) personal autobiography, a series of case studies of children and young people that he has helped in his career and a personal plea for the kind of multi-disciplinary approach to helping young people with psychiatric issues that the writer believes gives real results.

    Dr Mike Shooter CBE was President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and specialises in treating children and adolescents. We must believe, therefore, that he knows what he is talking about but as it is told from his viewpoint only, it’s unclear to the reader what alternative perspectives might be on offer. Certainly, his beliefs in the importance of listening closely to the children to determine the underlying cause of their issues and working with a team of specialists in a variety of fields to help them manage and sometimes overcome their personal and psychiatric problems seem sensible and convincing; but a non-specialist would not know of any alternative views.

    Dr Shooter feels that it is too easy for medical professionals to label a child’s problem as a particular syndrome for treatment with drugs. He notes that some families prefer a diagnosis like this as having a medical condition carries less of a stigma and removes some of their own responsibility for dealing with it.

    The chapters in the book are a series of case studies from Dr Shooter’s career; each one highlighting an issue or theme (e.g the nature of adolescence, anorexia, cultural differences, peer group pressure & aggression). The stories of the children and adolescents Dr Shooter has helped are told with compassion and a lack of sensationalism. His description seem to indicate that he is able to determine the root of a child’s particular issue quite easily but it must surely have been more difficult in reality but, perhaps, that approach is just for the sake of brevity.

    Very little is said about the actual methods used for helping the children to overcome and/or manage their particular issues. Whilst the stories are moving and sad, one cases study follows another, follows another. It starts to feel formulaic and, unfortunately, monotonous. The words of patients and their families are quoted but in many cases they feel like they are ‘paraphrased’ as they seem to be too polished and too perfect to ring true.

    Dr Mike Shooter is to be admired for his compassion and his long commitment to helping children and adolescents. His message of listening to the children rather than rushing into a diagnosis seems important. However, as a book, it is not a compelling read.

    Growing Pains is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

    Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (by Deepa Anappara)

    I was provided with an uncorrected advance proof copy provided for review purposes.

    This book is not what you might expect from the title alone. Sounds like it could be a fun, feel-good, adventure story doesn’t it? It isn’t. Djinn and the Purple Line are not key to the story and are really quite peripheral.

    The story focuses on Jai, his sister Runu and their parents who live in a tiny one-room shanty dwelling in a settlement that is at risk at being bulldozed at any moment. Despite the poverty, the family own a TV and mobile phones. Jai thinks the TV is the best thing they own and loves true-life detective and cop shows with their focus on lurid and shocking crimes.

    A neighbour’s son, who is Jai’s classmate, goes missing and this sets the scene for the remainder of the book. Jai decides to act as detective to find out what is going on.

    There are funny elements in this and, at first, it felt like this was going to follow the template of Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly the themes you might expect to find in a book set in an Indian city are there; prejudice, extreme poverty, inequality between the sexes, police and government corruption and a pretty harsh existence for poor children.

    There follows a series of other children and adolescents who go missing without trace, causing rising alarm, fear and suspicion between neighbours, Hindus and Muslims.

    The story is largely from Jai’s viewpoint, but his sister, Runu’s, life seems far more interesting and poignant. Runu has dreams and ambitions for her future but knows she will end up being seen as just another disappointing daughter and wife.

    It becomes clear that there will be no redemption or happy ending for this story and this is reinforced near the end when Runu goes missing. The popular media is criticised for being shallow, overlooking the human suffering whilst focusing on the salacious and shocking elements of the disappearances. Criticising tabloid media for doing stories that sell seems pointless, regardless of how much we might not like it.

    The writing itself is descriptive and helps to build up a picture of the slums and the life of those who live in them. There are many Indian words used that are unfamiliar. I had to assume what a number of them meant from the context of the sentence they featured in. It’s not a major problem but it can be a bit confusing if you don’t want to be checking meanings on Google translate every few minutes.

    Deepa Anappara tells a very important story about the number of children and young people who go missing every day in India and are never heard from again. However, I got this message from the short author biography on the inside cover at the back of the book. This book could easily have been edited down to a shorter, more focused story. many elements seem irrelevant and not particularly interesting from a scene-building point of view.

