– Reviewed by Elanor Clarke –
Nothing Is Strange is a very apt title for this short collection of short stories. None of them are strange. Promising readers mind-expanding, otherworldly, unique stories, the collection sadly does not deliver. That is not to say that there is nothing good about this collection, or Mike Russell’s writing generally; there are peaks – such as the repeated image of the individual being the whole world – as well as troughs.
Possibly the greatest issue this collection faces is the similarity in all the stories. Though, indeed, we readers are presented with twenty different situations, which would indeed be strange situations to find yourself in, they are presented in the same way, with the same author voice coming through despite apparent changes in narrator. The ‘mother’ in ‘Insensible Susan’ does not read any differently from, for example, the ‘diarist’ in ‘The Diaries of Sun City’. Each time we enter a new short story world, we are presented once more with the same point of view, simply with a different name attached to it. One notable exception is the narration in ‘The End of the Pier’, however, this story comes across as more-or-less nonsensical, and as trying to be odd for the sake of it, rather than actually achieving any particular goal.
Mike Russell’s writing style is extremely matter-of-fact, perhaps aiming for a sense of magical realism. However, rather than emphasising the strangeness of the situations he sets out to describe in his narratives, this to-the-point writing serves to deaden the reader’s reaction to and interaction with the prose. It comes together to read like an attempt at a script for The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Further, the simple way in which the themes are dealt with gives the writing an air of childishness, even down to making fundamental errors which we are repeatedly told to avoid, even during primary school (and then this happened, and then I said this, and then this happened, the end).
Russell does have some interesting ideas, many of which seem like dream sequences, which have been put to paper and somehow lost most of their magic. Many of the encounters seem pointless and unsatisfying, or rather unfinished. One of the more promising stories, ‘The Shining Flower’, makes an effort to involve the reader, attempting to create a story within a story, an Inception-style world within the world. However, the way in which the reader is invited to join themselves to the story is clumsy, and assumes some depth of interest and involvement is already in place.
On the whole, the collection is not helped by editorial errors including spacing issues, which only serve to further prevent the reader from being able to get ‘into’ the stories they are presented with. With more time and development, some of the ideas could progress into excellent short stories, but as it is, they read as semi-polished drafts, and the fact that the author has given himself a five star rating on Goodreads does make one wonder if he would give thought to development, or already feels that this is as good as it gets. Perhaps, in future releases from Russell, we will find out.