Friday, 11 December 2020

My Year in Books 2020: November

So I managed to read a couple more books than last month, though I've still not really managed to find much time to read for pleasure. I've reviewed and taught a lot of books, but I never include those titles on these lists. (I'm just saying that in case you think I'm getting rusty!)

My reviews of this month's books are below. In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October

Here to Stay by Mark Edwards (2019)

I decided to read this one on a whim, as it was available through Amazon Prime (I was in an impulsive frame of mind, so didn’t linger too long over my choice). Here to Stay looked like pretty standard domestic thriller fare (and yes, I did base that assessment mostly on the font choice on the cover). And looks were not deceiving here. The protagonist is Elliot, a rich but lonely man who lives in a beautiful old Victorian house. He meets a woman named Gemma, and after a whirlwind romance they decide to get married. And then she invites her parents to come and stay with them, and things get unpleasant. Here to Stay is well-written, but I have to say I didn’t enjoy this one. I read it in a single sitting, and I did finish it, but it was a tough read. The main problem is that none of the characters were particularly engaging. Almost all of them are over-the-top horrible, and those that aren’t (like Elliot) are underdeveloped. As a result, the book didn’t so much have a creeping sense of threat as a series of in-your-face episodes of people just being horrible to each other. Two other issues I had were that some of the things that happened just weren’t plausible, and (big no-no for me) there were a lot of references to animal abuse and a cat who was constantly in danger of being harmed. This one just wasn’t to my tastes, I’m afraid.

Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (2020)

I wasn’t intending to read the new Cormoran Strike book right away. I knew it was a massive tome, and the idea of reading it in hardback made my arms feel tired. My mum said she felt the same, but then she ordered it anyway. After she read it, she passed it to me, and I couldn’t resist. It is a massive book, but it’s also a surprisingly quick read (mostly because it’s a page-turner, so I kept ending up reading more chapters than I intended to, which is what happened with the other books in the series as well). I really enjoyed Troubled Blood. It’s a cold case story, which is a bit of a change of pace for the series. And I’m a bit of a sucker for a cold case story. It also takes place over a much longer timescale to the previous books, so the story unfolds more slowly here. Fans of Cormoran and Robin will find much to enjoy here (no spoilers), but it was also nice to read a book that feels like it’s enjoying just taking its time. In case you’re wondering what the plot of Troubled Blood is… forty years ago, a GP went missing somewhere between work and the pub. Her daughter now wants Strike to look into it. While that’s quite a simplistic summary – and some readers might be more interested in the character development than the plot – there’s a really good mystery here with some ingenious and well-placed clues.

Still Life by Val McDermid (2020)

Speaking of cold cases – and speaking of my mum – this is one that’s been on my to-read pile for a bit. Me and my mum were ‘at’ the launch of Still Life, a fantastic online event by Portobello Bookshop that we really enjoyed (McDermid was launching Still Life alongside Doug Johnstone and The Big Chill). Again, my mum read it really quickly, but it took me a bit longer to catch up. Still Life is the new instalment of McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, and I think it’s my favourite one yet. Val McDermid is a writer who just gets better and better. In this book, Karen Pirie investigates a long-dead body found in a campervan, but is also called in when a body fished out of the sea is discovered to have a connection to a ten-year-old missing persons case. What I really like about this series is the interactions between the characters. They’re all rather likable (perhaps even more so than in McDermid’s other series), which makes for an enjoyable read. The other thing that’s interesting about this one is that it’s set in the first couple of months of 2020. McDermid talked about this at the launch, saying that the book was mostly written during lockdown but set just before it. She said she wanted to have references to coronavirus there, but had to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. I think she strikes a good balance, with just the right amount of ominousness.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

3 Minute Santas - Festive Flash Fiction Wanted!

A call for seasonal submissions to be broadcast on the radio!

Can you tells a festive story in just 3 minutes? Hannah's Bookshelf presents 3 Minute Santas - back for its fourth fabulous year on North Manchester FM!

I’m looking for recordings of festive (not necessarily Christmas) stories for inclusion on my radio show on Saturday 19th December – but they can only be 3 minutes long! Stories are welcome from anywhere in the world, and in any genre. A selection of 3 Minute Santas will be broadcast on the show on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and on digital (for the rest of the world) – and don’t worry, there’s always ‘listen again’ feature if you’re in a different time zone!

3 Minute Santas isn’t a competition, but a call for submissions. It’s open to anyone, and the more the merrier! For details of how to submit a story, just click here. The deadline is midnight on Monday 7th December.

And please do share this info with anyone you think might be interested!

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Review: Black Dark and Broken Wings (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Black Dark and Broken Wings. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

Sadly, this is the final post in this series of reviews, as the JustOut Stays In project has now come to an end. All of the plays in the series are still available to listen to, but the company is taking a short break to start planning projects for the new year. In this post, I’ll be talking about the last two pieces in the series: Black Dark by Aimee Shields and Broken Wings by Alison Scurfield.

Let’s start with Black Dark

Written by Aimee Shields and directed by Lexie Ward, Black Dark is a two-hander about a pair of flatmates who are… I think the phrase is ‘unhappy with their lot’. Sam (played by Ewan Mulligan) is angry/miserable about his ex, who is borderline stalking, watching him at the gym and getting jealous about his relationship with his personal trainer. His flatmate is Lara (played by Jessica Porter) returns home from work with the bombshell announcement that she has unceremoniously quit her job.

Sam and Lara are both approaching thirty (and have been friends since university). They live in an HMO with a landlord who keeps the heating turned down. It’s raining. They’re miserable. They have gin, and some ‘ouzo from the cupboard’.

They sit, drink and grumble about the disappointing direction their lives have taken. And when a power cut hits, they get even more despondent. Sam can’t get over his break-up and his broken heart, and Lara can’t see any prospect of another job.

Sam and Lara’s misery is undoubtedly – and quintessentially – the stuff of millennial angst. Lara bemoans the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder. There’s a mention of screamingly high university fees, and digs at the older generation (here, people in their 50s) who had work and housing handed to them on a plate, and who had reason to believe that hard work could actually reap some reward.

This millennial angst is lampshaded at times through the dialogue. Lara wonders whether, given she may now be unable to pay her rent, she’ll be forced to move back in with her parents. She says that this would be like a ‘suspended adolescence’. And Sam, still clinging to the remnants of his youthful dreams of fame, notes that since he’s now too old to join the ‘27 Club’, he’ll ‘have to live forever’. There’s something painful – but also a bit self-indulgent – in the characters’ belief that their only life options are prolonged adolescence, going out in a blaze of glory, or immortality.

I have to admit, I found myself getting a bit irritated by Lara and Sam, as the dialogue kept coming back to this stereotype of the somewhat entitled and self-absorbed twenty-something, who sees their generation’s woes as unique and unprecedented concerns. I sort of just wanted them to pull themselves together.

However, I think this irritation was kind of the point. Shields’s script is concealing a darker and more unsettling story (completely concealing, in fact) that throws this idea of ‘millennial angst’ into sharp focus. There is a difference between what Sam is going through and what Lara is going through, which we don’t see until right at the end – as, in fact, is also the case for one of the characters. Without giving too much away, the overwhelming message at the end of Black Dark is that sometimes angst isn’t actually just angst. And all credit to Porter and Mulligan for performances that give little away until the final moments.