    In summary, despite the importance of the message, the book itself is just ‘ok’. You may love it but it’s not one I will be telling people they must read at the first opportunity.

    Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is due to be published by Chatto & Windus in January 2020.

    Book Review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach

    Fabrizio Collini meets well known German industrialist Hans Meyer at a Berlin Hotel and brutally murders him. He then waits in the lobby for the police to arrive.

    Struggling novice defence lawyer, Casper Leinen, is on the legal-aid rota and receives a call from the magistrate’s office to ask if he will represent Collini. Sensing the possibility of making a name for himself, Leinen is keen to take on the case. Finding his client to be uncommunicative and also discovering that the victim and the bereaved are known to him, Leinen questions his commitment.

    It appears to be an open and shut case. Can he, should he, defend Collini? Of course, he does, and his efforts to do his utmost to defend his client sees him delve into his personal history and friendships as well as the troubled past of Germany.

    This is the first book I have read by Ferdinand von Schirach, a respected defence lawyer in Germany who has written short stories and novels that have become bestsellers.

    This is a slim book and von Shirach’s style is spare but efficient. The characters are introduced and the plot moves along at a pace. At first, the brisk, unfussy style comes across well but later, narrative jumps and some questionable scenes in which the characters choose to release information when it would suit the writer best, rather than when it would be natural for them to release it, serve to irritate.

    As an example, during a crucial cross-examination scene an expert witness answers the prosecutor’s questions with mostly ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, which is great for the prosecution. She does not qualify her answers in any way, as would be natural to an expert who wanted to convey full information and the nuances of what they were saying. The full picture only comes out when Casper Leinen cross-examines her and, conveniently, she gives a fuller statement that changes the weight of her evidence considerably.

    There are also scenes which seem to add nothing to the story other than perhaps ticking off a list of items that the writer has been told are necessary for a crime-thriller. Autopsy (tick). Sex scene (tick). Montage of the protagonist making a name for himself and in a dashed off paragraph listing all of the cases he has successfully defended before the main murder case comes to court (tick). Defence lawyer receiving homely but sage advice from a shop owner (tick). However, without these, the book would be more a pamphlet given von Schirach’s unfussy style. The reader may also roll their eyes when the prosecution lawyer stands up and blusters ‘I object.’ Can this ever not happen in a fictional court case?

    The story is readable however, and you will want to get to the end to find out what happens. It also raises some interesting and though-provoking questions about how we adjust to new knowledge that affects long-held beliefs, experiences and memories.

    The Collini Case was translated from the German by Anthea Bell and published by Penguin Books – 2015

    Book Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

    Anyone who has read Children of Time will know that Adrian Tchaikovsky can create marvellous science fiction.

    This new short novel tells the story of a British astronaut who is part of an international team sent to investigate a mysterious anomaly at the fringes of the Solar System. The anomaly turns out to be an ancient alien ‘artefact’, which, due to its appearance is dubbed the ‘Frog God’.

    I know! Mysterious ancient artefacts, what’s not to like?

    The artefact is riddled with tunnels which humans can move through but which are inhospitable to technology. The astronauts call the labyrinthine interior of the artefact ‘the crypts’. Mostly the interior is barren and boring but sometimes they come across oddities and horrors. The ‘egg men’ are a particular delight, I would leave to read a book on their back-story and exploits.

    The story is told from the point of view of Gary Rendell, who always wanted to be an astronaut but is having second thoughts on this mission. Like me, some of you may be looking at that name and thinking what it reminds you of. Perhaps if you view the name as G.Rendell it might help you to think of that legendary exiled creature of darkness who is the bane of mankind.

    The story switches between the mission out to the artefact and Gary Rendell’s increasingly desperate and deranged wanderings around the interior, where time, space and gravity do not act in the way that they should.

    Tchaikovsky even manages a reference to Ack Ack Macaque, simian creation of Gareth L Powell.

    This is a great little book and will help Tchaikovsky fans in the period before the sequel to Children of Time is released.

    Walking to Aldebaran is published by Solaris.