BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Words by Nik Perring

BEAUTIFUL WORDS: some meanings and some fictions too by Nik Perring is unlike anything I’ve ever read.

beautifulwordsIt is not a collection of flash fiction, though the story of Alexander and Lucy runs through the heart of it. Nor is it a dictionary, yet it’s arranged alphabetically and includes definitions. It’s not a journal of reflection, though the reader finds out along the way, what brings each word to this publication. And it’s not an art book, though it’s lushly illustrated.

When handed around literary-minded friends it was the catalyst for much ooo-ing and ahh-ing. Shared with old friends it was concluded to be better than chocolates for a birthday present.

It looks, feels and smells like a picture book (minus the smears of snot and vegemite). It’s also a little like the TARDIS! But it’s neither of these either.

So what is Beautiful Words?

Beautiful Words is a literary installation that inhabits the space between the reader’s hands, heart and head. Because of this it can’t help be bigger on the inside (and grow with each immersion). It’s less something you want to read (see Dan Powell’s review) and more something you want to imbibe, slowly, over and over again. Or perhaps be wrapped in, like your favourite set of cotton sheets.

It is ambitious, audacious and absolutely engaging.

There are the 26 words—lexigraphical gems—accompanied by their meanings: crazy words ‘wiffle’, every-day words ‘clasp’, exotic words ‘effleurage’ and totally left-of-centre-words ‘Dravidian’. They are attended by Perring’s explanation of why they are beautiful to him. Riffing off, and woven through, this is the unfolding story of Alexander and Lucy. And better than six steak knives to round out an impossibly good deal, there is Miranda Sofroniou’s vivid, bold and sumptuous artwork. Each element combines to create a multi-layered tapestry that asks you to curb the impulse to race through it (like resisting the packet of Tim Tams in the freezer!); to read, pause, savour and re-read before turning the page.

The inconsistent application of the narrative POV, swapping between Perring’s, Alexander’s (in first and 3rd person) and Lucy’s (in the 3rd) adds a unique and undeniable momentum. It keeps the book from becoming formulaic and repetitive while creating delicious space for expectation and uncertainty. Who is actually narrating… and, does it actually matter?

Breathless in its brevity, the power of Perring’s writing is not just in the economy of language or the stripped back nature of the narrative, but in the hardwiring of anecdotal glimpses (and often nothing more) that tremble with Universal resonance: misunderstandings, love, loss, longing, perfect snapshot moments. His writing breaks all the ‘show don’t tell rules’, yet reveals the narrative arc in such a way the reader is certain they were only ever shown it. Perhaps watching on, in person, as it unfolded on the airplane, in the garden center or the wine bar that night.

Perring mainlines emotions in a way that compels the reader to open their heart to weep bittersweet tears into. He delivers with such ease single sentence gut-punches then switches back to offer promises of love when all hope has fled.

And all this in just 2000 words (give or take)!

The best thing about Beautiful Words… there is more to come with the release of Beautiful Trees and Beautiful Shapes later this year.

**Five perfectly-shaped obcordate leaves**

Beautiful Words is released Monday and available via publisher Roastbooks, Book Depository, FishPond and where all good books are sold.

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nikperringwords2Nik Perring is a short story writer and author from the UK. His stories have been published in many fine places both in the UK and abroad, in print and online. They’ve been used on High School distance learning courses in the US, printed on fliers, and recorded for radio. Nik is the author of the children’s book, I Met a Roman Last Night, What Did You Do? (EPS, 2006); the short story collection, Not So Perfect (Roastbooks 2010); and he’s the co-author of Freaks! (The Friday Project/HarperCollins, 2012). His online home is www.nikperring.com and he’s on Twitter as @nikperring

BOOK REVIEW: The Shining Girls

A time-traveling serial killer is impossible to trace – until one of his victims survives.

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras, leaving anachronistic clues on their bodies, until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back.

The Shining Girls by award-winning South African author, Lauren Beukes, is part dark supernatural thriller, part crime novel, part coming-of-age story, part time travel story, part historical fiction and part social commentary with a feminist bent. With so many angles to the narrative it could easily have become a tangled mess, yet Beukes pulls it off with class and style.

Set in Chicago, each of the historic periods reads authentically (though I am no expert) and it was refreshing to read the nuances in the voices of each of the POV characters (and there are a lot of them) based not just on personality but on the decade in question. Beukes has definitely not taken the easy way out.

