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Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

Black and White, 2012, 280 p.

The first eleven stories in this collection were originally published in The Ragged Man’s Complaint (which I reviewed here) so I started this book on page 155. Throughout the other eleven tale shere Robertson’s writing is crisp and economical, capturing the situations and his characters in all the words required and no more. This is good stuff.

Opportunities is the tale of one evening in the lives of a pair of couples when various interpersonal dynamics swirl under the surface.
In The Shelf a couple has moved into a new smaller home and need to remove a shelf to place a flat-pack wardrobe against the wall. It turns out to be a bigger job than expected. In the meantime, strange things are going on in the street outside.
One day The Dictionary stops working. The words slide about all over the place, disordered, making it impossible to find the one our first person narrator is looking for. Even the new ones in the bookshop have the same defect.
The Dayshift worked by a border guard takes on even more meaninglessness when the regime changes and people can move to and fro across the border without being checked.
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell Everything I Know) features an old lady entering a specialist record shop wanting to buy music with some feeling. The guy there introduces her to the blues. But he’s not the owner and doesn’t work there.
Willie Masson’s Miracle. Willie is a housebound man, barely able to move and whose wife is in a Home. His neighbour, Mrs Bovie, drops in from time to time and a nurse comes in to see to his needs. One day he manages to get his arm to jerk.
Mr Meiklejohn has just left the dentist when The Rock Cake Incident occurs as he relaxes in a café afterwards. As a result he will need to visit the dentist again.
Old Mortality is set in an old, apparently deserted, graveyard where a man has taken his pregnant partner to see the headstone of his ancestors. They come across an old man whose purpose in life seems to be chipping the names from the monuments.
Christie lives alone in a house overlooking the field wherein lay MacTaggart’s Shed and imagines he sees ghosts there – but they may only be sheep. There is some kind of civil war still going on and not long ago an atrocity took place in the shed which was then burnt down.
The Future According to Luke is a repeat of the past. Luke Stands Alone is a native American living on a reservation. He, Dean and Johhny’s only entertainment is to cross the reservation’s border to Jubal’s Buffalo Saloon, situated between Bombing Range Road and the highway to Custer. Luke’s predictions all come true but that’s because they’ve already happened.
A man goes to visit an old building where everything is at Sixes and Sevens. His grandfather, a casualty of the Great War, once lived there, but it is now being sold off. The two caretakers treat him as if he’s a patient.

Pedant’s corner:- not a single thing to note. Remarkable.

The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan

Salt, 2014, 153 p.

Within this collection are twenty stories of varying length but none could be said to outstay their welcome. Logan’s inspiration here is clearly derived from fairy tales; but only one of them, the last, begins with “Once upon a time.” Apart from the usual admonitory accounts, some are celebratory and some have tints of magic realism. In general Logan’s writing here is more satisfactory and tighter than in her two novels The Gracekeepers and The Gloaming. Then again it ought to be. In a short story no word should be wasted.

