Skating on the Vertical and Other Stories by Jan English Leary

– Reviewed by Chloë Moloney –

I’ve read about comets, how ancient civilizations saw them as the portent of danger, of angry gods. They signal change, the end of one thing, the beginning of another.

Jan English Leary’s collection Skating on the Vertical and Other Stories (Fomite) is one that illuminates the vital and pivotal moments in people’s lives, in impressively elegant ways. Leary place female struggles in the limelight in an enlightening and illuminating manner.

Leary expertly introduces crucial themes of mental health, bodies and love into the sixteen stories in the collection, through the representation of characters at vulnerable and pivotal moments in their progression. The opening story, ‘Eunuchs’, follows Korean student Pak Jeong at a prestigious boarding school. It is clear that throughout the story, Leary deliberates issues of expectation and isolation in our contemporary society, alongside a universal pressure to succeed when the odds are so vehemently pitted against you. This separation of a struggling student sparks discussions of the implications that such an experience has on mental health: particularly when teacher Natalie finds Jeong away in his room, clearly suffering, and when he refers to his cigarettes as his ‘friends’. It is not only Jeong’s pain which Leary so skilfully weaves into ‘Eunuchs’, however the balance between the student and the teacher’s pain is also presented to the reader in an eye-opening way. In her efforts to help Jeong through his difficult journey at school, Natalie’s own pain is reflected, unifying two opposing souls in the same environment.

Another of Leary’s stories, which I found to be especially stirring, is ‘Skin Art’. Although the topic of self-harm is undeniably a difficult one to approach, Leary deftly navigates this traumatic experience. ‘Skin Art’ equally follows the notion of isolation in its narrative, with protagonist Madeline feeling removed from her day-to-day life. Having accompanied her husband, Bob, on his trip to India, Madeline begins to feel more and more disconnected from her direct surroundings, whilst also having to grapple with the nature of self-harm. Nonetheless, by the end of the story Madeline turns her pain into a beautiful emblem, reflective and respecting of her suffering.

Leary’s descriptive technique is equally something to marvel at. Particularly notable in ‘Skin Art’, we are presented with a rich and vibrant portrait of India:

Leaving behind the city of Panjim and the sea coast with its hotels and crowded beaches, they headed into the country, on roads lined with cashew trees and tall grasses. […] Bougainvillea and palm trees lined the paths of stucco bungalows with clay-tiled roofs, shaded by red-flowered vines.

Although the majority of stories in the collection were superbly written, I found the story ‘Wedding Photograph’ to be somewhat stagnant. Capturing the lives of a married couple in one photograph, the story seemed restricted by its narrative framework. Although the premise of ‘Wedding Photograph’ is intriguing in evaluating both halves of a romantic pairing, the story ultimately describes the photograph itself, rather than giving us a deeper insight into the marriage.

Nonetheless, Jan English Leary’s Skating on the Vertical and Other Stories challenges preconceptions about mental health, shedding crucial light on female struggles in contemporary society. Despite a sense of yielding in some of Leary’s pieces, there is generally a tone of celebration and inclusivity in tackling topics of vulnerability.

Shortest Day, Longest Night 2015-2016 ed. Cherry Potts

– Reviewed by Chloë Moloney –

‘Anger floods in to fill the lull. I never even wanted bloody kids. Yet here she is – again – standing at the foot of her hospital bed, knuckles white where they clasp the metal frame, a long night stretching out before her.’
(‘Life Between Lives’, Sarah Evans in Shortest Day, Longest Night)

Shortest Day, Longest Night: Stories and Poems from Solstice Shorts Festival 2015 & 2016 (Arachne Press) is a collection of twenty-three stories and thirty-four poems, taken from the Solstice Shorts Festival. The writers deftly explore delicate and touching themes, including religion, birth and darkness. Under the arc of transitional days and nights, the pieces edited by Cherry Potts offer a glimpse into intriguing and mysterious timelines.

