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Archive for the category “Short Story Collection”

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

I’m eagerly anticipating China Miéville’s next full length novel, but a new short story collection is a more than adequate way to bridge the gap. The collection contains 28 stories, some of which are lengthy and involved and some are simply a couple of pages long. It’s hit and miss as most collections are, but the misses are never too egregious and the hits hit hard.

The titular opening story Three Moments of an Explosion is more of a tone setter than anything else; brief, unnerving and intriguing, but not much to talk about in of itself. The subsequent Polynia is much meatier, taking place in a London whose skies have been invaded by inexplicable floating icebergs and the story of a boy who becomes obsessed with them. Its environmentalist message isn’t exactly subtle, but its unsettling and awe inspiring nonetheless. Miéville does a brilliant job depicting the strangeness of the new world the Londoners find themselves in; at eye level all is the same, but a quick glance up and you can see that something is very wrong indeed. The Condition of New Death is another shorter piece, but one of my favourite of the collection; you’re given just enough for the bizarre premise to lodge in your mind for days. I adored the next story¸ The Dowager of Bees, where mysterious and arcane suits occasionally appear in the hands of those playing high stake card games. Again, a sense of unsettling and alienation is what Miéville goes for here. There’s a palpable sense of danger whenever one of these cards appears. It isn’t necessarily layered with meaning, but it’s easily one of the most fun stories in the collection. The following story is another long one, In the Slopes. This tale of two warring archaeologists as they uncover a strange civilisation and culture beneath the earth is generally quite popular, but it didn’t quite land for me. This story is pure Lovecraft, a writer Miéville owes a lot to in content if not in style. The story is told from the point of view of a bystander, which simply left me feeling remote from the events and struggling to care. Still, the image of what lurks beneath the earth is highly compelling.

The Crawl is a weird one, describing scene for scene a trailer for a fictional movie about a civil war between two types of zombie. Stripped of context, it’s largely just a series of powerful imagery. I’m not really sure what Miéville is trying to say with The Crawl, whether it is meant as a comment on films and their marketing or simply a nugget of an idea he finds interesting. It’s odd but I liked it. Watching God is about an island where strange ships come and go and is surrounded by giant strange words. I suspect there was more to this one than I picked up, but it ends up as quite a compelling look at ritual and tradition and the way minor changes can throw a community into disarray. The brilliant The 9th Technique follows; it concerns a magical artefact created from the pain of a real life torture victim of Guantanamo Bay. The combination of the relatively familiar and fantastical world of dark magic and totems with the very real horror inflicted by those who many in the West consider to be ‘the good guys’ is deeply chilling. The Rope is the World could easily be stretched to an entire novel, and is written in the style of non-fiction, describing giant space elevators which have fallen into disrepair. Only a couple of pages long, Miéville asks a couple of fascinating questions and leaves it to the reader to answer them for themselves. The Buzzard’s Egg is one of the most overtly fantastical and is narrated by the elderly guard for totems of Gods taken by some kind of controlling empire. The nature of God, as well as how many may have been forgotten in the march of empires throughout history, is the order of the day here, with the rambling unreliable narrator putting everything through am intriguingly foggy lens.

Säcken is the most straightforward horror story of the collection, and is genuinely terrifying. It may lack the edge of satire seen elsewhere, but this story of a young woman and her older academic lover travelling to a lake in Germany is a huge amount of grisly fun. It was one of my favourites. Syllabus is just that for a strange university course. I’m ignorant enough of academia that I suspect any satire here flew over my head. Dreaded Outcome is probably the most straightforward story in the collection, but so much fun, following a psychologist and her unorthodox way of helping her patients. It’s silly, darkly funny and pretty broad, but coming around the middle of a collection it offers a nice bit of breathing space from the heavier stories that sandwich it. You need that breather because the next story, After the Festival, is the most grotesque of the collection, set in a London where a mainstream festival sees select Londoners place a severed and hollowed out animal head on theirs and parade through the city. As a comment on our culture’s attitude towards meat and animals it was uncomfortable and effective, particularly as a non-vegetarian like myself. This story is held back by a weak ending which aims for ambiguous but lands on unsatisfying, but that image of the grisly parade won’t be leaving my mind anytime soon. The Dusty Hat was a weird one; at first it appears to be a satire on the inability of the hard left to work together without splitting into warring factions, something which frustrates me as a proud Lefty myself, but it takes a strange turn into the fantastical which didn’t quite work for me.

Escapee is another entertaining fake trailer, although I think I enjoyed The Crawl more. The Bastard Prompt is a brilliant little thriller about actors who take work as fake patients for doctors to train on, who begin to name bizarre and alien symptoms. It’s chilling, sinister, fun and the symptoms themselves are gloriously inventive. I’d read an entire fake medical book if Miéville was behind it. Rules briefly describes a strange children’s game, interesting enough but not particularly memorable. Estate is another story set in London involving a strange ritual, a clear fascination of Miéville’s, where a burning stag is released through the city. I couldn’t work out what the point of this one was, but the imagery is very effective and powerful. Keep was another story with a great premise and an irritatingly obtuse ending, about a contagious illness where people sink into depressions in the ground if they are still for too long. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t really come to much.

