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Short Story Collection

GUEST POST: Writing Short Stories by Orlando Ortega-Medina

image003 Name: ORLANDA ORTEGA-MEDINA

Author of: JERUSALEM ABLAZE (2017)

On the web: orlandoortegamedina.co.uk

On Twitter: OOrtegaMedina

To celebrate the launch of his excellent debut short story collection, Jerusalem Ablaze, I’m very pleased to welcome Orlando Ortega-Medina to Reader Dad to talk about writing short stories.

I don’t have one specific method of writing the first draft of a short story. For example, I was inspired to write “Torture By Roses” after reading Yukio Mishima’s short story “Swaddling Clothes” in his collection Death in Midsummer. In that particular case, my aim was to write my own imagined backstory for Mishima’s story, and I composed it in my head before I wrote down a single word. In the case of “Jerusalem Ablaze”, I woke up from a nightmare, grabbed the steno pad that sits on my nightstand, and started writing, half-asleep. Two hours later I had my first draft of the story.

Jacket ImageMy Quebec stories “The Shovelist” and “Tiger at Beaufort Point” were inspired by real-life events, so there was some pre-planning at the starting point to ensure the events were properly fictionalised. This involved drafting character sketches and plot outlines, which I used, in effect, to re-invent reality. And my Israel stories are excerpts from an early novel I was composing, so they didn’t start life as short stories at all.

“After The Storm” is the story I pre-planned the most, in that I fully sketched it out in outline from start to finish before attacking the prose. Interestingly, it’s also the story I revised the most, almost interminably. Each time I re-read it I found something to improve, all the way until the day I was meant to turn it over to the publisher. But it was worth it, and I’m very pleased with the way turned out.

Regardless of how my short stories start their lives, my process for completing them is the same for all of them: I set them aside for a few days, then come back and revise them until they are as perfect as they’re going to be. To achieve this I have to be brutal in my revision process and not be afraid to cut out anything that doesn’t work. That being said, one has to know when to stop revising!

As for having a word-count, I aim to write no less than 1000 words a day, 5 days a week, with a goal of producing 10,000 publishable words per month. One can’t very well call oneself a writer unless one actually writes. So: Write – Everyday – No excuses.

Jerusalem Ablaze – Stories of Love and Other Obsessions is out now from Cloud Lodge Books, priced £12.99.

 

Blog Tour Jerusalem Ablaze

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King

BOBD THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

When people think of Stephen King, they most often think of the massive tomes that helped to make his name: The Stand, It, Needful Things. What we often forget is that King is as comfortable writing short fiction as he is writing in the longer form, and that he has produced over 120 pieces of short fiction in his forty-year career, enough to fill six collections (this, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the sixth) and four collections of slightly longer pieces. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collects twenty pieces, written since the publication of Just After Sunset in 2008, into an accessible and wonderfully-annotated single volume that marks the end, as do the earlier collections, of another period of the author’s writing career.

I’ve made some things for you; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, come a little closer. I don’t bite. Except…I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.

I have been considering the worth of the short story collection in this day and age where everything is so readily available on the Internet. My ponderings began when I read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings earlier this year and discovered that I had, in fact, already read most of the pieces it contained. As a King collector, I like to keep my ear to the ground, and tend to pounce on new short stories when they’re released (yes, I am still using the “I only buy Playboy for the stories” excuse). So, when The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was announced, my first thought was: it’ll be a lovely addition to my collection, but I’ll probably have read the vast majority of it before; a thinking process that was verified when the table of contents was released further down the line.

But…

Having read it (or re-read, as the case seems to have been), I can now see the merit in collecting these works together. Many of them have been revised for re-publication, while others are brand new and, in one case, the story is available for the first time in King’s native English as part of the collection. In the main, it’s an excellent excuse to revisit some of the excellent stories that King has produced over the course of the past decade or so. The stories themselves cover a wide range of topics and genres, from the all-out horrific opener, “Mile 81” to the touching and blackly funny “Premium Harmony” which sees a young man lose his wife and his dog in one fell swoop; from the hilarious one-upmanship that drives “Drunken Fireworks” to the post-apocalyptic vision of the book’s closing story, “Summer Thunder”.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from these twenty stories; each one contains a little window onto the world and shows us, as only King can, the people who inhabit it and the stresses that, but for the grace of whichever god you believe in, might be our own. Some are more memorable than others, of course, but I suspect this might be as individual as each reader’s taste in music, or television, or… For me, the standouts are those stories that leave us with plenty to think about, which ask the question “what if?”, and invite us to extrapolate on the answer.

