“The Thirteen Problems” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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“Unsolved mysteries.”

I keep thinking I’ve reviewed every Agatha Christie on here by this point, but given I started reading her four years before I started the blog, some have definitely slipped through the net. The second Miss Marple, The Thirteen Problems, is one of them. Time to rectify that.

On Tuesday evening, a group of acquaintances have come together and before long the conversation, as it so often seems to, turns to unsolved crimes. The group is diverse – a lawyer, a retired police officer, an artist, a writer, a priest, and a village gossip – and they ponder which of them has the better background for solving crime. Thus forms the Tuesday Night Club, where each member must share a mystery that they know of and the rest must try and solve it.

The thirteen riddles are certainly challenging. There’s the story of the woman who was told that a blue geranium would mean death, the girl poisoned by foxglove leaves accidentally mixed in with the sage stuffing, a case of disappearing bloodstains, and the case of the missing bullion from a shipwreck. With every puzzle, the armchair detectives are stumped. There is however one exception. Miss Marple, dismissed by the others at first for being a slow old woman who has rarely left her village, is the only person to correctly solve every single crime, always able to relate each case back to an incident of village life. Thus her capability is proven time and time again, in a couple of places even bringing justice herself.

Although the second Marple book, this is the one where we see what she is really capable of. She is a little cattier in the first, and readers could have been led to assume that her solving of the case was just a fluke. As with Poirot’s Early Cases, this establishes our hero as being a rank above everyone else when it comes to detection. Whereas Poirot is more interested in psychology, with Marple we see that she just has a good memory and that humans are, broadly speaking, more alike than they care to acknowledge. As she herself says, perhaps it’s better that people don’t realise this. While there is an underlying arc of the characters telling one another stories, they can each be read individually and don’t necessarily follow on.

Christie’s real skill here is in having the narrators all have their own way of telling the tale. One is very conscious to go into detail on the atmosphere of the crime’s location. Another is not a natural storyteller at all and, after giving the basics, answers questions from her companions instead. One tries to tell a tale about a friend that is actually about herself, and Marple herself is prone to going off on tangents that seem to serve no purpose at all.

Most of the stories would have worked as an extended novel, if you threw in more detail, but by condensing them, Christie once again shows that length isn’t everything, and you can have a perfectly serviceable mystery set up, deconstructed, twisted and solved within twenty pages. Few are capable of doing this well, and none better than she. A genius collection.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Doctor Who: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories” by Various (2013)

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“The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

Admit it. Even if you’re not a big Doctor Who fan, and even if you’ve never seen an episode, you know at least that it’s about an alien who has a box that can travel anywhere in space and time, and every now and then he picks up some lucky human to go and have adventures with him (or her). Right now, we all need a little escapism, and I wouldn’t mind if any of them crashed into my bedroom to carry me off to far flung times and places.

In 2013, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the show, eleven of the world’s finest authors got together and each penned one new story for each Doctor. Of course, since then we’ve had another two, so you can see how long this has been sitting on my shelf. Nevertheless, here we go. Eleven new stories…

  • “A Big Hand for the Doctor”: The First Doctor and Susan are in 1900, dealing with space pirates who have stolen the Doctor’s hand, meaning he has to not only send them back home, but also find a fitting replacement.
  • “The Nameless City”: The Second Doctor and Jamie find themselves in possession of the Necronomicon and are transported to the edge of the universe to deal with the consequences.
  • “The Spear of Destiny”: The Third Doctor and Jo are on the hunt of the Spear of Destiny, in a journey that takes them to the Viking lands of ancient Sweden to deal with an old foe who is up to his old tricks.
  • “The Roots of Evil”: The Fourth Doctor and Leela climb aboard a moon-sized tree orbiting a barren planet, and while the Doctor is keen as ever to help those on board who are in need, none of the tree’s residents are a fan of his for reasons he can’t understand.
  • “Tip of the Tongue”: The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa are tracking down some nastiness in mid-century America where a new toy is seeding discomfort and trouble in an already divided nation.
  • “Something Borrowed”: The Sixth Doctor and Peri are drawn to a planet that looks like Las Vegas dialled up to eleven, where marriage is the most important institute in their society. Someone else has arrived early though, and intends to use this obsession for their own dastardly ends.
  • “The Ripple Effect”: Caught in a Temporal Plexus, the Seventh Doctor and Ace emerge to find themselves in an alternate universe where Daleks are peaceful scholars and no one can imagine them as doing anything evil.
  • “Spore”: The Eighth Doctor travels alone to Roswell in 1947 where a deadly virus is intent on wiping out every living thing on Earth, unless the natives can answer a question that will ensure their society’s survival.
  • “The Beast of Babylon”: Brushed off by Rose, the Ninth Doctor travels alone to deal with a race of horrific monsters in ancient Babylon, and along the way gives a test drive to another potential companion.
  • “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage”: The Tenth Doctor and Martha find themselves inside a literal storybook, and it transpires that this is a tale that might not end happily ever after, unless they can work out who put them there and how they can escape.
  • “Nothing O’Clock”: And finally, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy stumble into a plot of the Kin, a population made up of one member, to buy Earth in a financial takeover so they can live there in peace. The Doctor is, funnily enough, not so keen on the idea and sets about making things right.