A Second Slice Manifesto is similar to Syllabus, following a strange new artistic method, but is a bit creepier and more atmospheric. I think it may be a bit of an examination on post-modernism, but I’m pretty ignorant about art so I may have missed something. Covehithe is awesome in the original sense of the word, where derelict oil rigs have picked themselves up from the ocean floor and begun to march on land. Similarly, to ­Polynia, the environmentalist message is pretty clear. It’s a cool story with some brilliant imagery in the vast, loping grace of the oil rigs. The Junket is the funniest story in the collection, about the murder of a screenwriter known for courting excessive controversy in his deeply offensive writing. It’s a brilliant take on an outrage addicted media, as well as the vapidity of offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake. Four Final Orpheuses briefly offers four alternative endings to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; they’re mildly interesting but little beyond that. The Rabbet is a creepy little ghost story about a sinister animation, but I found it a little bit too straightforward. I really enjoyed most of the more straightforward stories in the collection, but I found this one a bit irritating, even if this one had an actual ending.

Listen the Birds is the third and final fake movie script, acting as the others do as a palate cleanser of sorts before the final two stories. A Mount isn’t a story so much as a prose description of porcelain animals. I enjoy Miéville’s writing enough that even something like this has a strange majesty. The collection ends strongly with The Design, the story of a 19th century doctor who discovers beautiful scrimshawing on the bones of a body he has dissected and becomes obsessed with their mystery. Lovecraft rears his head again, with a similar sense of cosmic dread and human irrelevance. Are the bones a message from an alien or magical creature, or was God simply doodling? Answers are less important than the nagging discomfort of just not knowing.

Three Moments of an Explosion is a brilliant example of Miéville’s range. Some are a lot of fun, some truly horrific, some satirical and clever and, yes, a few are obnoxiously obtuse. Still, I’d take a self-consciously intellectual approach of Miéville over something that’s, well, stupid.

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The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

There’s significant amount of stuff that I love that was inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps chief among them being the stellar PS4 game Bloodborne, but I’d never got round to seeing where it all started. The brand of horror created by Lovecraft, for whatever reason, unsettles me and gets under my skin hugely effectively. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories is a Penguin collection of 18 of Lovecraft’s best known tales. I’ll briefly mention all of them.

The first tale is Dagon, an early tale of Lovecraft’s which serves as a forebear to the so called ‘Cthulhu mythos’ featuring vast, unknowable beings utterly beyond human understanding. It’s a relatively straightforward tale about a man who encounters the eponymous Dagon and is driven mad. It’s fairly simple by Lovecraft’s standards, but it’s a great way to open the collection functioning as it does almost as a microcosm of Lovecraft’s setting. Next is The Statement of Randolph Carter, another relatively straightforward horror story that is actually rather fun. It’s central conceit, relating a radio conversation between a man descending into an eldritch tomb and the protagonist outside, is very effective, although the ending is a bit goofy.

Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family was one of my least favourite stories in the collection. I didn’t find it particularly interesting and it is also the first case of one of the least pleasant elements of Lovecraft’s writing; a pervasive racism throughout. I’m not one for retroactively holding writers to the standards of today; much of Othello would be considered problematic today, but in the context of the time of writing Shakespeare was being pretty damn progressive having a black protagonist at all. That said, Lovecraft’s racism extends beyond the casual and normalised bigotry of the time to a genuine hatred and contempt; we’re in Rudyard Kipling territory folks. Race mixing is something which horrifies Lovecraft and this story, an account of a lost missing link race of intelligent apes who interbred with humanity, revels in that horror.

The next story, Celephaïs, was the first one that I really loved. It tells the story of a man who visits incredible lands in his dreams every night, but particularly seeks the beautiful city of Celephaïs. As Kuranes, the protagonist, seeks the city he takes more and more extreme measures in the waking world. As well as being a wonderful exercise of imagination, Lovecraft’s exploration of how we seek illusion over reality is pretty interesting and perhaps rather relevant to fantasy fans! The following story Nyarlathotep introduces a recurring figure in the Cthulhu mythos, but is in many ways more poem than prose. It’s an interesting element of the collection, but I prefer the stories with a clearer sense of narrative. The Picture in the House is a very creepy little story and the first to involve a deeply sinister book, a recurring theme of the collection. It’s not the most complex story in the collection, but it’s quite a lot of fun.

The Outsider is one of a pair of stories which seem at least partially influenced by Frankenstein, although both are influenced by different elements of the story. This one tells of someone held their entire life in a strange castle who escapes to the outside world. It’s rather predictable, but another story which is enjoyably melodramatic. Lovecraft reins in this side of his writing later on, but I must admit I quite like the slight silliness to his earlier stuff. Herbert West – Reanimator is the second of the pair of Frankenstein inspired stories, in this case much more overtly, dealing as it does with the reanimation of the dead. Herbert West – Reanimator is significantly trashier than Frankenstein and is a little bit tongue in cheek. Of the lengthier stories in the collection, this story is far from the best but it may be the most fun. The Hound is a story of a haunting by a nightmarish dog after the disturbing of a grave. It’s not exactly a new concept and to be honest Lovecraft doesn’t necessarily do much to set this story apart.