The Rental Heart revolves around the renting of clockwork hearts easily returned to the rental place when they get broken, as hearts always do.
Underskirts has no fewer than ten narrators in its eleven pages each adding their own perspective to the tale of the local Lady who has a taste for young girls from the neighbourhood.
In A Skulk of Saints Lauren works as a medic “peering at the insides of people” in a hospital under the gaze of representations of saints, while in her personal life negotiating her relationship with heavily pregnant partner Hope.
The Last 3,600 Seconds is the stream of consciousness of a woman whose memories crowd in on her during the last ever 3,600 seconds of the universe.
The Broken West is the story of two unusually close brothers searching for their father through a series of dead-beat US towns.
Bibliophagy features a man struggling to conceal from his family his addiction to eating words, words which, like an alcoholic with booze, he hides in various locations.
Coin-Operated Boys are clockwork male escorts hired out from a shop called A Man for All Seasons. Set in Paris, the story has a fin-de-siècle feel.
Girl #18 is the latest to offer sympathy after our narrator’s sister has died.
In Una and Coll are not Friends the pair are put in a room separate from their peers to sit a maths test. Una is distracted by Coll’s tail. She herself has antlers.
In a water-drowned world The Gracekeeper tends to her charges, the Graces of the title, kept in cages. Logan expanded this tale into her first novel.
Sleeping Beauty is a taut tale of sexual assault; told backwards.
In Witch a young girl goes into the woods to spook her friend and meets BabaYaga.
Barely over a page long, All the Better to Eat You With is a kind of Little Red Riding Hood in reverse, a warning to look out for yourself.
The Man from the Circus rather literalises the metaphor of taking a leap into the unknown. A girl allows herself to be picked up by a man from the circus, a trapeze artist.
Feeding is set in the Australian outback where a couple have set up home, soon after they have lost an expected child. The woman spends her time obsessively in the garden but in the drought conditions nothing will grow.
Momma Grows a Diamond is written as one fragment each from the life of a girl at age ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen, as she becomes a woman. Her mother, who provides services for wounded soldiers, tries to turn her into a diamond so that she will not be broken by men.
Less than a page long, The Light Eater has a titular character who begins to consume light bulbs as a means to guide a lost lover back home.
Matryoshka riffs on Cinderella. Its narrator is the prince’s sister, who loves her servant Matryoshka, the one who sees to her whims day and night and sews her slippers for the great ball.
In Origami a woman whose partner works on the rigs assuages her loneliness by making a man out of folded paper.
Tiger Palace explicitly plays with the conventions of story telling as a (female) traveller works her way through the “impenetrable” forest to the Empress’s palace and finds there no crocodiles disguised as stepping stones for crossing the moat and no tigers inside the palace. Both characters refuse their allotted roles.

Pedant’s corner:- The title page reads “The Rental Heart and other stories” (The book cover has ‘The Rental Heart and other fairy tales’.) More than a few Usian usages. “Before the Resting party arrive” (arrives,) fit (fitted.)

There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Harper, 2009, 363 p.

This is not my normal reading fare but the good lady knew I’d recently read Jane Austen’s Emma and wondered how I’d react to this author’s take on the characters from that book. Hill is the creator of the detective duo Dalziel and Pascoe about whom he has written twenty-four books. This is a collection of his shorter works and was originally published in 1987. That “Featuring Dalziel and Pascoe” is emblazoned on the front cover is a bit of a cheek. Only one of the six stories here does so and that tangentially at best. Also irritating is that all the story titles are rendered entirely in lower case.

there are no ghosts in the soviet union is a detective tale featuring Inspector Lev Chislenko. (I admit that my first thought with that name was of the famous Igor who played for Dynamo. Being questioned whether he is related to that footballer becomes a running joke through the piece.) Chislenko has been called in to resolve the case of a man being pushed into a lift and immediately falling through the floor, which remains as solid as it always was and there is no trace of him at the foot of the shaft. The obvious explanation is that the man was a ghost. Consequently ideological considerations beset Chislenko. “There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union,” is apparently the set-up line to a Soviet joke but also an assertion that he must find a way to uphold. The story is obviously intended as a satire on the Soviet Union – or at least on how Hill imagined the Soviet Union to be – but is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime anywhere. The resolution depends on Chislenko’s delving into the lift’s origins. It was manufactured in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx Stadt after World War 2) in the 1920s and installed in a now demolished building elsewhere before being re-used in a money skimming scam. His investigations also bring him into dangerous contact with powerful figures in Soviet circles.

In bring back the cat! Joe Sixsmith is a balding West Indian (with a balding jacket) who has just begun his career as a private detective. He is called in by a Mrs Ellison to find her cat which has been missing for three weeks. In the course of his investigations all over one afternoon, he uncovers various family secrets and solves another case entirely, thus making his name. There’s an overt consciousness of racism to some of the exchanges. (Sixsmith was later to become the protagonist of another series of Hill’s books.)

the bull ring is set in the British military training camp at Étaples during the Great War. One of the instructors is excessively harsh on recruit Harry. For Harry’s own good he would say; but Harry doesn’t see it that way.