The Little Green God of Agony” is one such story and gives pain a physical form that can travel from one body to another. As someone who has suffered chronic pain for over twenty years, it’s a story that speaks directly to me, and I understand Newsome’s need to try every possible treatment, regardless of how off-the-wall it may seem and also, to some extent, his nurse’s accusations that much of his suffering is down to his own laziness and unwillingness to break the cycle of pain. The Little Green God is an image that appeals to me, and that haunts me in the dead of night when the pain chases sleep away.

The Dune” presents us with a simple enough premise: a dune on which writing appears from time to time, and the man who has discovered that each time a name appears on the dune, that person will die quite soon afterwards. It’s old-fashioned horror, but it’s the beautiful sting in the tail that makes this one stick with the reader. “Drunken Fireworks”, on the other hand, is as far from horror as it’s possible to get. In King’s fictional Castle Rock, two families – one local, one from out of town – have a rapidly-escalating fireworks competition every Fourth of July. The outcome is inevitable, but it’s the characters that drive this story, especially Alden McCausland, the man whose story this is: it’s the kind of character study in which King excels, the pitch-perfect Maine voice, and the examination of small-town life and how outsiders fit – or more often fail to fit – into the ideals that we hold so dear.

Ur”, originally written as a marketing gimmick for the then-new Amazon Kindle, has been given something of a facelift, but manages to maintain its solid core: on the surface, it’s a parable on the dangers of technology, but it’s once again the human element that causes most of the trouble. This is one of those “what if?” stories that will play over and over, especially when you go looking in the settings menu of your e-reader. For fans of baseball, King has included “Blockade Billy”, a wonderful novella that was originally published as a lovely little hardback in 2010. This is King the prestidigitator in his element, a story that manages to hide its true nature until the very last paragraph.

In many ways, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the perfect companion piece to King’s instructional 2000 book, On Writing. Each of the stories here contain a short introduction explaining the story’s origins and what King was trying to achieve when writing them. It’s a brief but educational look into the workings of King’s mind, and his approach to writing fiction. It also serves to date-stamp, in a way, each story, allowing the reader to follow the progression of a writer who, by his own admission, is still perfecting his craft.

King has come a long way since the publication of his first book of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift. Clearly the work of the same brilliant mind, it’s clear that the stories that make up The Bazaar of Bad Dreams come with extra baggage, the weight of experience that can only come from living life. There’s much less focus on the “horror” elements (take a look at the table of contents for Night Shift and you’ll see what I mean), and much more on the “human” elements; many of these stories are unsettling or downright frightening, but more because of how close to the bone they strike than because of how much they can gross us out (with the exception, maybe, of “Mile 81”) or their reliance on the easy scare: the ghost, or the giant rat, or the vampire. They are the work of a much more mature writer, a writer at a vastly different stage of life than the twenty-something who wrote “Graveyard Shift” or “Children of the Corn” and the book’s publication clears the decks for a new stage of King’s writing, something we’ll be able to measure in another decade or so when collection number seven comes our way.

There are a couple of stories that are noticeable by their absence from the book’s table of contents. The fact that I’ve noticed is one of the downsides of that desire to keep up-to-date that I spoke about earlier. The most obvious (although there are probably more that I have missed) are “In the Tall Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, both of which were produced alongside a co-writer, son Joe Hill in the first instance, Faithful co-writer Stewart O’Nan in the second. Their omission seems odd, but fills this reader with hope: is King aiming to become the literary Tony Bennett and give us a Duets-style book of collaborations somewhere down the line?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

FEARIE TALES by Stephen Jones

FEARIE TALES - Stephen Jones FEARIE TALES: STORIES OF THE GRIMM AND GRUESOME

Edited by Stephen Jones (www.stephenjoneseditor.com)

Illustrated by Alan Lee

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

For most of us, the fairy tale is one of the staples of growing up. Bedtime stories for young children, it’s only when we reach adulthood that we realise just how disturbing they are, how cruel our parents must have been to send us to bed with these images our final goodnight. Of course, Disney has helped somewhat in that regard, making the frightening seem less so, and often changing the structure of the tale to suit their own ends (see, for example, Disney’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid", which bears little resemblance, after a certain point, to the source material.