It’s a bit of a sucker-punch, and it will make you feel bad for being irritated by the ouzo-fuelled moaning.

Speaking of unsettling stories with a bit of a punch… time to turn to the second play I’m looking at today and the final piece in the JustOut Stays In series: Broken Wings.

This final play is – like quite a few of the other pieces in the series – a monologue. Written by Alison Scurfield, directed by Shannon Raftery and performed by Laura Thérèse, Broken Wings takes us into the world – and into the mind – of a young woman who likes tending to vegetable plants.

Our narrator talks us through how she’s learning how to grow and care for her plants, reminding us that the most important thing to remember is not to overwater them. The opening section of the monologue is, on the whole, a bit mundane and apparently harmless. It’s just a girl who’s enjoying growing plants.

There are, of course, some hints that this might not be a completely mundane situation. For instance, there are little suggestions that the narrator is not in a typical domestic environment – she talks of someone called Carla who has been helping her, and it’s clear she lives with a number of other people. She is quite intense about her vegetable growing, and she hopes to perhaps use what she’s grown in cooking, serving meals that will remind her fellow residents of ‘before’ when they used to have ‘dinner parties’.

These hints – along with Thérèse’s performance, which blends a bit of a confrontational tone with an undercurrent of brittle fragility – suggest that the central character is institutionalized, possibly in a care setting (since she seems quite young and in some ways naïve) or possibly in a more punitive environment.

When she discovers her beloved plants have been torn up by birds, the narrator begins to reveal a little more about her situation and her character. And when she starts to talk about chilli peppers, a plant that has an inbuilt ability to cause pain and that grow red (the colour of danger), we start to get a sense of what sort of person we might be dealing with.

I enjoyed the way the character’s story unfolded here. It’s pretty disturbing (but in a way that’s compelling!), and a bit of an unexpected character study. The use of plants as a theme/motif is also interesting and thought-provoking. A combination of Shield’s script and Thérèse’s delivery means the audience gets quite caught up in the monologue as it unfolds. As things become clearer in the final third, it turns out that’s quite an uncomfortable place to be. But it’s too late to stop listening by then…

Broken Wings was a brilliant end to what has been a highly enjoyable series. As you will have heard from my reviews, I’ve been very impressed by all of the pieces I’ve heard, and look forward to seeing what JustOut do next (and I’m still hoping I’ll be able to see a live, in-person performance from them one day…).

Black Dark and Broken Wings are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

You can see my reviews of the other plays in the series by clicking on these links:

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track
A is for… and Accident of Birth
Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth
Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute
Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet
Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron

Review: User Not Found (Dante or Die)

Dante or Die

Time for another online theatre review from me. In this post I’m going to be reviewing User Not Found, an immersive video podcast by theatre company Dante or Die. The radio version of this review went out on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

User Not Found is an immersive video podcast, created by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan, and written by Chris Goode. It’s a production by Dante or Die, a UK-based ‘site-specific’ theatre company, a digital adaptation of their 2018-19 live show of the same name.

The podcast version of User Not Found was created as a lockdown piece – Dante or Die are a ‘site-specific’ company, and so during lockdown that ‘site’ is the audience’s own individual virtual spaces. Their intention was to translate the live performance (which utilized a bespoke app) into a piece that can be experienced by a socially distanced audience. Working with Marmelo Digital, the company created an immersive podcast that can be viewed from their YouTube channel (or as I did, via theatre websites, such as HOME Manchester).

So… what is an immersive video podcast, and what’s this one about?

The first thing to note is that User Not Found is explicitly designed to be viewed on a smartphone (ideally with headphones). There are warnings that the viewing experience will not be as good if it’s watched on a laptop or desktop screen. The viewer is also recommended to keep the phone in portrait mode, and to full screen the video.

The piece then begins with a ‘Starting Up…’ screen, soon replaced by a phone’s home screen. And there’s your immersive quality right there… your own phone has just become the performance space. It’s slightly disorienting at first – a bit like having your phone hijacked – and the temptation to swipe and click is definitely there. But then our narrator-protagonist says ‘hello’, and it becomes easier to see this as a performance rather than a hack.

The voice that we hear is that of Terry (played by Terry O’Donovan), and it’s his phone screen that we’re looking at. He tells us that he’s in a café, drinking his usual peppermint tea, and he shows us a waterfall sound app he likes to listen to while trying to write in the coffee shop. It’s a gentle introduction, with some tentative musings on our reliance on smartphones and digital networks. A WhatsApp message from an old friend pops onto the screen, and Terry ponders why – despite having once been so close – they’ve drifted apart. We can see on the screen that the last text prior to this one was a couple of years ago, a little detail that feels so real. An unexpected message from old acquaintance now drags with it the baggage of years-old chats. It’s a nice little visual detail, and an early indication of the attention to detail that’s gone into producing this performance.

Of course, the pensive equilibrium of the opening moments of User Not Found is shattered. And it’s shattered by the arrival of more text messages, flooding the screen at a pace that makes it difficult for the audience to catch them all.

Terry discovers that his ex, Luka, has died. And before he has time to process the complex emotions he feels in response to this news, an email from a company called Fidelis Legacy Solutions brings even more difficult news: Terry is still named as Luka’s ‘digital executor’, the person with the power to retain or delete all Luka’s ‘assets’, the fragments of digital identity scattered across social media sites, apps and website. Terry is left with the painful task of deciding what sort of digital legacy will remain now that Luka is gone.

In case this is starting to sound a little like an episode Black Mirror, I will say User Not Found isn’t so much a tech-noir, live-forever-in-the-cloud story, but rather a meditation on grief, and on connectivity. As he explores both Luka’s online accounts, and his own emotional responses to them, Terry takes us on a journey that, while solidly situated in the digital realm, feels so very profound. User Not Found is absolutely a story about grief, and while Terry’s story has some very specific details – and very contemporary packaging – it constantly gestures at something that feels timeless and universal.

User Not Found is an incredibly moving piece, and I will freely admit to shedding more than a few tears in places. This effect is created by the skilful blend of writing – Goode’s script is well-paced and balances the conversational with the poetic beautifully – and performance – O’Donovan’s delivery has a warmth and immediacy to it that is instantly relatable, meaning that the audience feels Terry’s pain keenly. However, the immersive quality of the piece can’t be overlooked either. Yes, the audience is drawn in by the writing and performance, but User Not Found is really an experiential piece, brought together by Daphna Attias’s careful direction and the subtly emotive sound design by Yaniv Fridel (including one particularly emotional use of music).

It’s actually really difficult to pull apart the strands of the piece and say, this bit is why I felt X, or this bit created Y effect. Clichéd as it is to say, User Not Found really is more than the sum of its individual parts.