The time travel (I’m calling it time shifting) rules are set early and as far as I can determine, the narrative abides by the rules (bending them slightly in terms of allowing Kirby and Mal entry to the house when they break in, by virtue of them possessing something from the house). The non-linear narrative of the time shifting stories occur between the linear stories of Harper in 1931/2 and Kirby in 1992. Like all the best time bending stories, you learn pieces of the plot out of time and without context allowing a slow piecing together of the larger narrative and those delicious a-ha moments when those non-context bits finally fall into place.

Kirby (the only of Harper’s girls to survive) is a protagonist with sass and you are with her each step of the way, desperately wanting her to find Harper so she’ll have vengeance and closure for her attack. It looks impossible, but slowly (partly through her own tenacity and partly through tightly-wound Harper coming apart at the seams) it looks achievable. I know there are others who have not enjoyed her bad-arse, punk attitude, but if the world spits in your face, you can either hide or go it head on. Kirby opts for the latter. Her hard-shelled, rebellious early 20’s self is consistent with the slightly detached, non-nonsense child we are introduced to early in the novel.

Dan (a burned out and jaded homicide journo-turned sportscaster) has the right amount of initial ambivalence toward Kirby as his intern and then pathos as her true mission is revealed. I have to agree with others that the romantic subplot woven into Dan’s character and the hapless knight in shining armour didn’t add anything. Beukes almost laughs at herself when Kirby re-asserts at the show down with Harper that Dan is Robin to her Batman. And while Dan might be in love with Kirby, there is a definite feel throughout that Kirby enjoys the off-beat companionship and perhaps a little flirtation but it’s an amorous relationship is not where she wants it to head. She is focused on the end goal and he is initially her meal ticket, then confidente and later partner-in-crime. Even the hardest and most determined protagonist needs someone to have their back in the 11th hour.

And then there is Harper, the time-shifting serial killer, terrifying in his cold-calculated stalking, the charismatic grooming of the young girls and sadistic dispatching of their older selves. His initial confusion in his changed circumstances helps to ground the reader in the weirdness of the house he happens upon while escaping from Hooverville vigilantes. The later awe, then fear of the plan laid out for him, gives us a sense of the inevitability of where he finds himself, both as a passive recipient ‘of the plan’ and as the active participant of ‘of murderer’. He’s the best type of antagonist because Beukes gives the reader a sense of Harper’s humanity as he attempts to court Nurse Etta. Despite his sociopathic drive, he still has a need for human understanding and contact, echoed again in his short-lived desire for Alice.

Being drawn into the worlds of each of the victims and their slaughter is perhaps the most horrific element of the book. We know from the list of names on the back cover who the girls are. At the first point of contact with each of them we know none of them will walk away with their lives as we are drawn into their worlds: their relationships, careers, hopes, pain and dreams. This makes each shining girl a well rounded character and amplifies the senseless violence of their deaths. (Beukes doesn’t hold back on the grisly details either.)

Each of the shining girls dies in their own time, but there is a sickening anticipation in the reader as Beukes kills some off in the chapter where we first meet them and others  chapters later. The chaos of the reveal echoing Harper’s killing spree.

The story of Alice is perhaps the most disturbing of all, as the only one of Harper’s girls who waits with passionate intensity for his return. Harper, the man who kissed her with wild abandon when she was sacked from her job as a dancing girl in the carnival and then disappeared telling her he would be back. Alice waits for him to swan back into her life and save her. As the only girl with any agency in her death, she is perhaps the most closely aligned with Kirby and why she resonated with me beyond her death in a way the other women didn’t.

While ‘the shining’ is never articulated by Beukes (and this seems to have upset some readers–though it appears as ‘potential’ on some edition’s blurb and not on others?) it is there, woven intimately in the lives of each of women. They are all living outside the acceptable boundaries of society as dictated by the decade they’re in. They contain an inner fire that allows them to thumb their noses at societal expectations; to confront with verve and determination the discrimination and hurdles thrown up by their gender and complicated by race, career, sexual and political preferences. In some cases it is a personal choice, other times it is by luck (good and bad) of circumstances. It’s not just a knife blade that can extinguish the shining. It is not a certainty for the future as we see when Harper’s arrogance leads him to tamper with Catherine’s understanding of her life.  While Catherine expires as the other shining girls do, it would seem she has been dead for years and Harper disappointed by this, becomes disillusioned and looses confidence in himself; he has undermined himself with the ego of his God complex.

The outstanding ensemble of characters is topped off by well-rounded secondary characters from Indian-goth Chet, one of the newspaper’s librarians to Rachel, the barely present mother surrounded by her own ineptitude and broken dreams as a woman, mother and artist. Then there is Kirby’s high school love, Fred Turner, who is so off the mark when they meet up again, that the car scene is beyond cringe-worthy. All are absolutely believable and add to the overall tapestry.

