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Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes – breach

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The hole in the fence. The gap in the conversation.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 146
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67032-8
First Published: 1st August 2016
Date Reviewed: 18th July 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

breach – lower-case first letter intentional – is a collection of short stories about the current refugee camp in Calais. It is a specially commissioned project – Meike Ziervogel, publisher, sent the two authors to Calais to interview refugees so that they could write a collection inspired directly by the situation. Set almost exclusively in the camp and featuring stories about both refugees and volunteers, the book is a timely creation amidst the current political climate.

The stories deal with a variety of nationalities. The writing has been divided, each author contributing four stories. The stories can be slightly vague: those from the point of view of the refugees don’t always show you exactly what’s happening; but because the stories from the point of view of volunteers are a lot easier to understand on a literal level, it could be said there’s an intentional use of language barriers – the authors showing how the refugees haven’t mastered English. There’s also the language/situation barrier wherein the refugees don’t know exactly what will happen. And you could point to the authors’ commission as to a reason for the vagueness, the difficulty of it.

The vagueness makes for something of an emphatic vein – it might be frustrating not to know exactly what’s going on in some of the stories but it enables you to learn more about the uncertain situation from the important point of view of the people actually living it. Because this book is providing the first person point of view and every so often reminds us of worried residents of the longed-for countries, without bias, this book is more of a report but not selective – Popoola and Holmes have made a book that revolves around the discussion we need to have but aren’t having, the questions and answers that get set aside when big politics is at hand. The title itself invokes the breach in the UK’s security, that allows illegal immigration – stories of smuggling and the deaths we know are associated with it, alongside the reasons people feel the need to try it nonetheless – as well as many other definitions: breach of empathy; crossing the breach; healing it.

Then there are the stories of the volunteers. These are quite meta because the authors are, in effect, commentating not only on the work of the relatively privileged but also on their own visit. They may not have written a story about writing a story, the ultimate meta situation – though some dialogue comes close – but they comment from the refugees’ points of view of the people who come to help them. In the questions posed by volunteers, Popoola and Holmes are talking about themselves – what use are some of these people, what use are we other than in writing this book which is for the benefit of people back home? And refugees are wondering ‘who are these volunteers?’ when interaction is all on the surface. In this way, the authors comment on a ‘problem’ posed – the way, for example, the volunteers put on a smile but it can seem patronising and at the end of the day they are free to go back home. They can leave whenever they want. There’s also some fictional appropriation going on.

Stand outs include Popoola’s Extending A Hand, in which two refugees grapple with the expectations of a volunteer, Holmes’ aforementioned Paradise wherein a refugee and young volunteer connect with each other on a romantic level whilst the volunteer’s aunt looks forward to finishing up her time at the camp and getting away from it – a story of attraction in an awkward situation – and Holmes’ Ghosts, which shows the other side of the smuggling story, where payment is a necessity for the danger the various third parties are put in, where refugees are repeatedly sent back to the camp when caught but keep trying, again and again, because they see no other hope, and Popoola’s Lineage, a story that features the appropriation I’ve alluded to above, a Frenchman choosing to live in the camp.

This book isn’t out to cause a sudden change of mind in those who are worried about immigration, indeed it’s unlikely to do so – the authors haven’t written heroes or particular sob stories, the refugees are just average people who’ve found trouble. The authors have included stories of illegal activity, as discussed above. But it will likely sow a seed and make you think about that third side of the equation and that is in its favour more than anything sudden could be. The success isn’t in what is actually said but in the subtext, in what you take away.

breach gives a voice to those we so rarely hear from. It may well start a more comprehensive discussion.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Elizabeth Baines – Used To Be

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You may be ‘seeing things’ but that’s not always a bad thing.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 121
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63036-2
First Published: 15th September 2015
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Used To Be is an anthology of short stories Baines has had published over the years. The general theme is choices – the impact of important decisions and the maybes that abound in what ifs.

Baines has a distinctive way of writing. The writing itself is mostly literary; the author has no qualms over colloquial language. It’s a nice mash-up of tradition and the present day, making the book very accessible. Various tenses and persons are involved; it’s a stylistically diverse experience. The stories themselves are subtle in their meaning. These are average, everyday situations, tales that anyone can draw comparisons to in their own lives. On the surface nothing is remarkable – it could be said that the collection is just okay and nothing more. But this is key to the point – the stories are often about things that we might like to discuss further but worry about mentioning because we’re taught it should be no big deal or we think it’s nothing or we think we worry too much about it – and Baines shows how we should be thinking twice in these situations, questioning this concept of keeping the seemingly silly hidden away.

This is the case, to some extent, in Falling, in which a woman falls and hurts herself, quite badly, and once healed goes about her life in much the same way but with a different mindset. When she falls again she questions whether she should have changed her mindset, whether she was wrong. The underlying issue is never questioned. Only, then, is it really happening or is she dreaming? And/or is the person who asks her if she’s alright also dreaming? – how, exactly is the woman falling, in which way is she ‘falling’?