While I found Terry’s story very moving and – and the piece is pretty up-front about its intentions here – thought-provoking (with Terry addressing the audience directly throughout, and even asking us, ‘What would you do?’ on occasion), I also enjoyed the conceit here. Dante or Die are a site-specific theatre company, and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into what this means in the COVID-world. Terry states this early on in his introduction when he says, ‘Our phones are the place.’ On the one hand, he’s reminding us that, for the duration of lockdown, smart devices are the sites to which site-specific theatre is confined. However, there’s something rather clever in the use of ‘our phones’ here, reminding us that, while we may be distanced in many ways (whether locked down in a pandemic, or sitting alone with our earbuds in, listening a fake waterfall in a café) there is a still an ‘us’, and ‘we’ are still connected.

This is an idea that runs through User Not Found. Though much of the story obviously focuses in on Terry and Luka, and much of the emotive content is drawn from an individual and personal experience, the podcast keeps returning to broader questions of connectivity and the ways in which we are networked with one another. How do we connect with other people? What do these connections mean? At times, these questions are explored with humour – a video attachment from a performance artist friend, an interaction with a stern-faced barista – and there’s a little bit of a meta-fictional tip of the hat at one point, when Terry decides to turn his phone off. (I think it’s important that I do mention the humour here, as I don’t want to give the impression that this is an unrelentingly sad performance… though it is pretty sad in places.)

Ultimately, as you may imagine, Terry does come to some decisions about how to handle the tough choices he has to make. Are those decisions the ones I would make? Are they the ones you would make? I guess that’s the most overtly ‘thought-provoking’ part of the show. It certainly raises questions that the audience may find themselves pondering over after the podcast finishes.

But, more than this, User Not Found is a moving and well-made piece of immersive theatre and, at its heart, a cleverly and tenderly constructed story about the human condition. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.

User Not Found is available to watch on demand, for free, until March 2021. For more information, and for a link to the video, please visit the Dante or Die website.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

My Year in Books 2020: October

Well, not a long post from me today. There's only one book on my October list, I'm afraid. That's not to say that I didn't read any other novels this month (I actually read a lot), but they were almost entirely books that I was reviewing for my radio show or preparing for teaching. It's been a pretty stressful month, but at least I got time to sneak one book in!

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from 2020: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

The Complex by Michael Walters (2019)

I bought this one to support the publisher, Salt, who were encouraging people to buy ‘just one book’ to help keep them going through difficult times. Ah… I bought three (and I really had to limit myself to just three). The Complex is the first of the three I’ve read so far. Set in what feels like the near future – but with hints that it might be a little bit post-apocalyptic – The Complex begins with a family going on holiday. But that’s a great way to undersell it! The family are Gabrielle, Leo and their son Stefan. They’re travelling to a remote retreat, to stay for a week with Art (someone Gabrielle has worked with), his wife Polly and daughter Fleur. It’s a break that promises luxury and a change to get ‘off Grid’ and away from the ‘Areas’. Before they even get to the resort though, a vague sense of menace starts to pervade the trip. And things just get worse when they get there. The Complex is a nightmarish tale of tech-horror in a semi-dystopian setting. However, what I really liked about it is that this horror and dystopia is never quite explained. This is a book that plays with suggestion, hint and incongruity in a really compelling way. The ill-defined menace is paradoxically tangible and elusive – there’s an excellent scene near the beginning where two characters play tennis (that’s all) and it was one of the most unsettling things I’ve read for a while. Loved this one.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Review: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Mother’s Day by Tom Ryder and Monday at the Flat Iron by Kate Ireland.

Let’s start with Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a relatively short (it’s around 10 minutes long) monologue, written by Ryder, directed by Michelle Parker and performed by Janice Fryett.

The monologue begins with the narrator signing a lullaby – which, when combined with the title leaves us in no doubt that the character here is a mother, and that she is likely going to be addressing her child. That is indeed the case. Fryett places an unnamed mother, speaking to her son and explaining her feelings about the fact that he persistently forgets Mother’s Day. She doesn’t mind though, as she loves her son.

Of course, the story isn’t really as simple as that. Mother’s Day, like a number of the other JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve reviewed, manages to fit quite a huge – and rather ambiguous – story into its short running time. The relationship between the mother and her son is absolutely the focus here, but it may not quite be the relationship we were expecting.

It’s hard to put your finger on where and how Mother’s Day becomes unsettling, but it definitely does. One striking aspect of Ryder’s story is that it is told in second-person (so a sustained address to the son), but also that it uses future tense (the mother is telling her son the story of what will happen, rather than what has happened). Given that we begin with that lullaby, the listener is left with the unnerving sense that this is a story the mother is telling her baby – the story of what his life, and their relationship, will become. It’s an unusual storytelling technique, but one that is suited to the short form.

Added to this – and, again, a judicious use of the running time – we never actually hear the full story. The mother describes particular moments in their lives – particular Mother’s Days that were forgotten – jumping forward by years each time to take us through to the son’s adulthood. And, again, there’s an unnerving quality to this. Not only does this add to the sense that the story – the future life of the baby being soothed by the lullaby – is already written, inevitable, it leaves a series of large gaps in the narrative for the listener to fill with their own imagined explanations.

Just what is going with this mother-son relationship is left distinctly unexplained. The moments that are described are weird, and the behaviours presented are definitely not right. But is this an overbearing mother smothering her child? Or a protective parent trying to navigate her child’s problems in the best way she can? Some of the mother’s actions seem strange, and her motivations unclear, but the fact that we only ever see the relationship from her perspective means that, no matter how opaque her thinking is, her son’s motivations are even more elusive.

Ryder’s script is tantalizing and suggestive, and it is performed well by Fryett, who lends the character sympathy – and even humour – even at the more disturbing points of the story. This is an unusual tale that will linger with you after it has finished.

Now, in previous reviews, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been choosing the pairs of plays each week pretty much at random, but that I’ve kept being surprised by the connections I find between the chosen pairs. I have to say that I think this review might break that pattern, as Monday at the Flat Iron is a completely different kettle of fish to Mother’s Day!

Written by Kate Ireland and directed by Andy Yeomans, Monday at the Flat Iron is a two-hander. It is performed by Rebecca Pythian (who plays Zahra) and Callum Scouller (who plays Joe), and it’s about the relationship between two very different characters.

Monday at the Flat Iron begins with Zahra (who’s from Salford) reading out her profile for a dating app. It’s a brash, abrasive, loud-mouthed profile, which Pythian performs with gobby northern gusto. Scouller’s Joe then steps in to criticize Zahra’s attempts, suggesting it isn’t honest enough, and then to read out his own, which consists of simple statements of fact: he is Scottish and a construction worker.

And so this is a classic ‘odd couple’ set-up. Given how wildly different Zahra and Joe are, how have they come to be such good friends that they seek one another’s advice on their dating profiles?

The one thing that Monday at the Flat Iron has in common with Mother’s Day is its relatively short run-time (it’s also around 10 minutes long), and so there isn’t space for Ireland’s script to give us the full history of Zahra and Joe’s relationship. Instead, the characters – moving into parallel monologues – describe the moment when they met, which happened in a pub called The Flat Iron.