Most often used as cautionary tales, and used to instil the fear if God (or, at the very least, the Big Bad Wolf) into those more gullible than the teller (children), it’s sometimes difficult to believe that they’ve stood the test of time as well as they have. With Fearie Tales, noted horror anthologist Stephen Jones sets out to return the form to its roots. Using the original tales collected in the early 19th Century by the brothers Grimm as inspiration, Jones presents a collection of modern day fairy tales designed to frighten and unsettle, and written by some of the foremost practitioners of horror and dark fantasy currently working in their respective fields.

Each modern story is prefaced by one of the original Grimm tales, and what follows range from direct translations to more loosely connected stories which, perhaps, share a theme with one if the older tales. Ramsey Campbell presents a modern re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin", while Neil Gaiman works his magic on the tale of "The Singing Bone". Robert Shearman takes a slightly different approach and puts a sinister twist on the later lives of Hansel and Gretel in a story that will make you reconsider reading the tale of the siblings to your own children. Another re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin" closes the book, this time by the excellent John Ajvide Lindqvist (and ably translated by the ever-reliable Marlaine Delargy), who introduces the Swedish myth of the tomte, a creature which will likely be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers.

As with any anthology of fiction, there are always one or two stand-out pieces. With Fearie Tales, the stand-outs are absolute gems, amidst a stellar line-up of authors, from two less likely suspects. The first is Christopher Fowler’s "The Ash-Boy". Fowler is probably best known for his quirky crime novels starring the elderly detective duo Bryant and May, but his roots lie in the horror genre, and it’s one he still frequently visits. In this case, Fowler tells the story of Cinderella with a twist. But it’s the final few paragraphs, where we realise that we’re listening to a father tell this story to his young daughter, that packs the punch and sets this apart from the other stories in the book.

Peter Crowther’s story, "The Artemis Line" is worth the price of admission alone. The titles refers to the physically connected line of bodies that must exist for a troll to move away from a body of water, yet remain connected to it through the connection with its brethren, and the story is a modern-day retelling of the story of the elves who replace a baby with a changeling. One of the longer stories in the book, it grips the reader from the word go and ends all-too-quickly. It is also one of the most frightening tales in the book, Crowther drawing on his vast experience of the genre to live up to the anthology’s title.

It’s a hand, he thought as the scarecrow’s head slowly fell from view, the hat dislodging, pushed up and back by the brim until it fell off completely, exposing a material dome beneath, sprinkled with dry straw.

It’s a hand grasping at my foot, he thought.

The book is illustrated throughout by Alan Lee, best known for his depictions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Despite the black-and-white nature of these illustrations – or perhaps because of it – they contain a level of detail and a certain gruesome quality that makes them as likely to stick in the mind of the reader as the stories themselves.

Jones has assembled a list of veritable superstars and set them the task of recreating the stories of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their own inimitable fashion. The result is an excellent collection of dark and thought-provoking tales by the people who do them best: Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, to name but a few. The inclusion of the original Grimm tales serves as a reminder that those tales we remember so fondly would probably give us nightmares if we were to read them for the first time, in their original form, as adults. This is a must for horror aficionados everywhere, and doubly so for anyone with a penchant for fairy tales in particular. The usual high production values from Jo Fletcher mean this is a book that you’ll want to have displayed on your shelf, and that’s just the icing on the cake. Dark, disturbing but most of all: wonderful.

DOCTOR WHO at 50: 11 DOCTORS 11 STORIES

11 Doctors 11 Stories 11 DOCTORS 11 STORIES

Eoin Colfer (www.eoincolfer.com)
Michael Scott (www.dillonscott.com)
Marcus Sedgwick (www.marcussedgwick.com)
Philip Reeve (www.philip-reeve.com)
Patrick Ness (www.patrickness.com)
Richelle Mead (www.richellemead.com)
Malorie Blackman (www.malorieblackman.co.uk)
Alex Scarrow (www.scarrow.co.uk)
Charlie Higson (www.charliehigson.co.uk)
Derek Landy (www.skulduggerypleasant.co.uk)
Neil Gaiman (www.neilgaiman.com)

Puffin Books (www.puffinbooks.com)

