SALT PUBLISHING 2022
Edited by Nicholas Royle
My previous reviews of Nicholas Royle: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/14748-2/ Salt Publishing: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/salt-publishing/ Best British Short Stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/best-british-short-stories/
Stories by MONA DASH, SARA SHERWOOD, EDWARD HOGAN, ROSANNA HILDYARD, USCHI GATWARD, TONY WHITE, MAX PORTER, BEN PESTER, ALICE M, SONYA MOOR, DAVID FRANKEL, LEON CRAIG, NEIL CAMPBELL, RZ BASCHIR, CHRISTOPHER BURNS, PAUL MCQUADE, SEÁN PADRAIC BIRNIE, WILL WILES, CHRIS VAUGHAN, SOPHIE MACKINTOSH.
When I read these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
I can’t promise the speed of my ensuing review! Nor, any longer, the order I read the stories!
I first read and reviewed the story below in 2021, in its then context of an author collection, as follows….
NEW TO IT ALL by Seán Padraic Birnie
“Her mouth, I realised, was very cold.”
I have realised for a very long while that the work of this author is very special, perhaps from even since before he was published, or perhaps not, but, whatever the case, this new story now fully clinches the deal with me! It is about the narrator’s first three successive girl friends from his age of 24 when he was still a virgin. Only the third one is anything like normal, I guess, while the second even outdoes the first girl friend in a disarming way, and I read this story after posting the title page’s disarming font shown above. And when I did read it, I noticed on page 25 of my copy of this book a carefully honed striation or healed scarring from a previous tear, across the print, as shown above. You may have different scars in your own edition. Even without these chance or deliberate accoutrements, you will NEVER be able to forget this story. Nor will you ever see the word ‘pliable’ again without thinking of this story.
When are retrospect and real-time understanding ever matched? Is everything in life always too late to be mended?
All my previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/sean-padraic-birnie/
MONA DASH: LET US LOOK ELSEWHERE
“; what we may not expect, tell a story not told before.”
This ‘story’ of stories represents a seminal few pages for me. A perfect introduction to any book of stories. And of all stories. And represents, too, what I have been seeking in the last 14 years with my gestalt real-time reviewing, by triangulating, with cross-references and synchronicities, many short stories of living genre or literary authors, plus all the present best british short stories from 2011 onward here in Salt (edited by Nicholas Royle) and, from the more distant past, all the Penguin anthologies of Philip Hensher, plus a Penguin book of best American stories in recent decades, and the so-called finest 100 best stories ever in ‘That Glimpse of Truth’ anthology! And I have triangulated, too, all or most of the stories by William Trevor, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Aickman, Katherine Mansfield, Clarice Lispector, Walter de la Mare, and a good many others, plus older or classic books that you can search for on this site, as well as many recent Horror, SF, Fantasy and Mainstream stories. And now I reach perhaps my goal? By the skin of my teeth. This story not told before, here told in remarkable Dash form…. even though I may have also been telling it myself as spread over yonks!
“All of them caught between selves,…” as, tellingly, I was with preternatural synchronicity under an hour ago, where dog fights dog, HERE.
“ Let us then look elsewhere, and somewhere, it will all come together. But, wait, let me write. Allow me my writing.”
PEBBLES by Max Porter
This work’s own “narrative arc” mind-fazingly becomes, for me at least, a zigzag möbius. Of two boys, one of them who is black (but which one?), and who was it sprung the pebble into the traffic from a plain elastic band or a proper catapult, and the man whose windscreen it bounced off, with two screeching toddlers (twins?) in the back of the car, and he stops, gets out and swears at the two boys. The potential repercussions of once small incidents. All cause and effect, and/or synchronicity, and/or retrocausality and late-labelling, from the three points of view or backstories of the two boys grown to man and the man himself grown back to boyhood, or so I am made to think in the hindsight of my bad memory. Each moment in our lives is kept integral as a pebble, hence the pluralised title, I guess.
Potential car crashes embedded above and below, as well as the z- track möbius…
My previous review of Max Porter: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/well-never-have-paris/#comment-15819
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NEIL CAMPBELL: CULVERTS
This has potential hair-trigger car crashes, too, like those recently in Nightjar Press here. Remember IMBER? Or do I misremember?