The next story was one of my absolute favourites in the collection, The Rats in the Wall, a story which seems to be a fairly straightforward ghost story before revealing itself to be something far more grand and horrible. I would have happily read a full novel about the complex and nightmarish story implied in The Rats in the Wall. The Festival comes next and introduces to the collection the idea of cults worshiping ancient beings, which is a regularly recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work. It’s not explored as closely as in later stories, but it’s still a genuinely chilling read. He is a story about New York and it’s history, with an element of time travel. It’s mostly interesting in what it tells us about Lovecraft’s disgust for the city. Next up is Cool Air, a story which is somewhat reminiscent of Herbert West- Reanimator, concerning someone keeping themselves alive through extreme means. It’s a neat little story and the last shorter story before the collection focuses on Lovecraft’s longer pieces of work.

The next story is the title story and probably Lovecraft’s best known work, The Call of Cthulhu. The story concerns a man who discovers a cult worshiping a vast creature from the ocean from a race utterly alien and greatly older than man. They are so utterly unknowable that even to look upon them is to descend into madness. I liked this story a lot, although it wasn’t my favourite of the tales concerning the Great Old Ones. There is something about the figure of Cthulhu itself which is compelling, a physicality lacking in many of the other horrible creatures which populate Lovecraft’s pantheon. A recurring theme is that the protagonist themselves rarely directly encounter the beings, but hear from those that do. This means that The Call of Cthulhu has several layers of unreliable narration, leading the reader to question a lot of what they’re told.

I loved the next story, The Colour Out of Space, about a mysterious meteorite which lands in a farm and begins to corrupt the land around it. The sense of gradual decay is wonderfully depicted and very unsettling and leads together into a natural and terrifying crescendo. The following tale, The Whisperer in Darkness, is very caught up in the Great Old One mythology and is really fascinating from a world building point of view, as well as being a really enjoyable story in it’s own right.

The Shadow over Innsmouth is one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated tales and deservedly so, it was probably my favourite one. It follows a young man travelling the coast of New England who hears of the town of Innsmouth and the strange people who reside there. This is a sinister and nasty story with a foot firmly in the Cthulhu mythos. The town itself is wonderfully depicted and truly unsettling and it has an absolutely killer ending. I would suggest that if you were to read only one Lovecraft story (from this collection), it should be this one. The final story, The Haunter of the Dark, didn’t interest me nearly as much, but that is perhaps because it was in the unenviable position of following The Shadow over Innsmouth. Taking place primarily in a dilapidated church it conjures a strong atmosphere but the actual plot didn’t really grab me.

Overall though, I really loved this collection and I’m looking forward to using it as a jumping off point to reading more Lovecraft down the line. There are certainly off putting elements of Lovecraft’s work with his clear racism being particularly difficult to stomach. That said, I do believe that art is distinct from the artist and that whilst we should condemn Lovecraft as a man, we should not as a writer. Penguin Classics have released a couple more collections and I look forward to giving them a go.

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Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

I don’t think Joe Abercrombie really gets enough credit. In a relatively short space of time he’s published 9 novels and all of them have been great, some of them genuinely outstanding. I really liked the Shattered Sea books, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing him get back to the world of the First Law. Sharp Ends, a collection of short stories set in the world of the First Law, doesn’t quite scratch the itch, at times feeling like a collection of deleted scenes, but it sure as hell does whet the appetite for more.

Some of the stories in Sharp Ends follow major and minor characters from the First Law, such as an insight into the pre-torture Sand dan Glokta, or an insight into the earlier lives of Bethod and Logen Ninefingers. The best stories however follow a pair of new characters, Styrian thief Shev and a hulking warrior priestess on the run from her sisters: Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp. They cross over with other characters from the earlier books, but they stand much better on their own. The stories span a significant range of time, from a decade before The Blade Itself to following the aftermath of Red Country.

Some of the stories which shed a light on the other sides of the novels are interesting, particularly one which follows the collateral damage of Monza Murcatto during her bloody vengeance in Best Served Cold. Some of them feel a bit inessential, being basically little fun slices following familiar characters which don’t exactly stand on their own. That means that the most substantial feeling are those following Shev and Javre. In fact, I would love to read an entire comic fantasy novel following those two. Abercrombie has a greater gift for comedy than many others in modern fantasy and I would love to see him write a full on black comedy, rather than a tragedy with comic elements that has usually been his forte.

Normally I review each story in a collection separately, but I have a job dammit and no time to do so. I can only give a vague big picture overview and that is to say that Sharp Ends is a great collection, one which leaves me hungry to see more of the First Law. Abercrombie is a unique writer in the modern fantasy scene. He’s often classed as cynical, but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Sure, Abercrombie’s characters often revel in their basest impulses and desires, but many are unified by a genuine desire to be better. They don’t always succeed, in fact they usually don’t, but that desire to be better is the interesting part. That doesn’t sound very cynical to me. I’ve read everything Abercrombie’s ever published and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

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The Devil Delivered and Other Tales by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my all time favourite series of books, but I haven’t read any of Steven Erikson’s other stuff until now. It’s interesting to see what he can do outside of the realm of fantasy and although I wouldn’t call this collection an unqualified success, it definitely has some interesting stuff and plays with some big ideas. As with the Malazan books, the biggest flaw is overambition, which is better than the opposite.

