Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

"The Best British Short Stories 2015" by Nicholas Royle (ed) (Salt, 2015)

Stories from a wide range of magazines, only "Unthology" and "Lighthouse" being sourced twice. Big-named publications are The Guardian and New Statesman. Big-named authors include Hilary Mantel, Helen Simpson, and Alison Moore.

"Lucky" is interesting , slipping from teenage reality to near fable. I liked the idea of where the men are in "The Iron Men", but the rest of the piece was too ordinary. In "Festschrift" the narrator imagines talking to an ex-lover (which doesn't appeal to me). Sometimes it's verbose - "What modulation of emotion was I supposed to apply to the words I had written for myself to speak; words that were, after all, not just to him and about him, but of him, from him, using him and his ideas" (p.56). Sometimes it's puzzling - "I crossed the room, ... cutting across the aesthetic logic of the tiles as surely as if I were chopping the hands from the statues of saints" (p.56). Sometimes it's more striking - "He wasn't a bad dancer, he had a very limited repertoire of moves, but was always moving, slightly, ponderously, rather as if wanting to give the impression that at any moment he was about to start really dancing. She, on the other hand, was a bad dancer, but was making up for this with a familiar repertoire of affectations that somehow took the place of dancing; placing herself provocatively close to him, shaking her hair, throwing back her head to laugh" (p.59).

I didn't get "Five Thousand lads a year". In "Lightbox" (6 pages) a man's relationship with a woman seems to consist in being where she is, watching her silently, following her online, and knowing where she is all day. Turns out he's a voyeur.

"Green Boots' Cave" is short, and has sufficient tricks per page to be appealing. I've seen "The Clinic" before. Ends too soon, too openly. "May the Bell Be Rung For Harriet" has a half-page of magic realism in otherwise average prose. "Strong Man" is by Helen Simpson. I used think her and AL Kennedy equally promising. I think Simpson's well behind now. In her story there are hints of family violence, spouse-rivalry and an impending affair, none of which lead to anything. Interesting enough.

"Voice Over" seemed a bit light at first, but ok in the end. In "The Lake Shore Limited" there's a long train ride during which the narrator recounts his past. In "The First Day" (4 pages) we're led to think that a mother's taking a child to her first day at school (see "Lightbox"). "Go Wild in the Country" features the anthology's second writer in residence. This one has relationship problems and tries magic mushrooms (writers, drugs and relationship problems are 3 subjects to avoid, according to a DON'Ts list I've recently read). "Secondhand Magic" is long and about witches, and yet I grew to like it - "It is an easy thing to take a handful of snow and fashion it into a boy, easier than most anyone would believe. Snow longs to be something else. Bread does not wish to be flesh, water does not wish to be wine, stones do not wis to bleed - but snow, snow wishes always to be the thing that is not" (p.174).

I was puzzled by the final sentence of "Fresh Water". "The common people" is well written, but doesn't add up to much. "Eastmouth" is a typical Alison Moore story. "The Tourists" is the 2nd story in the book by Julianne Pachino. I like the way she writes. "Worlds From the Word's End" is about how language went out of fashion - first nouns, then grammar - "What did we do with the space in our minds that had constantly processed what we read? Well ... I guess we processed other things, but what they were, we could no longer say" (p.235).

There are several unlikeable narrators. There's uncertainty about the nature of the narrator or a main character. Sometimes the mood and tone are the key features.

Other reviews

  • Nicholas Lezard (It would appear that – going by this collection and scrutinising the author biographies – your chances of appearing in Best British Stories 2016 will be given a boost by (1) being a woman, (2) having a connection with the north west ..., and (3) writing your story in the present tense. ... Also, (4): be a bit weird, or uncanny)

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