#QUICKFIC 02/11/2018

Remember remember, the 2nd November, when Jade-Louisa gave you all a new prompt…Yes, fresh off the heels of Halloween, we’ve got another themed edition of our #QUICKFIC flash fiction competition! This one is Bonfire Night themed. Or as I like to call it, Celebrating the Time a Crime was Narrowly Averted with Fire and Mayhem Night themed! The first is catchier, I’ll grant you that.

But before we get go to it, a rules refresher:

  • Use the prompt below to write a story of 250 words or less.
  • Pop the story into the body of an email, including the title and the word count, and send it to academy@faber.co.uk. Make sure it’s in the body of the email, not as a separate attached document!
  • Do all that by 2:50 pm 3 pm today

And if you do, you’re in with a shot of winning these criminally good books:

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D.James, "Fateful Mornings" by Tom Bouman and "Collusion" by Luke Harding -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

And with that, here is your prompt: 

A shot of what we can assume is the very top of a bonfire set against a pitch black sky. The fire is spitting gold and orange sparks across the sky like a firework. The flame is so bright it lights up the bottom half of the image in a warm golden glow. -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Bye until 3:30 pm! 

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

 

#QUICKFIC 02/11/2018: The Winner

A shot of what we can assume is the very top of a bonfire set against a pitch black sky. The fire is spitting gold and orange sparks across the sky like a firework. The flame is so bright it lights up the bottom half of the image in a warm golden glow. -Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Runner Up: Susannah O’Brien

Cheese Slices and Car Parks

There were fireworks the first day she met him, although it’s an awful cliché to say so. Both students, they were working at the big Tesco in town. He was meant to be cutting cheese slices behind the Deli counter, and she was normally on Bakery, but that day, their respective supervisors sent them both to help with Seasonal. So there they met, selling Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles to middle-aged men who had over-promised their kids.

“Make sure to check for I.D., and give them this safety leaflet,” Joe, Deputy Manager (Events), said to them.

There was a brisk trade and although neither of them knew the first thing about fire safety, punters were only to happy to ask for their advice, hand over the cash and walk off with Rockets and Sparklers in one hand and Joe’s leaflet in the other.

She was working the late shift, but he’d been in since breakfast. At 6pm, her Long Break and his Finish collided in the car park. They stood together, holding mugs of tea from the Staff Room and watched as the sky became a shriek of purple swirls and green stars from the municipal show down the road.

“Remember, remember, the 5thof November,” she whispered as he kissed her there in the car park.

“We’ll never forget our anniversary,” he said, putting his hands into the pockets of her Tesco fleece and pulling her in.

It was just a shame that they had broken up by Christmas.

Runner Up: Mike Blakemore

Remember Remember

His faced burned but he held his position, too close for comfort but determined to savour this moment.

Eventually, his sister pulled him away, just as she had when the old man had been alive. This time her tug on his arm was gentle but many times she had grabbed him hard, trying to save him from himself.

His father had laughed then, just as he had when he had been the author of violence and no one had been able to stop him. Not the tiny children at his mercy and not their terrified mother.

His sister wasn’t laughing now and his own hysterical response sounded more like a cry of pain than anything resembling pleasure. But this would be closure; this would be the beginning of happier times.

Yes, it had been tasteless to dress the guy in his father’s clothes but he had never hesitated, vigorously screwing up pages of the newspaper the old man had hidden behind at breakfast and stuffing them into the moth-eaten suit. This was the uniform of respectability his father had worn to work each day, seating himself at the desk where he would proudly point towards a family photograph when colleagues asked after his kids.

The guy was all but burned now and there was just one act left to perform.

He tipped his father’s ashes into the orange flames; a second cremation because burning him once had not been enough.

Winner: Laura Riley

Penny For the Guy

It all happened so quickly — at least the beginning did. A spark of an idea I couldn’t quite shake.

The car was leaking diesel again. A sticky pool growing larger each day. I knew I couldn’t collect it, that would certainly arouse suspicion, but I could still use it. A dab here, a drip there, only enough to appear accidental of course. He’d been sniffling all week, perhaps he wouldn’t notice the smell of a blot or two on his trainers or the edge of his jeans.

