Tag: Spectral Press

Three tales

Mike O’Driscoll, Eyepennies (2012)

This is the first in a new series of novellas from TTA Press, the publishers of Interzone and Black Static magazines. Eyepennies is named after a song by Sparklehorse, the musical project of the late Mark Linkous, who took his own life in 2010 (and to whom Mike O’Driscoll dedicates the piece). O’Driscoll’s protagonist is not strictly a fictionalised version of Linkous, but he is a musician named Mark who’s had a near-death experience.

Mark has been beset by bad dreams and waking visions, and this has taken its toll on his life and relationships. He withdraws into his music, feeling that a new album will provide the breakthrough that can lead to stability. But, listening to his previous albums for inspiration, he can hear sounds and voices in them that shouldn’t be there.

Eyepennies is a fine portrait of a person under psychological strain. O’Driscoll maintains the ambiguity over whether Mark’s experiences are supernatural or delusional in origin (and, indeed, over whether that makes any practical difference). The novella’s fragmented structure (reaching back into different periods of the protagonist’s life) further underlines the diffuse state of Mark’s mind. This is a good start for the novella series, and I look forward to future instalments.

André Maurois, A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles (1928)
Translated from the French by Charlotte de Koch

First published in 1928 (and now given a new edition by Turtle Point Press), A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles is a novella chronicling the adventure at sea of one Pierre Chambrelan and his companion Anne de Sauves.

Though they intend to cross the Pacific, a storm causes the pair to land on the privately owned island of Maïana, where life is devoted to the arts. The island has two castes of inhabitants: the Articoles, who spend all their time creating artworks; and the Béos, who use wealth from the island’s copious natural resources to support the Articoles. Pierre and Anne are kept on Maïana for several weeks, to see if the Articoles can draw on the pair’s experiences and personalities for material.

As well as a tale of seafaring, Maurois’s novella is a study of the dangers of insularity. The Articoles have become drawn into art so much that they have disengaged with the world and lost their empathy – their idea of madness is to think about life rather than art. Pierre starts off in his own (less extreme) state of disengagement: metaphorically adrift in life, living only for the romance of the voyage (Anne wanted to accompany him for similar reasons). His experiences on Maïana lead him to take stock, and find new connections with the world and other people. Yet here Pierre is, writing a journal of his voyage, just as the Articoles would – so perhaps he hasn’t left the past behind entirely after all. A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.

(This review also appears on We Love This Book.)

Alison Littlewood, The Eyes of Water (2012)

This Spectral Press chapbook takes us to Mexico, where Alison Littlewood’s diver-protagonist Alex contemplates the gruesome death of his friend Rick. Far more skilled than Alex, Rick had been exploring one of the water-filled caves known as cenotés when something tore off his face. Alex learns that the Maya used the cenotés as places of sacrifice – and a vision of Rick encourages him to go exploring himself. There’s a nice sense of place about this story, particularly where the cenotés are concerned. Littlewood also constructs her plot skilfully, managing to tick all the event-boxes one expects to be ticked, whilst still leaving space for the denouement to head somewhere else.

Book notes: Cossé, Levine, Unsworth

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (2009/10)

A Novel Bookstore is the ninth novel by French writer Laurence Cossé (the translaltion is by Alison Anderson); one of the launch titles for the UK imprint of Europa Editions; and a celebration of literature. Ivan Georg is a bookseller who has reached his forties mostly drifting through life; but that all changes when he meets Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, a fellow-lover of literature, with the wealth to turn a vision into reality – and the particular vision which the pair has is a bookstore which will stock only good novels, as selected by a secret committee of writers. The Good Novel bookstore duly opens inParis, and is a great success; but there are those who seek to discredit this well-intentioned enterprise – even to the point of physically attacking its committee members.

Though Cossé’s novel is framed as a mystery, its structure (with a lengthy detour in the middle detailing the history of The Good Novel) – and, indeed, the very resolution of the mystery – suggests that this element is not the main point of A Novel Bookstore; rather, it’s about the value of literature itself. There are direct statements of what good novels can do – literature ‘prepares you for life’ (p. 150), it ‘bring[s] like-minded people together and get[s] them talking’ (p. 81) – but we also see how literature has enriched the lives of the characters who write and read it in the book.

