Fiction Round-Up 2014

-Compiled by Richard T. Watson

It’s time once again to look back at the past twelve months and raise a warm drink to the ever-dark nights, mornings, evenings, and, increasingly, afternoons. I’ve gone with mulled wine. ‘Tis the season, you know, for holding back the night and lighting up the dark. [Apologies for those not in seasonal darkness, please re-interpret as appropriate to your climate]

At Sabotage, we’ve done our little bit of candle-holding this year, and we like to think we’ve shone a bit of light into your lives. Here are a few of the highlights from the Fiction stable.


As ever we’ve covered a range of publications this year, from the limited-run, hand-crafted like Uh! x7 and Strong Room to the international reach of Cuba in Splinters and the glossy combination of prose, poetry and plays that is Bare Fiction Magazine. We’ve featured new and upcoming writers in the likes of The Art of Nottingham and debut collections from established authors like David Rose’s Posthumous Stories.

Along with that, we’ve the regular contribution from Unthank Books in the form of Unthology #5, but also Words and Women One, the first in a series of writing by women in the East of England. The Pankhearst Collective also continued to be represented with their electronic collections Heathers and Mermaids, and their Kindle Single Niagara.

We’ve had some gritty takes on reality, as with Shit Happens and The Hospital, as well as the more magical and left-field, as in Kirsty Logan’s Saboteur-winning The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales or the collaborative Rainn. Geographically, we’ve been wide-ranging, thanks to, among others, Louis XXX, Feeding the Doves, Jenalyn, Unsettled and Peirene’s The Dead Lake, plus Gay Propaganda and Cuba in Splinters.

In May we had our birthday party in Oxford, this time with book fair and curated performances from a range of poets and writers. It was great to see so many people, and to be able to celebrate the indie literature scene with our Saboteur Awards. For Fiction, the field was led by the likes of May-Lan Tan and Arachne Press, who performed in the afternoon and triumphed in the evening: Tan as runner-up for Best Short Story Collection with Things to Make and Break, Arachne with Best Anthology for Weird Lies and Best Regular Spoken Word Event for their associated Liars’ League nights. Next year’s Saboteur Awards are coming along nicely, and we’ll announce more details of them in the coming months.

2014 saw the first interview commissioned by our shiny new Interviews Editor, Will, and there are more to come, which is an exciting expansion for us. This first is with French poet Lysiane Rakotoson, but there have been others earlier in the year. We’re also looking forward to expanding the geographic scope of Sabotage’s coverage of live events in 2015.

For the first time we also gave out an award for Best Reviewer (Fiona Moore), and that brings me to my annual big thank-you to the writers and publishers, and to our reviewers (not just for Fiction) who continue to feed this beast and come back for more. If you want to join the reviewing team, then please drop a line to me at fiction[at], or to the relevant editor, whose details are on the Staff Page.

Merry Christmas, and we’ll see you in 2015!

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Young Skins is Colin Barrett’s debut collection of short stories. It is published by The Stinging Fly Press and comprises seven tales in total. About 180 pages long, it is one of those rare pieces of fiction: a crackling, blazing set of stories, written in language both jolting and poetic. The book won the Frank O’Connor short story award earlier this year, with Alison MacLeod, novelist and on the judging panel, quoted as asking ‘How dare a debut writer be this good?’ I’d already earmarked Young Skins as a book to read following Barrett’s win, wanting to see for myself just what it was about this collection that so impressed the judges. For almost all of the stories in the collection, it was obvious.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

The collection is set around a group of characters who live in an Irish town. Mostly bored, detached, and young, the characters engage in casual sex, violence and drinking. Yet this is not a polemic about disaffected youth; rather, what struck me from the opening passages of Young Skins’ first story was the empathetic portrayal of the protagonists and their situations, which chime with the reader. The first story, ‘The Clancy Kid’, blasts off with searing honesty: ‘It is Sunday. The weekend, that three-day festival of attrition, is done. Sunday is the day of purgation and redress; of tenderised brain cases and see-sawing stomachs and hollow pledges to never, ever get that twisted again. A day you are happy to see slip by before it ever really gets going’. We’ve all lived that kind of weekend. This is very, very real writing.

Violence permeates the pages. In ‘The Moon’, Martina Bolan, the sexual interest of the character around whom the story revolves, shows up for her first night at a bar ‘sporting a pair of knee-high leather boots and strategically gouged pink tights, hair dyed to a high orange flame, and a murderous glint in her eye’. Others characters have brutal nicknames: Bat, Arm, and shocking cruelty erupts from nowhere. For example, in ‘Stand Your Skin’, Bat is disfigured by a random kick in the face as a youngster, thus changing the course of his life. Even mundane tasks glitter with venom. Bat has problems with his contact lenses: ‘his eyes mildly burn; working his contact lenses in this morning, he’d subjected his corneas to a prolonged and shaky-handed thumb-fucking’. This line, among many others, made me snort out loud.