Small talk, pub talk, with one or two longer paragraphs, a pub overlooking the reservoir-dam-threatened town, pub on dangerous road between two counties, a town where even the Prime Minister bluster-waffled on his visit, I infer.
Choppers galore and drones as the sound track of this small talk, plain talk, two men, one the barman, talk about man’s views on women and having kids, and there is a woman who comes to make a threesome there, and shares a twosome with one of them behind the pub in a pavilion, I recall, but leaves twosome. Becomes a ‘shadowy third’? A mum’s the word. Her kids, too. I can be just as oblique as the story! Guess you need to read it. Or I do — properly!
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/neil-campbell/
From culverts to cannula…
ALICE M: SARCOPHAGUS
“She clamps her elbows against her sides so the tube walls don’t catch her bare skin.”
This MRI experience is a grinding thumping avant garde music to me, that I often hear as enjoyment. Means a lot to me this fiction gem. Its top-and-tail elbow-triggers. Factored into my various experiences over the years of MRI rites-of-passage (particularly recently): here personalised by someone else with the epithet ‘she’ caged within my brain while reading this work. Cannula et al. Its fluid ‘contrast’ contours and “by the contrast between the polite femme voice they’ve given it, and the violence of its real voice.” The eclectic visions and memories evoked by the brain of the one subjected — so as to help obviate the ASMR in a MRI. Or to help create it as an art installation? With all the accoutrements of real-time voice commentary from outside, and of a recurring inner pre-recorded voice as desperately needed comfort stops. An MRI wherein the ‘forgotten god’ as gestalt is eponymously laid, be it me the reader or the pseudonymous ‘she’. Nobody stops us. Neither of us. Or perhaps ‘she’ lives on beyond the fiction. I hope so. “Someone grips her elbow.”
“What does she care about people dying anyway? It happens.”
BEN PESTER: SQUARE / RECESS / MOON
“Connections that mean nothing to us now. If I were you, I’d leave it well alone.”
This is the story that has mugged me, after many years of seeming to succeed in conquering fiction’s real pinnacles and depths, its elusive piques and veils, and I should have indeed left this one alone, desperately trying, as I did, to find patterns in its maze of duality’s non-synergy of mountaineering as I and my friend the failing self comprise a failing company where, all hours, we work hard pointlessly, in a mindless queue so long its purpose is forgotten, while a single head room’s feng shui consumes my own self’s identity. A cranium’s soft mortar.
But my defeat is the story’s victory, mugged of my face by the moon amid my forgotten childcare lanes between the apartments of life with, outside, a city’s square where only recession prevails. No fiscal headroom, not even to pay for vital services. “‘Don’t you want to talk about the police?’ I asked. ‘You were mugged. What happened?’”
Deadheading Verbena maintains a clean appearance and allows the plant to refocus its energy into even more flowers. — from Internet.
RZ BASCHIR: THE CHICKEN
“I eat so much I sometimes vomit in my mouth…”
This story’s reading is like that, for ‘eat’ read ‘read’. For ‘vomit’ read ‘review’. And I realised soon enough after starting to read this work that there is NO way I can do justice to this story. A girl, turned 11 years old only a few years ago, is now chickenblood streaming about herself and her Aunt and Uncle … and the Chicken Man … and the more I try to visualise even scratching the surface of this work’s bleeding sinews by means of a critique, well, what else can this story be, but a rape of an already dead reader! And this thought on my part does not get anywhere NEAR what this story does. I am just thankful that I fortuitously read DOCTOR CUCKOO yesterday HERE, a work that at least prepared me somewhat for the ending of this Baschir! God help me, though.
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SOPHIE MACKINTOSH: WILD CITY
This is “hiraeth”, this is so where I want to be as if I never left it. Pester’s ‘feng shui’ become the precariousness without the masks, without the controlled environments. I will not describe the narrator’s acclimatisation to this preserved outback with its own customs posts of entry. A synergy of weakness and strength. It just is.
