Best British Short Stories 2017

Series editor NICHOLAS ROYLE
(My previous reviews of this writer are linked from HERE)

(My previous reviews of this publisher are HERE)

Featuring stories by Jay Barnett, Peter Bradshaw, Rosalind Brown, Krishan Coupland, Claire Dean, Niven Govinden, Françoise Harvey, Andrew Michael Hurley, Daisy Johnson, James Kelman, Giselle Leeb, Courttia Newland, Vesna Main, Eliot North, Irenosen Okojie, Laura Pocock, David Rose, Deirdre Shanahan, Sophie Wellstood and Lara Williams.

My review will appear in the comment stream below…

26 thoughts on “Best British Short Stories 2017

  1. Reversible


    “The police shimmer and stir, lift and separate.”

    A gathering into a gestalt of move on move on, nothing to see here. Yet, we see much in a relatively short space, a tactile scene with tactile words, almost a refrain or incantation of details, but without the repetition that ‘incantation’ would entail. A time of Bluetooth and blue & white police tape. We know when and the sort of who with windcheater and the sort of folk young and old who rubber-neck at things seemingly out-of-the-ordinary, if not extraordinary. A pungent emotion, that’s why I like this essay in reportage because it has a latent relationship between two people we gradually infer by the end and the frailties involved. Nothing is what it seems until it sees you watching it via words. It is. It does.
    (If I now reverted, moved back instead of on, if not actually reversing, to the beginning of this prose verse incantation, I might be told something else instead? Something to see, after all?)

  2. General Impression of Size and Shape


    “All analysis done rapidly under the mind’s surface, like gravel fragments collecting in underwater drift.”

    That’s how I feel about reviewing fiction… and then I think that this particular fiction is another ‘gawping’ or ‘rubber-necking’ (though they’re not the right words, as they’re too derogatory) prose verse which — if not an incantation of larklight, certainly a relentless twitching tactility of words — sees things this time amid birdish crepitation, be that forwards or backwards, moving on or moving together and it must have been a no brainer choice for the ornithological editor (“the furious purring of nightjars”). But I guess he would have chosen this story anyway because, well, it simply works so convincingly within as well as beyond that birdish éclat and its set of collective-nouns and sounds – to make the reader infer the storified relationship of those with the binoculars. It also again conjures up the modern juddering Bluetooth world with its tweets and so on (“bit by bit, bittern by bittern” “a (ha ha) hawk”…)

    “Too far even for binoculars, keep them up ready at face and creep forward with blind feet,…”

  3. As You Follow


    “as a group of men stand and they are going drink, drink, drink,”

    “And him, him, him, he points.”

    This, for me, is an amazing dark but somehow equally undark piece of work. A coruscant vision of a theme bar in London where Mario Lanza songs becomes German. Lederhosen and beer steins. Men drinking. Bouncers. And one elfish boy. I imagine him sometimes like one of the impish birds in the previous story and the narrator watching him a twitcher or a rubber-necker in the first story. I can later imagine the drink sparklers transferring to the body of water…

    “, past the silent dome of St Paul’s, down to the river, to the mighty Thames.”

  4. Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty


    “The Hide sat twenty feet above the forest floor, built on eight great legs of cedar pine. It was a place humans could hide from nature, built for the days when people watched birds.”

    A surprising coincidence for me, in that, immediately before reading this story, I changed the subtitle words of my red site-banner above to something about dirty hands! (This subtitle hadn’t been changed for some months.)
    This is a fascinating gestalt gatherer of a plot, that maybe you never reach the half of its other half. Some inscrutable characters tasked with examining traps and holes – and bird-watching (watching OUT for birds that don’t seem to exist rather than watching them per se), white butterflies, accretive thoughts and other amorphous critters I imagine. And the plots and ploys of this outfit’s pecking order of command. All watched by a narrator perhaps suspected of stealing milk from the others. But it’s not as simple as that. It never is. But the other half of me understands it all. The dirty hands, notwithstanding.

    ‘Well, it’s half of sumit,’ he said, ‘but not half of what it’s meant to be.’

  5. While the Nightjar Sleeps


    “They were the proof that even the darkest moments in life were only junctures that led to somewhere better.”

    But “things were never as good as they promised to be.”

    This second set of inscrutable characters today in a row, those earlier ones looking in traps (for impossible birds?), and now, the necessary bird us found, even if dead, laced with red pollen, in a part of land with Welsh sounding names, characters, whether Quakers or evangelists – or something far more dirty – they hold vigil or ritual, to summon the boy’s father and his mother’s husband back from death. But we are left with a sense of a resting of real dirty fingers on her spine, as a sort of nightjar press? Creating, I infer, a procedure similar to “the picture on the tiny television set […] tugged in the middle, as if someone had drawn their finger through a wet painting.”
    An interpretation that I can’t shake off. You may be luckier.