It’s a beguiling little story – I was going to say ‘charming’, but much of Zahra’s narration is a little too earthy to really be called charming – about a loud messed-up lass from Salford accidentally crossing the path of a more introverted young man from Glasgow, as the latter tried to enjoy a few pints with his workmates and the former was stumbling round in the dying throes of a full-on weekender. A lot is not said here, and Ireland’s story focuses us on the specifics of what happened that ‘Monday at the Flat Iron’, rather than on explanation or interpretation. The characters describe one another – and themselves – and who said and did what, as the story builds to the moment at which their friendship began. Pythian and Scouller give warm and believable performances, which adds to the charm of it all.

I did really enjoy this one, though I found myself thinking that I would’ve liked to see a little more of Joe. Perhaps this is a deliberate character choice, though. While Pythian’s Zahra exclaims various ideas, experiences and philosophies through which we get a sense of her character, Scouller’s Joe is much more reserved, focusing more on describing the appearance and behaviour of the wasted woman who accosts him in the pub one afternoon. This gives us a good sense of the contrast between the two, but it does mean that the audience may feel a stronger and more rounded sense of Zahra’s character than of Joe’s.

Nevertheless, Monday at the Flat Iron is a really enjoyable piece of drama, with two great performances. I suppose you could call it a ‘slice of life’ story, as there is something very normal and down-to-earth in the characterization (as well as in the mundanity of how the two characters meet). But, especially in the final lines of the play, there’s a pleasing hint of something more profound.

Once again, I find myself really recommending these plays from JustOut Stays In. Two enjoyable and engaging pieces of audio drama that pack a hell of a lot of story into a tight run-time. With great writing, direction and performances, Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are definitely worth checking out.

Mother’s Day and Monday at the Flat Iron are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Monday, 5 October 2020

My Year in Books 2020: September

This month's list is a little bit shorter than August's. That's partly because I didn't have a week off work this month, of course, but also because this list doesn't cover all the novel's I read in September. Now that my radio show is back in full swing on North Manchester FM, I'm reviewing a lot more books on there. (You can see the archive of shows, with the titles I've reviewed, here.) The books I've included on this list are the ones that I wasn't reading specifically for a review, but ones I picked up just for fun.

In case you're interested, here are the rest of my 2020 reviews: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

After the Silence by Louise O'Neill (2020)

I picked out this one from a selection of recently published crime novels. I know I shouldn’t say this, but it does have a really lovely cover that sort of caught my eye. The blurb looked interesting as well. Ten years ago, on the Irish island of Inisrun, Nessa Crowley was found dead after a party at the glamorous home of Henry and Keelin Kinsella. The murder was never solved. And now a documentary crew have arrived on the island to make a film about the case, after a decade of secrets, deception and suspicion. The islanders have always known who they blamed for Nessa Crowley’s death – but is there more to case than they suspected? This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The bits of the story relating to island life (and the effect the arrival of the Kinsella family had on island life) were really atmospheric, with a nice touch of menace. And I enjoyed the interactions with the documentary makers – though I was disappointed that the filmmakers (and their film) didn’t play more of a role in the story. Ultimately, I was also disappointed in the mystery of Nessa’s death. Once you rule out the ‘obvious’ solution, there’s only really one possible explanation for everything that has happened on the island. Sadly, this meant I worked it out quite early on. After the Silence is a readable and atmospheric thriller, with some interesting characterization, but it’s a little light on mystery for my tastes.

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (2019)

The next book on my September list was the featured book from this month’s Abominable Book Club parcel (the horror subscription service I signed up to last month). I really enjoyed this one, but it’s going to be difficult to really do it justice in such a short review. A Cosmology of Monsters is a curious book – an adult novel in which monsters (and proper under-the-bed-type monsters) are real, and which never undermines this by hinting at alternative explanations or ironic handwaving. And it’s all to Hamill’s credit that this absolutely works, and that an incredible amount of sympathy is created for the family dealing with the monsters’ attentions. The book has been described as a ‘gentle’ horror novel – partly because it’s devoid of gore and shock-for-shock’s-sake – but I’d also say it’s a perfect Halloween novel. Something about Hamill’s writing captures the essence of the season beautifully, balancing spooky thrills with an underlying sense of menace and uncertainty. The Halloween-ness of the book is, of course, heightened by the fact that the Turner family make their living from a Haunted House attraction. A Cosmology of Monsters is the story of that family – and their monsters – and one of the things that really stuck in my mind was the way Hamill captured the disintegration of the Turners, both as a family and as individuals, as the extreme stress of their situation takes it toll. I really liked this one, and it’s a book that lingers with you after you’ve finished reading.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (2006)

Time to return to my surprise book bundle from Lyall’s in Todmorden that I bought in the summer. I read a couple of books from the bundle last month, but I still have more to look forward to. The next one I picked from the pile was The Bastard of Istanbul. I wasn’t familiar with Shafak’s work before, but this is another book that I really enjoyed. At the heart of the book is the Kazanci family, and twenty-year-old Asya Kazanci (the ‘bastard’ of the title), who lives with her quirky extended family in Istanbul in the shadow of a family curse that states no male Kazancis will live long after their fortieth birthday. Into that family comes Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, the stepdaughter of Asya’s Uncle Mustafa and an Armenian-American. Armanoush has travelled to Istanbul to find more about her family history and her heritage, but the past is a complicated thing and the way it impacts the present might not be immediately apparent. Shafak’s novel is whimsical, affectionate and thought-provoking. Although it deals head-on with the Armenian genocide and the trauma of its aftermath, the novel explores this through an intimate – and rather charming – portrait of one off-beat family with secrets that run deep. The way that Shafak paints this portrait brings together the particular problems of a single family with bigger questions of Turkish and Armenian identity. It’s an incredibly readable book, and like the last book on this month’s list, it’s one that sticks in the mind afterwards.

3 Minute Scares is back for its fifth fantastic year!

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants your scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being broadcast on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 31st October.

This year’s 3 Minute Scares competition will be judged by horror writer Simon Bestwick, with the writer of the best entry receiving a bundle of books from the wonderful folk at Lyall's Bookshop, Todmorden. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of around 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Friday 23rd October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Bridie Breen, who impressed the judges with her creepy but rather charming tale. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘Bridie’s winning story was really impressive – once again, we were so amazed by how much atmosphere and story writers were able to get into such a short space of time, and it was a pleasure to see the crown pass to Bridie. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what this year's competition has to offer.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition, including information for people unable to submit a recording, can also be found on the website.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Review: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a b*tch you will ever meet (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Qualified and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Qualified by Lee Thompson and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet by Issy Flower. (For brevity, I’m going to be referring to Flower’s play as Coldhearted in this review. I just want to be clear that is simply for ease of typing, and not a criticism! I think the full title is very clever, as I think will become clear when I get to my review of the play.)

In the last two reviews of JustOut Stays In plays that I’ve written, I’ve mentioned that I’m picking the pairs for review at random from their programme, but that I’ve been enjoying the way that this has resulted in some interesting companion pieces. Reviewing the plays in pairs – and listening to them together – has really brought out some interesting connections in terms of subject matter and thematic concerns. I really did think that this wouldn’t be the case with today’s pair, and I’m still not sure if it is or not. Qualified and Coldhearted are, to be fair, really substantially different pieces. And yet…

Let’s start with Qualified, and you’ll see what I mean.