Barrett’s characters are not paper-thin or two-dimensional. In casual, easy lines, he conjures up rich impressions of the men and women stalking his stories. An elderly woman is ‘a sweet old ruin of an alcoholic who spends her days rationing gin on their ancient, spring-pocked settee, lost in TV and her dead’ (‘The Clancy Kid’). In ‘Bait’, a young man searches women the worse for drink: ‘I heard laughter, the clop of unsteady feet, I saw flickers of hair and shuttering legs’. The snappy description captures perfectly the rapid movement of tipsy women. In ‘Stand Your Skin’ an individual is described as having a ‘spotty face like a dropped Bolognese’. These are visceral images – the reader can visualise Barrett’s characters clearly.

Barrett’s descriptive power is, for me, the book’s strength. His characters are painted with an unsavoury edge, but are the more convincing for it. Even Fannigan, the bad guy in ‘Calm with Horses’, Young Skins’ longest, novella-like story, is written with a line of sympathy: ‘Fannigan dropped the shirt and vest, and was soon shivering in a way Arm found hard to watch. Fannigan’s torso was pale as milk, his chest hair a scutty fuzz petering down to his navel. His tattoos, in the dark, looked like bruises on his arms’. His vulnerability is raw, but that does not stop Arm from killing him. As an ex-boxer and now hired muscle, ‘Arm had the clear head and cold-bloodedness required by the ring, the knack of detachment’. And yet Arm is also drawn empathetically, and is shown to care deeply for his young, possibly mentally disabled son.

‘Diamonds’ is the one story in the collection where Barrett’s raw, thumping narrative does not rattle through, and we are not dropped into the fully-formed life of the nameless, central character, as in other stories. I missed this about this story, though the loneliness of a transient alcoholic is well written.

Young Skins is a skidding, breathtaking ride of a book, punchy with humour yet real and heartfelt. The dialogue is crisp and often hilarious, reminding me of Kevin Barry, another Irish writer and recent winner of the Sunday Times Short Story Award. Colin Barrett is a writer to watch; Young Skins is a book worthy of accolades.

Escape Kit by William Thirsk-Gaskill

 -Reviewed by Sarah Gonnet

One of the main advantages of writing a novella instead of a full-length novel is the energy the shorter form allows for. William Thirsk-Gaskill takes full advantage of this. He creates voices for his characters that are spikey with humour and poetic sensitivities. The nuances and everyday characteristics of the characters allow a bizarre story to be told, without the reader doubting its authenticity. The plot is on the verge of possibility, yet seems like something more likely to happen in a dream. In this manner everyday occurrences, a train journey, a mobile phone, an adulterous relationship, an estranged father, are all manipulated by Thirsk-Gaskill into a strange series of events. It is like he has taken these elements and remixed them into something illogical. Yet the story is still a compulsive read.

Escape Kit by William Thirsk-Gaskill

Thirsk-Gaskill changes voices each chapter in a clever mechanism to move the story forward. However all of the voices maintain a hyperactive quality – probably because all of the characters are under their own perfectly calculated distress. In this way the novella can be read as a series of character studies. The five chapters could be taken separately as monologues. However in the format Thirsk-Gaskill has decided to use, the multiple view-points are fascinating. This is because each character sees the events in their own way. The overlapping commentary on events and other characters cause the narrative voices to betray the secrets of each other. It makes the book into a series of revelations that are difficult to turn away from.

Escape Kit has an extremely basic plot, yet it still manages to be mysterious. The beginning doesn’t reveal a direct path the end. For the first few chapters the reader is directed through Thirsk-Gaskill’s world without any solid footing. The story seems to skip between time-zones and events. It is only in chapter three that Thirsk-Gaskill decides to reveal what is actually going on. By that point he has made known the essentials about the key characters (even those that haven’t spoken yet). Our understanding of the protagonists only increases as the novella moves on and we gain the insight of other characters’ opinions.

The eccentric POW is at first certainly the focus of the story. He is also the crux of a lot of the humour in the story. Misunderstandings and their amusing consequences are a major theme of the book. We want to know what is going on with him, rather than the fairly predictable actions of the other characters. Yet as the book goes on the focus moves to Bradley: a fourteen year-old boy stuck on the train with the POW. His situation is the source of the tension in the story, although he is the dullest character. Much of his personality is unspecified, possibly to allow the reader to empathize with him as if he was their child. Yet instead the reader is left curious at what is going to happen to him, but apathetic as to whether he lives or dies. There is also little communication between Bradley and the man, so the contrast between young and old (especially as the man assumes he is still young himself) is not accentuated as much as it could be. However the story is a novella, not a novel, so Thirsk-Gaskill has had to be picky about the details he chooses to highlight. The terseness of the POW not communicating much, and then only in broken German, does allow the suspense to build more effectively. This suspense is dissipated by the end of the book and leaves behind the stain of a satisfying ending.