£12.99

On 23rd November 1963, the BBC introduced the Doctor to the world. In the intervening fifty years, we have been excited, frightened and entertained by the adventures of this "mad man in a blue box" in no less than eleven different guises. To celebrate the golden jubilee of this timeless creation, eleven of the finest writers of Young Adult fiction in the world took one regeneration each, and crafted a short story for that Doctor. Originally published as a series of short ebooks, the eleven stories have now been collected into a beautiful trade-paperback edition by Puffin Books and released just in time for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Presented in chronological order, the stories pit the Doctor, and a host of companions, both new and old, against the expected universe of evil aliens, some of whom fans have met before, others new to the Whoniverse (I’m never quite sure whether than relates to Doctor Who or the works of Doctor Seuss). William Hartnell’s First Doctor finds himself battling child-stealing soul pirates, the adventure influencing one of the most enduring tales for children to be written in the early 20th Century (Eoin Colfer’s “A Big Hand for the Doctor”); Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor goes up against the Lovecraftian Archons (Michael Scott’s “The Nameless City”); Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh finds himself on an unrecognisable Skaro, on an alternate timeline where Daleks form the cultural and scientific heart of the universe (Malorie Blackman’s “The Ripple Effect”); while Matt Smith’s Eleventh finds himself doing battle with the Kin, a time-travelling alien bent on destroying the Doctor’s pet planet, Earth (Neil Gaiman’s “Nothing O’Clock”).

The stories are uniformly excellent, well-researched and written with an eye to detail obviously designed to please the fans. Each Doctor comes alive at the pen of their respective author, and each author manages to isolate the unique characteristics of their specific Doctor and build a story that will appeal to fans of all ages. Along with the Doctors we meet many of the characters we love so much from the TV series; the Master (in his Roger Delgado guise) puts in a brief appearance in the Second Doctor story, while the Rani plays the role of central villain to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. Fifty years of television and eleven regenerations of the central character provides a huge cast of companions on which the authors can draw. In most instances, the companion of choice will come as no surprise: Susan for the First; Jo Grant for the Third; Ace for the Seventh; Amy Pond for the Eleventh. There are two, though, conspicuous by their absence from the book. Sarah Jane Smith is noticeably absent from the Fourth Doctor story, in favour of Leela, while Rose Tyler is absent from both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ stories. They seem like odd omissions, but the book doesn’t suffer from their absence.

While uniformly excellent, there are always going to be stories that stand out from the others. Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor story has a clever twist in the tale that will have the reader re-examining the tale for a second time with fresh eyes; Richelle Mead’s tale of the Sixth Doctor (“Something Borrowed”) is told in the first person by companion Peri Brown and pits him against fellow Time Lord, the Rani; Malorie Blackman’s Seventh Doctor story contains, probably, the weakest characterisation of the Doctor (which is a shame, since Sylvester McCoy was always "my Doctor"), but the story is well-told and shows a much darker side of the Doctor than we like to remember; Neil Gaiman’s closing story, with the Eleventh Doctor at the helm, is no less than we’ve come to expect from this excellent writer, and stands alongside his TV episodes, "The Doctor’s Wife" and "Nightmare in Silver" as one of the finest Eleventh Doctor stories you’ll find anywhere.

There is plenty here to please fans both young and old – and, for that matter, new and old – in a collection of stories that shows why the Doctor is such an enduring character. Always fresh, even when facing the same old foe, the Doctor, in whichever of his guises we meet him, and that faithful, iconic old police box that is so much bigger on the inside, are as much a joy on paper as they are onscreen. Thrilling, funny and as clever as we’ve come to expect from one of the finest shows to grace British television in the past fifty years, this is a collection not to be missed, an absolute must for fans of everyone’s favourite Time Lord and a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary.

Hospital Reading Round-up, or: A Letter of Apology

Dear Reader,

I hope you will forgive this break from the usual straightforward literary(?) criticism for this personal note to explain the relative quiet at Reader Dad of late, and to apologise to authors, publishers, publicists and potential readers for the lack of reviews written and published on the site since mid-February.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will already be aware that 2013 thus far has been something of a challenging time for me. This past Saturday, May 4th, saw my family and that of my fiancée gathered in Prague for our wedding, an event that is stressful enough for those involved without one of the parties spending most of the preceding three months either admitted to, or frequently attending, hospital. Thanks, though, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1B at Lagan Valley Hospital (go on, give them a virtual round of applause) we made it, and the day went off without a hitch (well, apart from the obvious one).

A combined total of five weeks as a hospital in-patient, not to mention the fact that I’ve been off work since early February, has given me plenty of reading time (by this time last year, I was working my way through book number 23; I’m currently on 2013’s 30th book). Limited Internet access for the same period meant that reviews were few and far between: at the moment I’m sitting on a backlog of fourteen un-reviewed books.