Written by Lee Thompson, directed by Keira MacAlister, and performed by Rebecca McGreevy, Qualified is the longest piece I’ve heard so far in the series. Like several of the others, it’s in monologue form, though, as we learn, what we’re actually listening to is one side of a conversation (and we never hear the other side).

The narrator is Nadia, who is studying for a PGCE and on a teaching placement. The play begins with Nadia recounting a difficult encounter with a student who she calls Toni. It was Nadia’s first experience of conducting an after-school detention, which culminated in her getting into an argument with Toni. As Nadia runs through the confrontation and the tension rises, we hear the sound of cello strings being plucked. The plucking strings give way to bowed notes, and then music begins to play.

As we learn, this music is in Nadia’s head. She’s begun to hear cello music in her mind as she attempts to navigate the pressures of her course. And this is no uplifting personal soundtrack, it’s a persistent and intrusive accompaniment that threatens to overwhelm. (And I’ll say here, I think the choice of instrument here was really inspired. There’s something both melancholy and pensive about the sound of a cello, and solo pieces tend to have a haunting quality to them, which makes it a distinctly unsettling instrument to have as your internal soundtrack.) Nadia describes the effect of the cello music, questioning what it might mean and what might have caused it. We realize then that her monologue is, in fact, part of a therapy session with an unseen (unheard) therapist named Jane. We don’t hear Jane’s questions or comments at any point, but some things Nadia says indicate what she might be responding to.

Because of the longer running time, Thompson’s script gives us time and space to get to know Nadia – though, as with some of the other JustOut plays I’ve reviewed, there’s some good use of the unsaid here, and some hinting lines that leave the audience to fill in the gaps. For instance, Nadia’s relationship with her parents is brought up at times, but never directly explored. I particularly liked the subtly suggestive line about Nadia’s father, as she’s pondering whether he might also have experienced auditory hallucinations: He seems, she says, ‘like an oboe in the mind kind of fella’.

Ultimately, though, Qualified isn’t really about the cello. As Nadia talks through the problem with her therapist, what unfolds is the story of a woman struggling to keep on top of the demands of her course, her work, and her relationships with others (and, of course, her relationship with herself). While Lucia Rimini’s cello playing keeps a sedate and stately pace, Rebecca McGreevy’s performance as Nadia has a less measured trajectory. The speed of her delivery increases, the pitch becomes more fevered, until the sense of a suffocating, overwhelming force acting on her becomes almost tangible. And then she retreats again, into a brittle jokiness or a faux positive consideration of possible medical explanations. It’s a powerful performance, supported by excellent direction from MacAlister.

Credit, too, should go to Gabriel Stewart’s editing. Despite the lockdown constraints – and I note from JustOut’s Twitter feed that getting the cello accompaniment right on this on took a bit of Zoom-wrangling – the music and voice performances are perfectly balanced. They aren’t complimentary, as such, because at times the cello is absolutely at odds with the frenzied pace of the monologue. But they ‘fit’. I think by that I mean that it’s completely believable that the cello is indeed in Nadia’s head. Even if it really shouldn’t be.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be in someone’s head, let’s turn to the second play, Coldhearted. (How’s that for a segue…)

Coldhearted is written by Issy Flower, and directed by Ben Wilson. Again, it’s a monologue, which is performed by Alice Schofield. Coldhearted is a shorter piece than Qualified, and the subject matter is really quite different.

As we discover immediately, our narrator has become fixated on a pair of blue eyes. A pair of eyes that she thinks are ‘lovely’, and whose colour she debates with her mother. A pair of eyes that, startlingly, belong to Ted Bundy.

Flower’s unsettling monologue is told by a young woman who has become fixated on the infamous serial killer, shortly after his arrest and the revelation of his crimes. She talks about her attraction to him – she waxes lyrical about his eyes and his sexy hands, adding ‘But I know what those hands did.’ At several points, she acknowledges that her feelings towards the killer are wrong – abhorrent even – particularly as she attends the same university as some of his victims.

Coldhearted is a bold attempt to try and explore the mentality of a woman who, despite having no criminal inclinations herself, falls in love with a notorious and (to most people) repellent killer. Flower’s script bravely tackles some issues head on – including the distasteful acknowledgment of sexual fantasies of victimhood – but also keeps the focus squarely on the introspection and self-examination of her character. The question here is never ‘Why is Ted Bundy so attractive?’, but rather ‘Why am I feeling this way about Ted Bundy? What does that say about me?’

Which brings us back to that full title. The phrase Flower uses as the title is a quote from Bundy himself. No matter what fantasies our narrator has about his lovely eyes and sexy hands, Bundy’s own assessment of his character – that he is ‘the most coldhearted son of bitch you will ever meet’ – is centred in our mind as we listen to the play. This is a clever technique, as Bundy’s words (without ever actually being spoken in the play) undercut the narrator’s throughout the piece, revealing everything she says to be a fantasy (or a delusion) based more on herself than on him.

In the end, Coldhearted isn’t really about Ted Bundy, any more than Qualified is really about a cello. And it’s in this that the two admittedly very different plays share some common ground. These two pieces are about intrusive thoughts, and the need to question, not just the content of those thoughts (be that a haunting cello solo or sexual fantasies about a serial killer), but also the issues that lie beneath. Without explicitly stating it, both of these plays are about unhappiness, but both tackle that subject in ways that are at once startling and subtle (a very difficult balance to strike).

Once again, I am very impressed by the pieces being published as JustOut Stays In. They really are fulfilling their stated aim of showcasing talent. I’m very much looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to see the JustOut company perform in person, but for now I will repeat my strong recommendation to check out their audio plays.

Qualifed and I am the most coldhearted son of a bitch you will ever meet are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Review: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute. The radio version of these reviews was broadcast on yesterday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Bleach by Max Kyte and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute by Suzan Young.

In my last review, I mentioned that I’m choosing my pairs pretty much at random for these reviews. JustOut’s programme is varied, and there are new plays being published regularly (in fact, a new one has gone up since I published my last review). So, pretty much, I just jump in for each review. Last time, this resulted in a really interesting pairing, as Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth, despite being ostensibly quite different, actually made for interesting companion pieces to one another.

I think you can say the same for the two that I’m reviewing this time – although, it has to be said, the effect is heightened by listening to the two together, as this naturally draws out the comparative features. But I do think Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute have some subject matter in common, specifically the problem of confronting (and talking about) serious mental health problems. Both of the female protagonists in these plays are using self-destructive habits to deal with underlying issues, and both are forced to address these (though in different ways).

Let’s begin with Bleach – perhaps the more uncomfortable of the two pieces. Bleach is written by Max Kyte and directed by Yuval Brigg. It’s a two-hander, with Megan Nicholson playing Maeve, and Jake Everett playing her fiancé Oliver. Their story begins reasonably normally: Oliver returns from a night out for a friend’s birthday, a night out that Maeve has excused herself from. As we discover, it’s not the only social interaction Maeve has managed to avoid – and as conversations between Maeve and Oliver intersperse short monologues from Maeve, we begin to realize the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out.