Dalziel and Pascoe do not appear as such in auteur theory. It is the actors who are playing them on a film set who do. The one playing Pascoe has long been on the way down as an actor and is now saddled with a tyro leading lady who is the director’s new wife. It also includes the bearded writer of the novel which is being filmed (we are, I suppose, meant to assume Hill is writing about himself,) who is becoming more and more annoyed at changes to the script. The story starts with a warning injunction, Nothing in this story is what it seems. You should remember that. The metafictional games in it do not lift it above the category ‘diverting’.

poor emma takes up twenty or so years after Jane Austen left off her tale of Emma Woodhouse and her misguided attempts at match-making. The intervening years have not been kind, though Mr Woodhouse continues, like a creaky gate, to, as we Scots say, “hing lang”. Mr Weston has died and his widow, in a sentence carved from early nineteenth century attitudes and would-be Austen impersonation “eventually declined into religion, to such an extent that it came as no surprise, though an incalculable shock to most decent people, when she embraced the doctrines of Rome.” Mr Knightley has neglected his affairs, indulging himself as a bon vivant and taken up a seat in Parliament (which allows him various other indulgences.) His brother John has lost the confidence of his legal clients and now runs Donwell Abbey on George’s behalf. The conflict comes from the wishes of both to protect that inheritance. All the main characters from Emma reappear, save Jane Fairfax, except for mention of her death. Her husband Mr Frank Churchill is involved in the dénouement. The Mr Knightley shown here is far removed from the one Austen portrayed and so too is Emma herself as she indulges in an action which that younger self would surely never have contemplated but which does have the effect of giving the tale a condign ending.

crowded hour concerns the invasion into her home by two armed men of a woman whose husband is somewhat obscurely rich and has absences from home. It begins, “At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever.” The story lies in the journey that beginning implies.

Pedant’s corner:- “led him out in to” (into,) humourously (humorously,) “‘How’s you mother?’” (your,) smidgeon (smidgin; or, smidgen,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “his legal practise” (the noun is practice, as used later, I note,) “a codicillary convenant” (covenant, surely?) “had showed” (this may have been an attempt at Austenism; ‘had shown’.)

Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin

Illustrated by John Sibbald. Serpent’s Tail, 2004, 210 p, including 14 p Notes about the composers and philosophers. Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

This is a collection of 26 short stories, none of which is longer then twelve pages and even that includes one of the illustrations. Their tenses shift from past to present and back again. Trappings of the present day irrupt into the past or vice versa, modern day phenomena like pizza deliveries precede composing by candlelight with quill pens. Within the context, though, it all makes a surreal heightened sense. Unlike a lot of Scottish fiction the writing is laced with humour. Seventeen of the stories are listed under the heading “The lives,” four under, “The letters,” three are “The thoughts,” and, finally, one is “The last word.”

All of it is delightful stuff.

The lives:-
Sheep being scarce in Venice would-be priest Antonio Vivaldi – familiar with McDonald’s, TV and spaghetti westerns – tries to sleep by counting cardinals jumping off the papal balcony, one of whom brings to him both God and music via the number 3. 500 concerti later Vivaldi tries to go on holiday but is caught up in a war. A later incarnation learns to walk on water by channelling his anger at a Stravinsky comment that he always writes the same concerto.
In the glass box of her marriage Alma Mahler writes down the notes of the string quartet she is composing only for them to disappear from the paper as soon as she’s finished. Bach, who in his youth had aspired to be a professional footballer until a retired player suggested his true vocation, struggles to respond to the deluge of parcels he receives following the publication of an article titled ‘If Only Bach Had a computer’ in the previous month’s Digital Digest. Beethoven anticipates the benefits due to flow to him from a pyramid scheme while striding the mean streets of Edinburgh till he comes to “the Zone-of-Everything-and-Nothingness” that is South Bridge, which always defeats him. A Hamburg perpetually mist-bound and stuck at 4.45 in the afternoon due to the composer’s previous failures waits for Brahms to complete his first symphony: a fantastic interlude brings resolution. Antonin Dvořák finds his knowledge of Science Fiction and fairy-tale useful while stalking the Bohemian wilds for musical inspiration. Fresh from an invitation onto The Jerry Springer Show, Haydn hears a voice telling him just how many trios he still has to compose. Enthused by a cable channel film noir series, Mozart decides on a new career as a private investigator in a story which also features him bicycling through the air like the ident scene at the start of a Dreamworks© film. Schubert glides through the streets of 1828 Vienna on his skateboard before being given a magic business card. In a manifestation which may be an indication of Schumann’s state of mind Liepzig morphs its architecture daily: then he takes the underground to Herr Wieck’s flat where he meets Clara. An aged Sibelius is in his last hours invited to join the circus by three clowns. Richard Strauss and Amenhotep IV share their dreams of finessing Nazi racial policies and building pyramids respectively. Tchaikovsky laments the madness of his marriage as he considers a last ballet. Georg Telemann writes his best-selling concertos amongst the mountain of mail order goods he has requested (or not) while his agent adopts his identity. One of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers who form a five-a-side football team conceives the idea of introducing passing to their game; their results get worse.