The Devil Delivered

The first story in the collection isn’t quite post-apocalyptic, taking place on the cusp of everything going to hell. Earth is on the point of collapse from a wide range of malaises, but the most striking is a handful of areas where the Ozone layer has been destroyed to such an extent that to spend too long out there is to die horribly. Such an area in North America had been regifted to the Lakota Native Americans, who have forged a new nation. Despite their hardships, a major and controversial company has invested in this fledgling country and it is clear that they hold secrets that the jealous NOAC, an American/Canadian alliance, will seek to take with military force. William Potts is a young man who is researching what is going on in the Lakota Nation, as he wanders the irradiated wasteland on a journey that can only be described as half journalistic, half vision quest.

The Devil Delivered plays with a lot of big ideas, most of which I haven’t even touched upon in my summary. Some of these ideas are fascinating and could comfortably support a short story on it’s own and the combined ideas would make a great novel, but it makes this short story feel too packed with ‘content’ and not enough with story. The Malazan books are occasionally guilty of the same thing, but Erikson did an admirable job of wrapping up most of the seemingly pointless plot strands by the end, but there just isn’t the time for that here. I know they say that you should leave your reader wanting more, but I ended up just slightly dissatisfied with The Devil Delivered, which is a shame because the future it was showing was a genuinely unique one for a variety of reasons. Sometimes authors return to their short fiction and expand them to novels and it’s usually not a great idea; I think this would be an exception.

Revolvo

Right…really not sure what to make of this one. Revolvo takes place in a bizarre unnamed Canadian city where the art establishment is supported by a complex and unwieldy tax-payer funded bureaucracy, taking the need for an audience out of the creation of art. Revolvo follows a small cast of characters who all converge at the end. We have Arthur Revell, a polite man with a strange affliction. There’s Andy, who thinks his pet octopus has it in for him. Next there’s Max, a young man from a wealthy family who seeks to join the higher echelons of the art world. There’s Sool Koobie, a literal Neanderthal with a taste for blood. Finally there is Joey ‘Rip’ Sanger, a pugnacious man who works to keep riff-raff off of the abandoned railways.

Not being Canadian or familiar with it’s art scene, I suspect that a great deal of Revolvo went over my head. The whole thing is incredibly surreal but quite enjoyable if you just enjoy the bizarre occurrences on your own terms, rather than trying to suss out exactly what Erikson is going on about. A broad message about the elitist and undemocratic nature of the art establishment seems clear, but there’s a lot of stuff which didn’t quite click for me. It’s actually structured rather like a Malazan book but in microcosm, in the way that a series of seemingly separate storylines converge into one massive blow out at the end. The conclusion of this story is a bizarre treat and Revolvo is enjoyable as a curiosity even if, like me, you don’t have a bloody clue what it’s supposed to mean.

Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie

Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie is probably the least ‘Erikson-esque’ story in the collection and possibly the most interesting. In many ways it reminds me of a Neil Gaiman story with a Canadian twist, which is no bad thing. Every summer Jock Junior and his family go to stay in the cabin of his Grandma Matchie. She is a strange, powerful and wise woman, seemingly for more ancient than she could be and takes Jock on a series of adventures, while Satan Himself lurks in the shadows.

The most striking thing about this story is Jock’s narration. It’s childlike, but also littered with slang and misunderstood words. As unreliable narrators go I’m fairly sure that I don’t trust anything that he says and even though Grandma Matchie may be the titular character, this is fundamentally a story about what’s going on in Jock’s head and how he percieves the world, making this a character study first and foremost. Detailed character work has never been Erikson’s main focus, so it’s interesting seeing him make a stab at it here. This is a slightly unfocused story, but that serves the narrative which is strange and brimming with imagination and vivid characters.

Overall, this is an interesting collection with some good stories in it. All three are ambitious and none of them quite hit the mark, making this collection perhaps feel like something of a noble failure, but one with plenty of things to enjoy nonetheless.

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The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold by Peter V. Brett

The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold are a couple of short stories set within Peter Brett’s ‘Demon Cycle’ universe. Before embarking on the most recent book, The Daylight War, I decided to give these two a go. Both cover an intriguing, and little heard of part, of the ‘Demon Cycle’ narrative; Arlen’s time as a Messenger before his betrayal by Jardir and subsequent rebirth as the ‘Painted Man.’

Brayan’s Gold

The first story of the pair follows Arlen’s very first Messanger expedition, in the mountains just outside of Fort Miln. Sent to escort a cart load of explosives to the Duke’s mines, Arlen encounters bandits, a pair of forlorn lovers and a new type of demon which he hadn’t encountered before. This is a fun story, and it’s nice to see Arlen still relatively green and still very human. Brayan’s Gold offers a fairly tight individual story within itself, and doesn’t simply feel like something which was cropped from The Painted Man. We get a nice beginning, middle and end, with this story standing as a possible beginning for Arlen’s path from talented and clever young man to the Deliverer of legend.