There are aspects of A Novel Bookstore which seem less disruptive here than I’d usually find them in a novel – such as the passages where Ivan and Francesca discuss books, passages which are detailed but don’t drag – and I’m not sure whether I am just cutting the book more slack because I share its enthusiasm for literature, and it imagines a place where I’d love to shop. Well, if that’s the case, so be it; for today, the celebration is enough.

Reviews elsewhere: A Common Reader; Of Books and Reading; Books are My Boyfriends; Nonsuch Book.

Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (2012)

Sara Levine’s debut novel (another Europa UK launch title) also revolves around the transforming power of literature, though here it’s one work in particular, and the result is perhaps not as positive. Levine’s (unnamed) narrator is a twenty-something graduate with a penchant for the easy (one might say lazy) option, until reading Treasure Island inspires her to be more like Jim Hawkins, and be bold and adventurous in her life. So she takes money from the Pet Library where she works in order to buy a parrot (which does not go down well with her boss), and goes on from there.

The crux of Treasure Island!!! for me is the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: her inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the negative effects her actions have on others; to recognise that the changes she’s making in her life are not as daring as she thinks; to countenance that other people might have aspirations and lives as complex and important as her own. The protagonist’s narrative voice veers between wry and snarky, which adds to the portrayal of someone who is unsympathetic, but not entirely alienating. One’s reaction to her is held in tension to the very end, where there’s a suggestion that the narrator may finally be finding her way, despite everything.

Reviews elsewhere: Bluestalking; The Well-Read Wife; Muse at Highway Speeds; Em and Emm.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, Rough Music (2012)

Now a new chapbook from Spectral Press, this time by the ever-reliable Simon Unsworth. It’s the tale of a man named Cornish, who’s been hiding an affair from his wife Andrea, and is now having to cope with a bunch of masked figures making a racket and acting out some strange performance beneath his bedroom window every night – though nobody else seems to notice them. From the start, Cornish is not exactly a sympathetic character; but Unsworth gradually and effectively reveals just how cold and calculating the protagonist is, which makes his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying. The ‘rough music’ outside also works well, as it shifts back and forth between having a metaphorical function and driving forward changes in the story. All in all, nicely done.

Reviews elsewhere: HellBound Times; The Ginger Nuts of Horror.

Book notes: Smith, Finch, Lipska

Helen Smith, Alison Wonderland (1999)

Now this, I think it’s fair to say, is a bit of an oddity. Alison Temple first came across the all-female-staffed Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation when she hired them to find out whether her husband was cheating on her (which he was); now divorced, Alison works for Fitzgerald’s, her latest assignment being to investigate a sinister pharmaceutical company. Alongside this, her friend Taron is requesting information that will help her steal an abandoned baby; and Jeff, Alison’s neighbour and sort-of lover, writes poems for her and works on inventions like the formula for a single advertisement that could advertise any product.

I won’t pretend to have puzzled out everything that Alison Wonderland was trying to achieve, with all its digressions, and hints at extraordinary phenomena that might or might not be real; but I do appreciate the way that Helen Smith juxtaposes the bizarre and the mundane: however strange events become, the emotional issues that Alison deals with remain grounded in everyday reality; and some of the best-written passages deal with the more ordinary subjects.

Alison Wonderland might also be seen as an unusual take on the conspiracy story, in that the main conspiracies which the characters imagine to exist actually don’t; whilst the real secrets go unsuspected. Smith’s novel brought to mind the work of Sarah Salway and Aliya Whiteley in its sideways approach to everyday life – but it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.

Reviews elsewhere: For Books’ Sake; Lucy Popescu.

Paul Finch, King Death (2011)

After three contemporary tales, the fourth chapbook from Spectral Press takes us back to 1348. In an England ravaged by the Black Death, a mercenary named Rodric is strangely immune to the plague; styling himself ‘King Death’, he travels the land, making the most of his fortunate circumstances. A chance meeting with a page from a fallen manor-house apparently presents a new opportunity for Rodric – or it could be his downfall instead.