Or, rather, we learn about one of the manifestations of the reason why Maeve is reluctant to go out. This is a relatively short piece, and so it serves to sketch a picture, rather than dig deep into the details. The sketch is full enough, however, for the listener to begin to fill in the gaps. As the play’s blurb notes, this is a story about addiction, specifically an addiction to or dependency on harmful behaviours. When Oliver discovers these behaviours, Maeve is forced to confront her habits head-on.

Nicholson gives a subtle and moving performance as Maeve. There is a sense of detachment in the way she delivers the monologues, and a frustration in her conversations with Everett’s Oliver. As I’ve said, Kyte’s script doesn’t go deep into an explanation or background to Maeve’s behaviour – we don’t learn very much at all about her history, for instance, or any underlying mental illness. Instead her disordered thinking is presented in straightforward, but thought-provoking statements – my favourite being, ‘This feels silent’, which says an awful lot more than three words.

Everett’s performance is more emotional and – in all honesty – highly strung. Oliver runs through a range of emotions in quick succession, which sometimes strains both our sympathy and our credibility. This is, in many ways, a result of the format and the short running time. The conversations between Maeve and Oliver feel like truncated versions of conversations that might, in reality, take place over days, weeks or even months. The resolution feels a little hurried, though, and I think this is another of the series that would really benefit from expansion.

I very much enjoyed the writing and performance – particularly Nicholson’s Maeve – here. I do have a criticism, and that is that the stock sound effects are somewhat overbearing and distracting. While I appreciate the constraints under which the creative team are working, the effects (liquid pouring, someone eating, papers turning) are jarring, as they aren’t always seamlessly integrated with the recorded dialogue. This may sound like a minor quibble, but sadly it did affect my enjoyment of the piece.

I’m going to turn now to Mrs O’Connor’s Flute, which is a monologue written by Suzan Young, directed by Rebecca McGreevy, and performed by Becky Kershaw. This piece begins, not with a sound effect, but with a short burst of music (played, surprisingly enough, on a flute).

The character here is a Janet, a woman who has taken a job at a nursing home after her husband loses his job. Much like Maeve in Bleach, Janet has some mental health issues going on that she has not confronted (or, indeed, acknowledged).

Janet’s monologue actually begins with a description of a night shift. Working alone, Janet is suddenly aware of the sound of a flute being played in the room of Margaret O’Connor. She goes to see the woman and has the briefest moment of a conversation (a few lines that are as straightforward, but thought-provoking, as Maeve’s ‘This feels silent’ in the previous play). This momentary connection with the elderly woman sparks a chain of realizations in Janet, leading her to reveal some (but by no means all) of the background to her decision to work at the nursing home, as well as some of the fears and anxieties that the job has brought to her mind.

Or has the job really brought these to her mind – were they not already there? Does the job – and especially the interaction with Mrs O’Connor – offer a way to address these, a confrontation as well as a revelation? Like Maeve, Janet has been engaging in behaviours that are potentially harmful (and not just to herself, to others as well), and it’s only when she’s confronted by someone else’s vulnerability that she’s forced to take a look at her own. Kershaw’s performance is sympathetic and believable, so that the audience sticks with Janet, even when she’s describing behaviour that might otherwise be easy to demonize.

Overall, I think the monologue format in Mrs O’Connor’s Flute works a little better than the conversation in Bleach, as rather than truncating difficult conversations (which undoubtedly must have happened between Janet and her husband), the monologue allows Janet to skip back and forth in time, and to reflect on, rather than repeat the detail of those difficult dialogues. Nevertheless, in both plays, silence takes on a powerful significance, and a strength of both Kyte and Young’s scripts is that they make clever use of what is not said, as well as what is.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are hard-hitting in their subject matter, but the characterization of both Maeve and Janet has a gentleness and sympathy that is compelling and sensitive. The short format of the pieces leaves questions unanswered, but in both cases this is more as provocation for listeners to think through these questions, and to consider the complexities of mental wellbeing and the need for things that feel like silence.

Bleach and Mrs O’Connor’s Flute are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

My Year in Books 2020: August

There's a few more titles on my list this month than previously! I read quite a lot in August, although I should probably say that I read almost all of these books (some of which are admittedly novellas, not novels) when I had a week off work. So that might explain why I had so much more timing for reading for part of this month.

My short reviews of the books I read for pleasure this month are belowed, but in case you're curious, here are my reviews from previous months: January, February, March, April, May, June, July

The Whisper Man by Alex North (2019)

I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while – so long, in fact, that I can’t remember when or where I bought it. The Whisper Man is a crime novel, but with little touches of horror around the edges. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives (as is quite the fashion in contemporary crime fiction). A young boy has vanished from Featherbank, with eerie echoes of an old case. Fifteen years ago a serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys. The killer was known at the ‘Whisper Man’, because he lured his victims out of their homes by whispering at their windows. But the Whisper Man has been behind bars for many years now, although the body of one of his victims was never found. The story of the investigation into the contemporary case is interwoven with a first-person narration: Tom Kennedy and his son Jake, still grieving after the death of Tom’s wife, have moved to a new house for a fresh start. Jake is a bright, but unusual, child, prone to chatting to imaginary friends. This takes a darker turn when Jake seems to know things about their new home that he really shouldn’t. I really enjoyed The Whisper Man – it’s a proper page-turner. I’ll admit, I did work out one of the big surprises about halfway through, but that wasn’t a problem at all. At the book’s heart is Tom and Jake’s relationship, which is painful, difficult and sometimes challenged, but ultimately sympathetic and engaging.

The Levels by Helen Pendry (2019)

This one has been on my to-read pile since November. I bought it in Aberystwyth last year when we were there for Abertoir, as I wanted to get something from the ‘local fiction’ section of the bookshop. I couldn’t find anything set/written/published in Aberystwyth itself, so I stuck with mid-Wales more generally. The Levels was published by Parthian, who are based in Cardigan, and it’s set in a fictional mid-Wales town called Pont Rhith. Abby Hughes is a residential social worker from London, who has come to Pont Rhith to search for a man called Tegid Rhys, one of the homeless people who stayed at the hostel where Abby works. Tegid has been sending Abby postcards from Pont Rhith, but when he sends her his campervan keys in the wake of a horrific accident (a military drone has crashed into a caravan park, killing a young mother), Abby sets out to try and find Tegid. This is the set-up, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Pendry’s story. Pont Rhith and the surrounding area is as much a character here as Abby or any of the people she meets (military security consultant Ben Rickman, former soldier turned holiday-homer Owen, Welsh language bookshop owner Delyth, defiantly anti-English farmer Mr Ellis). It’s a town shadowed (suffocated?) by defunct mines and overlooked by the abandoned village of Bethania, where the MoD have plans that most of the locals don’t even care about. The Levels had me completely gripped – I strongly recommend this one.