He’d already decided that we’d attend the Bonfire party at the crappy pub down the road. On arrival, I saw no evidence of safety precautions. If I was lucky, this could work.

I couldn’t leave him. He knew that. We barely had enough combined, what life would I have alone. Alive, we both had share of an empty pot; but if one of us was to die, our life insurance would fill it right up.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen — but I never imagined that a small child, afraid of the sparkler a parent had clasped in their hand, would finish the job for me. Loosening their grip, they let the glowing stick fall beside my husband’s shoe. In an instant the gathered crowd froze as fire took its natural devastating form. It licked at the sides of my husband, until he was just an effigy of a man, his screams in harmony with the wailing Catherine Wheels above.

No firework display or bonfire could hold a (Roman) candle to you lovely #QUICKFIC writers. Many congratulations to Susannah, Mike and Laura — three different but wonderful spins on this week’s prompt picture. Much like how no two Catherine Wheels will spin the same, yet all look beautiful.

We’ll be back next week at 9:50 am with another prompt, minus my bad attempts at making fireworks based jokes.

Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 26/10/2018: The Winner

Runner Up: Thea Oxbury

In-Between Time, or The Pumpkin Princess

The magazine had provided instructions: Pumpkin Perfection: A Fabulous Festive Face in Ten Easy Slices.

Alice had wanted to practice alone, master the technique before she sat down with the children, but there’d not been time. When was there ever?

Still, she’d made the initial incisions herself: stalk handled discs trepanned from each gourd’s pale crown. Then, her half-hearted attempt to convey the magazine’s primary instructions to Jessica and Rory: a single, crescent-shaped slash to map the smile, carefully placed, mirroring chevrons to plant a suggestion of laughing eyes.

Too late. Rory digs a fist into the pale hollow. Jessica grabs the potato knife, hazel eyes glinting keenly as its sturdy blade. Alice remembers the overalls she’d set aside, but forgotten to usher the pair into. And then a slew of realisations: tomorrow’s deadline for the committee’s report, her stepfather’s birthday (yesterday!), her overdue response to the neighbour’s planning application.

The boy licks sinewy pulp from his knuckles. (Raw pumpkin? Toxic?) The girl incants, knife gashing gaping sockets into a hollow, vegetable skull.

Samhain, remembers Alice, the in-between day, neither last year, this year, nor the next. Outside time itself. Souls roam and riot as they will.

Silently, she steps back from the table. Her children oblivious, she unlatches the garden gate, paces past the house, out, out, onto the windy road, towards the trees, the clatter and clamour, the raging in-between time, no time, the howling, boundless freedom of the celebration of All Souls. Alice walks and then runs

Runner Up: Thom Willis

The King’s Promise

The Pumpkin King was wrong.

He made the same speech every October, as his subjects grew ripely orange in mist-laid fields. He meant it to inspire them, to give them hope in their futures, to push them on to greater things. He spoke in good faith. He was wrong.

He told of transformation, of becoming. How the destiny of pumpkind was to be the jackolantern, how the fierce light would burn from all of them, how it would push the shadows back into their corners, how they were, for one night, the stars come to ground.

He told the stories humans tell, of headless horsemen with guardian lanterns, he told rousing jokes about the traditions of the season, of tricks played and treats given. He delighted the rows and ranks of his fellows. They saw how important they were, they felt unstoppable.

The Pumpkin King was wrong.

Stacked high in cardboard troughs, the harvested pumpkins sat and awaited their ascension. Days passed. The terror of those at the bottom of the pile became feverish as the first blooms of decay appeared at their stembases. This was not their calling, this was death. 

The day approached. Those pumpkins with healthier skin, whose roundness and orange glow was undeniable, were taken. This was the it, the King’s promise fulfilled! Only for the chosen few, they realised now. Only the elect.

And for the elect, for the most pieous, the lighted ones, what horrors now awaited them.

The Winner: Sarah Nash

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

The woman thinks this is fun. She thinks she’s in charge. They never learn do they?

Grownups.

Susie’s got a knife. A very sharp knife.  Makes it easier.

The volunteers are so sweet – doing their bit for the poor little orphans. Then going back to their comfy homes and forgetting all about us.

Not today.