Overall Escape Kit is an enjoyable little book, which could be enjoyed over the course of a single evening. Although the characters are anxiety ridden and neurotic; their depiction is strong and clear. Thirsk-Gaskill has a talent for looking at life through the eyes of many different people.

Bare Fiction Magazine #2

-Reviewed by Cath Barton-

Bare Fiction is a literary magazine available in print and digital formats, but the magazine is only one part of what Bare Fiction represents. Its founding and managing editor, Robert Harper, is an actor and a producer and director of theatre and TV as well as a poet, and these preoccupations are reflected in the way he has established Bare Fiction. He describes it as being set up ‘to promote new writing in all forms through performance, digital representation and publication’. It seems to me, having read Issue 2 and material available on the website, that it is the interweaving of these three elements which makes this magazine stand out and gives it an archival value which magazines that are only made up of the written word cannot replicate.


There is nothing new or exceptional about a launch event for a magazine, but Bare Fiction is going further. As well as having authors read their work, it is making recordings of some of these readings available as Podcasts. Using both Soundcloud and its own YouTube channel, it is cleverly doing two things – giving people who have bought the magazine a chance to hear some of the work read aloud, and, by making the audio work freely available, encouraging those who hear it through visiting the Bare Fiction website to buy the publication and so read more. So, for example, there are Podcasts available of two short stories from Issue 2 – Tania Hershman’s flash ‘Missing My Liar’, deep beyond its word-length, and Carly Holmes’ story of fanciful childhood imaginings ‘Eating the Moon’, in which at night the moon:

…crept through the worn cloth and scattered across the girl’s bed. It slithered inside her ears and tangled in her eyelashes, and she dreamt dreams that were star-shot and bumpy.

Going further still, there is a Podcast available of Rachel Trezise reading. She too has a story in Issue 2, ‘Say Porthcawl’, not the sort of tale you expect from beyond the grave, and the reading gives us more of her vibrant work – an extract from her collection Cosmic Latte.

The three writers I’ve mentioned are all already widely-published and respected, and have no doubt been included in this early issue of Bare Fiction Magazine quite deliberately to give both readers and those submitting work for consideration for future issues a clear message about the standards being set. But, in fairness, the editors have included work from less-known writers, and in the fiction section I particularly enjoyed the very different contributions of J L Boganschneider’s experimentally-structured tale of everything coming down, ‘Caliban Taciturn’, and Thomas McColl’s wry look at one of the unfortunate but inescapable realities of publishing in the digital age, ‘The Plagiarist’.

More than a quarter of this issue is poetry, an eclectic mix. I’m someone who needs a helping hand with poetry, and hearing Bethany W. Pope’s Podcast in which she not only reads her poem ‘The Quality of Mercy’ (included in the magazine) but also explains the background to writing it – when she was working in a drive-in restaurant – and also that its form is a double acrostic sonnet, made the poem mean so much more to me than it would have done otherwise. I would have appreciated it if all the poets had included a sentence or two to introduce their poems.

A couple of the poets have links to visual art – Bethany Rivers’ poem ‘Barred’ is described as being inspired by Sian Rhys James’ painting The Black Cot, and Isobel Dixon’s delightful word pictures of crab – ‘River Mother’ – and ‘gog-eyed alien’ bug – ‘A Missionary in Neon Green’ – are part of a collaboration with artist Douglas Robertson. I was able to find links to images by the artists by searching on-line but I was sorry that there weren’t illustrations in the magazine to illuminate the poems.

Plays are under-represented in literary magazines, and Robert Harper’s inclusion of short theatre pieces in Bare Fiction is a welcome addition to the usual mix of poems and short stories. Each of the four pieces included in this issue is a gem in its own way and I hope there may be Podcasts of some of these available in the future. I especially relished the musical flow of Niki Orfanou’s mini domestic drama ‘Knock-Knock’, an updated ‘I’m okay, You’re okay’ tussle, and welcomed the inclusion of a piece from the early days of Wales-based Dirty Protest Theatre Company, Othniel Smith’s ‘The Naked Major’. Such small-scale experimental theatre pieces often easily disappear without trace and Bare Fiction is here potentially helping to create an important archive.

Finally, the magazine included a couple of reviews and an interview. Far be it from me to review reviews of work I haven’t read, but I particularly welcomed the inclusion of Adam Horowitz’s thoughtfully poetic reflections on poetry – as, for instance, where he says of Lisa Panepinto’s collection:

On this Borrowed Bike has an alluvial feel to it – ideas and images silt up as the poems rush past… a book best read in snatches, aloud, with the scent of outdoors in your hair.