The letters:-
Composer Q makes a compact with the Mr Sinclair who turns up at his door: thereafter the music flows and Q’s domestic life becomes blissful. There is a catch of course. Composer X’s career creating music for films has given him all the trappings of success – girls, glamour and real estate. He flees the Calvinistic persecutions of messages in the Edinburgh sky to Tenerife only to find the stars have rearranged themselves into a message in Spanish. Composer Y labours under the affliction of coming between “the celebrated X and the no less renowned Z” (perhaps due to his fondness for the double-bass) till one day the world pauses and the sky becomes a Tiepolo-style ceiling of angels; suddenly he is in constant demand. Composer Z gazes from his window into the vista beyond the end of the alphabet through the large plate-glass window installed for just that purpose. In one universe the glass becomes insubstantial and he is pulled through. (This story contains a comparison between Scottish midges and the dead in Hades – both are summoned by human blood.)

The thoughts:-
A drunken David Hume cosies up to a woman “who had come so close to freezing to death on the pavement outside the Caledonian Hotel she had never warmed up again” before he is, in a phrase which could summarise this whole book, “stranded in this makeshift world put together from the sweepings of history.” Nietzsche tries to break free from monetisation at the hands of his University by keeping chickens. Seneca settles on Edinburgh’s Southside as the perfect place to prove Stoicism firmly as number one of all the world’s philosophies. Socrates attends the opening of Greece’s first supermarket, ‘Zealous Hellas’.

The last word:-
On her death bed Nadia Boulanger is visited by other female composers – her sister Lili, Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” and “within seconds” count; substantial – a few had gone by before I noticed the prevalence but they soon become extremely intrusive. Otherwise; crochets (crotchets,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) vermillions (vermilions,) “a set of garden furniture say with no memory of ever having ordered them” (ordered it,) extendible” (extendable,) the text implies the great Real Madrid team of 1959 had invented the passing game (they didn’t. It was the mighty Sons of the Rock in the 1880s/90s who did that,) “Puskas, Di Stefano, Santa Maria … [were] … to secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row” (Real won that cup five years in a row, the first five of its existence; those three players may not have been present for all five, of course.) “A few second’s later” (seconds,) “duvetted by straw and feathers” (should the spelling be ‘duveted’?) An unindented paragraph, Socrates’ (Socrates’s.)

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Full title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories Fourth Estate, 2014, 252 p.

The ten stories this collection contains are all exquisitely written, in them every word counts. Mantel shows her mastery of the short story is as good as her novel writing.

Sorry to Disturb is narrated by an Englishwoman living in Jeddah as her husband works there. One day a man in import-export rings her doorbell, lost, asking to use her telephone. This is Ijaz, who returns next day to thank her and thereafter calls regularly – nothing untoward but he seems as lonely as she is. Her loneliness is not eased by her female neighbours. Her state of mind is illustrated by the fact that Ijaz may well be a figment of her imagination, though that is not the only possible interpretation of the text.

In Comma a woman remembers her childhood friendship with a girl her mother considered unsuitable and the pair’s clandestine visits to the grounds of the local big house.

The Long QT describes the moment a man starts to dally with another woman and the unexpected effect this has on his wife.

Winter Break describes the taxi journey a woman and her resolutely anti-children husband take from their destination airport to their holiday hotel. What it is about, though, is not seeing what’s in front of you.

Harley Street is narrated by a female receptionist in one of the premises there, where the doctors are all nicknamed for their specialty – and who to a man (and woman) all hold their patients in contempt. It is more concerned however with the relationships between the ancillary staff.

Offences Against the Person tells of the interactions between the daughter of a conveyancing solicitor, taken on as a junior clerk in his office one summer when she is seventeen, with his main secretary, Nicolette, soon to be the cause of her parents’ marriage break-up.