They never ask how we became orphans. Who taught us everything we know. Taught us how to fend for ourselves.

I’ve really perfected this kooky little boy bit. Tongue out’s particularly good, don’t you think?

Sometimes I’m afraid Susie’s going to waver – think it would be cosy to be NORMAL. Disgusting word. Sometimes I’m afraid she’ll crack and ask if we can go home with one of these losers. Play happy families.

No way.

There’s no such thing as a happy family.

Sometimes I have to give Susie a pep talk. At least she’s been perfecting her knife skills. One day she started talking about working in a restaurant when she grows up. Silly cow. I told her, people like us don’t grow up. They make sure of that.

It’s the moments just before I enjoy the most. The tension. The build-up. I feel myself growing calmer, happier, sunnier.

“What a dear little boy,” they say.

Any minute now I’ll give the word. No-one will even look up, not at first.

They don’t know she’s the one who taught us what to do when the time came.

Any minute now.

“Mummy!”

I didn’t know quite how many sinister interpretations you’d all manage to get out of that adorable scene up top, but I do know exactly who I’ll have to blame for the nightmares I’m going to be having for the next few weeks. Congratulations to Thea, Thom and Sarah and many, many thanks to everyone that sent in their spooky tales! I’ll be back next week — same time, same place. Less horrific prompt.

Until then!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 26/10/2018

Happy almost Halloween! In defiance of the calendar, we’ve (I’ve) been celebrating Halloween all week and so it is only right that today’s flash fiction competition prompt is spooky and terrifying and all things Halloween should be.

A quick reminder of the rules, before we begin.

You’re going to see a prompt. Using that prompt, we’d like you to write a short story of 250 words or less. Send your story in the body of an email, including the title and the wordcount, to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 pm this afternoon. No later! The winner wins these books: 

'All My Puny Sorrows' by Miriam Toews, 'Nine Lessons' by Nicola Upson, 'All the Beautiful Lies' by Peter Swanson - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Ready? Here you go: 

Image of a table outside of a wooden cabin. There are three people sitting at a table; two children and an adult. The young children both seem to be carving miniature pumpkins. The female child is using a knife to carve the inside of the pumpkin, while the boy has his hand inside his pumpkin, presumably about to pull out the innards. The boy is pulling a face of disgust while the adult is watching and laughing. Around the three are some fully carved pumpkins, other gourds and some pumpkin shaped food stuffs. Just visible behind one of the figures is a banner, partially obscured, reading Halloween - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC

Terrifying, right?

Be back at 3:30!

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. 

#QUICKFIC 19/10/2018: The Winner

an image of coffee being made and poured on a table, with a faint woodland scene in the background. There is a large, steaming coffee pot just visible to the left, with two glass mugs waiting for coffee to be poured in. Coffee beans litter the table, spilling out of a copper bowl. Two ceramic looking jugs containing mysterious contents wait on the right, while an hand pours freshly made coffee out of a small glass cafetiere and in to one of the glass mugs. - quickfic, flash fiction competition

Runner Up: Claire Bennett

Coffee with a Colleague

She’d not really slept the night before, thoughts of the morning running through her mind.

She supposed she couldn’t really refuse his invitation and on the face of it, it was only coffee with a colleague, coffee with a colleague. Her mind ran over and over the phrase like some sort of mantra to help keep her anxiety at bay. Weeks of private smiles in meetings, accidental run-ins in the kitchen, graduating to the forwarding on of corporate emails, adding in commentary and recommendations of favourite books and music.

It made her feel excited in a nervy way and try as she might to keep her composure, she found her mouth fixed with a permanent smile for hours afterwards. There was an undercurrent to it all though, and that was what had kept her from sleep. Why was she feeling this oh-so- recognisable feeling about a man 30 years her senior, a man she wouldn’t look at twice if he tried to catch her eye on the tube?

Runner Up: Jennifer Harvey

This Fantastic, Incomparable, Instagrammable Life

Here, let me show you how it’s done. It’s all in the polish and the presentation. Nothing is too dull. Everything can shine and glisten. Even a life like your own.

No, trust me, it’s true. I can take your drudgery and spin it into gold.

Like this morning, when you woke feeling listless and emptied from a dreamless sleep? We can fill that space with aspiration. All you need to do, is imagine, believe, dream.