The Great Bazaar

Overall, I’d say that this is the stronger story of the two. ‘The Great Bazaar’ is a story is two halves; the first is Arlen’s exploration of an abandoned Krasian village to find the priceless pottery left there, and the second is his return to Fort Krasia and his dealing with the khaffit Abban. Abban is one of my favourite characters in the series, and more of him is always welcome. Much more so than ‘Brayan’s Gold’, this story fills in an essential gap in the narrative of The Painted Man; how Arlen came into the map to the ruins of Anoch Sun, an essential part of his journey into becoming the Deliverer. This leads to the story feeling much less self contained and tight than ‘Brayan’s Gold’ did, but nonetheless this story is probably the most tantalising of the two.

The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold is an interesting little diversion, far from essential but a decent read nonetheless. Don’t rush out and buy it, but if you spot it in a second hand shop like I did, or even cheap from Amazon, it’s worth picking this up and giving it a look.images (5)

The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was an odd book, and offered a fascinating and vivid alternate history which begged for re-exploration. Happily, Susanna Clarke does exactly that, with The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which contains a few stories most certainly set within the ‘Jonathan Strange’ universe, and a few which may not be. I’ll take a quick look at each individual story.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

The title story of this collection is highly tied into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, featuring the titular characters themselves and actually embellishing upon an incident only obliquely referred to in the main novel. ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ follows the friendship of three young women in Gloucestershire and their dabbling in magic, something considered to be only within the realm of men. Women didn’t really play much of a role in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as Clarke herself stated that to preserve the authenticity of the work women had to be kept in the ‘domestic sphere.’ ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ makes up for this though, with a gloriously feminist tale about women gaining a potent and natural power over men. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the collection.

On Lickerish Hill

This is one of the more forgettable stories of the collection, a variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story, telling the story of a young woman in the 17th century, who is compelled by her husband to spin an impossible amount of flax. She makes a deal with a fairy, who weaves the flax but threatens to take her away if she cannot guess his name after a month. The antiquarian spelling of this work offers some interest, but otherwise there’s not really much else to this story to distinguish it from other fairy tales.

Mrs. Mabb

This was a great improvement over the last story, and follows Venetia Moore, a young women whose fiancé, the dashing Captain Fox, has left her for the mysterious Mrs. Mabb. Venetia investigates this new woman, trying to find the secrets which she conceals. I liked this story a lot; the feminist statements of this collection are usually fairly bold, but here it’s quite subtle. Venetia is frequently characterised by her peers as hysterical, but actually has a better grasp of the situation than those around her.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse

It’s never nice when a story fails to live up to its own name, but that’s what we have here. This story borrows the setting of Wall from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but doesn’t use it in any particularly interesting way. The pompous and arrogant Duke of Wellington angers the proud folk of Wall during a visit and finds that they have let his horse free. The Duke goes forth to find his horse and finds a mysterious woman weaving the tapestry of his fate. I didn’t really understand what this story contributed to the collection; a lot of short story collections have a story like this, a lightweight one which falls in the middle between the more significant entries. It’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Wall, but the setting is completely underutilised.

Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower

This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, told from the diaries of Alessandro Simonelli, a pompous and arrogant cad who’s sent from Cambridge to be the rector of a small village. There he encounters a strange house filled with even stranger inhabitants, and is involuntarily drawn into the mystery of this house, as well as his own lineage. Simonelli is a nasty piece of work, but a lot of fun to read about, with his conceited attitude providing a lot of laughs. There’s an interesting unreliable narrator element here too, and we have to wonder how much Simonelli is twisting events to present himself as a hero.

Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby

This was another story I thoroughly enjoyed; at its core it focuses upon the unlikely friendship between the fairy Tom Brightwind and the Jewish doctor David Montefiore. The relationship and banter between these two is delightful, and more than any other story in the collection I felt that there was a lot more I’d like to see from these characters. Tom and David are journeying to Lincoln, and along the way come to the village of Thoresby, which has fallen on hard times due to a series of misfortunes. Tom decides to intervene, in an unsurprisingly convoluted and bizarre fashion. This story was a lot of fun, and certainly stands as one of my favourites.

Antickes and Frets

Like the earlier story about the Duke of Wellington, the protagonist of this story is a real historical figure, in this case Mary, Queen of Scots. This story tells of her detention by the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her attempts to use dark magic to curse Queen Elizabeth and assist her political plotting. This is definitely a better story than ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse’, but it’s still not really a standout. Mary’s palpable vindictive fury is the highlight of this story, but there isn’t otherwise much else to recommend it.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner

The final story of the collection concerns itself with a figure absolutely key to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Uskglass, the Raven King who ruled Northern England for centuries. This story is presented as a folk tale concerning a time where Uskglass was defeated by a lowly charcoal burner, and an entertaining story it is too. Although written in a much plainer style than the rest o the stories, it has a lot of depth to it, particularly in regard to religion and class. It doesn’t necessarily seem like much at first, but I ended up thinking of this story as one of the most interesting in the collection; more stories about the enigmatic Raven King would be fine with me!