This is one story I’d love to hear read aloud; there’s something about Paul Finch’s prose which suggests to me the rhythms of oral storytelling. There are points where King Death gets a little too clotted with detail (such as the description of Rodric’s costume, which feels as though it’s trying to namecheck as many pieces of armour as possible); but there are also striking moments like the opening scene of a parade of coaches, their occupants all dead. For the most part, the story rumbles on inexorably towards its wry conclusion.

Reviews elsewhere: The Eloquent Page; Bookhound’s Den.

Anya Lipska, Where the Devil Can’t Go (2011)

Anya Lipska’s debut novel is set amongst the Polish diaspora of East London, where fixer-for-hire Janusz Kiszka is engaged to find a missing young woman. Meanwhile, the body another woman is found washed up out of the Thames – and DC Natalie Kershaw’s investigations soon lead her to Janusz, who will find himself travelling back to Poland in a bid to unravel what is going on.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is a fine crime story, but it’s also strong thematically. The main theme could be described as pragmatism in the face of reality: Janusz was once on track to become a physicist, but gave up his studies to join the protests against the Communist regime; now, he has a wife and son back in Poland, but circumstances brought him to London, where he does what he can to make a living. Janusz has a deep-rooted sense of dignity and propriety, but will not hesitate to use violence to get a job done; a similar sense of doing what one feels must be done in the situation goes right to the heart of the mystery. And it’s not just the Polish characters who have to make such choices: Natalie Kershaw also has to decide how far she wants to fit into the man’s world of the Metropolitan Police.

The novel’s main weakness, I think, is a technical one: the tendency to switch between character viewpoints without a scene break. This is annoying but tolerable when the characters are in different places; but, when Janusz and Kershaw are together, the dramatic irony of how they view each other loses some of its impact from how the shifts are handled. But, otherwise, Where the Devil Can’t Go is a solid piece of work which is well worth reading.

Although the novel is being published in Germany by Random House next year, it hasn’t been picked up by a UK publisher; so the English-language version is a self-published ebook. I’d love to see Lipska’s book get a full UK publication, though, as it really does deserve one.

Reviews elsewhere: Winstonsdad’s Blog; It’s a Crime!

Book notes: Hampton-Jones, Fry, Wakling

Hollis Hampton-Jones, Comes the Night (2011)

Hollis Hampton-Jones’s second novel is a study of nineteen-year-old Meade Harden: bulimic, addicted to prescription drugs, and unhealthily obsessed with her twin brother, Ben Ho. Born in Nashvile, the Harden twins are currently in Paris, where their studies – Meade’s in cookery and Ben’s in art – are being funded by their parents. Concerned that she may be losing her brother’s attention to a girl he met at college, Meade takes up an offer from a fashion photographer, Majid, to get her into the world of modelling – but her downward spiral only continues.

Naturally enough, Comes the Night is very much focused on the character of Meade and her concerns; this has its drawbacks – Meade’s constant returning to the same few topics can become wearying. Yet, at the same time, there are some brutally effective moments, such as when Meade lists the contents of her own vomit as the ingredients of a recipe; and the tight focus on the protagonist’s subjectivity leads to some interesting disorientation – the novel’s sense of place is fragmented, for example, because Meade is so uninterested in the outside world. Comes the Night is a short novel which arrives, does what it does with a single-minded determination, then ends in what by then may be the only possible place.

Hollis Hampton-Jones’s website
Some other reviews of Comes the Night: For Books’ Sake; Bookmunch.

Gary Fry, Abolisher of Roses (2011)

Having read and reviewed (and enjoyed) the first and third titles from Spectral Press, I now skip back for the second; however, I’m not as impressed with this tale as I was with the others. Peter, a successful businessman, travels with his wife Patricia to a gallery in the wilds of North Yorkshire, where some of her paintings are set to form part of an outdoor art trail. Peter has little time for art, or the arty types with whom his wife now associates; but he indulges Patricia’s hobby as something he’s sure she’ll soon get over – and anyway, Peter has his mistress to keep him occupied. Whilst following the art trail, Peter loses his way, and comes across some strange and macabre installations which hit closer to home than he could ever have anticipated.