The Shortest Day stories are beautifully crafted. ‘Hunt and Pray’ by Katy Darby provides a humorous and enlightening perspective on religion. From the point of view of a deity, this amusing piece obliterates any distance between the reader and religion, creating an entertaining and warming relationship which is brought right into the twenty-first century. With references to McDonalds, Pot Noodles and Kraft dinners, Darby introduces a modern and new deity who is ‘on the hunt’ for followers.

‘Even though us old-timers are good at godding, a deity can’t go on without believers and so yes, some of us are dead now. Where do dead gods go, you wonder? Do Gods have an afterlife? I wonder too, but I sure as Hades don’t want to find out.’

Jamie Der Wahls’ ‘Groundhog Day Suicides’ addresses the delicate subject of mental health in an entirely novel manner. When a programmer ends her life, ‘in the middle of a black ritualistic circle’ and surrounded by candles, the day of her death gets caught in an inescapable cycle. Nonetheless, the story draws to a pleasant conclusion, with the programmer finding a sense of ‘magic’ after all. Although the title seems self-explanatory, ‘Groundhog Day Suicides’ closes with a much happier ending than previously anticipated.

I found the poetry in Shortest Day, Longest Night to be equally as stirring. Lisa Kelly’s ‘Daylight Saving Time’ hints at a lack of connection in familial relationships. Kelly presents a fatigued mother who is trapped inside her own head, a son who is lagging behind and a father who is absorbed by his career. Whilst this may be conventional in many family units, Kelly’s presentation of arguably predictable family bonds allows for a profound reflection on the missing electric connections which strengthen our relationships.

The topic of reflection is the undercurrent of many pieces in this collection. Notably, Jill Sharp’s poem ‘On Reflection’ opens up an illuminating discourse surrounding self-evaluation. Using imagery of ‘bare branches’ and a ‘grey sky’, Sharp invites us into a raw and sensitive self-contemplation. Similarly, Tim Cremin’s ‘Shortest Day at the Beach’ casts a sombre and reflective tone on a celebration of nature. Inverting perceptions about a day at the beach, Cremin proposes a darker and gloomier evaluation of life, and all that it encompasses.

Overall, the short stories and poems in Shortest Day, Longest Night turn thematic conventions on their heads. Whether it be mental health, religion or family relationships, the poets and authors in this collection offer fresh and innovative perspectives on universal matters. Taken from the Solstice Shorts Festival 2015 & 2016, which celebrates both the shortest day of the year and Short Story Day, the fifty-seven pieces in this collection truly put some of the finest talent on display.

Unthology 9 ed. by Ashley Stokes & Robin Jones

– Reviewed by Alexandra Cocksworth

The pedigree of the Unthology series is by now well-established and its ninth instalment is testament to the quality of the fiction now associated with the output of this neat little Indie, Unthank Books. Unthank is so-named after the ‘unclaimed land at the edge of town’ which seems to offer a space between the mainstream and the wilderness for fiction writers to flex and experiment in pursuit of intense, vibrant storytelling. That sense of subversion, of distance from civility suffuses this collection. If the term anthology comes from the Ancient Greek, ‘anthos’ meaning flowers and, ‘legein’ to ‘-logia’ meaning to gather, then the Unthology could not be more aptly named for this is no collection of flowers. The prefix, ‘un’ signifies almost every kind of negative; be it reversal, absence or quite simply negation and each of these 17 stories is in some way concerned with those turning points, the teetering moment at which joy or hope is (or is not) negated.

To my mind, the great challenge of putting together any anthology is to achieve a sense of unity, a complete article without sacrificing variety or range. This is something editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones have achieved with aplomb in Unthology 9. Each story interrogates the fragility of the human psyche in some way and indeed, excavates some of its bleakest impulses. The relationships we are presented with are in various states of disrepair; contentment is either temporary or long since past and the characters are variously in search of connection or in despair at its absence. The stories are bound too by echoing images and motifs that surface as occasional reverberations of preceding tales and precursors of others to come. Water, children, death and suicide in particular pattern the collection and add to the sense of the book as an ‘archipelago’ (so-termed in the Editors’ introduction). These stories are various and disparate but they occupy the same lonely stretch of sea.