Conclusion

It’s a rare short story collection which is all hits and no misses, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories has its fair share of misses. That said, those misses tend to the shorter stories, so this is definitely a collection worth giving a go, especially if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There’s a lot of fantasy with women in it, but not much about women, so The Ladies of Grace Adieu at least offers something which feels fresh. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Susanna Clarke goes next!logabktitlepgblog

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

Taking another of my occasional forays outside of genre fiction, I followed the recommendation of a friend and gave First Love, Last Rites a go, the first publication of the renowned English author Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of the most respected writers in the English language of the last 50 years, so I was likely destined to come across him eventually. First Love, Last Rites is an interesting collection, containing possibly the most shocking and appalling scenes of depravity which I’ve ever read. I’d thought myself beyond being shocked, but Ian McEwan only went right ahead and did it. Seriously, this collection makes Blasted by Sarah Kane look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As I did with China Miéville’s Looking for Jake short story collection, I’ll briefly look at each story and give my thoughts.

Homemade

The first story of the collection is also the most disturbing. McEwan’s unnamed narrator is a teenaged young man, schooled in depravity by an older friend, and has become fixated with the loss of his virginity. In a dispassionate and callous narrative, the narrator has sex with his ten year old sister in an unbearably graphic conclusion which affected me with a visceral horror. Now, it’s important to break taboos. In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the primary purposes of art. However, there must, must, always be a point to this. To do otherwise is simple nihilism, a world view which I consider abhorrent and I feel entirely unsympathetic to. I’m not convinced that McEwan is saying anything of substance here, that he isn’t simply setting out to shock; it must be taken into account that this story is the first story in McEwan’s first published work, and therefore the first that many in the literary establishment would have encountered of him. Perhaps this story is a statement of defiance, an aggressive posturing to say that ‘no, I will not write the way you want me to’, but it doesn’t stop this story from being an utterly miserable, lurid little mess which negatively colours the entire collection.

Solid Geometry

Happily, following my least favourite story in the collection came my favourite. ‘Solid Geometry’ is also told in the first person, and not from the point of view of a child as most of the stories in the collection are. The narrator is editing the diaries of his great-grandfather, and has become obsessed with them, and the mystery of the vanishing of ‘M’, an enigmatic figure who played a key role in the diaries. This obsession has come at the cost of his relationship with his wife Maisie, a rather pitiful and pathetic figure for whom her husband feels nothing but contempt. In his journey through the diaries, the narrator encounters the story of the discovery of a ‘plane without a surface’, a geometrical impossibility, which McEwan imbues with a palpably sinister energy. This story fundamentally unsettled me, and I found frightening in a way which actual ‘horror’ novels rarely achieve for me. Something about this story truly upset me, and bothered me on a profound level, precisely the reaction I suspect that McEwan was going for. He doesn’t do so through simply shock value as he does in ‘Homemade’, but through some incredibly clever writing and story development. If you only read one story from First Love, Last Rites, that story should be ‘Solid Geometry.’

Last Day of Summer

This story is an odd one, and one of the few lacking in overt sexual themes. Instead, we have a story which feels the most ‘respectable’ in the collection. ‘Last Day of Summer’ is the story of a young orphan, who lives with his brother in a sort of commune. Jenny, an obese and anxious young woman, joins the members of the commune, and over the course of a summer becomes something of a surrogate mother figure to our narrator and Alice, the daughter of a young woman whose priorities lie with her own social life rather than her child. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one, but it certainly is beautifully written. McEwan may be most interested in portrayal of depravity and perversion in First Love, Last Rites, but he does a good job conveying a beautiful nostalgia for an English summer.

Cocker at the Theatre

This story is very much the oddball of the collection, a very short little vignette set in a theatre. The show is a bawdy pornographic production, in which pairs of naked dancers simulate sex to raunchy music. Much to the horror of the director and choreographer, one couple aren’t simulating. I wasn’t quite sure why this story was included in the collection; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’ it still fits thematically with the rest, and this one really doesn’t; it’s quite baffling really. That said, it’s quite funny and good for a couple of giggles, a pleasant respite from the sinister horror which bookends it.

Butterflies

‘Butterflies’ deals with themes as disturbing as those in ‘Homemade’, but in a much more successful manner. Our narrator this time is a lonely, isolated man with a strange physical deformity, an outcast. He’s not a child in body, but in many ways he is one in mind. Our narrator is the last witness to the drowning of a young girl in a canal, and it’s not difficult to predict that there’s more to this event than what he claims to the police. The real horror of  this story is the sympathy we are invited to feel for our protagonist, we empathise with his loneliness and wish him to find happiness. The revelation of the terrible crimes that our narrator has committed sits very uncomfortably with our earlier sympathy, in a profoundly disturbing insight into the mind of an extremely damaged individual.