The key weakness of Abolisher of Roses, I think, is that it could do with a bit more subtlety. Peter is portrayed in quite broad terms as a callous and uncaring businessman who’s contemptuous of his wife; it feels as though Gary Fry is signposting rather too heavily what we’re supposed to think of Peter. I appreciate the elegance of the story’s conceit, that Peter’s begrudging examination of art turns into a searching examination of himself; but I feel that the telling lets it down somewhat.

Gary Fry’s website

Christopher Wakling, What I Did (2011)

Chris Wakling’s latest novel is narrated by six-year-old Billy Wright, who runs off one day while he’s out with his dad Jim. Eventually catching up with Billy as he runs out into a busy road, an exasperated Jim smacks the boy; a passing woman sees this, intervenes, and reports Jim to social services – and so the Wrights’ ordinary family life begins to unravel.

Billy’s narrative voice is a mixture of rambling, malapropisms, and references to the natural world (he loves watching David Attenborough programmes). For example:

I also have to warn you that nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce chemical reactions.

Did you know cheetahs cannot retract their claws? (p. 2)

Over the course of a whole novel, this can be endearing and infuriating by turns; but it works both as a means of establishing Billy’s character, and as a screen between us and the real action of the story. Through that screen, we see that Jim is a loving father, but also that he can have a quick temper, without necessarily even realising. It’s a combination of these factors which makes the situation so difficult for Jim, because as far as he’s concerned, he has done nothing wrong; but it’s not easy for him to see how to present himself in a way that will convince the authorities of that. In its own way, the social-care system which Jim encounters seems just as opaque to him as the adult world is to Billy. What I Did is an effective portrait of innocently-intended actions spiralling out of control, and the difficulties of responding to that.

Christopher Wakling’s website
Some other reviews of What I Did: Just William’s Luck; Isabel Costello; Random Things Through My Letterbox.

Book notes: Grimwood, Trigell, Gardner

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade (2011)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood made his name as a science fiction novelist; now, for his eleventh book (and first in five years), he’s turned to fantasy, beginning his ‘Assassini’ sequence. The 15th-century Venice of The Fallen Blade is ruled by a dynasty founded by Marco Polo, with a certain rivalry between the Regent Alonzo and his sister-in-law Alexa, mother of the imbecilic Duke Marco IV. As the novel begins, a mysterious silver-haired boy is found captive aboard a Mamluk ship; given the name Tycho, he has no memory of how he came to be there, but hungers for blood and possesses preternatural reflexes, which latter catch the eye of Venice’s chief assassin, Atilo, who has it in mind to train the boy to become his heir. Elsewhere, the planned strategic marriage of the Duke’s cousin, Lady Giulietta, is derailed when the Mamluks kidnap her in revenge for the attack on their ship – and the intrigues only continue…

Grimwood brings his Venice to life well, in both its atmosphere (squalid and smelly) and the complexity of its political and social codes (for example, a soldier’s instinctive action to save a noble’s life may be tantamount to choosing factions). The action sequences are involving, and Grimwood also evokes the conflicting senses of reluctance and desire felt by both Tycho as he discovers more of who (or what) he is, and Giulietta as she becomes attracted to him. The deployment of the supernatural is strikingly low-key: the word ‘vampire’ is not in the novel’s vocabulary (nor does Tycho quite fit that mould); and, on the occasions when characters do use magic, there’s nothing flashy about it – it comes across as just another tool to be used.

At the same time, it can be difficult to fully engage with The Fallen Blade. Many of the characters commit violent and abhorrent acts (as befits their society and their positions within it), and don’t always have enough charisma in the reader’s eyes to balance that out, even in the case of Tycho, the book’s de facto ‘hero’. Nor is the novel always sufficiently clear on the status of its various political intrigues. Still, The Fallen Blade is a good start to its series, and carries the promise of revelations and complex plots aplenty to come.