Ready? Okay, then tell me, what you see.

A room, morning bright, air filled with the oily aroma of coffee, table set with care and attention. Spoons polished. Napkins folded. A flower. And two cups. In this place you are not alone. The days begin with little rituals of affection, and life stretches ahead with such promise.

An illusion you say? Perhaps. But the dream is yours and who’s to say what’s real or imagined. Look, here, take it. Hold it to the light, turn it this way and that. See how it sparkles, how it shines. How it makes you smile.

You feel it don’t you? A flutter inside. Happiness? Yes, let’s call it that. And though it is fleeting, it fills you all the same. And your longing, is now your reality.

Believe. Imagine. Dream.

And hold on to the illusion. Face the world with a glow of perfection. They will never know. Because there you are, and they see you now, fantastic, incomparable.

And happy, oh so happy. 

Winner: Anstey Harris

This is Me

Cut!’

Five pairs of hands bustle in. One to take the jug from her before there is a chance of the coffee splashing onto her skin. Two to thrust cushions under her wrists lest those hands land awkwardly somewhere or snag on an unseen menace.

‘It’s not just the hands,’ says her entry in Spotlight. ‘The wrists, the angle of bone and sinew, the skin tone: there are so many reasons Jennifer Dunn’s hands are THE hands.’ So many reasons her hands are insured for ten million dollars, so many reasons that no one ever touches her except with – real – kid gloves.

Her assistants – Maureen and Joe – hold the gloves and, mechanically, she slips each slender finger into place. Joe doesn’t look up. Maureen doesn’t ask about her life, what she’s been doing. Everyone in the studio concentrates on Jennifer’s matchless hands.

If Maureen had asked, Jennifer might have told her about the man who moved in across the hall yesterday: how he looked at her, really looked. How the constant cloak of loneliness she wears shifted, slipped slightly, gaped.

There is a big green bin outside Jennifer’s block. She drops the gloves in, one at a time, and knocks on his door.

‘Hi’ he says and his eyes trace the scar under her eye, note the missing hair above her left ear. He smiles.

‘I forgot to get your number,’ she says.

‘Easy,’ he says. He lifts her hand and writes – a tattooed promise – across her perfect skin.

Well! What a welcome back! Congratulations to Anstey, Jennifer and Claire. And a huge thank you to everyone who sent in a story — every last one was completely brilliant. Have wonderful weekends everyone, and we’ll be back next Friday at the slightly earlier time of 9:50 am.

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 19/10/2018

Good morning everybody! You asked and asked, and we answered! Yes, #QUICKFIC, Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition, is back and it’s bigger and better than ever. We’re coming at the slightly later time of 10:50 but, as you’ll see below, this is a one time only occurrence. So don’t get used to it!

Here’s how to play:

  • You’ll be presented with a prompt on Friday morning at 9:50 am. This is anything my devious mind can come up with, so be prepared!
  • Your task is to create a short story of 250 words or less inspired by that prompt.
  • Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50pm on the Friday afternoon.

At 3:30 we’ll announce the winner. That lucky person gets a stack of books as their prize. Much like this stack, in fact:

Stack of three books including 'Sugar Money' by Jane Harris, 'Lullaby' by Leila Slimani and 'For the First Time Ever: A Memoir' Peggy Seeger - Faber Academy's flash fiction competition quickfic

So here we go. Your first prompt is below:

an image of coffee being made and poured on a table, with a faint woodland scene in the background. There is a large, steaming coffee pot just visible to the left, with two glass mugs waiting for coffee to be poured in. Coffee beans litter the table, spilling out of a copper bowl. Two ceramic looking jugs containing mysterious contents wait on the right, while an hand pours freshly made coffee out of a small glass cafetiere and in to one of the glass mugs. - quickfic, flash fiction competition

See you back here at 3:30!

Review: THE LONG TAKE by ROBIN ROBERTSON

This review by Ruby Bamber (Senior Sales Operations Executive at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

A 225-page epic long-form poem sounds like a daunting read, but  the medium is perfect for this story. Wounded war veteran Walker, returned  to North America from Europe, is roaming. Set in four parts between 1948 and 1953 (with the occasional reference to the mid-50s), Robertson’s sweeping epic takes in the glamorous grime of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago as Walker moves between cities, hitching rides where he can and taking it all in.

