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Dispatches from the cold north east @commapress #thebookofnewcastle

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The Book of Newcastle: A City in Short Fiction
Edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner

Comma Press is a publisher based in Manchester which specialises in short story collections, either in anthology form or single author books. A founding member of the Northern Fiction Alliance, their catalogue of publications so far is impressive; and I was blown away by the fabulous collection they issued of M. John Harrison’s stories, “You Should Come With Me Now”, which I reviewed back in December 2017 and which ended up being one of my books of that year.

One of the most intriguing strands of their catalogue is the “Reading the City” collections, focusing on a specific city from anywhere around the world – from Tehran to Birmingham, from Cairo to Leeds, the range is wide and fascinating. So when I saw that Comma was issuing a collection of tales themed around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was very keen indeed to read it. Why? you might be asking? What’s your interest in/connection with Newcastle? And that’s a good question!

Newcastle is a city I’ve only visited once, longer ago than I care to acknowledge when my BFF H. was doing her art degree at the university. I visited during a freezing February and stayed for several days; and I can’t remember a lot about it apart from the fact that it snowed, I nearly got frostbite from wearing unsuitable footwear, we visited the Watch House (of Robert Westall fame), saw a performance by a performance artist, existed on a diet of stotties (yum!) and saw Cabaret Voltaire live in a very small club and they were magnificent! So yeah, it was a great visit, and although I’ve never been back I have happy memories of the city. Additionally, I recently discovered the Morden Tower poets who are a real joy; and of course Ellen Wilkinson, who has a strong connection with the area. Since I’m often drawn to the north, I’m obviously going to have to pay the city a visit again at some point, especially as it seems to have had quite a cultural rebirth of late!

Anyways – on to the fiction! “The Book of Newcastle” has its roots in a 2004 chapbook from Comma called “Newcastle Stories” and some of the pieces from the earlier publication have transferred to the new book. The latter collects together ten short stories by a range of writers, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve never read any of them before – because they’re obviously mighty talented! The stories cover all manner of topics – coping with a dreary day job by dropping into fantasy; negotiating a re-encounter with an ex-lover and his pregnant new partner; facing up to a future without a dying parent; the complexities of female friendship and how lives can diverge; and smoking (nor not being able to any more!) plus the decline of libraries. One particularly memorable work was “Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove” by J.A. Mensah, which explores the intersections in the lives of the people living uneasily side by side in that street when heavy rains cause floods and overflowing drains. “Magpies” by Alison Readman is a dark, allegorical look at losing touch with your teenagers when the dangerous outside world is tempting them. And “The Here and Now” by Margaret Wilkinson is a wonderful piece about the blurring of the lines between past and present; in a city like Newcastle, with a long and varied heritage, I guess there are always reminders of what’s gone before.

“The Book of Newcastle” is a stunning collection of writing, and there’s not a dud in here; each story is clever, memorable and moving; each spoke to me strongly. And of course running through all of them is the thread of the city itself; a former industrial centre, it’s had to reinvent itself over and over again, and that’s never without its problems. The Town Moor, the green heart of the city, is a vivid presence, as is the Tyne and its bridge. However, one theme which recurred and resonated was that of the Tyneside Flats, Victorian housing which is still in existence in the city and provides an almost communal living space. A fact which is relevant is that they consist of a row of dwellings with a joint loft space, and this really struck a chord with me; not only did my late mother-in-law live in a terrace with such a loft, but it’s also an important element in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”, and I was obsessed with the Narnia books as a child. “Loftboy”, a darkly humourous entry in the book, relies heavily on this element! The Tyneside Flats almost seem like an additional character in the stories, and I must admit that when I finished the book I felt as if I’d been *living* in Newcastle for the duration, alongside all of the very memorable protagonists.