The only character I wondered about was Mal, the homeless addict, whose interest is piqued by the odd comings and goings of Harper from the condemned building in Mel’s neighbourhood. While Mal ramps up Harper’s sense of paranoia by stealing from the house, the number of pages devoted to Mal seem superfluous to the overall narrative in what was such a strong collection of characters who all had something real to add to the momentum of the story.

And the house. (It appears I have a penchant for creepy houses.) The house is character, tech and paradox. The true nature of its existence revealed beautifully at the conclusion (it had me thinking of the Elyora Homestead). The paradox is circular, and is thus self-serving, but Beukes does a brilliant job of justifying it, filling in all the holes as she goes. The post script ties up the narrative perfectly, allowing the ends of the circle to fuse together in a truly satisfying manner.

The Shining Girls is a complex, gruesome, slow burn of a novel that achieves what it set out to do without taking the easy way out.

Four and a half radium-glow butterfly wings

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Book Review: Living With The Dead (Martin Livings)

Martin Livings has been producing dark short fiction for two decades, but slow to the party, I first came across his work in 2011 in Dead Red Heart* (Ticonderoga Publications, 2011). The Tide, the opening story in Dead Read Heart, lit me up. As a conceptual, multi-author narrative (it explores the idea of vampire immigration told in ten media snap shots), it was my kind of story. So when my path finally crossed with Martin’s last year on Facebook, I was all kinds of stupid-excited at meeting him virtually (raving about how much I liked The Tide). The stupid-excitedness peaked when I got to meet Martin, and his lovely wife Isabelle, at GenreCon last year and had the thrill of attending the launch of Living With the Dead.

LIVING WITH THE DEAD: A DARKER SHADE OF DARK

There is no denying the intensity of the darkness that Martin offers up in Living With The Dead (Dark Prints Press, 2012). The collections is a true horror degustation. In fact as I was reading it my son asked me to define ‘what horror is’ and after stumbling for an age-appropriate definition, I ended up saying: ‘horror is something that makes you feel uncomfortable when you read it’ to which he replied: ‘why would you want to read something that makes you feel uncomfortable’. Believe me, I asked myself the same thing many times as I traversed the 350 odd pages of Living With the Dead.

Martin plumbs the depths of the human psyche in an unflinching and at times, downright disturbing manner. He has an economy of language, a subtle turn of phrase, an uncompromising empathy—even with the most horrific of characters, and at times, an uncanny sense of humour that makes the stories in Living With the Dead, compelling in their complexity and keeps you with them, even when the uncomfortableness threatens to consume you.

With the exception of Hunters and Crawlin’ the splatter is kept to a minimum and it is the predicament or the consequences the characters face that elicits the true unsettling within the reader. Martin entices the reader into a mental crawl space and quickly leaves them there with the option of pushing on through to find out how it ends or to retreat to a happy place and be left forever wondering. But nothing wonderful, nothing important, nothing enlightening was ever gained by taking the easy path.

Craig Bezant has done a stellar job of curating the stories into a mix that balances the truly macabre with the only slightly unsettling (there’s no free rides on any of these stories), that traverse the breadth of Martin’s career. Included are three brand new stories for the anthology, including Birthday Suit dedicated to Paul Haines.

As an editor, I have said that a second and subsequent reading of a story is not an indication of a story or an author’s failure. In fact it’s often an indication of a truly amazing story, rich in layers and nuances, best experienced and appreciated over multiple sittings. And Martin has served up a number of these (several I’ll talk about separately further on).

The Afterwords are a treat. I’m always keen to know the story behind the story, even if it is just Martin apologising for writing another story where the main character dies, badly.

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The cover art by Vincent Chong is gorgeous (as is the internal design with the skeletons and skulls—made for great photos for my 365 short story a day collection) and the inside cover is a treat. My favourite section is the hand-drawn front cover schematic. Turns out I’m not the only one drawing dodgy covers for interpretation by far more talented folk than myself.

If I had one criticism (and it’s small) it’s in regards to some errant spacing throughout the text: the size of the indentation of the paragraphs bothered me and my typesetter’s eyes drew me out of the story and into  the double spacing after some of the full stop where they occurred. (The typesetter in me will now sit down and shut up so the reader may revel.)

THE CONCEPTUAL

Hooked is one of the stories on the must re-read list. It is a warped and gritty reinterpretation of the Peter Pan/Captain Hook narrative. The characters are brilliantly portrayed in the seedy underbelly of the city as drug pushers, crack addicts, ambitious businessmen, flashy thugs and faded whores. While a complete departure to anything J.M. Barrie ever intended (and despite the fact Hooked is a short story compared to a novel) Martin is faultless in his faithfulness to Barrie’s original characterisation. It is a narrative tour de force hinted at from the very outset of the title.