The period detail comes thick and fast. To use the word atmospheric would be hugely underselling it – The Long Take feels as close to being in 50s America as I’ll ever get. For anyone who has enjoyed the grubby thrill of a classic noir film, or gone on holiday to the States hoping to sit in a dark and faintly squalid bar to watch the world go by, this is very much the tale for you. There are dive bars, road trips, faded hotels, all-night picture houses. All of the mentions of films, studios and actors of the period give this book the old Hollywood vibe that is so at odds with the scores of broken characters Walker encounters.

It highlights the America that is familiar to everyone, the dual reality of a country where everymen sit in picture houses in questionable parts of town to watch the manufactured ‘America’ on film. Robertson’s book is the antithesis of a Hollywood studio film – his is not an America cleaned up and packaged for the masses. The Long Take shows us this perfectly, and, as Walker puts it himself: ‘American cities have no past, no history. Sometimes I think the only American history is on film.’

The narrative is punctuated by Walker’s memories of his time at war, his life previously, and postcards and missives to his friends and family in Nova Scotia, which all add to the scrapbook effect of the work. It feels at points like rifling through someone’s belongings, getting to pore over their diaries and photographs, getting some of your questions answered, but knowing you’ll never quite get to find out the full picture. By contrast, there are passages where you are living completely in Walker’s head.

The time stamps are subtle but effective (price changes at the cinema, tiny inconsequential details) and in 1953, when Walker returns to San Francisco, things have changed. The conversations he has show how people are moving on from the chaos of the years immediately following the war. America is settling and other tensions are rising (a graphic, if fleeting, mention of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks is particularly moving).

The Long Take is like being on an epic road trip, speeding along the American coast and catching intoxicating glimpses of places and people in a country in a period of great change.  This book should not be written off for the familiar fear of not ‘getting’ poetry – you would be robbing yourself of a moving and addictive Americana experience. I loved it.

Review: THE MARS ROOM by RACHEL KUSHNER

This review by Joanna Lee (Communications Administrator at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a book that hits you with a world so perfectly formed, so intense, that it knocks you to the ground – disoriented, intimidated and deeply sad in equal measure. It paces the confines of the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where our narrator, Romy Hall, is serving two life sentences (plus six years).

The uncanny oddness of being condemned to serve two ‘life’ sentences (plus six years) isn’t unintentional. Logic is thrown out of the barred windows at Stanville, bulldozed by rules so rigid as to be destructive.  

Kushner’s great skill lies in exposing these bars as hollow. The truth doesn’t matter – both to the state and the inmates. There is a rumour that Betty LaFrance’s ‘legs are insured for millions’, but Romy doesn’t buy it. ‘You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.’ The still surface of the slick, smooth prose hints at the anger and crowbars beneath.

Spiking the narrative bravado are disarming punches of pathos: ‘The women made greeting cards by hand in emulation of a machine-printed corporate look: their best work resembled cards you could buy at Rite Aid.’ Even the ‘best work’ of these women – crafted with effort, made to be individual and unique – are casually indistinguishable from mass-produced bits of tat costing mere cents. Sad, right?

The detail in the book is immense, both to its credit and its detriment. It makes for a totally immersive reading experience, but at times can feel superfluously long. Kushner builds a labyrinth filled with lifelike characters, meticulous research and myriad intricacies; but this means it’s all too easy to get a little lost.  

Overall, I’d totally recommend this book. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, spend them hanging out with Kushner’s company of inmates. They’re worth your time.   

Review: MILKMAN by ANNA BURNS

This review by Imogen Morrell is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.

*

Anna Burns’s Milkman depicts the nameless, the placeless, and the quietest acts of rebellion. This seems in tension with a novel that is, in many ways, precisely situated and politically saturated. Milkman is a distinctly Irish text: Tristram Shandy looms and Beckettian cadence elucidates. And despite never saying so, the novel’s historical context alludes to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, sandwiched between ‘the land “over the water” and the land “over the border”’.