How Shall I Know You? examines the trials and tribulations of a jobbing writer asked to speak to reading clubs – the seedy hotels, the usual questions, the tiresome small talk afterwards – but is more concerned with the employee at the hotel where she stays on one visit, a young woman with a facial deformity but a kindly disposition despite her treatment at the hands of the regulars.

The Heart Fails Without Warning anatomises the relationships within a family where the elder daughter is anorexic.

In Terminus a woman sees her dead father in the carriage of a train on a parallel track. At the terminus she tries to find him, fails, yet nevertheless gains a sort of contentment.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983 is an account of the intrusion by a gunman intent on killing the PM into the home of a woman expecting a plumber to call on the day Margaret Thatcher is to leave the private hospital the back of which the woman’s bedroom overlooks. He seems to be an IRA man. In reply to something the woman says he replies, “‘You’re right. They’re Englishmen,’ he said, sadly. ‘They can’t remember bugger all.’”

Note to the sensitive: at one point a character says, “White nigger, isn’t it?”

Pedant’s corner:- “whether the house is quiet as I left it” (‘quite as I left it’ would be more usual but quiet does make sense in context,) sunk (sank,) typically there are missing commas before pieces of direct speech which begin within a sentence, “computer disks” (I stll rebel at spelling ‘disc’ with a ‘k’,) “against front window of bookshop” (against the front window,) “a row of … were marked out” (a row was marked out,) sat (sitting.)

Latest Interzone – Issue 289

 Hold Up the Sky cover
 Interzone 289 cover

It’s that time again. The latest issue of Interzone – 289 of that ilk – landed on my doormat this morning.

This one contains my review of Cixin Liu’s collection of short stories Hold Up the Sky which I mentioned receiving here.

Once again the cover is a wraparound. See below:-

Interzone 289 full cover

All the Rage by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2014, 217 p.

 All the Rage cover

This is Kennedy’s fifth collection of short stories. Most of the contents tend to utilise short sentences. Sometimes verbless. Often with a second person style of narration.

Late in Life recounts the emotions of a younger woman and her older lover the day they have a lawyer’s meeting to determine the details his will. Of a student ahead of them in the queue at the Building Society where they are about to pay off her mortgage she thinks, “Young men are easily confused. They lack resources.”
In Baby Blue a woman wanders into a sex shop to get away from the cold outside and escape thoughts of the medical procedure she has undergone. As she finds herself dogged by the assistant’s efforts to help she ponders her attitude to love. “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” Chocolate-flavoured condoms inspire the thought that her experience of oral sex is not “intended to be primarily culinary,” and that “Use of such a device might imply “your penis is inadequate and ought at least to taste of chocolate to compensate, so here you go and roll on one of these.”
Because it’s a Wednesday. Wednesday is the day for the viewpoint character’s domestic help to do the cleaning. Because it’s a Wednesday they are doing what they always do – at her instigation. Because it’s a Wednesday he’s shagging Carmen. (Not a spoiler, it’s the story’s first sentence.)
In the run-up to Christmas a man drops into a church in These Small Pieces. The service prompts thoughts of the unreliability of God and the occurences which have hurt him.
The Practice of Mercy sees a woman take a stroll from her hotel room through an unfamiliar town and return to find her lover, with whom she’d had a disagreement, has come to join her.
The person who has been Knocked is a young boy recovering in hospital from being trampled by a horse, who imagines he can see into the future in a small way.
In All the Rage a married man in his forties who serially tries it on with women finds his match in a twenty-two year-old woman.
In Takes You Home a man who “never intended to grow up and have to be adult” but “did. Naturally,” (although on several occasions had heard it said he’d simply got taller and faked the rest,) ponders the times he had in the flat he’s selling.
The Effects of Good Government on the City features a woman on a visit to Blackpool questioning her relationships.
In Run Catch Run a boy caught up in the throes of his parents’ divorce plays with the dog his father has bought him and his mother says they can’t afford.
The viewpoint character of A Thing Unheard-of is seemingly afraid of contact and runs through the many ways in which they could deliver a message, in person, on the phone, in a letter, electronically.
This Man is the story of a lunchtime first date which is an awkward encounter – until suddenly it’s not.

Pedant’s corner:- potassium added to water is described as wasping “back and forth on the liquid’s surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames , too angry to sink.” (The reason potassium doesn’t sink is because it’s less dense than water. It would float even without the flames,) wisht (several times but once as whisht. This Scottish word is usually spelled wheesht.)

Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson

B&W, 2000, 192 p, including xii p Introduction by Isobel Murray.

 Where the Apple Ripens  cover

Kesson drew on her early life for inspiration in much of her fiction, which in the Introduction we are told was always composed in the form of a play for radio first. Several of the stories here reflect rural life, some are set in institutions, all are unmistakably Scottish. Most are adorned with page centred quotations from poems or hymns or songs. The characters within them are vibrant and individual; depicted economically, vividly and with compassion. This is good stuff.

The longest tale here is the first, Where the Apple Ripens, a novella describing two days in the life of Isabel Emslie, set to take up a place in service the next week in the big town. Her last schoolday is marred by its coincidence with the funeral of Helen Mavor, who had let herself waste away after the birth of her illegitimate baby. The novella is perfused with the contrast between Calvinist rectitude and human impulse, her mother’s admonishments, the prurient comments Isabel overhears as she passes the local bus stop, the thinly veiled innuendos and warnings, her poetic sensibility – illustrated by copious quotations from poems and hymns – her youthful exuberance and desire to dance (a heavy signal, this,) the bravado she expresses when she says she’s ‘not feared’ of Alex Ewan, the local man with a reputation, a bravado which is later revealed to have face value.
In Stormy Weather such inclemency is the only reason Matron can muster not to allow the older orphanage girls out to go to the Band of Hope meetings on Friday nights. The story, however, is more about the compromises, the quids pro quo, the petty revenges the inmates have with and over one another.
Set in 1923, ‘Once in Royal…’ relates the excitement around the scramble for tickets for the Chief Constable’s Christmas dinner for poor children as felt by Sarah, who does not consider herself the ‘poor, wee soul’ of others’ opinion.
The Gowk, Jockie Riddrie, is the local simpleton, forever hanging around the school fence, drooling, or exposing himself. After allowing herself to be enticed up into the woods young Liz Aitken becomes pregnant but steadfastly refuses to reveal to her family who the father is. For the village folk and especially the gowk’s stepmother, Kate, Jockie becomes the obvious candidate to blame. But his father Hugh knows better.
Having caught the biggest tiddler in a jam jar The Bridge is where the local boys span, hand over hand on its girders, across the river below.
Until Such Times is the interval during which narrator ‘you’ are staying with your Grandmother and the Invalid Aunt away from your Aunt Ailsa (who, we infer, is not your aunt) whom the Invalid Aunt says is man-mad and that ‘you’ would clip her wings. Invalid Aunt never has a good word to say about anyone but ‘you’ are devoted to ‘Aunt’ Ailsa, who is actually trying to do her best for ‘you’.
Another story narrated by an unnamed ‘you’, Good Friday is not the religious festival but the tale of a sufferer from acute neurasthenia longing for the day she’ll be released from mental hospital.
As its title suggests Life Model is about a sitter for Art Students, one who could hold a pose better than most, and of her secret for being able to do so.
In an intimation of mortality Road of no Return sees a woman come back to her childhood village overlooking Loch Ness and finds it deserted. But her memories remain.
Set in an old people’s home and with a kind of time-slipping narrative Dear Edith … describes the letters Mrs Cresswell composes to her dead friend Edith, interspersing these with the conversations of the staff.
This Wasted Day is the last of a tinker, arraigned at the Pearly Gates by those who looked down on her during her life with all their misconceptions and prejudices. The Big Man turns out to have different ideas from them but there is still a twist to come.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Alex Ewen (the book’s text has Ewan,) “Never had Isabel ran so fast” (the passage was in standard English not vernacular Scots, so, ‘run’,) paeon, (paean,) an opening quotation mark that was unclosed, sang (again, the passage was in standard English, so, sung,) ommission (omission,) court yard (courtyard,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, another missing after one, momentoes (the correct ‘mementoes’ appeared two lines later,) descendents (descendants,) vocal chords (cords.)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

Macmillan, 2015, 443 p.

 Three Moments of an Explosion cover

This is Miéville’s latest collection of short stories. Like with all such collections the interest varies but the stories are all readable.