Each island formation places the human psyche at its centre. This is evidenced by the number of first person narratives. Although the genders are pretty evenly represented in terms of contributors (eight are women, nine are men) there is also a strong masculine bent across these introspections with two notable exceptions forming the most memorable tales in the collection.

Rosie Gailor’s ‘I’ opens the book with the assertion that ‘drowning is the most euphoric way to die.’ What follows is a shattering account of suicide that is founded on the premise that as, ‘the brain starves of oxygen and thinks back to every memory you’ve had – even ones you’d thought you’d forgotten – to see if there’s anything to save you.’ The narrative is fluid and fast-paced as these memories emerge, ‘completely out of […] control’ and sharp-edged, interspersed with the physical experience of drowning. Eventually, death and the memory of life become almost indistinguishable and the narrator’s memories, though un-redemptive, unfurl into pity as all turns to ‘ink, thick and black and all-encompassing.’ Sarah Evans’ ‘In Rehearsal’ sees a surgeon perform risky surgery on a newborn baby. The writing is lean and unflinching as it grapples with weighty moral complexities. Evans’ use of language is sparse, precise, clinical even in its negotiations. This is one of the few stories that could be classed as optimistic in its ending but there is an implied burden of grief that ballasts any sense of the uplifting.

In amongst the grim subject matter though, there is some playfulness and a degree of absurdity. Mark Mayes’ ‘Motes’ offers a critique of profit-driven society in which the unemployed are of no value, or worse, parasitic. The narrator’s self-loathing and despair is tangible as he applies to become a literal dust collector, ‘like a porcelain dog on a mantelpiece.’ He calls himself ‘a useless cunt. A sad soft cock. […] a purposeless man. A useless eater.’ Mayes balances the absurdity of the premise with the lurching discomfit of the narrator’s toxic lack of self-worth. Elsewhere a man is replaced by the kidney he has had removed; an academic researches commercial time travel (available in theory but in truth the preserve of the 1%); a strange Germanic doll disappears and reappears in odd places.

It is hard to look at the cover of Unthology 9 without thinking of that other, televisual anthology of the uncanny, Inside No. 9: it offers a neat parallel to the Unthology series. By degrees absurd and disturbing both are characterised by excellent writing and a confidence in their chosen form. Both have become established as a benchmark for bold, experimental work, each exceptional in their own field. Inside the eerie artwork of this No. 9 you will find exactly the calibre of work that has garnered such a reputation. You may need time and a certain emotional robustness to read it (I could not read it quickly and found I wanted time to absorb and reflect after each story) but it will be worth it.

Editor’s Choices at the Saboteur Awards 2018: Why We Picked What We Picked

Now that the results of the Saboteur Awards have long been released, we think it’s safe to let you know why each editor picked the works that they did to join the shortlist of the Saboteur Awards. We introduced ‘Editor’s Choice’ last year for the first time as a way of making sure a work, or person, that might not otherwise make the shortlist, does so. It seems that this year, voters were glad that we did this, as two of the Editor’s Choices, Jade Cuttle (Best Reviewer) and Jackie Hagan (Best Spoken Word Show) ended up winning!

Without further ado, here’s why each editor made their choices!

Karen Goodwin, Poetry Editor

Best Reviewer  – Jade Cuttle

As soon as I read Jade’s review I knew I was onto a winner. She has an incredibly compelling voice and her reviews are so cleanly written, they require the lightest of edits. What I most like about Jade’s reviewing is she cares deeply about the poetry she reviews, engaging with the poet’s psyche, staying true to the source, so that poets regularly tell me ‘she really gets it!’

Best Magazine – Riggwelter

I immediately liked the feel of Riggwelter, a free online journal of creative arts featuring quality poetry, visual art and essays. Inclusive, relevant, with a sense of humour – it’s a stylishly produced magazine which deserves more exposure.