Conversation with a Cupboard Man

This was probably my second favourite story after ‘Solid Geometry.’ It shies away from the depraved sexuality of the other stories, instead focusing upon cruelty and horror of a different sort. Our narrator is a young man who had been kept until the age of 18 at the developmental stage of an infant, by a truly disturbed mother. Although not actually mentally impaired, our narrator might as well have been, stuck with the temperament of a two year old for most of his life. Upon getting a new boyfriend, our narrator is kicked out of the house, and soon has to fend for himself in a world he is woefully unprepared for. It’s a fascinating, and horrifying idea, and more so than any other story in this collection it could be fleshed out to make a great full novel. The brevity of this story is actually a bit of a shame, I’d have loved to follow this character more, but what we do have is a highly interesting story, with a rather heartbreaking protagonist, clearly highly intelligent, yet entirely incapable of escaping the damage done to him.

First Love, Last Rites

The title story of this collection is an odd one; it’s definitely not one of the more interesting stories, but McEwan must have been particularly fond of it to name the collection after it. This story is of a young man living with his girlfriend, Sissel, spending most of their time loafing around and having sex. Sissel and our narrator are regularly visited by Sissel’s brother Adrian, a precocious little sod fleeing his broken home. Behind their wall, Sissel and our narrator have been hearing an odd scratching noise. I found it really hard to get to grips with this story; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’, it at least provoked a reaction from me, but this didn’t really give me anything. Perhaps a closer reading is in order, but I don’t necessarily have the inclination to do so; I’m far from certain that it would be worth my time.

Disguises

The final story of the collection is another oddball; it is not told in the first person as in the others, which creates an odd sense of detachment from everything, quite unlike the horrific throwing into the midst and internal torrent that defines the rest of the collection. ‘Disguises’ follows a young boy named Henry, who has been adopted by his aunt following the death of his mother. Aunt Mina is an actress, perhaps once talented but now doing little more than television ads. She is also pretty much entirely insane. Every evening she dresses herself and Henry in strange costumes and role plays; Henry is acquiesces to this, until he is forced into cross dressing. This is another story about sexual awakening, but of a gentler sort to that seen in ‘Homemade’. Henry’s first stirrings of lust for a girl in his class is presented in a rather sweet way, as actually perfectly natural and healthy. Henry’s sexual identity seems to be doing fine on its own; it is the outside influence of Mina which threatens to complicate matters. Perhaps, after all of the horror which we have witnessed in this collection, McEwan is revealing that the innocence of children is not a lie, that this corruption is external, not internal. Henry is a victim. So is the Cupboard Man. In a twisted way, the rapist/murderer protagonist of ‘Butterflies’ is a victim too.

 

First Love, Last Rites is an uneven collection, but that said there are very few short story collections out there without their fair share of misses alongside the hits. ‘Solid Geometry’ and ‘Conversation with a Cupboard Man’ are excellent, and worth the price of entry alone, but that’s not to say that there isn’t anything else of value here. This is a very dark collection, profoundly disturbing and upsetting to read, but it has nonetheless piqued my interest in McEwan. FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES.

Looking for Jake and Other Stories by China Miéville

I never fail to be impressed by China Miéville. There are few genuine literary innovators in the genre, and Miéville is arguably the best of them. Looking for Jake and Other Stories is his first collection of short stories, containing fourteen overall, most notably his novella The Tain. Since I haven’t revieweda book of short stories before, I’m going to experiment and take a quick look at all of them and briefly assess their successes and failures (but mostly successes).

Looking for Jake

The titular Looking for Jake established the primary theme which runs through the collection; London. The unnamed protagonist is combing a London which has suffered a  vaguely defined apocalypse to find his closest companion Jake. The bizarre apocalypse to have befallen London has a wonderfully ill-defined quality to it, and Miéville spells nothing out for us. Although I was impressed enough by this story at first, I do find it somewhat odd that this was the one chosen to headline the collection, as it’s arguably actually one of the weaker stories. Very similar themes to this story are re-explored in other stories in the collection, and to greater success. It’s still a treat to read however, and this means that it doesn’t fall into the common anthologising trap of setting such as high bar at the opening of the collection that nothing else manages to live up to it.

Foundation

Foundation is the only story which contains no element of the supernatural, but it is certainly very strange. It tells the story of a contractor and veteran of the first Gulf War, haunted by the atrocities he committed in Iraq. Miéville has long been a staunch human rights advocate and critic of military incursions in the Middle East by the West, and this is the most overtly representative of current events in the collection. Although other stories certainly reflect Miéville’s left wing leanings, in few is it as overt as in this one. It is interesting that Miéville’s sympathetic protagonist of the tale is the committer of the atrocity rather than the victim, reflecting that unrestrained military jingoism can destroy the lives of people on either side of a conflict.

The Ball Room

The Ball Room is probably the most straight forward story in the collection, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fun. It’s a rather chilling little story about the ball pens found to entertain the children in department stores. The satire upon consumerism is somewhat heavy handed in this one, but it’s hard to get too wound up by it because it’s just such an entertaining read. I really won’t say much more about this one, as to say much more would be to give it away.