Despite certain specificities, Milkman is extensively cast with a litany of epithets and sobriquets: ‘tablets girl’, ‘maybe-boyfriend’, ‘second sister’, ‘renouncer-of-the-state’, ‘defender-of-the-state’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘chef’, ‘longest friend’, ‘real milkman’ and ‘milkman’. Milkman is not a real milkman, but rather a senior paramilitary who follows, stalks and quietly threatens our nameless narrator, while she walks and runs through the parks and reservoirs of her district.

This is a story supported by ‘gossips and rumour-mongers’ who amorphously sing the chorus of Burns’s novel, scrutinising, alienating, and condemning the bookish protagonist for embarking on an alleged affair with Milkman. Worse than this crime is her daily transgression of walking while reading a book; of being both unprotected and engrossed, ignorant and superior. She is criticised for her literary perversions: ‘It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed’.

Her privacy in public is a vehicle for dissent, and is an affront to both the neighbours and her gender. Men take many shapes, yet are similar in their sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous ‘mission of idolatry’, and often ‘supreme glorification’ of women. Echoing such expectations, mothers sing the ‘female destiny’, the ‘daily round’, and the ‘common task’. Marking herself outside of such a spinning burden leaves Milkman’s protagonist ‘beyond-the-pale’, an ‘issue woman’, rumoured to enjoy ‘back-to-front reading, starting on the last page’, despite the surrounding ‘gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots’.

Although the French class cries that ‘Le ciel est bleu! Le ciel est bleu!’, the narrator sees that the sky is ‘new colours arriving, all colours combining’; she sees the love that her mother has for the real milkman despite the years; she sees a brother-in-law regret and reclaim his adoration of a poisoned woman. Consequential violence occurs off-stage, while revelations occur irrevocably within the details.

Reviews of the Man Booker 2018 Longlistees

WARLIGHT by MICHAEL ONDAATJE
Reviewed by Alexandra Shaw

Subtlety, smoke and subterfuge pervade Michael Ondaatje’s latest work, Warlight. It is a book that I had the all-consuming feeling while I was reading it that I was only understanding, or grasping, or even casting my eyes over one half of what was truly there. It is a technique that, I hope, is an authorial sleight of hand to mimic the narrator’s own unsureness and misrememberings of his own past, though I can’t rule out that I may have to stop enjoying my novels with a companion glass of red wine.

Like reality, I felt the first half of Warlight – as the narrator, Nathaniel, reminisced on his childhood – was the more romantic and intriguing half, and a story I could have read for a hundred pages more. The first sentence explains the premise in a charmingly childlike way: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who many have been criminals.’ But these characters do not, thankfully, turn out to be Fagins to Nathaniel’s Oliver. While their way of life is unusual, at best, and borderline neglectful at worst – in the sense of an absence of care, rather than an abuse of it – it becomes apparent that Nathaniel and his sister Rachel come to care deeply for their guardians, and protect the life they lead avidly. Like all children, they have adapted to their lot and work to do the best they can out of it.

The book unfolds quietly and carefully, and shifts in its focus as it unfurls to the mother of the two children, and the realization they reach regarding their parents’ departure. In this way it perfectly represents the shedding of the ignorance of childhood, and the narrator’s growth into his own person as he begins to gain an understanding of the motivations of people around him. It’s a compact work, but one whose depth outmeasures its length, and definitely one to read.

*

SNAP by BELINDA BAUER
Reviewed by Jade-Louisa Pepper

Snap by Belinda Bauer should, in theory, have been something I devoured. It has all the hallmarks of my favourite things – it’s loosely based on the (unsolved) murder of Marie Wilks, it’s based in a small town that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Midsomer Murders, it’s a well endorsed thriller on the Man Booker Longlist — and yet I can barely summon an ‘it’s alright, I guess?’ when people ask about it.

Uneven is the best way to describe Bauer’s latest, as the taut and tension-filled opening chapters become a distant memory when we sit through yet another instance of Catherine – the pregnant woman so afraid of eating the wrong thing in case it harms the baby – ignoring death threats, break-ins and robbery in case she is blamed for leaving the bathroom window open.