It’s at this point in reviewing a short story collection that one is entitled to say, “They’re a bit hit and miss”. But actually, they aren’t. Each author combines their unique voice with the particular style of each Doctor, seeming to understand perfectly well how their eras used them. Even the titles feel like episode titles that each one would have appeared in. Eoin Colfer kicks it off with the First Doctor and knows how to make him perfectly pompous, and even includes a typically Whovian nod to how the Doctor inspired a writer to pen a story. Malorie Blackman takes on prejudice in her Seventh Doctor story, with a tale that shows an alternate world her Noughts and Crosses series, where people take on different roles to the ones in the history we are more familiar with.

Neil Gaiman gives the Eleventh Doctor an outing with plenty of complicated time travel as we’ve got used to in the later series, and Richelle Mead does a grand job with the Sixth Doctor, widely regarded as the least favourite, but giving him a fun story with a unique world. Charlie Higson tackles the Ninth Doctor, giving us the story of what happened at the end of his first televised episode and one of the most surprising twists in the whole book. The worlds they all build are fun and huge, simply because the Doctor Who toybox is, quite literally, infinite. It’s infinite nature is therefore one of the key reasons I’m so annoyed they all spend so much time in twenty-first century London on the show, but on the page you aren’t limited by the budgets of location and costume, so the more alien stories can occur there.

An excellent romp through the Doctor’s many lives and a chance to get one more adventure from each of them.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Platform Edge” edited by Mike Ashley (2019)

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“‘There’s a lot in knowing your engine well,’ said the Driver, as he shut the regulator and laid hold of the Westinghouse brake handle.”

What is it about trains that makes them so fascinating? They’ve been around for a long time now and yet have generally had some kind of hold over us. They still seem romantic, dangerous, exciting things that can take us anywhere and give us a whole new adventure. Unless you’re travelling on Southern, of course, like I normally have to. On the other hand, fiction is peppered with them, and there they take on a whole new lease of life. Trains continue to fascinate, and so do ghost stories, so The Platform Edge is a perfect marriage, containing some of the most obscure and spooky stories of haunted trains and ghost locomotives ever written. Just in time for Halloween!

Spanning 1878 to 1985, these eighteen stories – edited together by Mike Ashley – bring railways old and new to life, each filling us with dread and horror. There are spectral passengers, tales of hypnosis, dead drivers with warnings from beyond the grave, a haunted ghost train, and who-knows-what lurking in the subway. The range of authors is wide too. While F. Scott Fitzgerald is in here, he’s probably the only one who is a household name. Others include the author of the Mapp and Lucia novels, E. F. Benson, and

More are very obscure. Michael Vincent is one such author and Ashley admits he didn’t manage to find out anything else about the man. L. G. Mobley is another who was noted in her time (her short story “Inexplicable” was a big influence on Sigmund Freud and his use of the word “uncanny”), but her story in this book, “A Strange Night” hasn’t been seen in print for over a century.

The outstanding story for me was “A Smoking Ghost” by W. G. Kelly. Unique and darkly funny, it contains an idea I’ve never seen anywhere before. A man is alone in a train carriage when a second traveller barges in. When our hero complains about the cold, the newcomer offers to swap places with him, but this happens far more literally than our hero could have imagined. In “A Subway Called Mobius”, the a subway is thrown into chaos when one of the trains entirely disappears. While it never shows up again in any stations, subway workers do occasionally hear it rumbling past, but always just out of sight and often in two places at once. “The Last Train” takes us into the London Underground where a driver is under the impression that the disused station Museum is still active. He wonders what would happen if he stopped there…

In fact, the story I was least impressed with was Fitzgerald’s. His comes late in the book, and is about a haunted train and a lost love, but it’s a little disjointed and never quite grabbed me in the same way as many of the others. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt – I expected more given the high quality of the stories that had come before. While there’s no way we can remember all authors equally, it is wonderful to have some of these forgotten names given a chance to be rediscovered. When you learn that some of these stories have been lost and languishing in libraries for over a hundred years, it makes you wonder what else we’ve forgotten. Well done to the British Library to taking the time to dig up these forgotten gems.

If you want a little bit of a fright this Halloween season, this is a good place to start.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Suddenly, A Knock On The Door” by Etgar Keret (2012)

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“‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands.”

Short story collections remain, like sketch shows, somewhat hit and miss. When a writer packages together a lot of their work in one go, it is easier to compare them and see what you do and don’t like. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories in here, but some of them definitely left a bit to be desired.

The title story of Suddenly, A Knock On The Door features a writer being held at gunpoint by a man who demands he tell a story, which begins to fold in on itself as every time he tries, someone else arrives with the same plea. In the dark “Teamwork”, a divorced man tries to work out a way to save his son from an abusive grandmother. In “A Good One”, a board game designer arrives to a meeting with a bloodied nose and a briefcase containing nothing but a half-eaten apple. In “Surprise Party”, a wife tries to make her distant husband happy but ends up spending time with some distant acquaintances instead. And then there’s “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” where a man begins a documentary project about the wishes people would ask for if they had the power.