The very short Three Moments of an Explosion consists of three fragments all describing explosions, some of which are used for advertisemants.
In Polynia Cold Masses – icebergs – appear in the sky over London (while coral sprouts on the walls of buildings in Brussels.) There’s a Wellsian feel to it but the end result is still distinctly Miévillean.
The Condition of New Death is that all dead bodies orient with their feet pointing directly towards to any observer (including cameras) at all times. Apparently this is linked to a feature of early First-Person Shooters.
The Dowager of Bees is narrated by a card player, inducted one day into the phenomenon of Hidden Suits, where a card (such as the Dowager of Bees) will manifest during a game – and in the rule books – only for both to disappear again once the game ends, with forfeits to be fulfilled. The reader can guess which card the climax will involve but there is still a resolution beyond its appearance.
Narrated by an immigrant shopkeeper on the island where it is set In the Slopes is the story both of two rival archæological digs in the shadow of a volcano which are uncovering evidence of extraterrestrials living alongside humans and of a new resin for preserving the remains.
The Crawl is the text of a trailer for a zombie film.
Watching God is set on a peninsula cut off from its mainland by forest and a ravine. Ships appear from time to time but never come ashore, instead wrecking themselves just out to sea as if forming words with their arrangements.
The title of The 9th Technique refers to a form of torture but the story itself is about the uncanny manifestations attached to the techniques – the cloth from the first waterboarding now having unusual properties – and their value as objects of desire. The 9th technique is confinement with an insect. Viewpoint character Koning acquires it.
The Rope is the World is a history of the girdling of Earth – a thin-spoked wheel – by space elevators and their subsequent inhabitation and decay. Money for old ….
Containing some fables particular to its setting The Buzzard’s Egg is the address of an enslaved member of a defeated city, whose job it is to look after the captured gods of conquered peoples, to one of those gods.
Säcken is a tale of supernatural apparitions arising from an ancient punishment for parricide, the poena cullei, where the criminal was sewn into a bag with a dog, a cockerel, a viper and an ape and then thrown into water.
Syllabus is what it says, an outline for an academic course on the detritus left by time-travellers, the ramifications of the arrival of alien insects for global poilitics and the implications of the privatisation of sickness in the UK.
In Dreaded Outcome a therapist has an unusual proactive role in the restoration of her patients to well-being using what she calls traumatic vector therapy. She also has her own therapist.
After the Festival is a gruesome tale about a new entertainment – the public slaughter of animals and the subsequent wearing of their heads by people chosen from the crowd.
The Dusty Hat starts as a tale of political leftist factionalism but soon veers off into weirdness and a discussion of geological deep time (which gives Miéville the opportunity to make a neat pun with the description glass struggle. He also for some reason finds it necessary to italicise the word stramash.)
Escapee is another text of a film trailer, this time for a horror film.
The Bastard Prompt’s narrator’s girlfriend was a jobbing actor not getting many parts so took a post as a Standardised Patient – helping trainee doctors to recognise diseases from their ‘symptoms’. She’s very good at it but then starts to describe symptoms for diseases that don’t exist – yet.
Rules is a short list of, em, rules for as yet unknown games and also a reflection on imitating an aeroplane with spread arms and making that “now-familiar” noise.
The estate of Estate is a housing one which Dan Loch’s family had to leave one day. When he comes back there is an outbreak of incidents involving drugged deer staggering around with their antlers on fire.
Keep relates the evolution of a new epidemic where, if the afflicted remain too long immobile, trenches appear in a circle around them, and the scientific efforts to discover its origins and possible cure.
A Second Slice Manifesto is that of an art movement which constructs and displays slices through prior paintings; slices which reveal more of the originals than was apparent to the naked eye.
A father and daughter enter a militarily embargoed area around Covehithe. They have come to watch the emergence of a damaged and sunken oil-rig from the sea. It has come to drill down and deposit eggs from which new rigs will grow.
The Junket is narrated by a hard-boiled media journalist describing the controversy around a film (made by Jews) which displays every anti-Semitic trope in the book, and its aftermath.
Four Final Orpheuses gives us four different versions of why Orpheus might have made that turn and fateful look towards Eurydice.
A picture frame turns put to have unusual properties in The Rabbet.
Listen the Birds is another storyboard for a film trailer.
A Mount is a meditation on the ubiquity of porcelain animals and why some seemingly out-of-place people, not their owners, might be fascinated by them.
A sense of understated eeriness hangs over The Design in which a medical student between the wars discovers designs etched into the bones of the cadaver he is dissecting. He concludes that God is a scrimshander.