    My earlier review of the Tartarus Press edition of this author’s THE LONEY:

  6. The Sea in Me


    “Sometimes I wake and I swear I can taste salt,”

    An effective sensory journey inside the mind and body of this young girl, whose accoutrements of hair, skin, and real or imagined scars are subsumed by – or actually subsume – water: in bath, swimming-pool, eventually ocean. Overlapping with the breaking waters of virginity, as it were, in sex with someone called Martin. The ending is its own breaking waters of birth, or is it death? A quandary that is enhanced by my memory of the sparkles in what I called above a ‘body of water’ yesterday about the Giselle Leeb story.

  7. Having only just embarked (not before time) upon reviewing all the books in this series, my usually dependable instincts tell me that the stories will in the main not only represent fine modern examples of quality short fiction within mainstream literature but also strongly appeal to the well-seasoned Hyper-Imaginative, Weird, Strange, SF or Horror Stories province.
    My Tweet covering this point HERE.

  8. Safe


    “But something else, not a voice, a force inside her wouldn’t let go.”

    This story seemed synchronously to ring stronger after listening to Radio 4’s interview with this ( woman‘s son about an hour before reading this story. The tension between your contextual motive and desperate need to make you safe, and those around who, you may empathise, are supporting you (even by being within you or helpful combined-victim target) when you do something desperately but self-justifiably or frenziedly criminal, although it may collaterally ‘kill’ those supporting you, too. Meanwhile, this plain-spoken, straight-in-the-reader’s-eyes story in itself, even without each reader’s outside context, is an extremely horror-powerful story of a woman mentally then physically forced by her husband to strip with his drunken friends. And a lawyer subsequently questioning her about her murderous action upon her husband, seeking a line of defence… but it is more than plain-spoken; it has its own multi-interpretable force. Force against force.

  9. The First Hard Rain


    “, a flock of chaotic, tumbling, terrified birds,”

    A set of relationships and inferences as to their backstory becomes stronger and stronger the more those inferences click into place for you. Me, too. Although it is a completely different scenario of a husband dying, the recriminative tensions and mixed feelings in the wife at least somehow resonate with those in the previous story. And the people who remain to sort out the aftermath run alongside this book’s ‘objective-correlatives’ as birds now in inchoate dilemma between being storm-tossed and attracted to landfill scraps amid the finely disseminated ashes of the departed. There are even the “silvery drips” disseminated by some of the other stories so far. As well as now from car wiper-blades on the M6.

  10. Never Thought He’d Go


    “‘You got water for blood?’ Davi had said scornfully, and Norm had shouted that Davi didn’t know what he was talking about,”

    I found this absolutely enchanting in a William Brown or Jane Turpin sort of way, but also scarily haunting. (Richmal Crompton also wrote ghost stories – my review here – but not sure if Evadne Price did?) It’s words like bitshop, and names like Normsmum, Saz and Davitoo – and “hats” who came round your Mum’s to talk about you. There are also ‘rubbernecks’ and ‘stickybeaks’ to enchant this book itself!

    “The downside to being able to see the whole village from the church spire was that you could see the church spire from most anywhere in the village.”

    A sort of bird’s eye view for this book, and a flashing light at night at the top betokening a ghost? Those of us young’uns with easy enticing speech to match, especially mine as narrator. And it would all be ever so exciting, if it did not turn out so serious. More ashes no doubt of one of us, ashes from a crematorium to match those in the previous story…

    “and wondering what the payback is for the person who didn’t do anything, really, but didn’t do the right thing, either.”

  11. Reunion


    “Corona lemonade from a stippled bottle”

    Do you remember the metal strap thing that you forced into place to keep the stopper in the neck? And that sort of keeps the bubbly bubbly or the past in position, I guess.
    Well that may or may not be relevant to this short gem of a story, with this middle-aged man chequered in love throughout his life being at a work conference and by chance meeting again his childhood sweetheart after parting forever as it were when 11 years old. The unstoppered backstory of this ‘affair’ has a genuine suspenseful moment you won’t forget and if I told you something else, that would be a spoiler. Even saying that about something else risks being a spoiler.
    A non-connected work as a fine ‘bonus track’ intermission within this book’s (perhaps spurious) gestalt? Well, yes, and more. But it does also seem to have some possible instinctive premonition of future bullseyes to aim for or a memory of life’s old traps in this book to unload and reset.

