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Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Zero Hours – Neil Campbell

Zero Hours is Neil Campbell’s second novel, the sequel to 2016’s Sky Hooks (which I haven’t read, though the new book mostly stands alone). As its title suggests, this is a novel about work:

Try doing some of this zero hours shit. If you’re off sick then drag your arse in because you won’t be getting sick pay, you’ve got no rights whatsoever. Day after day you phone in asking for work. Day after day you sign in at the desk, just another face from the agency. On the phone, they used to call you for work. Now you have to call them. Time after time it’s engaged.

Campbell’s narrator is a young working-class man from Manchester. Throughout the novel he works a number of zero hours jobs, first at a mail-sorting depot, later at a number of libraries. There is nearly always something to dishearten our man, be it his duties, colleagues, managers, or just the constant uncertainty that comes with this kind of employment. Besides work, the narrator has a number of unsuccessful attempts at relationships, and sees the face of his city change, losing its character to gentrification. There’s a stop-start feel to reading the novel itself: as with zero hours work, the present moment is all, and even the immediate future uncertain.

Alongside his ‘day job’, the protagonist is a writer, active in the local literary scene and with a number of books published. This comes across as the glue holding the man’s life together, a source of continuity in contrast to pretty much everything else happening in his world. Sometimes reading Zero Hours feels like eavesdropping; at other times, it’s like being confided in. It makes one hope that, by novel’s end, there will be some light on the horizon.

Book details

Zero Hours (2018) by Neil Campbell, Salt Publishing, 138 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Read my review of Neil Campbell’s chapbook ‘Jackdaws’ (Nightjar Press) here.

Mothers – Chris Power: a Splice review

Today’s review is about an excellent short story collection, but first I want to introduce the venue. Splice is a new review site and small press set up by Daniel Davis Wood. It has been online only a couple of weeks, but I think it’s already establishing a distinctive and interesting approach. Each week, the site focuses on a single title: a review is published on Monday, followed by a feature or extract on Wednesday, and a round-up of related links on Friday.

This week’s book is Mothers, the debut collection from Chris Power, who writes the Guardian’s ‘brief survey of the short story‘ series. I’ve written the Monday review of Mothers, and I found it a fascinating book to read and think about.

Mothers is a collection of ten stories, mostly featuring characters who are lost in some way, often at moments of great change in their lives. Three of the stories concern the same character, Eva, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she becomes a mother herself. Mothers is also particularly cohesive as a collection – not that the stories are linked as such, but they cast light and shade on each other in a way that’s quite remarkable to experience.

Some links:

Mothers is published in the UK on 1 March by Faber & Faber.

Book details

Mothers (2018) by Chris Power, Faber & Faber, 304 pages, hardback (review copy).

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

In the Absence of Absalon – Simon Okotie

This book is the sequel to Simon Okotie’s 2012 debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, which I haven’t read. I’m reading the second novel by itself because it’s longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, and it seems fine as an entry point. The previous book concerned a detective named Marguerite who was searching for Harold Absalon (“the Mayor’s transport advisor,” according to In the Absence). Now Marguerite has also gone missing, and we follow an unnamed investigator who is looking for him. 

In the Absence of Absalon begins with the detective outside a townhouse belonging to one Richard Knox, a colleague of Harold Absalon’s. This place is critical to our man’s investigation, but he’s taking his time over going in. He has a lot on his mind, or at least his thoughts are related in great detail. For example, here he’s placed a foot on the first step up to the house, and is thinking about taking a key from his trouser pocket:

What he realised, as he lifted the heel of the foot that he’d placed upon that step, was that he could not have known that placing his foot in this position would have tightened the aperture and interior of the pocket in question to the extent that it had. Further evidence had, in short, become known to him during the course of his action, evidence to suggest that the main advantage of it, which was to reduce the distance between his right hand and the equivalent trouser pocket, may, in fact, be outweighed by the main disadvantage… 

That sentence goes on for almost as long again. I want to give you some idea of what the prose is like (I understand that the first book is similar), because you really have to give yourself over to what the novel is doing in order to appreciate it. It’s like an extreme close-up of thought over action; we’re at 92 pages (almost halfway through) before the detective actually takes his keys out of his pocket.

Once I’d got used to the rhythms of In the Absence, I found the experience highly enjoyable. The detective ponders such topics as the appropriateness of wearing a wetsuit for a business transaction, or the tendency of people in households with more than one telephone to still refer to ‘the phone’, singular. Reading the book made me think of the little notions that flash through one’s mind in an instant, barely registered; this is like having those notions brought out for full consideration. 

But In the Absence is still a detective novel, and there is indeed a mystery to be solved. Alongside the novel’s main third-person account are footnotes written in first-person by someone (the detective? our unknown narrator?) who has insinuated his way into Harold Absalon’s job and started an affair with Absalon’s wife, Isobel. And the detective’s investigation becomes more pressing when he sees Isobel Absalon through the window of the townhouse. I feel that I’ve been able to piece together an idea of what was going on. In any case, what a powerful moment of ‘decompression’ there is at the end when both reader and narrator stop and look around. Now I’d like to go back and read Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? to see if I’m right about everything, and if it’s as good as the sequel.