Becky Varley-Winter, Poetry Editor

Best Pamphlet – Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley

It’s a privilege and a challenge to have a say in the Saboteur nominations. Every poetry pamphlet I read had something to recommend it, and I read as many as I could get my hands on, through review copies, pamphlets I had bought, and the Poetry Library. While I still can’t claim to have read every pamphlet out there, I did read a wide range of work. Certain pamphlets, like Jennifer Copley’s Some Couples, impressed me with their narrative range. Others stuck in my mind because the poets achieved a rhythmic or imagistic style that felt absolutely ‘their own’, even when I could trace some influences on them. Here Birds Are by Art Allen, Frit by Eley Williams, Understudies for Air by Daisy Lafarge, Pamper Me To Hell And Back by Hera Lindsay Bird, and All This Is Implied by Will Harris were all especially striking in this respect, each achieving a style that was distinctive in a way that felt ultimately uncalculated. To me this reinforced the fact that poets are best-served by reading widely and enthusiastically, but they should feel free to pursue their own rhythms and image-worlds beyond imitation, and publishers should avoid dampening what makes individual poets unique. I finally settled on Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley as my Editor’s Pick, because as well as having an assured style, she embraced perhaps the largest subjective scope of any poet I read, explicitly tackling themes of nationality, gender politics and migration. I returned to the pamphlet several times, and her formal craft (featuring ghazals most prominently) impressed me, but the unsophisticated reason for my nomination was that Paisley made me cry. It is hard to write anger as effectively as Rizwan does here.

Most Innovative Publisher – Sidekick Books

The ‘Most Innovative Publisher’ nomination was also a challenge. I was tempted by Laudanum Press, Sad Press, Singing Apple Press, MINERVA Platform, and zarf, who all publish beautiful and innovative work in various senses of the word. I kept the idea of ‘innovation’ uppermost, rather than simply looking or a publisher whose work I liked (in which case many more publishers would have been contenders). It was also important to me that my final choice had an open submissions policy, rather than commissioning work only from poets they already knew, and that they paid their poets. Ultimately, Sidekick Books were the most obvious choice: their large, diverse anthologies and collaborations, combining experimental and mainstream styles, illustration and poetry and interactive work, made them a frontrunner for Editor’s Pick, and I thought they deserved to be on the shortlist.

Richard T. Watson, Fiction Editor

Best Short Story Collection – Malcolm Devlin’s You Will Grow Into Them:

Malcolm Devlin’s collection has a slow start, but then it really takes off as dark, weird/sci-fi collection. Honestly, the span of worlds and subgenres is so wide it’s hard to pin You Will Grow Into Them down into one genre. It’s the third story (‘Breadcrumbs’) that really got me – you might say Devlin had been growing into the stories up to that point – with a unexpected turn of events that takes the story from the first few pages of relative normality out into a sci-fi twist on Rapunzel and something darker, that would be a spoiler to reveal. Beyond that, there’s the classic sci-fi ‘Her First Harvest’, set on a remote space colony, alongside a story like ‘Songs Like They Used To Play’, which deserves more space than I have here; it’s a poignant story about how we perceive history, with hints of time travel sublimated through the ways in which the past rubs against the present, and throughout there’s an undercurrent of dangerous nostalgia that finally erupts at the end. Throw in a marketing exec werewolf, Soviet-style dictatorships and demonic possession, and Devlin has covered a wide enough range of topics to make me very happy to nominate his collection for an Saboteur Award: we’re dedicated to reviewing that which defies easy categorisation. Plus, it’s deliciously dark.

Best Novella – Joanna Walsh’s Seed:

Sabotage Reviews has always been interested in the ephemeral and the small-scale, in the quirky little publications that won’t necessarily be noticed by a lot of people and certainly won’t get much publicity because they’re somehow odd or strange or hard to categorise. We’ve welcomed the poetry and the stories that won’t fit into easy pigeonholes. Let the big beasts deal with the novels and the blockbusters, we’ll shine a little light on the ones that might otherwise get missed altogether. Such a story is Joanna Walsh’s Seed. For one thing, the novella exists online, not in physical form, and the reader navigates the story using a smartphone browser. Though not quite a choose-your-own-adventure, this format does allow for a certain degree of reader interactivity, and you’re able to see your potential journey (or journeys) mapped out on the screen. Each narrative segment, accompanied by a plant image, adds another shoot to the ever-growing fictional world. Although the reader starts at the centre of a beautifully presented and illustrated web of plants, different branches of story end only to flower into new ones on the map, which seems to extend on and on in all directions. It’s hardly a traditional narrative, and it’s hardly a traditional format – and that’s what makes it so perfect to be nominated for this year’s Saboteur Awards.