One of the stand-outs is Possibility in which Baines looks at choices not from one person’s perspective but from three. It’s people who are the ‘choices’ here. A lecturer, a businessman, and a newly-arrived immigrant travel on a train chosen for a suicide. You see three reactions to the incident, the different effects a cause can have, and whilst you may ‘prefer’ one to another, reading between the lines shows the validity, if you will, of each reaction. It shows the continuing effects.

Other stand-outs include the titular story, in which a woman listens to her friend’s continual tale of how happy she is whilst the reader sees something else and That Turbulent Stillness wherein a girl gives up her middle-class life to live with a factory worker, seeing her future through rose-tinted, passion-tinted, glasses.

Sometimes the stories can feel repetitive – this is where it’s worth remembering they were written separately for various outlets. There are a couple of occasions you could speculate a more pressing relationship between the stories than the overarching theme, for example the two stories that look at the Brontë sisters.

Inevitably, as a book about choices and what ifs, you’ll end up questioning your own life. Baines doesn’t offer answers so much as a study, making you realise how important even trivial-looking decisions can be. (And in study comes ambiguity and hints rather than detailed endings.)

Used To Be shows the ordinary for what it is. It reminds you that everyone is in the same boat if not on the same deck, and it’s written with a meticulous eye to detail. It’ll blow you away when you least expect it.

I received this book for review from the author.

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Maile Meloy – Half In Love

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For better or for worse.

Publisher: John Murray
Pages: 164
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-719-56771-1
First Published: 25th June 2002
Date Reviewed: 19th October 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

This is Meloy’s first collection of short stories, each confined to a scene or two and centred on emotion and the individual.

Half In Love is a short book that contains some magnificent stories and some average stories which, whilst not being in the same league as the author’s later work, do house that specialness that is unique to her.

Meloy is an expert at characterisation, pulling you into the character’s lives from the first moment; this is exactly what happens in these stories. A handful of pages long, and with Meloy’s writing style remaining as sparse as ever, you don’t expect the sheer amount of ‘pull’ there is to these stories. It’s as though an entire novel has passed before you, the stories being at once so in depth you feel you know everything there is to know about the characters whilst at the same time not being long enough. The characters practically leap off the page and it’s almost as though the lack of details as to who they are – hair colour, build, and so forth – lends the reader a freedom to truly know them. It doesn’t matter who these people are beyond the one specific subject Meloy is concentrating on. You know them.

There are a few stand outs. Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976 presents the awful moment a man discovers his wife has been unfaithful with his now dead best friend. The way it is revealed to him is both subtle and obvious. It’s an excellent piece. Native Sandstone is pretty average by itself but the meaning in it, of wanting to keep to traditional, the status quo, for no real reason, is something to think on. Ranch Girl shows what happens when you let a bad situation control your life, as does, in a different way, Garrison Junction which is interesting in part because the author goes back to the characters in another tale. And then there’s Aqua Boulevard – quite chilling, really – and The Last Of The White Slaves – which doesn’t focus on exactly what you might think.

There are some stories that seem not to be so thought out, with less meaning to them, and so you do find yourself coming down from the literary high on occasion. That said, doubtless which stories work will differ per reader.

Sporting less tight a theme than the later collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, you could be forgiven for thinking that Half In Love will not be as good. But if anything it is likely to appeal to more people and could well be said to be better in general.

And given that Half In Love was Meloy’s début, that’s not bad at all.

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Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt (ed.) – Rags & Bones

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Building from the foundations.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4722-1052-4
First Published: 22nd October 2013
Date Reviewed: 25th October 2013
Rating: 5/5

A baker’s dozen of creators, including Marr, Pratt, and one artist, have teamed together to produce a collection of short stories based on others’ works.

Rags & Bones is an anthology that retells several stories – all with some sort of fantasy, paranormal, and/or horror base – to create one solid and undeniably excellent book.

It’s interesting to note that the title of the collection comes from its concept. Marr and Pratt wished for stories that were the result of existing tales rewritten it to the effect that the meaning was still there, and perhaps certain elements (for example Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper’s Spindle is very much Sleeping Beauty) – but were still original works. As the editors put it: “boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences”.

And it works. Whilst the stories may indeed at times be easy to place within their context, at others it is more difficult. Certainly it is to the collective’s advantage that the stories chosen for reworking are not all timeless classics. There are lesser known works amongst them which means that there is a lot of ‘new’ for the reader, as well as ‘old’ – it is unlikely that any one reader will know of every story represented.

The stories themselves are compelling and the writers chosen are all rather famous. The horror in the tales is often understated and of the grim, psychological sort rather than the gore and violence sort. And the range of settings and times is vast. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain when or where a story is set. This adds to the tales rather than detracts.

So each story bares a message. Carrie Ryan’s brilliant That The Machine May Progress Eternally takes on E M Forster and weaves a foreboding tale of a child of a post-apocalyptic earth falling into the technological underworld where humans with no reason to move about study history from the safety of their kingdom. Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeping Spindle borrows from Hans Christian Anderson and switches elements around to create a humorous version of an already chilling children’s story. Melissa Marr herself channels Kate Chopin and writes of selkies, a mer-woman imprisoned by a well-meaning but abusive human, in a study of both the selkie myth itself and the wider context of inequality. And then there is the exceptional When First We Were Gods by Rick Yancey, the longest story in the book, a purely sci-fi retelling of The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne that focuses on a specific sort of human immortality, looking at what is lost when forever is achieved. Woven into the collection are Charles Vess’s illustrations, artistic retellings of older tales and poems. The addition of Vess’s work is a reprieve of sorts, a nice method of segmentation, that is provided just as much time for explanation as the written works. (Each contributor explains their inspiration and why they chose it following their story.)