  12. Not an intermission after all, but a watershed towards a new gestalt…
    Or garage.

    The Dark Instruments


    “That something’s out of place.”

    “It’s a coincidence, that’s all.”

    “It’s not safe.”

    The reveal of this work — a story as mannered experience of things just perfectly put in place — has suspense just like the previous one, as well as two characters meeting up again after knowing each other as children. Two men now war-raddled and old, pullmen or aickmen, weak-kneed or stubborn, yet one of them at least (‘you’) is positive about future dreams – dreams of righting wrongs, perhaps as a form of magic fiction as realism? Sometimes one has to cross ethical barriers to do so, as ends over means? Just in case, and as another version of keeping ‘safe’, I will not tell you here the nature of this story’s central reveal. But it involves a bird’s eye view somehow echoing the one earlier in this book.

  13. And after that, “Light streamed through the stained glass window”, streamed from…



    “The monks arrived through a hole in time on a cold, misty morning, transported via a warp in space that mangled the frequencies of past and present.”

    And later via a time cannon. I am an Essex man through and through and so this scenario fitted well into this feverishly ultra-rich tactility of teeming-worded fantasy around the River Roding and mentioning a skyline to be snarled at if but one of the many skylines that Essex hoards, and dog noises named after the story’s more Londonish end of Essex…
    Here a Wandering Tongue and equally rampant Jesus figurine are part of this Barking Abbey scenario of time- and body-morphing Monks, with their erotic as well as other mundane and spiritual machinations to gawp at. Neck wounds and animal traps from previous scenarios in this book. Jabuticaba fruit, too. Ending with an eventual diaspora from the Abbey fantasy into the streets and fields we know as Essex, including Asda, my nearest supermarket. Even a church tower whence to view it all. And I finished this work well-synaesthesised! An interesting component in this book’s ‘symphony’, a word used in this work.

    My earlier review of this author’s ‘Outtakes’:

  14. Treats

    CED15D7F-25C3-4242-8A24-8619AC540FE4“It was one of those sneaky summer days, one that lounges around a chilled August, making a wild and unpredictable cameo, hoodwinking you into knits, swindling you out of sandals.”

    A very stylish, poignant, generous, sometimes pathetic and put-upon, and empathisable portrait of Elaine throughout her life so far (height, increasing weight, depleting husband, youth-to-menopause and further perhaps, her heart lifted if temporarily by a piece of fruit left on her car, creaking violas &c.) a portrait as if through her own eyes, assessing it all from a central gestalt of self as if a condensed spectrum of time above her life’s path ….like a self as ‘bird’s eye view’. But in the end not a bird’s so much as a goldfish’s whose round and round the bowl provides a perfect last sentence. Above all, stylish.

  15. The Wind Calling


    “I still can’t live in a house, something to do with walls, one room leading to another, so you can’t get out.”

    Slices of life evocatively told by a girl, about herself and her wandering odd job and sometimes fruit-picking family, her dad, her first love, countryside, her siblings, comings and goings, one brother going away further than the others, rosaries, new meetings, memories coming back, hopes built and dashed. Life is a fruit but also a fruit-picker itself? An odd job we do as well as working at its own odd job of us? We life’s own fruit, its own odd jobs. All fruit decays in the end, I suppose. Especially windfalls. All jobs dry up. “I sat on my nails so as not to bite them,” nor for those nails to gouge life into even smaller slices? Maybe some of that is not necessarily in the story. But the whole of such stories is certainly in us.

  16. Ariel


    “, and with practised nonchalance, kick up the prop-stand and swing astride.”

    And this relatively brief fable is the perfect companion to the previous work, one more story to add to the grist that is in us all even if you weren’t there with me in Beatles Sixties Britain to start off with. The narrator hero-worships the slightly older man when the latter buys his first motor-bike, the narrator being not so much a sluggish Caliban to his hero’s fast Ariel, but those of us who are slower can still win the race eventually. Unless the other one wins by knowingly cheating? A fabulous story that is in us all, as I say. Roight, wack?

    From Ariel, to my review of this author’s Puck:

  17. 9AD0A93A-F7A6-4FED-BC2F-B7907B9BD9DBI read and reviewed the next story in January 2017 and below is what I wrote about it in that context


    IS-AND by Claire Dean
    “There are old patterns to follow.”
    And the patterns for my eventual gestalt started off as – hmm, yes, a workmanlike narration, nice touches, but is this another run-of-the-mill child changeling story on an island beset with even older patterns than my own? Thankfully, I was left with significantly more than simply what it said. I will leave you to decide what that is.B9584694-E1B1-4644-9E8E-16ED67D75C3C
    In the same way as the female protagonist needed a dictionary for her boy friend’s shrugs – having come with him to this island where he had lived originally with his mother and where he had once entered a now broken marriage – I also needed a special decoder for this story’s own diffidence. The mis-addressed package that had awaited his return to the island. More shrugs and redactions. His mother’s behaviour and whether there are more child-like novelties to activate if I fully unwrap it or fill in the gaps of both title and text.