There is much scope for cross-fertilisation in Bare Fiction – a competition promises to attract new voices, Podcasts are being released weekly with readings from the launch event for Issue 3 undoubtedly coming soon, and I look forward to reading and listening to much more from this stable.

Words and Women: One (ed. Lynne Bryan & Belona Greenwood)

-By Richard T. Watson

Shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2014, Unthank’s Words and Women: One is an anthology of stories by women living in the East of England. The stories – fiction, memoir and creative non-fiction – were chosen through a competition run by the Words and Women organisation, who plan this as the first in a series. Although not the eventual winner, Susan Dean’s ‘Suenos’ for me best encapsulates the combination of words and women in the anthology’s title: it features a Cuban hotel maid who reads and writes whenever she has spare time, breathing literature, and a Western female tourist, also a writer. Their attempts to communicate their different – although undoubtedly similar – lives, and to support and share with each other, sums up the spirit of the anthology.

Words and Women: One

These stories – and even the non-fiction entries are telling stories – are about the experience of being a woman. While there’s a focus on women in the West (perhaps inevitable, given the geographic focus of the publisher and editors), the themes and experiences are broadly universal: loss, sex, death, growing up, motherhood (and childlessness), illness, ageing, violence and relationships with men. Others, more Western-specific, include balancing a career with a family and the guilt of a missing schoolgirl’s mother. The editors, Lynne Bryan and Belona Greenwood, say they’re providing a platform for voices they feel need to be heard; those voices are all female (so represent female opinion), and many are well worth hearing.

It would be easy to consider this a work of tub-thumping literary feminism, but it’s more subtle than that. Rather than, say, giving us stories where women attack a man’s world or win a victory of some kind over a man, Words and Women: One makes a more concerted, longer-term effort to even up the gender disparity in literature. Compare, for example, the Pankhearst Collective’s approach to centralising female characters who are often rough, tough independent bruisers who take violent revenge on the patriarchy. Instead, the stories here subvert patriarchal narratives, which have become almost standard, by simply placing women in the central position so often occupied by male characters. They aren’t all rough and tough, most are just trying to live their lives, lives which may be undramatic but are not lacking in emotion and impact on a reader. Their independence and self-sufficiency doesn’t need to be worn on their sleeves, and might be their greatest strength. The more stories we have where women are central, the more easily society can accept women as central actors in their own lives and the life of society at large. In that respect, Words and Women: One sets out for, and achieves, an admirable aim.

That’s not to say that women are central or narrating characters in every entry here. A couple have male perspectives, and that seems a healthy balancing factor; after all, equality will require the input of both genders. Although the church rector in Caroline Jackson’s ‘The Call’ is male, the story is really about a community coming together to celebrate the passing of one of their matriarchs, a woman whose presence looms large throughout the story even though she never appears. She lives on in the folk-memory of her many descendants and friends, and that idea of sharing grief, of coming to terms with loss, recurs throughout this anthology.

‘Len’s Whole Life’, by Alice Kent, while being a wonderful character study and lightly humourous take on mental illness, doesn’t necessarily add much to the conversation about women’s experience beyond the idea that men sometimes look at women. That doesn’t seem new or revelatory, but it’s a peripheral part of the story which, in a way, seems a fitting reflection of the way men sometimes (too often) perceive women’s experiences.

But enough about the men – as the editors point out, there’s an inequality in publishing already, and this anthology should open up the conversation to more female voices.

The competition-winner was Dani Redd’s ‘My Sister’s Haircut’, a dark coming-of-age story involving a controlling boyfriend whose girlfriend is eager to please him even to the point of denying her own wishes and autonomy. It’s a scary example to be setting her younger sister, whose narration picks up on the hints of something darker, and the promise of a girl growing into a young woman, without dwelling on them or revealing too much. Redd treads a fine line between innocence and cynicism, witnessing a classic example of a relationship doomed to inequality, unhappiness and eventually serious abuse. It’s sobering to think that this is probably quite a common experience.

‘The Deal’, by Wendy Gill who also featured in Arachne Press’ Stations anthology, stands out as a story containing the microcosm of the work-life balance struggle in one day. It’s a story that doesn’t necessarily add much to the debate around working mothers – although surely few are juggling business flights between Heathrow and fog-bound Jersey with their husband’s London tennis club and babysitting – but manages to capture a fully-realised world, and marriage, in very few words. It left me torn between exasperation with the husband and admiration for the wife, and that, I suspect, was rather the point.

So, have I learnt anything about the experience of women? I think so. More importantly, this is a challenge to the idea that the male narrative is central – in literature, as in life – and I look forward to Words and Women: Two. Publishers take note: more of this sort of thing!