Pete made a noise like a cat bringing up a hairball. He looked around wild-eyed, tried to get the attention of John and Mikey, his trusted men. But his trusted men were caught in their own prisons, high as kites on Belle’s dust. From somewhere behind the couch, his girl began to snore. He was alone.

Hooked also has one of the best concluding sentences I’ve read. It’s worth reading just for that single line of dialogue.

THE DOWNRIGHT DISTURBING

There is plenty to choose from in Living With The Dead, but the story that sticks with me as the most disturbing is Piggies (though Catharsis comes in a very close second and In Nomine Patris). There’s no denying the impact of a story when it changes your world-view (I’ll never look quite the same way at my feet again).

Martin might very well scoff (and my mate Benjamin Solah might applaud) but for me Piggies is a perfect encapsulation of the arrogant, cannibalistic nature of capitalistic society—“This little piggie went to market…”—a short and powerful portrait of the depravation of the rich.

He looks down at his feet, and feels a pang of regret.

Piggies is a grotesque analogy of rampant and unsustainable consumption, just as much as it is a hideous expose of just how far one person will go for gratification.

It really deserved a cello solo playing in the background, IT Crowd style.

Piggies joins the ranks of Gary Kemble’s Famine and Feast as a story not to be read at breakfast time.

NAVEL GAZING

Into The Valley, a dark treatise of modern life, quickly gets under your skin like a case of literary scabies. For me it was the real crawl space story, where I found myself wanting to back out because it was too hard to keep reading. It was too identifiable and in that way, far too painful, all the way to the end, and even now when I think about it. It is another that deserves a second and third read, but I haven’t yet been able to steel myself to do it.

Each of the boxes has a word carved into its lid.

LOVE

HATE

LIFE

DEATH…

… Nowhere opens the first box. Inside is what appears to be a human heart, the size of a clenched fist. He can smell that it is rotting and long dead. Then he notices that it is moving slightly, throbbing, as if it still has a pulse. He reaches out a finger and strokes along the length of the muscle.

It splits open revealing a writhing mass of maggots…

 Martin notes in the Afterword that he wrote a follow-up Out of the Valley after he met Isabelle in 2002. The two stories combined appear in Ticonderoga’s Scary Kisses. I look forward to seeing how the two go together.

SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE

The stories I really dig are the ones with A Message (trademarked or otherwise). While Living With the Dead (the story that lends its title to the collection) loses some of its impact two decades out from the HIV hysteria, the social cleansing underpinning the story (a right wing Government forcibly removing HIV+ citizens to a unnamed out back location, simply called ‘The Hive’) remains chillingly relevant in the face of the rise of right wing, conservative politics and the ever present pitting of ‘us against them’ which is the staple diet of shock jocks and a mainstream media too ambivalent to bother with decent journalism.

Living with the Dead could just as easily have any number of groups today outcast, permanently, instead of those infected with HIV. Those considered to be be politically, religiously or socially dissident to ‘the norm’ or expediently disposable to any political course.

I guess Harris had fulfilled his election promise. AIDS no longer existed in Australia. All he had to do was wait for us to die out. Which wouldn’t be that long. Just a generation, and the plague of the eighties and nineties would be a thing of the past. As would we.

Living With the Dead has real heart and for this reason the ending comes as a real double-edged suckerpunch to the gut; you want to see Dominic, a boy born and earmarked to die within The Hive, make the train. Find his freedom. While I’m one who loves to demonise the medical profession, the narrator is absolutely one I can champion as epitomising the Hippocratic Oath; to the end. An individual willing to stand up for what is right and hold sacrosanct the dignity of humanity.

OTHER HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Down Town and Running both deserve quick mentions as the other two of my favourite stories.

Down Town is reminiscent of the late 80’s movie Dark City in its increasingly neurotic narrative that goes forward but in reality, just in circles, under cut by a Chandler-esque economy and evocation of language and characterisation and a Twelve Monkeys unsettling of what is reality and what is fantasy. It’s a story that warrants multiple readings and stretches of mental unravelling.

The premise underpinning Running is sublime and so very, very clever. Martin paints the perfect location and then keeps the reader guessing, right to the end, as to the nature of the beast bearing down on the small town of Flic en Flac, in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina. This is extreme sport at the absolute edge. As a wanna-be runner I’ll be content with the boring blocks of suburbia.

Living With the Dead gets four and a half sautéed piggies

 

*Martin and I also shared the idea of Schoolies on the Gold Coast as the perfect hunting ground for Australian vampires in Martin’s The Rider and my Kissed By The Sun.