James Webster, Spoken Word Editor (South East)

Best Spoken Word Performer – Tyrone Lewis

Tyrone Lewis – I came later than most to the phenomenon that is Tyrone Lewis. I first saw him perform at Hammer & Tongue this year and gosh was I keen to make up for lost time. After hoovering up a bunch of his videos, what became clear is that he is a poet with a rare way with words, a fierce and playful sense of humour, and a commanding presence. His writing also gives a real sense of telling a story, even in pieces without a narrative, his ideas are always woven together with a strong structure and journey – which is a surprisingly rare skill. He also seems to be a real champion of the scene, promoting others’ creative projects with love and energy.

A little while back, a friend asked for recommendations of contemporary poets to share with her secondary school students. This happens occasionally and I have a handy list of spoken word performers (and accompanying videos) that I can share on such occasions. Tyrone has become one of the first names on my list, alongside Kate Tempest, Dizraeli, Vanessa Kisuule and Guante. And that’s one of the best compliments I can give: when I think about poets who will make new people fall in love with spoken word, I think about Tyrone.

Best Wildcard – Afflecks’ Creative Space

Affleck’s Creative Space – I visited Affleck’s Palace for the first time last year and was blown away by what a charming, alternative hub it was. It has all the subculture cred of old school Camden Market, with a whole bunch more creativity and community. Most notable of these, for me, was Affleck’s Creative Space: an area anyone can use, containing all the tools to encourage your artistic endeavours. Or y’know, you can just *be* in it.

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, but still struggled a lot to find ‘my tribe’ and find spaces where I felt I belonged. I wish I’d had a place like Affleck’s Creative Space – so many people can benefit from it. It’s an invaluable resource for the community, as the many heartfelt comments from those who voted for it make abundantly clear. Comments like “Joy France took an empty space and encouraged a wide range of diverse people to be creative by providing practical tools, enthusiasm and encouragement“, or “Joy has made a little haven in the middle of Manchester open to everyone, where no one is turned away. Lots of people rely on this special place” and “It’s where magic happens.

I was really heartened this year to see the number of shortlisted projects that are engaging with the world and trying to make it a braver, more loving and more equal space. Affleck’s Creative Space does that in a clear, vital and wonderful way – it makes its little corner of Manchester a better place. And, as the comments said, it also makes more than its fair share of magic happen.

Sally Jack, Spoken Word Editor (Midlands)

Best Spoken Word Show – This is Not a Safe Space by Jackie Hagan

Giving a defiant finger to the PIP, and written as an antidote to TV programmes such as Benefits Street and The Undateables, Jackie applies her colourful, upfront approach to challenging the negative stereotyping of the working class and the disabled in her latest solo show.

With her trademark tough, tender and quirky performance style, she includes the voices of people “living on the fringes and the spaces in between”, negotiating the bureaucratic nightmare that is our current benefits system.

This is Not a Safe Space features poetry, puppetry, audience participation, comedy and crisps with heart and humour, and redefines how disability should be viewed on a tick box form: “awesome, awesome wonky and wonky with strains of awesomeness”.

Best Regular Spoken Word Night – Fire and Dust (Coventry)

Fire and Dust has been a big part of Coventry’s spoken word scene for several years now, and is held in the outrageously appealing The Big Comfy Book Shop.  This is the perfect setting – regulars and new voices are all welcomed into the comfy armchair arms of this encouraging and inclusive event.  Run by the magazine Here Comes Everyone, I’ve been impressed by the team’s relentless dedication to making this event as accessible as possible (with virtually no funding), and their commitment to and encouragement of local writers.