“We can no more erase ourselves than fix what we made. We just have to do the best we can. […] The thing about a body is that a body can be a home and a home can be a body; soft crook of the elbow, long curve of the neck.”
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/sophie-mackintosh/
TONY WHITE: PLAIN SPEAKING
A brilliant zigzag möbius of a story, its central paragraph of repetition worth repeating countless times, evoking the drinking of beer in an old-fashioned pub with all the sound effects of nostalgia. That paragraph is absolutely gorgeous to my ears, amidst the silence of the printed words that convey such sounds. All designed for me to drink myself into a perfect nirvana of a nirvana, before modern disco pubs replaced those pubs that sold old porter. Even the hostelry near Shoreditch that first sold such porter. A tale most adeptly enhanced by a wondrous conceit, viz. POETRY FOUNDATION.ORG: SERIOUS PLOT SPOILER. Ever one of my favourites, after shyly studying it studiously at school.
WILL WILES: THE MEAT STREAM
“We often found that we made it no further than those menus, and after a while spent scrolling listlessly, we would end up staring at our phones instead.”
This is a portrait of flabby life during Lockdown, two house-mates supposedly an item, not a flabby portrait but one smart enough to ooze, buttering out into a dissatisfaction with the overchoice of filmic cuts streaming as indicated by their flat, fat menus. The couple ended up staring at what they found in their sweaty hand screens. One of them decrying how the other was slipping.
The end of TV would have been the end of life itself for my parents in the 1950s and 1960s when there were only one or two channels that they stared at mindlessly all evening, their eyelids slowly slipping down.
The ‘slow television’ rage of endless barge or train journeys has now spread in this story even more thinly into watching meat… the meat embedded in stream, and if I tell you more it would spoil the effect of this memorable story. Suffice to say the portrait or landscape pages seemed to have induced for them, by the words they bore, a rancid reading as slicked over with lights, grits and melts. The story itself underneath such goo was good, indeed much better than any TV has been or ever will be.
I apologise for inadvertently not reviewing the WILES story HERE — a mix-up by LEWIS just noticed!
I no longer have the book about PARIS. If someone can let me have a copy of the Will Wiles work in it, I shall be pleased to add a review of it to the end of my original review.
PAUL MCQUADE: AN EASEMENT
A story that contains the endless heat attrition of an Arkansas summer, as the narrator, Josh’s wife, is taken by Josh to Arkansas from Michigan, as he feels he needs to be involved with such farmland, but she feels dislocated, and discovers her name is not on the farmland’s property documents, nor did she know part of the land is a Government easement divided from their own land by a long, ominous looking wall many stones of which she gradually, throughout the heat, removes to form cairns of their own, as her own body balloons. Told coldly like that in a review betokens the rain that eventually breaks the heat’s endlessness, but I, as a reader, feel that she has her own easement in my mind. And I wonder if any other reader of it was tempted to cry at the prospect of Josh’s deceased mother’s books (books that he cherishes as if they are tantamount to being his mother), tempted to cry at the prospect of their feeling like stones storied within each of us.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/07/17/best-british-short-stories-2019/#comment-16673
I reviewed the story below last January in its then context HERE, as follows…
The Bowensetter prevails… a bone, if not the boner from the Frankel, delivered with the Chinese Burns as the signature’s bone upon the temptingly proffered plate below… Twist’s lax collar being stiffened attritionally into a Bothwick stone …with bat-navs and boomerang screams… GFB indeed!
“Lisa walked forward and Mr Jolley took her by the elbow to steer her through the gate.”
A powerfully, plain-spokenly bespoke description of a sort of Kafkaesque regime as a now unabateable dystopia in our country as we have slipped into by devious dint of the jolly man’s populist vote, a smoothly persuasive process of bonesetting as if inducing a long co-vivid of a nightmare… Not Kafkaesque in any speculatively fantastic or literary sense, but terribly real!
It affected me deeply, especially in the context of the Nightjar sextet as gestalt.
Read it! It’s a must. You can’t say no once you’ve been chosen.