Tyne Bridge by Bob Castle [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I suppose it’s the measure of a really good book when you get to the end to find you wish there was more and you want to just go on reading and reading; and I felt like that when I finished “The Book of Newcastle”. These are wonderful stories which will stay with me; vivid settings full of real characters dealing with everyday life, the past, the future and hardest of all, the present. I could easily have written a post on each of the stories, which is testament to just how good they are; but instead I’ll just encourage you to seek out this (and any of the other City books) from Comma. On the evidence of “The Book of Newcastle”, they’ll all be very much worth reading! 😀

(The stories are all so good that I feel a roll-call of the authors is necessary! So take a bow – Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook,. J.A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone and Margaret Wilkinson. )

Review book kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many thanks!! 😀

The slippery nature of reality @mjohnharrison @commapress

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You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

As the press blurb states, MJH is considered by many a figurehead of genre writing in the UK. His stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium, which are landmarks of speculative writing in my view. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded “Kefahuchi Tract ” trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories – the latter format being, of course, the one he began with. MJH aficionados tend to be a bit passionate and protective about his work; I think he’s one of the hidden jewels in the literary crown of this country, and so I was very, very excited by the prospect of a new collection of shorter works.

“You Should Come With Me Now”, published by Comma Press, contains a remarkable variety of works, ranging in length from half-page flash fiction fragments to longer stories, and all are frankly brilliant. In fact, the title and cover illustration are apt, as we are encouraged to take Harrison’s hand very trustingly and let him lead us into the labyrinth of his dazzling, unsettling and quite unique stories.

The shorter works are intriguing: tantalising fragments which tease you into wondering what would happen if they were developed into something longer, yet still satisfying in their own right. They’re often dry and laced with dark humour, reflecting the sheer fertility of MJH’s mind (and how can you not love an author who casually drops mention of Woolf. Mansfield and Richardson into a story?)

As for the longer pieces – well, where do I start? He’s a master of the twist and his stories constantly subvert your expectations. “In Autotelia” is a fine example; what begins as something which could be a relatively straightforward tale of a person on a train in an ordinary setting soon displays disturbing elements and ends by completely overturning any expectations you might have had. It’s the kind of storytelling MJH does so well and it’s amply on display here.

The realms created by MJH are often nebulous and undefined, and maybe that’s what I love about them. World-building can be too absolute, and since the real world is a fluid place, perhaps our fictional alternatives should be too. Certainly, the relationship between the places and people we’re reading about here and what we see outside our window is often unclear, which adds to the unsettling quality of the stories. Harrison’s work often negotiates the slippery intersection between reality and the fantastic in all its shapes and forms, an area notoriously difficult to navigate and which he handles with aplomb. Within all this, however, MJH is a wonderfully acute observer of human behaviour with all its foibles, quirks and eccentricities; whatever the setting, whether real world now or future world or world off to the side somewhere, humans are always humans…

M. John Harrison

The stories range far and wide over subjects as diverse as visiting aliens and the complexity of relationships in the modern age. MJH often looks at the darker side of things, but there is plenty of spiky wit too. Picking favourites would be unfair with such a rich and varied collection but I particularly noted: “Animals”, an unnerving take on the ghost story, featuring a woman encountering a tangible presence in a rented cottage; “The Good Detective”, perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from the modern world and your own psyche; “Psychoarcheology”, which takes the discovery of the remains of Richard III and riffs on it; “Imaginary Reviews” a series of capsule reviews of books which may or may not exist; and similarly “Babies from Sand”, a series of short numbered paragraphs peopled with shifting names, fluid characters and possibly spurious paintings. It’s not for nothing that the book is subtitled “Stories for Ghosts” as so many of the beings and their situations are undefined, fleeting and often not really there.

I was happily reading away and then suddenly, boom! About two-thirds of the way through the book we are clearly back in the vicinity of Viriconium with the story “Jack of Mercy’s”. Although this is not stated explicitly, any regular reader will recognise the names Crome, Ashlyme and Audsley King, which is enough of a giveaway. The tone of the writing in this story seemed to me to be particularly Viriconium-ish too; although that ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-fluid place seems to have edged ever closer to our own world over the years, so much so that the lines are very blurred here. Needless to say, this was a particular treasure in the collection.

“You Should Come With Me Now” showcases Harrison at his best and each of these pieces, short or long, is an absolute gem, distinct and remarkable in its own right (which is something you can’t often say about a book of shorter works). The writing us just stunning; his powers have not ebbed over the years and if anything they’ve strengthened with maturity. I could go on and on about how brilliant these stories are; “You Should Come With Me Now” is a virtuoso performance by a master of his art, and a highlight of my reading year. What else do I need to say to convince you to make sure you read this book? 🙂

If I’ve managed to interest you at all in M. John Harrison, you can follow his blog here.

Review copy kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many, many thanks! 🙂

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