It is a sad fact that if I don’t review a book almost immediately after reading it, it isn’t worth me reviewing it at all. I read so much that it’s difficult to remember what I felt while reading the book to such a degree that I could produce a solid and reliable review several months later. There will, of course, always be those stand-out books that remain with me for much longer, and I will attempt to review these more completely in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, there are those “lost” reads, and after much deliberation, I have decided on a bite-sized review of each so that people can see whether I enjoyed them or not, and what the highs and lows of 2013’s first quarter or so have been for me.

For the readers, I apologise that there aren’t more complete reviews of the following books. They have all been uniformly excellent, and I can recommend them unreservedly.

For the publicists, my sincere apologies that these books have not been given the same treatment as others, despite the fact that I have read and enjoyed them all. For September at Transworld, Jon at Gollancz, Angela at Orion, Nicci at MacLehose, Bethan at Chatto & Windus, Becci at Head of Zeus, Sophie at Titan and Alison at Atlantic, my particular apologies for the books listed below.

For everyone, while I have you here, I also wanted to mention an experiment I will be trying at Reader Dad over the next month or two. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, and the introduction of his iconic character, Parker, University of Chicago Press have finally obtained worldwide rights for the publication of the entire Parker series. In honour of this, I will be running a Parker@50 event here at Reader Dad, with in-depth reviews of the entire series appearing over the course of the coming months. I hope you’ll join me for this.

In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank you all for your continued support of Reader Dad, and I look forward to welcoming you back to a more regular schedule in the coming days and weeks. Enjoy the mini-reviews below.

Yours most sincerely,

Matt Craig

Reader Dad

Hobbs-Ghostman GHOSTMAN

Roger Hobbs (www.rogerhobbs.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/doubleday)

£9.99

The unnamed narrator of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel is a ghostman, the member of a heist team responsible for disguises and safe dispersal and disappearance of the team after the job. When an Atlantic City casino is robbed, he receives a call from a man he’d much rather forget. The ghostman has just forty-eight hours to retrieve the money, with the FBI and rival gangs on his case.

What’s on the cover, and what’s behind it are two completely different things with this novel. I picked it up expecting a Reacher-style adventure thriller. What I got was much better: an old-fashioned heist novel of the type at which the likes of Richard Stark and Lawrence Sanders excelled in their day. As we follow the narrator through double- and triple-cross, and learn what happened to the money, it quickly becomes clear that as well as being a beautifully-written and perfectly-plotted piece of crime fiction, it’s also a painstakingly-researched and detailed look at an entire class of global criminal enterprise. Cinematic in scope, it’s exactly what fans of the heist caper have been waiting for for years: a worthy successor to those giants of the post-pulp era who made the genre what it is. Not to be missed.

   
dreams-and-shadows-cargill DREAMS AND SHADOWS

C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

As an infant, Ewan Thatcher is stolen from his parents by faeries and replaced with the changeling Nixie Knocks. Several years later, the young boy Colby Stephens meets Yashar, a djinn, who grants him a wish: to be able to see beyond the veil, to the world of faerie, of myths and legends. C. Robert Cargill’s first novel follows the first thirty years or so of the lives of these three boys, and charts their impact on the real world around them, and the magical world that lies just beyond the veil.

There are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Neil Gaiman, and Cargill has a ready-made fan base in readers of Gaiman’s novels and comics. But this is no poor copy; Cargill’s fresh approach feels vibrant and engaging. It’s well-researched, creatures from a myriad of mythologies living together in uneasy truce, in fear of the Devil. The human characters – Ewan and Colby – take centre stage; this is their story, and Cargill is careful never to lose that fact in the midst of all the detail and the huge cast of characters. By turns dark, funny and touching, Dreams and Shadows is part modern fairy-tale – yes, Princess Bride fans, there is kissing – part horror, and part “urban fantasy”. It’s one of the best fantasy novels to see the light of day in some time, and there is at least one reader – yes, that would be me – already itching for the second part of the story.

   
Rage against the dying - masterman RAGE AGAINST THE DYING

Becky Masterman (beckymasterman.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

When we first meet Brigid Quinn, it is as Gerald Peasil is trying to abduct her, thinking her to be much more frail than she turns out to be. And therein lies the heart of this unusual story. Elderly lady detectives traditionally fit into the more “cosy” crime stories – Jessica Fletcher, for example, or the grandmother of them all, Jane Marple – so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Brigid is a retired FBI agent and that Becky Masterman’s debut, Rage Against the Dying, is anything but cosy.