Book details 

In the Absence of Absalon (2017) by Simon Okotie, Salt Publishing, 196 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: Q&A with Will Eaves 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with one of the authors shortlisted for the NSSA, Will Eaves. (Read my review of his story ‘Murmur’ here.) 

How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017?

It’s an honour, of course. I like in particular the NSSA’s relationship with radio, which is an intimate medium. A radio voice speaks to listeners one by one, in their rooms, in their cars, in the bath. One hears that voice with a dramatic sense of others caught in the act of listening.

Can you give us a bit of background information to your shortlisted story? What inspired you to write it?

It’s a story that comes at the beginning of something longer – a chain of linked stories about a scientist struggling to maintain physical and emotional equilibrium in the wake of his conviction for Gross Indecency. Alan Turing is an obvious inspiration; but equally clearly the story spins away – far away – from his recorded circumstances. “Murmur” and its companion pieces are collectively a fantasia on the life of the mind, logical paradox, loyalty, and love.

The unique element of the BBC NSSA is that your story will be read by an actor and broadcast to Radio 4 listeners. Have you thought about what your characters’ voices might sound like, or do you have a particular voice in your head?

The speaker is a man in his forties. His voice might have an edge; he’s sharp but not severe; careful; quick to notice things, sad; occasionally vexed, not short-tempered.

What do you enjoy most about writing in the short story form, as opposed to longer-form or novels?

I’ve submitted to the NSSA before, always in the knowledge that I don’t write conventional short-form fiction. (I have a high regard for those who do: see reading suggestions below.) The truth is that I’m never sure what form I’m writing in. One has some idea of the material, the scale and shape, but these are rather different things. I’m not the sort of person who decides to write a poem or a novel or a story. The whole process is extremely uncertain. I tend to follow the voice. Form and content must grow together.

Which short story or collection by another author would you recommend to readers and why?

“Regret” by Guy de Maupassant. An old man confronts the woman he has always loved – the wife of a friend. Would she indeed have given herself to him, that sunny day years ago when they walked together by the riverside after lunch? A masterpiece of concision and tension, the whole story is strung upon the agony of a simple, devastating “what if?”

Also: “Millennium Blues” by Helen Simpson, from Hey Yeah Right Get A Life – an unimprovably great title that her US publisher wanted to change to: Getting A Life

Which short story writer would you recommend to readers and why?

Flaubert (Trois Contes, and “Herodias”, in particular), Maupassant, Chekhov. Among contemporaries: Alice Munro, for her handling of time, and brilliant voicing. The thought and the said run together effortlessly. Her best collection is probably Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (2001), but they are all good.

What are you reading at the moment?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman. A historian friend introduced me to this. It’s a vivid commentary on the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, and the economic and tactical disaster of chivalric combat. You can only read a few pages at a time because the violence and suffering are so disgusting.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

I’m not sure. It changed from week to week, I think. My first great emotional experience was reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, late into the night, under my covers, and feeling distraught. I cried myself to sleep – I’ve loved spiders ever since. I liked Conan Doyle and Saki as a young teen (“Tobermory”), and still do. Then Persuasion and Jane Austen. As an uncertain gay adolescent, I found Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography uplifting, and very funny.

Was there one writer that inspired you to start writing?

No, because I didn’t think very much about who had written what. I liked reading on my own and the feeling of liberation and retreat that came with scribbling in exercise books. Music was as important to me as literature when I was growing up, and songs and piano and 60s/70s R&B and funk (Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder) still matter. Musical composition makes sense to me. When I started acting, I found myself drawn to Shakespeare’s late plays (The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale) for the transformations and magic. I’ve never set out to write anything in a particular style, although I do absorb the work of other writers and think about it over a long period of time. That’s essential. I try to notice and remember solutions to different technical problems. There’s a chapter in Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time (the whole book is lovely) that taught me how to move from one centre of consciousness to another. She makes it look so easy. Dickens helps one to be brave about changes in register and address.  

Will Eaves was born in Bath in 1967 and educated at Beechen Cliff Comprehensive and King’s College, Cambridge. He worked for twenty years as a journalist and was the Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011. He teaches in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick. He is the author of four novels: The Oversight (Picador, 2001; shortlisted for the Whitbread – now Costa – First Novel Award), Nothing To Be Afraid Of (Picador, 2005; shortlisted for the Encore Award), This Is Paradise (Picador, 2012), and The Absent Therapist (CB Editions, 2014; shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize); and two collections of poetry: Sound Houses (Carcanet, 2011) and The Inevitable Gift Shop (CB Editions, 2016; shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry). He lives in Brixton, London.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

It fascinates me how vastly different styles of writing can draw me in equally effectively. Will Eaves’s piece was fragmented and formal; Jenni Fagan’s is rolling, with a gossamer touch. Both embody what they want to tell superbly.

We join Fagan’s protagonist, Jessie, as she makes precautions to ensure that her newly-deceased father’s soul will not return to the house. This is an old tradition carried on into the present day; contemporary details puncture the narrative, destabilising its folktale-like tone.

All the women on Jessie’s Hebridean island, except her, became selkies at the age of twelve; but she is about to undergo a transformation of her own. None of this feels in any way out of place: Fagan maintains that measured tone, and the story unfurls as she goes.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Waken’.

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