Dead Funny, edited by Robin Ince and Johnny Mains (2014)

It only seemed fitting to follow up The Levels with the other book I bought at the same time in Aberystwyth. Robin Ince was a guest at last year’s Abertoir Festival, and so I bought Dead Funny while we were there. To be honest, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, and I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long. Dead Funny is a collection of horror short stories written by comedians, including some of my favourite comedians, so it seems like one I should’ve read sooner. Now, the book is marketed with that word ‘funny’ – with a reasonable assumption being that comedians would write hilarious black comedy horror – but, actually, most of the stories aren’t actually funny. They’re really dark and twisted (some downright disturbing), which isn’t really a surprise if you know anything about stand-up comedians. I was expecting Reece Shearsmith’s story (‘Dog’) to be dark – and it really was – but Sara Pascoe (‘A Spider Remember’) and Al Murray (‘For Everyone’s Good’) took me by surprise. Their stories were both really effective horror tales, but not exactly laugh riots. Katy Brand’s ‘For Roger’ and Rufus Hound’s (very sly) ‘Fixed’ were also excellent, though, again, twisted little tales. In a way, it’s the actual comedy offerings – Stewart Lee’s ‘A View from a Hill’ and Tim Key’s ‘Halloween’ are both written as characteristic ‘bits’, rather than horror stories – that turn out to be the most disappointing, as they jar with the bleakness of the other tales.

Holt House by L.G. Vey (2018)

A couple of months ago, a friend on Twitter was talking about the Eden Book Society, and I was intrigued. This is a project from Dead Ink Books – the Eden Book Society was an enigmatic subscription-based horror publisher in the twentieth century, whose output has never been republished… until now! Dead Ink Books have secured the rights to publish the entire back catalogue of the Eden Book Society, and they’ve begun with a selection of novellas from 1972. If this all sounds too exciting to be true, it’s really up to you whether you believe or not. I’m just gutted that I missed this when it was first announced, and that I didn’t read any of the novellas until now. Holt House was the first of the Eden Book Society novellas that I read, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of Ray, a troubled young man who returns to his hometown and becomes fascinated by his former neighbours Mr and Mrs Latch. He hides out in Holtwood, watching the Latches and thinking back to a time in his childhood when he stayed with them overnight, and Mr Latch showed him something bad that they kept in the wardrobe. Ray’s story did not go in the direction I was expecting – Holt House is full of surprises, even when you think you’ve worked it all out. It’s also got a little bit of folk horror (not overdone) and a little bit of weird-fic about it. Really well-written and very enjoyable.

Judderman by D.A. Northwood (2018)

Having really enjoyed Holt House, I decided to just carry on with the Eden Book Society titles that are out so far (except Starve Acre… which has a whole story of its own that’ll have to wait for another time). The next one I read was Judderman. As I said, Holt House has a bit of a weird-fic feel to it (in places), and Judderman does too. However, while Holt House evokes more old-school weird fiction (Spirit of the Woods-type stuff in the tradition of Arthur Machen), Judderman belongs to the New Weird (and comparisons with China Miéville are inevitable with this one). The story focuses on Danny and Gary Eider, a pair of brothers living in London in the early 1970s. There are a lot of ‘period’ details here – references to IRA bombs, racism, unemployment – which combine with urban legends and imagined monsters to create an unsettling cityscape, which the Eider brothers know as ‘London Incognita’. London Incognita’s ultimate bogeyman is the eponymous Judderman, an entity that hovers at the periphery, not quite visible, and who echoes through other folklore of the city. When Danny goes missing, Gary starts to fear that his ‘brother’s with the Judder’. In a fragmented, dreamlike narration, Gary picks around London Incognita, talking with the mud larks and antiquarian booksellers who know something of the city’s secrets. There are some fantastic bits in Judderman, though I felt the novella format constricted the narrative a bit. This one felt like it could have been expanded.

A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (2018)

My next Eden Book Society novella was A Dedicated Friend by Shirley Longford (and, as with all the titles, you can either read the biography of the ‘author’ at the beginning of the book, or you can read the note at the end that explains this is a pseudonym of a contemporary British horror writer). Of the three I’ve read so far – all of which use period details to convincingly set their stories in 1972 – A Dedicated Friend is the one that makes the clearest attempt to tap into a particular anxiety of the 1970s and build on this to create a horror story. As the blurb tells us, organ donation was ‘in its infancy’ in 1972, and A Dedicated Friend features a woman, Daisy, who has agreed to donate a kidney to her aunt via new surgical techniques. Something is… off about the whole thing, though, and Daisy’s stay in hospital begins to feel like the stuff of nightmares (this is not a good story to read if you’ve got any phobias around surgery or medical procedures). I really enjoyed the tone and atmosphere with this one – even the most mundane events in the hospital (an omelette being served instead of pasta, a fellow patient borrowing a book) are infused with a wonderful sense of dread. The story itself is a wee bit predictable, and I could see where it was going almost as soon as the ‘dedicated friend’ made her first appearance. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the ride.

Plunge Hill: A Case Study by J.M. McVulpin (2020)

My Eden Book Society quartet finished with Plunge Hill: A Case Study, which is the most recently published in the series. It’s the longest one so far, though still technically a novella. The story begins with an introduction from J.M. McVulpin who, as the biography explains, was a psychiatrist who worked at several institutions, including the eponymous Plunge Hill. The hospital is now closing down (or, rather, being closed down), and McVulpin has decided to share a ‘case study’ – the tragic account of Bridget ‘Brix’ Shipley, one of the hospital’s medical secretaries who sadly (according to McVulpin) suffered from an undiagnosed delusional disorder. McVulpin didn’t know Brix during her time working at Plunge Hill, but he has acquired letters and other documents from her family and landlady that will allow her story to be told ‘in her own words’. However, McVulpin can’t help but interject on occasion in the form of footnotes of increasing length. What happened to Brix at Plunge Hill? And was it all really just in her head? What I really enjoyed about Plunge Hill is that it leaves some tantalizing questions unanswered. As a fan of unreliable narrators (which you may have spotted from some of my other reviews), this one was great fun. There are multiple narrators and narratives here, and not a single one can be relied on – I love that. The folk horror vibe that seeps into the story is also a joy. I think this might be my favourite of the series.

Deadhead by Shaun Hutson (1993)

Okay, this next one is definitely not my usual sort of thing. I should probably explain… last month I decided to treat myself and pay for a subscription to the Abominable Book Club, a horror book subscription service. Each month you receive a new horror title and a mystery book (plus some added extras and snacks, if you choose the full package). All subscribers receive the same new book, but the mystery book is different for everyone (it’s usually a vintage, aka second-hand, paperback), and for added mystery it comes wrapped up in brown paper and sealed with wax (and were those bloodstains? I probably shouldn’t ask). I got my first Abominable Book Club parcel this month, and the experience of receiving and opening the mystery book was a lot of fun. A lot more fun than reading the mystery book, if I’m honest, because Shaun Hutson’s writing is… not to my taste. This one is pretty typical of his 90s splatterpunk crime fiction. It’s got a private eye with terminal cancer, an abducted teenage daughter, child pornographers, snuff films and a drug-addled prostitute. It’s also got more descriptions of bullet wounds than I thought I’d ever read in one place, plus some pretty lurid sexual violence and shocks-for-shock’s-sake. And, I have to say, almost zero characterization (except, weirdly, the drug-addled prostitute). Why did I read it? I can’t really explain – I think I just got carried away by the cool packaging and the nice meringues that came with it.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver (2020)