Catherine isn’t the only character to fall into absurdity for no reason I could see other than to keep the plot going. The entire police force seems to be staffed by plot devices and characters dropped in from various comedy sketches from the 1980s. The latter half of the book hinges on the idea that the maverick city cop (why yes, he is a misogynist, good-old-boy, drill sergeant–style boss, however did you guess?) accepts the proposal of the 14-year old he’s arrested for committing a series of robbery and helps him investigate the murder of his mother. Hanging a lampshade on how ridiculous this is doesn’t make it easier to swallow.

Jack, our Artful Dodger of the book, is a bright spot. His trauma around the death of his mother and the strain of having to take care of his two sisters after his father abandons them is depicted brilliantly. The increasingly terrifying dreams he has about the roadside murder of his mother are genuinely unsettling and he actually reads like a teenage boy thrust into an awful situation.

Snap has its moments of brilliance – the final scenes in the car genuinely had my heart racing, for one – but a few good scenes aren’t enough to keep the book together or my interest up. Crime and Thriller novels absolutely deserve their place on the Man Booker long and shortlists, no matter what the naysayers might cry, but I’m afraid this one remains an unlikely candidate for winner.

*

SABRINA by NICK DRNASO
Reviewed by Anne Bowman

28-year old Chicago native Nick Drnaso’s second novel Sabrina is creating a lot of buzz in the literary world. His first novel Beverly won the LA Times Book prize for the Best Graphic Novel and was shortlisted for many more. Sabrina has already been hailed by Zadie Smith as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘the best book – in any medium – about our current moment.’

There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Sabrina involving a missing woman, a videotape and a violent murder. US Airforce engineer Calvin Wroble works the night shift. Upon reporting to duty each evening he is required to fill in a questionnaire – a box ticking exercise designed to measure his mental stability. ‘How many hours of sleep did you have? How many alcoholic drinks have you consumed? Do you feel suicidal yes or no?”’His wife recently left with their young daughter and he spends his free time playing war simulator games online. One day, Teddy – a childhood friend whose girlfriend is missing – arrives to stay. He is in catatonic shock and Calvin is determined to help him get back on his feet. Shortly after Teddy’s arrival, a mysterious videotape depicting a violent murder is delivered to a local news outlet. Calvin is drawn into a dark web of fake news and conspiracy theories. The answers on his daily questionnaire become increasingly worrying.

The story unfolds slowly, weaving narratives in a sophisticated way. We are offered several perspectives, from the painfully withdrawn Teddy, to Sandra – the grieving sister of the missing girl, to Calvin’s estranged wife. The storytelling is rich and very clever. The world that Drnaso creates is one of sparse human interaction and sterile habitats – the artificial glow from the television, computer or fast food restaurant often the only light – creating palpable unease and tension as the story builds. Within the first fifty pages, I found myself tearing through the book desperate to uncover the truth.

Recent years have seen an extraordinary rise in the popularity of the graphic novel. The beloved primary colours of superheroes have paved the way for writers such as Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel to bring new genres to new audiences. Even staples like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are now perhaps a little “retro”, and modern readers look to graphic novels as worthy challengers to the “traditional novel” – creating works that blend high literature and art, forging an exciting, innovative way in which we consume stories.

Shocking, disturbing and utterly addictive, Sabrina is a graphic novel about our time, for our time. Drnaso’s storytelling is delicate and heart-breaking, with echoes of American greats like Raymond Carver or John Steinbeck, and well-deserving of its spot on the Booker longlist.

*

FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA by DONAL RYAN
Reviewed by Katryna Storace

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan tells the stories of three very different men each in search of something or somewhere to call home. Tossed about on a metaphorical sea of love and loss are Farouk, a Syrian refugee, Lampy, a young man recovering from a broken heart, and John, an elderly accountant.

The men’s stories are unfolded slowly and quietly by a dispassionate third-person narrator. The language is lyrical and involving nonetheless; it draws you into an intimate space with each of the three men. This where Ryan is at his strongest. He weaves a narrative net around that reader that makes them invested in the lives of his characters, and in their individual struggles. Their voices are distinctive – what Martina Evans, in the Irish Times, calls a ‘dazzling array of voices’. We believe in Farouk’s hopes for a brighter future in Europe with the same vehemence as our belief in John’s deep regret over his failed relationship with a younger woman.