As a much younger woman, Quinn hunted serial killers with the FBI. Small and blond, she was the perfect bait for a certain type of predator. As she grew older, it became time to pass the baton, and Quinn’s trainee was killed by the very killer they were trying to catch. Now in her retirement, Quinn finds herself pulled back into the case when young Jessica’s body is finally found, and they have a man in custody claiming to have killed her all those years ago.

Quinn is as far from those stereotypical old lady detectives as it is possible to be: a chequered past at the Bureau and an unusual reaction to Peasil’s attempted abduction leave the reader with the distinct impression that this is a dark and deeply flawed character. As the novel takes one dark turn after another, it quickly becomes clear that Quinn is more than capable of looking after herself, while keeping her loved ones as far removed from the trouble as possible. Surprisingly, I loved Rage Against the Dying, and look forward to seeing what’s next for Brigid Quinn. It helps, I think, that Ms Masterman isn’t afraid to make her character suffer for the reader’s enjoyment. And there’s not a knitting needle in sight.

   
outsiders

OUTSIDERS: ITALIAN STORIES

Roberto Saviano (www.robertosaviano.it)
Carlo Lucarelli (
www.carlolucarelli.net)
Valeria Parrella
Piero Colaprico
Wu Ming (
www.wumingfoundation.com)
Simona Vinci

Translated by
Abigail Asher
Ben Faccini
Rebecca Servadio
Mark Mahan
N.S. Thompson
Chenxin Jiang

Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£12.00

Outsiders is a collection of six stories and essays from leading Italian writers examining the concept, as the title might suggest, of not belonging. Uniformly excellent, the collection does have a couple of stand-out moments, which are worth the price of admission alone.

Roberto Saviano’s The Opposite of Death is the story of a young woman in rural Italy widowed before she is even married. Her fiancé has gone to war in Afghanistan, never to return. Written in the same style as Saviano’s reportage – it’s difficult to tell whether The Opposite of Death is fact or fiction, or some combination of the two – it’s a touching account of a young woman’s attempt to carry on with life in a town that she has lived since birth, but where she feels she no longer belongs. As we’ve come to expect from Saviano, it’s a story that brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, without ever resorting to anything other than straight, factual reporting.

Piero Colaprico’s Stairway C introduces carabinieri maresciallo Pietro Binda to the English-speaking world. A man is found murdered outside a social housing complex in Milan. Binda finds himself faced with an endless line-up of possible suspects, from the drug dealers who live on stairway C, to friends and possible lovers of the man. Binda is a breath of fresh air in a genre bursting at the seams with depressed, alcoholic, drug-taking detectives. Stairway C is but a taster of the Italian policeman’s exploits, and we can but hope that the wonderful MacLehose consider translating some of the novels into English in the near future.

   
Raw Head - Jack Wolf THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES

Jack Wolf

Chatto & Windus (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/chatto-windus)

£14.99

Tristan Hart is a medical student, madman and deviant. He is obsessed with pain; in his more lucid times it is the nature of pain and how to prevent it. His ultimate desire is to find the perfect scream, and in this guise his obsession is causing maximum pain without inflicting permanent damage.

Despite the odd title, which might suggest a more supernatural, or fantastical storyline, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a straightforward, old-fashioned melodrama. Beautiful writing – Wolf expends a lot of effort in ensuring language is used to its full effect – and stunning book design – including everything down to the font used, and old-fashioned capitalisation of nouns – combine to create a fully immersive experience for the reader. Thankfully, the story is worthy of the attention lavished upon it and the reader will come away unsure of whether to love, hate or feel sorry for Tristan Hart. Whichever, it’s a story that will remain with the reader for some time after the final page, and showcases Jack Wolf as a new author that we’ll be watching out for.

   
White Bones - Graham Masterton WHITE BONES

Graham Masterton (www.grahammasterton.co.uk)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

One-time horror master Graham Masterton makes the jump to crime fiction with the first in a series of novels featuring Cork’s only female Garda detective, Katie Maguire. When work on a farm outside Cork turns up the bones of eleven women, Katie Maguire is assigned to the case. The bones have been in the ground for a long time, but it’s clear that they were skinned alive, and that there is something ritualistic about the killings. As Katie comes under pressure to consign the case to the history books, an American tourist disappears. Her bones, similarly stripped, are found laid out in an arcane pattern on the same farm.