[ Man of Bone and Fame (a quite different plot by a different author, but induceable collateral reading for the Burns from 2011)… http://revelatormagazine.com/fiction/man-of-bone-and-fame/ ]
My previous reviews of significant works by Christopher Burns: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/christopher-burns/
DAVID FRANKEL: SINK RATE
This is one of those stories that grips you from beginning to end. About a woman as witness of a plane crash upon the sea near an island where she is staying for pleasure and business, and her backstory we gradually learn about. Anything I say about this story or its Angel Number above, will be a divergence. It simply needs to be read. I will quote bits from it below as glimpses of its reading experience. And I genuinely believe it is at least the sort of story that would deserve inclusion in any future hindsight version of THAT GLIMPSE OF TRUTH that I have been reviewing for some months HERE. The Risen Rate of this story’s Sink Rate as yet unknown. A taxi of “extravagance” to an airport taxi-way…
“The angled shadows […] and sweeping geometry…”
“Had she seen that little glimpse of paradise and imagined that things would be okay after all,…”
“A web of minor consequences and electronic impulses fan out across the globe, dissipating, becoming lost as they are swallowed by routine and business as usual.”
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/01/20/return-by-david-frankel/
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CHICAGO FORECASTS: CHRIS VAUGHAN
“chair elbow level”
This incredibly forms a preternatural collage with PIPES and SIMISTER read earlier this very same morning! — HERE and HERE respectively — and with a Global podcast by Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel I listened to last night about cryptocurrency and featuring their interview with Nick Leeson. And I look out of my own bungalow house and imagine, as Vaughan’s ‘synesthetic’, the skyline of Chicago evoked by such a crepitation of his words, while trusting the stock prices slow down enough on the flowing banner in the sky to judge how rich I now am! Rich with literature’s dings and dongs.
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LEON CRAIG: LICK THE DUST
“What a superstitious idiot, to be living in the Enlightenment but still behaving like the men he studied!”
Yet, I guessed the gender of this narrator right from the start, in this sort of antiquarian-investigative and catalogue-cheating M.R. James peccadillo rather than pastiche, or a seriously occult means with words for spells to wield a legendary Hand of Glory in a horror story so as to find itself in an anthology that is not labelled as that specific genre of fiction. A story stuck unnoticed between others more characteristic of various so-called literary miens. A means, too, to battle others for battel amidst their ambitions and rivalries within academia. Hilarious romcom involving a man called Rory, yet with insidious going-ons around it. Words moving through pages like invisible ghosts. Glad to have discovered this work in random real-time and reviewed it before others uncovered it and reviewed it for their own malicious means of seeking laudation as a magus or mistress of literary critiquing. I may later refer to the back of this book to see if there is any backstory or author bio. But I hope I resist doing so. A lot of ‘flickering’ in it but no licking?
“…cinder floating loose before me as it crawled down my throat.”
My previous reviews of M.R. James stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/my-ongoing-reviews-of-m-r-james-stories/
SARA SHERWOOD: HOW YOU FIND YOURSELF
“Reading Heat magazine makes you forget your inevitable death for twenty minutes.”
My daughter once read that magazine many years ago!
This is ‘How you find yourself’ — as a writer as well as a person, showing a Batley woman’s number-and-alphabet itemised notes of her whole life to date, notes perhaps to be used as an aide memoire for writing a real-time review of her life. A life from writing Russell Brand fanfiction, and there are many notes upon her youthful love life and all its electronic or face to face hangups. An audit trail that takes her via Jo Cox, then Brexit and Trump, until reaching today’s disappointments and the writing of blogs on blank screens. All very empathisable, even if I didn’t understand it all or have the right back-knowledge of earlier generations than mine. It involves her photo-triggered memory of an old-fashioned TV set mocked-up as a hothead or meathead head-dress resonant with the Will Wiles story, the sort of TV that subsumed my parents’ heads several decades before this woman was even born. It also resonates with many of the other stories in this book (even perhaps preternaturally with those I have not yet read!) and with many of my own itemised notes upon this book’s stories that I have already reviewed. The words and meanings ghost from story to story as if resonating with the Leon Craig. Perhaps because I bought the Kindle version of this book?