Pedant’s corner: vortexes (strictly the plural of vortex is vortices,) “a plethora of ceremonies are emerging” (a plethora is singular; a plethora …. is emerging,) indices (yes, it’s an acceptable plural but when it is for book contents it’s usually spelled indexes,) sodium pentothol, (sodium pentothal,) Cheevers’ wife (Cheevers’s,) crevace-spiders (crevice-spiders?) “There were a series of percussions” (there was a series.) “Most of the town were already gathered” (most of the town was gathered.) “None of them leave.” (None of them leaves,) snuck (sneaked.) Pangea (Pangaea, or, even better, Pangæa.) “A line of police block the road” (A line … blocks the road,) “wracks his brain” (racks,) “or that it be not shown” (or that it not be shown,) “Baron von Richtofen” (if it’s that baron, it’s Richthofen,) fit (fitted,) trash (rubbish.)

Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry

Penguin, 1945, 123 p.

Scottish Short Stories cover

The back cover says this book was mostly edited by Theodora Hendry but she was killed in the London Blitz. The criteria for selection in the volume was Scottish stories with a Scottish setting or else it “would almost certainly have assumed an international aspect.”
The first, The Coasts of Normandy by George Blake, is the story of a tragedy which befell the narrator’s childhood friend and its effect on the child’s mother as reflected through the prism of a chance encounter with a stranger many years later on the coast of Normandy. It takes a slightly circuitous route to its revelation (which the reader intuits well before the narrative gets there) but this allows for such thoughts as, “The simple feel as warmly as the clever and the learned.” Another of its observations is a reminder that, for some soldiers at least, the Great War was not only a horrific trial and ordeal but also an opportunity to remake their lives in its aftermath.
In A Sunday Visit by Colm Brogan two boys are dragged along by their mother to the Mortons’ house, where the family has just suffered a bereavement. Amid all the whispering, the boys are left to their own devices.
A Hike to Balerno by Ronald McDonald Douglas sees two boys on the titular hike, the escapades they get up to, the banter between them, “daft, just plain daft.”
Clay by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the story of Robert Galt, a man from a chancy background who takes a farm and devotes all his time to it, to the neglect of his wife and his daughter’s prospects.
Beattock for Moffat by R B Cunninghame Graham tells of the last journey of a dying Scot on the train up from London with his cockney wife and his brother come to take him home to die. The author observes of the accomodations married couples make with each other that “usually … good points, seen through prejudice of race, religion, and surroundings, appear … defects,” and refers to the Cockney wife’s reticence being explained by, “the English theory, that unpleasant things should not be mentioned, and that, by this means, they can be kept at bay.” The prose evidences that Scottish authors’ eye for landscape.
In The Sea by Neil M Gunn a twelve-year-old overcomes his fears, staggering through the night down to the harbour to witness the perilous return of his father’s and brother’s boats during a great storm. Here it is seascape (or land-meets-sea-scape) which the descriptive powers bring to life.
J F Hendry’s Chrysalis is a fragment of the childhood of a boy who wants to be good but fears he is bad because he sometimes is too enthusiastic in his activities.
Clock-a-Doodle-Doo by Willa Muir is set in a room full of clocks (all wag-at-the-wa’) which can speak to each other, having theological discussions over whether the Son or Moon is the primum mobile and aspiring to Pure Horological Thought.
Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch could be characterised as a Scottish version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Two pipers come to Half-Town. After a night of musical vying with the blind piper there he finally plays them the titular pibroch he “got from a man in Moideart.” It has “something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life” and sets up a wanderlust in those who hear it.
In The Matinee by Fred Urquhart a fifteen-year-old newly graduated into long trousers reverts to shorts to get into the cinema more cheaply, dragging his younger brother along for corroboration. Engrossed in a film where a factory owner exploiting the workers is presented as virtuous he fails to acknowledge his brother’s increasing personal discomfiture.
Eric Linklater’s Kind Kitty is an old woman who likes a drink, then dies through lack of it a few days after throwing a party for Hogmanay. She inveigles her way into heaven but finds the company there uncongenial, and the beer far too poor.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “brigh” (is missing a final ‘t’,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech.

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