Fire and Dust extends a warm and free welcome to all ages on the first Thursday of the month to share poetry, performance poetry, slam and flash fiction. Open mics get up to 5 minutes, and special guests have included Anthony Owen, Alice Short, Roy McFarlane and Josephine Allen.

Claire Trévien, Founder and General Manager

Best Anthology – Aquanauts (Sidekick Books)

The best anthology category always attracts very strong contenders every year and this year was no different. The point of the Editor’s Choices in many ways is to add to the shortlist a work that might not otherwise make it there, so when it looked like my first choice, Stairs and Whispers was a sure top 4 in terms of nominations, I shifted my attention to Aquanauts. I’m a long-time fan of Sidekick Books and I think they’re doing something very unusual and wonderful with their Headbooks series. They’re anthologies, yes, of playful, innovative, beautiful and sometimes silly work, but they’re also interactive creatures and I defy anyone not to be filled by glee when leafing through them (and defacing them!). Aquanauts exemplifies this, and I hope that by bringing attention to it, more people have been filled by the same delight I felt when originally leafing through its pages.

Best Collaborative Work – Black Flamingo by Dean Atta and Ben Connors

Best Collaborative Work is one of my favourite categories and the nominations were full this year of exciting cross-genre collaborations, including Natalie Teitler’s Dancing Words, a series of filmed poetry and dance collaborations, or Penned in the Margins’ epic and site-responsive retelling of Piers Plowman, Fair Field. Ultimately, I chose Dean Atta and Ben Connors’ Black Flamingo, which was an organic and audience-participative exploration of queer identity at Tate Britain. As well as performances and community engagement, the project also resulted in an excellent collaborative zine. There were so many reasons to pick Black Flamingo, but the strongest for me is that it just felt like the perfect antidote to our times at that precise moment.

Not the Usual Review: Discount Sticker Printing

We interrupt our usual stream of indie literature reviews to give a plug to Discount Sticker Printing, who sponsored the Saboteur Awards with stickers.

Discount Sticker Printing approached us because “We’re keen to support events across the UK that give something of value to popular interests and the wider community.” They thought we fitted the bill, and we’re very grateful to them.

As many of you know, accessibility was a big focus at this year’s Saboteur Awards (shout out to Abi Palmer here), so it made sense for us to use our sticker vouchers to that use. If you attended the awards then you will have seen these rolls:

Roll of stickers labelled “My name is” and “Talk to me about…”

Rolls of stickers of different colours. The one in the foreground has round green labels labelled “green” with a black circle in it. Further back is a roll of red round stickers lablled “red” with a black square in it

The first selection of stickers which say “My name is…” and “Talk to me about…” were used at both the launch party and the festival. The aim was to give people a bit of an ice-breaker. It’s also a nice head-scratcher to work out what you want people to talk to you about. I went for ‘conspiracies’ at the launch party and ‘octopuses’ on the Saturday, the latter elicited some friendly debate about the correct plural of octopuses (it’s not octopi FYI).

The second selection was copied from Harry Giles and his poster for the Chill Out Corner, it has its origins in the Autistic Self Advocacy Network here. The idea was to help everyone feel comfortable during the events.

Description of the communication badges. To read a version click on one of the two links above this image.

What did we think about the stickers

I have nothing but positive things to say about Discount Sticker Printing – they made the ordering and designing process super easy for us. The stickers arrived very fast. They were of good quality and held on to my clothing all day without needing a recharge. Here is a picture of Event Co-ordinator Anna Jamieson proudly sporting her green sticker:

Anna Jamieson wearing a green sticker

We also have so many stickers left over that we should have enough stock for at least another event, if not two, so that’s great! Huge thank you to Discount Sticker Printing for offering to help out!

Speaking of helping out, I’m going to end this fast review with a picture of two of our winners holding Sacred Gin, who sponsored us in-kind for a third year running, by supplying a bottle for each winner. Thank you to them too. When you’re an organisation with very little income (outside of generous souls being on our Friend Scheme, or other generous souls buying our first anthology) every little thing helps!

Claire x