    My reviews of Claire Dean’s ‘Bremen’ and ‘The Unwish’:

  18. I am often staggered by the sort of synchronicities fecundated by the practice of gestalt real-time reviewing. Earlier this afternoon, before reading the next story (below) in this book, I read and reviewed one entitled ‘The One Who has Lost Herself’ here about fitting a self back in their lost skin, someone like a fish out of water, seeking that habitat again….and here now seems to be the exact inverse of that earlier story’s process, including gender and bodily change and direction of travel…

    This Skin Doesn’t Fit Me Any More


    ‘Jackdaws are one of my favourite birds,’ he says, ‘really bright. Not as threatening as crows or rooks, or as noisy and aggressive as magpies.’

    And so, now, there are more birds for this book including a mauled goose that are the accoutrements surrounding the arrival, in the family home (father and mother and their two boys), of a mounted stag’s head with specifically itemised antlers which is then placed on the landing outside a boy’s bedroom, a mounting that he can see from his bed, followed later by the scalding rite of passage into puberty that bathtime later brings him. Cause and effect or not, I am constructively unsure which of the various items above is the objective-correlative of the others….and, whatever the case, it is an engaging, thoughtful work that still resonates even as I write this about it.

  19. Words and Things to Sip


    “Life is so damn hectic, especially the inner life. The dead and the undead. And thoughts of Anne and myself, our relationship.”

    This is an astonishingly hectic, clever-clever, god-God, stream of soliloquy on paper or to oneself, as if from a blend of Denis Diderot, Laurence Sterne and Samuel Beckett, in a modern tone with modern terms, clipped and anti-adverbial and subversive of normal prose, as he soliloquises awaiting Anne in a bar where he worries they don’t think he is a regular – or that they do.
    Not really expecting Anne, but thinking of her and the other women in his past life (including his daughter he had with his first and now dead wife), his job, his rebellion against that job, and the flavour of crisps he has not yet thought about asking Anne after she arrives. And, alongside much else that characterises this soliloquiser but I can’t cover here (or remember at all, as it has all just sped through my eyes hectically without conscious grab even if it stayed, with the earlier birdcall éclat of Rosalind Brown, in my unconscious literary sump), it is not this book’s earlier fruit but his penis when he thinks… “It just said cut, cut is cut, sliced is sliced and severing is, of course, severing,…”

    “The only reliable method of knowledge is literature.”

  20. Waves


    “, sleep is the old reliable.”

    I wish that were the case when you get older. I surf dozing dreams now, never sleep. This is a short, well-textured, grammatically unsubversive prose piece, another soliloquy, this one, though, by a single unselfish-conscious narrative remove, a remove that is sickness rather than narrative point-of-view dislocation, while somehow retaining a will of mind over matter, of fighting against bodily illness, and the imposed sleep that medics apply, and it all takes on its own “pure heft” itself, as I think through it, remembering alongside the self in the text surfing in Hawaii as he once did in real life, as we all do surfing, figuratively at least, until the very end. The earlier ‘Sea in Me’, or me in sea? Another sealskin to fit the self in? Another skin that does not fit me any more.

  21. Language


    “….looking with something akin to lust at all those bones that protruded out of girls at school; the solipsism of legs and arms, the buds of them.”

    The story of the relationship, from scratch at school, via puppy fat, then back to scratch, of the heavy devotion between Nora and Harrow. The above solipsism attained, but you will never guess how. You might say this book has left the best to last, and, following the previous WAVES, we now have Nora’s “wave-making thighs” and her “Then she said: well, yes. Me too.” in happier circumstances of Me Too than those in our modern world. These two also live ostensibly in our modern world, though, but a world where death do us part but perhaps not forever, as it were, as their particles are entangled, and the word ‘partial’ seems part and parcel of some tactile language between them that paradoxically both bolsters them and attenuates them necessarily for the story — and aptly also the book as gestalt — eventually to finish…
    A language where the words’ letters’ appendages themselves are sharper than bones. Words and things to sip.

    “The mass of him: his hands were the size of books flattened open.”

    My previous review of this author here: ‘A Heavy Devotion’, where I wrote about it: “most intriguing Weird fiction for which I thank this book for bringing to my attention. Before its language escapes, too?”

    This book’s a marvel, my optimum taste, at a stretch. Now hawled open at last.


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