White Bones is a wonderful introduction to Katie Maguire, a character with more than her fair share of crosses to bear – sexism in the workplace the most obvious, but longstanding tension at home over the death of a child doesn’t help. Despite (or possibly because of) that, she’s the perfect lead, and gives Masterton free rein to examine issues outside of the central plotline. The author lived in Cork for five years, and takes great delight in showing off his knowledge – from local geography and history, to grasp of the local dialect and inter-character banter. Despite the fact that much of the action takes place outside of the city, Masterton still manages to make Cork an important character in itself, and it helps to ground the novel and give the reader a sense of place.

A welcome addition to the genre, Masterton isn’t afraid to stick to his roots, and introduce a hint of the supernatural into the proceedings. Broken Angels, the second Katie Maguire book, is due from Head of Zeus in September this year. It’s on my “must read” list. I guarantee it will be on yours too once you read White Bones.

   
WebOfTheCity WEB OF THE CITY

Harlan Ellison® (harlanellison.com)

Titan Books / Hard Case Crime (titanbooks.com / hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Harlan Ellison® is best known these days for his science fiction work, and for his penchant for controversy. His first novel, originally published in 1958, was an examination of New York’s street gangs, inspired by Ellison’s experience going undercover in a Brooklyn gang. Rusty Santoro wants out. Given a glimpse of two possible futures by his teacher, he knows which one he wants and school, rather than the gangs, is the way to achieve it. But quitting the gangs is not quite as easy as it seems, and Rusty quickly discovers that his is not the only life in danger from his actions.

Web of the City is a short, violent piece of work that fits perfectly into the Hard Case Crime library. Ellison perfectly evokes New York of the late 1950s, and focuses on the young men who make up the gangs that effectively ran entire neighbourhoods during the period. Most striking for the modern reader, perhaps, is the age of these boys: barely old enough to hold a license to drive a car, they are armed to the teeth and elicit fear wherever they go. The story has aged well, and will appeal to a modern, jaded audience, who don’t mind a bit of blood with their cornflakes. It still has the power to shock – the knife-fight between Rusty and the new president of the Cougars is frightening in its intensity and violence – and it is this power that will set it apart even from much of today’s crime fiction.

The Hard Case Crime/Titan edition of the book includes three related short stories, which are all also worth the read, despite the fact that one of them is a rehash of a large section of the novel with a different ending, which lends a completely different tone to the piece. Grease meets Battle Royale, Web of the City is pure Hard Case, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction.

   
The Card - Graham Rawle THE CARD

Graham Rawle (www.grahamrawle.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£14.99

Everyone knows a Riley Richardson. He’s the local anorak, carrier bag always in hand, always happy to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen about his chosen specialist subject, be it books (ahem!), or model trains, or whatever. In Riley Richardson’s case, that subject is bubble-gum cards, and Riley is on a life-long mission to find the elusive card 19 from the 1967 Mission: Impossible TV series. When a grey-haired man who looks remarkably like the leader of the Impossible Mission Force drops a playing card in a deserted alley, Riley picks it up, and finds himself on a quest to save the Princess of Wales, and to find that fabled card.

The story itself is wonderful, driven by the quirky character of Riley Richardson, a man with a quite different outlook on life than the rest of us. There’s a definite feel-good quality to the story, and Rawle has an uncanny ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the least appropriate moment. What sets The Card apart from everything else, though, has to be the design and construction quality of the overall package. Printed on a heavier, glossier stock than you tend to find in a paperback book, the author uses different fonts, emphasises different words, and includes little markings in the margins to produce a work of art that is much more than the story held within. The most beautiful part of the book is, without doubt, the fact that it contains full-colour representations of the various cards that Riley finds along the way, all designed and illustrated by the author himself. The Card is, quite simply, an absolute delight.

LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist

untitled LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES

John Ajvide Lindqvist (johnajvide.com)

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

It’s difficult to believe that it has been a mere five years since John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, was first published in English by Quercus. It’s a ten-year-old book that has taken the world by storm, spawning not one, but two excellent film versions, and launching the career of a writer who is the epitome of the modern horror genre. His latest English release, again from the excellent Quercus, is the collection of short stories, Let The Old Dreams Die, an amalgamation of his 2006 collection, Paper Walls, and the 2011 short story that gives the collection its new title.

The art of the short story is alive and well within the horror genre, probably more so than any other literary niche. It is the perfect vehicle for short, sharp shocks and lingering creeps. It is a form that most of the genre’s big names try out at some point – Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Tim Lebbon, for example, each has a handful of collections to his name, while Joe Hill’s first published book was his excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts. It is no surprise, then, that John Ajvide Lindqvist should have enough short stories under his belt to warrant a collection.