These blog reviews are all I write these days. Or very nearly all.
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SONYA MOOR: THE COMET
“Ardant, Béart, Daho, Gainsbourg … “
This is a word-perfect portrait of a make-up artist by making her up as the portraitist / narrator herself artfully portraying in words the process of making-up two people, this narrator being a make-up artist, also a hairdresser when required, on TV sets, in her forties whose backstory once entailed a lie she told to a man, a lie as politically enabled by one of her ‘clients’ today: Simone Veil a politician who has her own backstory of enlightenment after wartime incarceration. All this amid the frivolous fol-de-rols and bikinis of lolling girls on the TV set that involve the other portrait the narrative make-upper makes up: Louis the chat-show personality host, about to interview Veil for political purposes, I infer, purposes dictated to him from above.
A story still resonating in my mind — who makes whom up, the comet or its tail? And parts of this story made me think of the constellation Berenice’s Hair (Coma Berenice). A constellation of stars that symbolises the necessary counterbalance to the valued asset of any choice otherwise, i.e. to mature from sperm’s tail to entity. Some at least have to survive the complete process for there to be anyone at all to make things up! My own stars have never had long hair, though….so far.
ROSANNA HILDYARD: OFFCOMERS
“What neither of them ever worked out is that you can’t demand happiness of life. The world is hard, and you’re a nothing, and you have to bend yourself to forces that you can’t fight.”
This is the tragic story of a world around the woman we follow in this story, destined, by means of her father’s instinct, to be sent to a man’s farm, then taken up by this man and her him (“Yeah, but look at him: earth caked into the creases of his elbows, bones like flint. Eejit, I thought.”) a hard man with quad bike and a stolid purpose in lambing for years and years in his blood, in this hard life up north not sure where but near Catterick and the world today seems to be a continuity from the Foot and Mouth Disease of 2001 which is what this story centres on, but with the knowledge, for me, of a later human plague, and now a human-human foot in mouth plague today! She was once a florist in an ironically grey world, but she was now part of one with harder hitting emotions beyond flowers. A hard-hitting amoral fable for our times, knowingly heading towards yearned-for stoical defeat for the land’s own dehumanised sake, offlanders, offcomers bringing it all with them, “skimming us off the land like scum off cheese.” I felt this story somewhere other than in my brain. Frankel’s sink rate in the gut.
“I’ve come to realise that’s what you feel, when the worst happens: relief.”
USCHI GATWARD: LAMMAS
A story I had to work hard at to fathom the patchwork gestalt of radical socialist revolution in East London during the earlier twentieth century and the characters, legends or lands underlying the words. And what apostrophes are missing from which words. Those who know more about this story’s context may appreciate it more than I did. My failings, not necessarily the story’s.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/uschi-gatward/
EDWARD HOGAN: SINGLE SIT
“The ruler extended from the wrist, up her forearm, six inches by its own authority. It had the word ‘Shatterproof’ on it.”
…from this to the story’s perfect example of one of my elbow moments in its last sentence. The suspenseful story of Frank, a salesman of a congeries of conservatories or orangeries, frank by name but sales-tutored by rote, equipped with demonstrative iPad, and with his own marital backstory; he meets a north English accented woman called Cortez, for her to hopefully choose a conservatory to buy as a ‘single sit’ customer as well as what turns out to be a single mother, with her own marital backstory as demonstrated by a son called Estéban who severely sleepwalks. The melded backstories of Frank and his customer do not reach a sales closure exactly while a moment of inattention overnight between them entails a page-turning search for the boy in the wilds around the Brighton coast. Any arguably unnecessary pink plectrum as a replacement for the ruler, notwithstanding.
“‘You have to take the plug out? Otherwise it doesn’t work?’ the boy said.”
The story’s perfect ‘elbows’ ending, with a mighty glimpse of truth as gestalt, helps this whole anthology help us stand up in the world’s deepening sinkhole of a puddle.
A deepening ‘sink rate’, too.
The above stories were read in a purely arbitrary order,
e.g. I had no idea, before reading it, that the last story carried a perfect ‘elbow ending’.