The works highlighted above are those chosen by the reviewer – there are plenty more and each one is just as worthy as the rest. There are no average stories in the collection, the sensational quality is consistent throughout. And whilst the messages and meanings may differ from one to the next, the overall ideas of knowledge, of thinking before you act, of human agency in general.

On the face of it, Rags & Bones is a mixture of oft-scary genres, but it is so much more. Real horror comes in patches, slowly, and timeless fantasies tend to have a dark base. You don’t read this book, become frightened and miss a night’s sleep. You will sleep at night. What these stories do is creep into your consciousness and make you aware of very real ideas and possibilities, as well as things that already happen. And this is regardless of whether the story is of a believable future or of vampires and zombies.

The gorgeous cover art will stay with you, the collective of popular and talented talented writers will stay with you, and the concept of wishes coming with a price, like Rumplestiltskin’s promise, will stay with you and haunt you for a good while.

There are ways to scare, there are ways to inform, and then there is Rags & Bones.

I received this book for review from Headline.

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Roelof Bakker (ed.) – Still

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Visuals, the written word, and a vast reach.

Publisher: Negative Press
Pages: 171
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9573828-0-0
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2012
Rating: 5/5

Still is an anthology of short stories by an international mix of 26 writers. Each story is based on inspiration gained from a certain photograph. The concept of Bakker, credited as the editor, the book invites new interpretations of his photographic work. With submissions from writers such as Evie Wyld and Jan Van Mersbergen, and including some up-and-coming authors, the book is an assortment from the industry as a whole.

Combining artistry and writing, Still is a work stunning in both presentation and textual content. Not only are the photographs wonderful to look at – the oft-used macro details, the sharpness and detail, the sheer truth of the emptiness that engulfs you perhaps even more so than it might in real life – the design of the book is as much a strong point as the rest. Whilst for Bakker the photography is important, the book itself almost favours the writing, the photographs covering only 3/4s of a single page per story, the rest of that page given to the title. This makes it truly a book for those interested in either subject as well as those interested in both. Bakker took centre stage for his photography exhibition, and in continuing the theme by incorporating the stories and putting them first he has ensured the longevity of his own work, longer than it might have been otherwise.

The fantastic thing about the stories in Still is something Bakker notes in his introduction – often the writer has taken the photographic inspiration and run with it, leaving behind the notion of the derelict town hall. This means that there is a rough three categories of writing: the story based entirely around the photograph and its context, the story that starts with the photograph before leaping somewhere else, and the story that uses the photograph as a cleverly integrated device. Whilst the stories are in nature quite similar, which will be discussed in due course, the differences mean that the book never loses its brilliance, never becomes dull.

‘…entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.’

The book is incredibly international, with authors from all over the world contributing stories that highlight particular cultures, and bring into focus the similar experiences that everyone faces. And “faces” is the right word – these are not joyous stories, indeed some are harrowing, and most share an interesting sort of disconnect. This disconnect is between reader and the character and it almost emphasises the vacant nature of the town hall, which when you think of the way some stories do not reference the hall, makes for a whole new topic of discussion. Similar too is the basic storytelling method, one of the reasons the book is so disturbing in that fascinating way. The often sparse language, the difference in dialects and speech patterns that don’t necessarily conform to the author’s choice of setting, and the hard-hitting atmosphere these elements bring to the table.

There is a specific theme that runs through most of the book, that of politics, society, and domesticity. They may be different subjects generally, but the way they are all compiled in one binding effectively puts across the fact that they are connected. Though it is not as simple as saying that politics affects society that affects domesticity. In addition there is the theme of self and how one fits into the world. There are stories focusing on themes such as cleaning an old work place that was important to the person, a loss of place in the life of one’s child, seeking sanctuary in the church, the difference between sisters, and the loss of self and identity that can happen after an accident.

Burdensome womanhood: inviting unwanted attention from unsavoury men who give themselves permission to see a young sapling as a full-grown tree, ready to be mounted. Tiresome womanhood: bringing with it expectations of marriage, of fecundity and of the fruit of the womb. Worrisome womanhood: ushering in responsibilities and tentative, anxious dreams for one’s offspring. Militant womanhood: in a state of perpetual readiness to do battle, a lioness ready to kill for her cubs.

Bakker has achieved his aim of creating something new from something already existing, as well as creating an art book, a literary work, and a combination of both. Still would make a superb addition to the shelves of anyone who favours the freedom provided by short stories and the quick dose of cerebral reading that accompanies them.

The quotations used in this review were taken from the stories of Justin Hill and Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende respectively.

I received this book for review from the editor, Roelof Bakker.

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