The novel culminates in the final section, ‘Lake Islands’, when the connections between the apparently disparate narratives of the three men are revealed. Herein lies the book’s power: these are genuinely surprising revelations. There is nothing contrived about the way that these lives merge and overlap. The characters become more real – if this is possible – as it comes to a close. 

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a superbly crafted, haunting novel and consolidates Donal Ryan’s reputation as a master storyteller. Its short extent – 181 pages in total – makes for a quick yet affecting read that stays with you, well after its echoing final lines.

*

IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY by GUY GUNARATNE
Reviewed by Joey Connolly

You wouldn’t call In Our Mad and Furious City an unambitious novel. It has the sentence ‘See London.’ in the first paragraph. It’s narrated by five characters of wildly various ages, national origins, religious habits, world-views. It aims to both capture the experience of North-London estate life, but also to comment on the currents of racism and nationalist politics currently on the rise in the UK. And it aims to do so in part by placing those currents in the historical contexts out of which London’s many first- or second-generation immigrant populations have arrived. 

The book even wants to make some suggestions for the solutions to these problems. It’s a lot for a debut novelist to take on, but Gunaratne’s novel – while not without its flaws – manages some remarkable successes.

Two of the novel’s older narrators, Caroline and Nelson, originating from Monserrat and Belfast respectively, find contemporary events (the novel has a Lee Rigby–style murder in its recent past, prompting far-right demonstrations around the estate) directing them backwards, towards previous iterations of the violence simmering underneath the multiculturalism of contemporary London. For Caroline it’s the horrors of the troubles; for Nelson it’s the Enoch Powell–era fascist, anti-black thugs and the pushback from black immigrants.

Gunaratne’s ability to paint these previous conflicts as a shadowy presence in today’s struggles is impressive. He invests the prose with recurring symbolic touchpoints (fire, provisional soldiery, the struggle for innocence) allowing the connection to be implied, without the necessity of any heavy-handed or reductive comparisons to be drawn; the troubles aren’t simply comparable to the Islamophobic violence of today. But England’s history is a history of colonialist and religious oppression, and remembering that is crucial, Gunaratne argues tacitly, to understanding discord in London today.

Although Gunaratne’s capable of strong prose, even raising to occasional moments of beauty, his main weakness is in the creation of the voices of the novel’s younger protagonists. Too often throughout the book we’re left with the impression that a generic ‘literary’ voice has been sprinkled with the buzz-words of the contemporary London demotic, and the task of narrative stylisation has been left there. The problem’s heightened by the fact that the book’s narrative perspective is somewhere between spoken monologue and reported thought. But take passages like Ardan’s: ‘I just dussed out. Drank bare spirit that night as well, I was mad depressed and mangy. Came up here to look at the Ends at night because the view from the West Block is as nice as it is dismal in the daytime.’ But inserting ‘ennet’, ‘yuno’, ‘road’, ‘tho’, ‘bare’ into a text isn’t sufficient to create an authentic or convincing diction. Although it has convinced other reviewers – Shahidha Bari (a Cambridge-education Romanticism scholar) in the Guardian, for example – so perhaps it’s my understanding of the vernacular that’s lacking. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

There are other flaws beside these. Most significant is the fact that the book’s sprawl and scope requires at times that the characters perform actions necessitated by the plot rather than their own internal compulsions, desires or will. As a result of this, the central event of the novel’s story (I’ll avoid spoilers by not specifying) comes to feel simultaneously predictable and underdetermined; we knew it had to happen, but we never get any sense of why it happened. Aside that it’s useful for the novel’s storyline.

I’d be inclined to forgive such things, though; they’re a flaw precipitated by the novel’s ambition. During an extremely multicultural football match on the estate, Yusuf says (or writes, or thinks) ‘For a few hours the Square would cast us at the Nou Camp with our Gerrards and Ronaldos, Figos and Rivaldos and a few Cryuffs. These names, ghosting through our movements as we played, the cage with its concrete turf and cracked centre circle, made us free.’ It’s a bitterly ironic moment, as that ‘cage… made us free’, and as we feel the ghosts of historical violence ghosting through the movement of this novel’s protagonists, and drawing the story towards its brutal and inevitable conclusion.