This review was first published on Fiction Uncovered.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus (2011)

Jonathan Trigell is best known for Boy A, his debut about a young offender trying to reintegrate into society after spending most of his life in prison. For his third novel, however, Trigell has turned his hand to science fiction. In a future London stifled by a series of wars and unchanging government, advances in genetic technology mean that perfection is available to anyone who can afford it. Those who can’t, the ‘Unimproved’, end up somewhere like The Kross (King’s Cross as was). Genus follows a number of characters living in and around The Kross, mostly notably Holman, the disfigured son of the last natural beauty queen; and Günther Bonnet, the cop with ‘the best set of genes on the force’, who has a series of murders to investigate.

The actual plot of Genus, the mystery around those deaths, is relatively straightforward, and not the novel’s main point of interest. Where the book rerally succeeds is the way Trigell depicts his future, world; our perspective is firmly rooted on the inside, to an almost suffocating degree. We barely see anything of life outside The Kross, never mind outside of London; and it’s difficult to get a real handle on how this world developed and how it operates – we understand to an extent, yes, but a full picture of the world is as distant from us as it is from the inhabitants of The Kross; they just have to get on as best they can, and that’s what Trigell makes his readers do. There’s also some nicely effective prose in Genus; I wasn’t too keen on the use of alliteration, but the jerky, rapid-fire sentences of Günther’s scenes do much to convey his character, and Trigell frequently juxtaposes different senses of the same word or phrase to great effect. I’ll certainly be reading more of Trigell’s work after this.

Cate Gardner, ‘Nowhere Hall’ (2011)

The latest chapbook from Spectral Press is the story of Ron Spence, a man who’s had all the hope and colour wrung out of him, and contemplates stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. But instead of actually doing so, Ron goes into a nearby hotel, which may be opulent, or derelict, or both at once. He wanders through its rooms, where nothing quite makes sense, but there’s a vaguely familiar mannequin that seems strangely alive.

A story like this really stands or falls on the atmosphere it creates, and ‘Nowhere Hall’ does well on that score. Cate Gardner uses recurring images, such as dust and umbrellas, to build up the sense of a web tightening around her protagonist; and Ron’s sense of the hotel’s rooms having a distorted familiarity further increases the tension. I don’t think I grasped everything that was going on in ‘Nowhere Hall’, but what I particularly appreciate is the way Gardner suggests that the world outside the hotel is just as strange as the one inside it – so maybe there’s not much of an escape for Ron after all.

A trio of shorts

Mark Valentine, ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ (2010)
R.B. Russell, ‘The Beautiful Room’ (2010)
Gary McMahon, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ (2011)

A triple-decker of single-story chapbooks, today: the latest two from Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, and the launch title from Simon Marshall-Jones’s Spectral Press.


The first of our new Nightjar titles is ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine. It’s not long since last I read a story one of his stories, and, when I did, I was very impressed with Valentine’s control of voice; the same quality impressed me again on reading this piece. William Utter is a writer who has rented a cottage on the Galloway coast to work on a book about the lore of birds. Today, he heads out intro the bay to see some cormorants, and it’s an open question whether inspiration or the tide will strike first. Valentine builds Utter’s mental world very well, with imagery largely built around birds and books, and a slightly dusty mode of expression. He also creates a strong atmosphere in the story; and yet… I think something about the whole isn’t quite satisfactory. I can appreciate intellectually what the ending is doing, but I find that it doesn’t have the deeper emotional impact which would lift the piece to the next level.


Birds appear again, though in a rather different context, in Nightjar’s other new chapbook. R.B. Russell‘s ‘The Beautiful Room’ is the tale of Maria and John, a couple looking for a house in a foreign country to where John is moving for work. As we join them, they’re looking around a place in the countryside, with which Maria has fallen in love, thanks to one room in particular; John is much less keen, and would prefer to live in the city. Their initial argument over this reveals deeper tensions in their relationship: Maria has sacrificed her work to make this move possible, and resents John’s not putting her wishes first in the house choice. Russell depicts these rising tensions elegantly, and they carry over into the second half of the story, when the couple investigate a mysterious scrabbling sound coming from behind the walls. The unexpected final moment comes as a beautiful image of release.


Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.

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