Set mostly in Israel, the stories have a large focus on uncertainty, loneliness, divorce, family and sadness. Few characters in the stories are happy and a lot of them seem to be trapped and unable (or unwilling) to prise themselves out of their ruts. A lot of the stories end abruptly or without giving us a firm resolution, leaving us to make up our own minds about what happens next. Sometimes this works, sometimes I wanted a solid answer.

“Pick a Colour” was a particular favourite story, highlighting in a very clever way the truth of racism, immigration and intolerance. “Lieland” was also interesting, and is one of the many stories to dabble in magic realism, with a compulsive liar finding out that all of his lies have come true and now he has to deal with the consequences. “Healthy Start” is also an interesting one, about a lonely man who has breakfast in the same cafe every morning by himself. Whenever he sees someone come in who is looking for someone, he waves them over and pretends to be whoever it is they’re meant to be meeting, be it a wife’s lover or a business partner.

It’s hard to know quite what else to say about this collection. Yes, there are some great ideas in here – some dark, some funny – and the prose style is easy, but then again it’s a translation, so as ever, I don’t know what’s been lost. Overall, though, I feel there’s something lacking and it didn’t resonate with me as much as I perhaps hoped it would. You might have better luck.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” by Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

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“My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anaesthesia during a triple bypass.”

And the year rushes to a close with one final slim volume slipping through the gate, also bringing the decade’s current total up to a nice round seven hundred.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is another one of those Vonnegut classics where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t, as he seems to be a considerable part of the plot. Originally taken from a WNYC broadcast, the collection has expanded a little and is a set of very short stories where Vonnegut is taken to the brink of death to pass up “the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates” to interview the famous and departed. The Dr. Kevorkian of the title was a real man, an American pathologist who believed in euthanasia.

On his journeys to the edge of Heaven, Vonnegut meets and speaks with many famous people including Isaac Asimov, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Philip Strax and, of course, the ever-present Kilgore Trout. He doesn’t quite hit it off with William Shakespeare, who speaks only in quotations from his plays, and he learns that Isaac Newton isn’t satisfied with all his scientific discoveries and is furious he didn’t also come up with evolution, germ theory and relativity. Adolf Hitler meanwhile reckons that he and Eva also suffered because of the war, and hopes that there is a memorial to him on Earth. Vonnegut doesn’t let him know how that turned out.

There’s not much to say about the book really. It’s cute, silly, funny and quite poignant in several places as Vonnegut explores the potential thoughts of these people once they’d departed from Earth. There’s also a lovely foreword by Neil Gaiman in which he too claims to be taken to the afterlife to meet Vonnegut in order to get a quote for the book. Unwilling to think up anything new, he’s told to use something that he’d said elsewhere. Gaiman shares the following quote, which seems even more important in these divisive times:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

There we have it. Happy new year, everyone – hope 2019 is a delight and full of amazing books. Don’t forget, you can always pre-order mine to get yourself in the mood. See you on the other side!

“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy (2013)

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“The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man.”

Some people (including Michele Roberts in her introduction to this collection) say that the short story fits our age better than longer narrative structures because we now live in a world where we have short attention spans and can’t or won’t commit to anything that takes up too much time. I think this is nonsense, given that the average length of a film these days seems to be about two and a half hours instead of ninety minutes. In truth, the power of the short story is that it reveals quite a lot about you as a writer. I’ve certainly written more short stories over the years than I have novels, but I find them a lot harder. You have to be so economical with your prose that I think it quickly shows up if you’re not very good at them.

Deborah Levy’s collection falls somewhat flat to me. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I can’t compare this to her other works, but I wasn’t that keen. Each of the ten stories has a European flavour, and focuses on someone who is struggling somehow in the modern world, but most of their problems are most definitely of a “first world” nature. In “Pillow Talk”, a man has an affair while on holiday, leading to a tense reunion with his girlfriend. In “Vienna”, a recent divorcee sleeps with a new woman. The most interesting is “Cave Girl”, in which a young woman radically changes her appearance and personality, leading to a change in the dynamic of her relationship with her brother.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but my overall opinion was that the stories are just an act of sheer pretension. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the actual writing is good, but the stories aren’t inspiring and feel oddly detached from anything real. I see that they are representative of “people scared of not seeming cool” as described by Michele Roberts, but that’s not something I really relate to. (Not because I’m cool, but more because I’m quite uninterested in what people think of me.) She also says the stories force us to question our places in the world, but I felt no such compulsion. Instead I just found myself slightly irritated by everyone and unsatisfied by most of the endings. I enjoy it when a story ends with an unanswered question, but here I found that even if there was a question being asked, I wasn’t totally sure often what it was, nor did I have much interest in finding the answer.

Intriguing and some very nice uses of language, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

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