was the B-movie, but the main feature of my Abominable Book Club parcel was Will Carver’s Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I’ve not read any of Carver’s other books (this one is the third title featuring his detective character, Sgt Pace). However, everything I read said that the books were a ‘loose series’, and that they can all be read as standalones. This is definitely the case with Hinton Hollow Death Trip. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the earlier books, though I got the impression I might have picked up on a few details if I had. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a hard book to describe. It tells the story of five days in the life of a little village in Berkshire – and it’s narrated by Evil. Evil’s come to Hinton Hollow, and its visit begins with the death of a child (well, it doesn’t quite begin there, but I’m not going to spoil anything!). This is an incredibly clever book, and such a compelling way to construct a crime story. There’s an awful lot to be impressed by here. Sadly, though, I suspect the author’s own biases have seeped in a little more than they should: I struggled a bit with seeing Evil condemning overweight people (who all eat like cartoon characters) and tired mothers as equally bad as murderers and animal abusers. It’s a shame, as this is a great book, but it is tinged with a bit of misogyny.

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone (2019)

Me and my mum got tickets for a (virtual) event at Portobello Bookshop, with readings from Val McDermid and Doug Johnstone. The event will mark the release of new books by both authors, including the second book in Johnstone’s Skelfs series. We thought it would probably be a good idea to read the first book in the series first! Johnstone’s series is about the Skelf family, three generations of women who run the family business(es): funeral directors with a side line in private investigation. A Dark Matter begins with the unconventional funeral of patriarch Jim Skelf, and the decision taken by his widow (Dorothy), daughter (Jenny) and granddaughter (Hannah) to continue his work, assisted by Indy, Hannah’s girlfriend and trainee funeral director, and Archie, Jim’s assistant who suffers from Cotard’s syndrome. It’s an original set-up for a crime series, and A Dark Matter sees the women investigate the disappearance of one of Hannah’s university friends and a potential case of adultery. Dorothy also decides to investigate some of the secrets that didn’t quite go to the grave with Jim. I enjoyed the characters – though Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah aren’t exactly happy people – and some of the investigation storylines had a charm and intrigue to them. It’s all a bit grim – don’t be mislead by the blurbs on the cover claiming this is a ‘funny’ book – and it goes to some pretty dark (and almost implausible?) places. But we both enjoyed it, and we’re looking forward to hearing from the author.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Review: Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth (JustOut Theatre)

JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here’s the blog version…

In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve been reviewing the plays in pairs, so today I’m going to be talking about two more of the pieces: Total Slag by Sophie A. Mitchell and To Tell You the Truth by Daniel Kearney.

Now, to tell you the truth (haha!), I’ve been a little bit random in how I pick the pairs for my reviews. The plays are quite eclectic, and the blurbs don’t always give you a full sense of tone and style (which is something I like about fringe theatre, so I’m enjoying the surprises that come with this series). But pairing Total Slag with To Tell You the Truth was absolutely the right choice. These pieces sit together very well, though both deal with some rather raw and painful stuff, so it’s a little bit of a tough experience listening to them back to back. Non-literary as it may be to say, I just wanted to give both of the narrators here a hug after I’d listened.

I’ll start off with Total Slag, which was actually the first play published in the series.

Written by Sophie A. Mitchell and directed by Ben Wilson, Total Slag is a monologue, in which Cheryl, a sixth form student (performed by Sophie Parkin) explores her relationship with the insult of the title.

Cheryl begins by announcing that, although other girls might idolize celebrities like Zoella and Kylie Jenner, her role model is actually Rizzo from Grease. She riffs off the words to ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’ to explain why Rizzo is a character she admires – even though most people her age have never heard of Grease.

Cheryl’s celebration of Rizzo is, by turns, funny – I particularly enjoyed her comparison of Rizzo from Grease with Greta Thunberg (trust me, it does make sense) – pointed and, though Cheryl claims otherwise, vulnerable. Cheryl isn’t so much reclaiming the insult ‘slag’, but exploring what it might mean and how it is used. With a light touch, Mitchell weaves in small details about Cheryl’s home life, and the relationships she has with her peers. Parkin’s performance of this is confident, assured and articulate (though Cheryl claims not to know how to pronounce ‘thesaurus’). As an adult listening, it’s easy to see through the gaps in this teenage self-narration, and there are times when the audience can feel angry on Cheryl’s behalf, even though the character herself is devoid of self-pity.

What’s interesting in the characterization here is the way Cheryl avoids laying blame at anyone’s feet. Although she does make a couple of comments on her mother’s life choices, and some snap-back type statements about other people at her school, Cheryl squarely shoulders the responsibility for her own choices. Her sex life – and her sexuality – is her own decision, and it’s a carefully thought-out decision. Cheryl’s monologue is, perhaps, most surprising when she calmly works through the reasoning behind the choices she has made.

Of course, as both plays explore, choices (no matter how deliberate you think they are) have consequences. And the second part of Total Slag deals with Cheryl facing up to those. I’m not going to say too much about what happens, except to praise Mitchell’s writing here. The direction the narrative takes could have resulted in something clichéd, melodramatic or even didactic, but she avoids those pitfalls. Instead, we have something heartfelt and moving, but also refreshingly realistic and matter-of-fact.

Speaking of ‘matter-of-fact’, time to turn to the other play I’m looking at in today’s post.

To Tell You the Truth which was written by Daniel Kearney and directed by Andy Yeomans. This is another monologue from a woman, though Kearney’s character is older and at a very different stage of her life than Cheryl. Gerry Johnson plays Lynn, an older woman reflecting back on a failed marriage – or so we’re initially led to believe.

Johnson’s performance is great here. Everything is delivered, as I’ve said, in a matter-of-fact tone, and – as with Total Slag – both the writing and the performance side-step melodrama in favour of something much more searing.

Lynn’s ‘truth’ is revealed slowly. We begin with hints of heavy drinking and a marriage that, if it didn’t start out that way, ended as loveless. ‘You married the wrong girl,’ Lynn remembers telling her husband – the ‘good man’ that she couldn’t keep hold of. In the opening part of her monologue, Lynn repeats the phrase ‘to tell you the truth’, but it’s only towards the end that she really does – and the truth she tells really does pack a punch.

As with Cheryl in Total Slag, Lynn is living with the consequences of choices she has made. However, also like Cheryl – though much more explicitly – Lynn is also living with the effects of circumstance. She talks about things she’s done, but the story that emerges is more about what was done to her. Lynn hasn’t told the truth before, and the monologue is (perhaps) at its most raw when she explains the reasons why not.

I’m really pleased that I randomly chose to pair these two plays. They work very well as companion pieces. Although they present themselves in different ways, Lynn and Cheryl have a lot in common, and so listening to the two dramas together enriches both stories. With excellent writing and performances, these are two monologues that evoke an incredibly strong sense of sympathy, rather than pity, for the characters. Neither sentimental nor melodramatic, these two short plays are hard-hitting, but very very human.

JustOut Stays In continues to impress, and I strongly recommend you check out the audio series.

Total Slag and To Tell You the Truth are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.