Most of the eleven stories in Let The Old Dreams Die share the common theme of love. It’s a slightly unexpected theme for a collection of horror stories, but this is where Lindqvist excels: these, for the most part, are not stories of the supernatural; they are stories of every day people getting on with their lives, and the horrors visited upon them, or that they visit upon themselves in the name of love, friendship, a need to belong. Here, we have the customs officer who feels like an outsider: she can sense when people are hiding things, and has made a name for herself throughout Sweden. But she feels alone, unable to form normal attachments to the people around her. Until the day she meets a man that she is convinced is hiding something, a man who makes her feel somehow whole. Here, the man who almost drowned, and who now believes he knows the secret to eternal life, an eternal life with the only woman he loves. But the pursuit of this goal breaks something within him, something between them. And here, the bored housewife who breaks into other peoples’ houses in order to discover who they are; she finds more than she bargains for in one house, the body of a man who has been stabbed to death. He becomes her little secret, a listening ear, a comforting absence; until she discovers that the feelings are not mutual.

As with any collection of stories, some are stronger than others. The very short “To hold you while the music plays” is probably the weakest of the bunch (it’s the one story that none of Lindqvist’s beta-readers liked, according to his afterword), but it’s almost impossible to pick the strongest. Each has a different effect on the reader, some outright frightening (“Village on the hill”), others deeply unsettling (“Substitute”) and yet others designed to leave the reader with a sense of disgust (“Equinox”). But they all share a sense of realism that is down to Lindqvist’s attention to detail: little tics that the characters have, a dislike of body hair, or of watching someone else chewing their food; and details of places that are consistent across the stories, making the firm point that these are real places, populated by everyday people to whom something extraordinary is happening. There is a passage in “Substitute” that perfectly sums up the sense of general weirdness that the stories evoke:

There were no photographs on the walls, just pictures of American Indians and wolves at sunset, that kind of thing. The contents of the bookcase looked as if they had come straight from a Salvation Army shop. The Family Moskat by Singer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown…the books that are always there. Something in the background of an interior design suggestion from Ikea. Nothing was in alphabetical order, and the impression was reinforced when I found another copy of The Family Moskat on a shelf lower down.

For many of Lindqvist’s long-time readers, there are two main reasons for picking up a copy of Let The Old Dreams Die. The first is the longest story in the book; at just over 100 pages in length, “The final processing” is more novella than short story, and is a direct sequel to Lindqvist’s second novel, Handling the Undead. Using several of the main characters from the novel – Elvy, Flora, Hagar – the story tells of experiments being carried out on the “reliving”, and of Flora’s attempt to help them – her grandfather included – to die a graceful and peaceful death. The story itself provides a wonderful conclusion to the novel, and allows the reader to visit with some of the more entertaining characters once more.

Most exciting of all, though, is the book’s title story. “Let the old dreams die” (incidentally, the next line from the same Morrissey song that provided the title of Lindqvist’s debut novel) gives the reader a brief glimpse of what happened to Oskar and Eli when the book finished. Told by the ticket seller at Blackeberg subway station, it is the story of the love between his two friends: one a police detective assigned to the massacre at the swimming pool, and the disappearance of young Oskar Eriksson; the other a train ticket collector, a man we see briefly at the end of Let The Right One In, and quite possibly the last man to see Oskar and Eli before they disappeared. It’s an excellent story in its own right, a story of friendship, love and obsession, but it has the added benefit of providing closure for the novel, correcting an omission that Lindqvist was unaware of until the novel was already out in the wild.

Lindqvist’s influences are many and wide-ranging. There is a touch of Stephen King here (a man he has been compared favourably to on many occasions), a dash of Michel Faber and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a smidgen of the dark humour of Monty Python. What is most surprising about this collection is that, with the exception of the title story, it was written between 2002 and 2005. The only story that post-dates Handling the Undead is “The final processing” and they were all written before he set pen to paper on his third novel, Harbour. They show a writer of considerable talent, a man who knows how to manipulate the reader to gain maximum effect. His stories are the perfect mix of unsettling horror and black humour and, like any good horror story, their aim is simple: to make the reader feel unsure of their own familiar surroundings so that the light stays on to ward off whatever horrors are lurking nearby. His writing is beautiful, thankfully preserved in Marlaine Delargy’s brilliant translation.

Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.

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