Reports of Certain Events in London

Now, this is a spot on example of the kind of innovation that makes Miéville such an impressive writer. The underlying concept off the story is that the author China Miéville has accidently received a package intended for a certain Charles Melville. The package contains a series of different texts, from committee minutes to letter, which Miéville presents in order to the reader. The different texts tell an interesting, somewhat Neil Gaiman-esque tale which is made all the more fun to read about for the intriguing way it is presented (I’m beginning to realise that Miéville has quite a lot in common with Mr. Gaiman.)

Familiar

This is one of the creepiest stories in the collection, and does an excellent job of undermining expectation. At the beginning of the story, the tale is told from the point of view of a witch who creates a familiar (an animal consort) to bolster his power. Disgusted by the grotesque creature that results, he dumps the familiar in a canal in London. The POV shifts at this point from the witch to the familiar, as it makes its way through London, growing as it does so. What is set up as a fairly standard Frankenstein-esque story , tutting at the hubris of creating life and playing god becomes something much more interesting as we are privy to the alien thought processes of the familiar. This is probably the strangest story in the collection, but certainly one of the most compelling and unique.

Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia

Miéville wrote a summary of a fictional disease for an anthology of fictional diseases for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases which also contained contributions from writers such as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fun and whimsical couple of pages, of which I shall say no more.

Details

Miéville wrote this one for an anthology inspired by H.P Lovecraft, and there is certainly something eerily Lovecraftian about this tale. A young boy is tasked by his mother to bring food to a mysterious woman who refuses to leave her flat and is also regularly visited by an odd motley group of people. This is one of those stories which, after reading it, reshapes how  you see the world for a time. It crawls into your head and refuses to leave, and I personally found it deeply unsettling. Miéville’s talents as a horror writer are on full display here.

Go Between

Go Between tells the tale of a man who, for several years, has been receiving strange instructions to deliver seemingly random items from location to location. The protagonist agonises as to what effect his deliveries are having, as he considers stopping the deliveries in case he supports a malignant cause, but fearful to stop in case he is aiding a good one. The concept itself is a compelling one, but it is the internal torment of a good man in an impossible situation which is so interesting to read about.

Different Skies

This story is about a lonely old man who purchases a bizarre and old fashioned window. After having it installed in his London flat, he realises that, in the middle of the night, it looks out upon a different sky to the others surrounding it. Forces beyond the window begin to torment him, and we are left with an interesting twist on the ‘group of nasty young kids torment a pensioner’ trope. This is a fairly straight forward fantastical reinterpretation, but it’s certainly a compelling and creepy story, if not one of the collection’s strongest.

An End to Hunger

This is another of Miéville’s overtly political texts, relating the relationship between the protagonist and a radical Turkish hacker named Aykan, who becomes obsessed with bringing down the website of a charity known as ‘An End to Hunger.’ This story reflects Miéville’s own disdain for shallow corporate gestures of charity, and he does an excellent job of buoying you along with his outrage. Of particular geeky fun is the fact that Akyan programs a revolutionary left wing gaming experience in a Nintendo 64 cartridge. That made me smile.

Tis the Season

This was originally written for the Socialist Review, and tells a satirical tale of a future in which holidays, most notably Christmas, have been privatised. Those unable to afford an ‘official’ Christmas can experience cheaper knockoff alternatives such as ‘XmasTym.’ This is the funniest story in the collection, as Miéville depicts a motley collection of amusing protest groups trying to bring back their beloved holiday. This is a nice hearty slice of satire as it should be; funny, yes, but with teeth.

Jack

I will confess that it was for this story that I bought this collection. Jack is set in New Crobuzon, the main city of the fantastical Bas-Lag setting of his novels Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. I absolutely love this world, and want to read every little scrap of literature set in it. Although it is certainly brief, it was very nice to return to New Crobuzon for a spell. Jack tells the story of Jack Half a Prayer, a sort of Robin Hood figure of New Crobuzon who was ‘Remade’ with a giant praying mantis claw on one of his hands. He is a figure who appears fleetingly in Perdido Street Station and by Iron Council has entered into the realm of legend. This story doesn’t bring us any closer to the man himself, but does explore the legend without sacrificing the air of mystery which surrounds the character.

On the Way to the Front

This one…well, it honestly went a bit over my head. This story is told in graphic novel format, but due to the limitations of typical novel printing quality which mostly only needs to print words it can be very hard to tell what is going on. I’m far from an expert on graphic novels though, so I can’t really speak to its quality.

The Tain

This is the main selling point of the collection, and the most lengthy and complete story that it contains. The Tain in many ways bringing the collection full circle, returning to the idea of an apocalyptic London (although this is a different apocalypse to the one see in Looking for Jake). The Tain depicts a London that has fallen to an invasion of bizarre creatures known as ‘imagos’, and I won’t say anything more about where they have come from, but to say that it’s an interesting idea well executed. In many ways, this story combines elements from all the other stories of the collection (although from some more than others). The setting is reminiscent of Looking for Jake, it reshapes your perception of the world like Details and it reflects the political bent of Foundation.

 

Overall, this is an excellent collection, and would make a good starting point to Miéville (with the exception of Jack, that should be read after his other Bas-Lag books). To date, this is the only collection Miéville has published, and I eagerly anticipate the next one, which I’m sure is one day forthcoming.

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