A fun thing about joining the booktube/youtube community is that there are a lot of challenges that prompt you to talk about books in a different way from straightforward reviews. Recently I was “tagged” to make a video where I pick five short story collections I haven’t read before. I then read the first story of each and decided whether I wanted to continue reading them or not. Here’s the video I came up with: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY4iaLp-c5Y

If you want to take this challenge yourself please do and let me know the results. I’m a big fan of short stories so let me know if you’ve read any good recent collections or anthologies.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I had almost finished reading César Aira's short novel on my way home from a book launch last night when I stopped at a Chinese takeaway to get my dinner. After placing my order, I sat down to continue reading when an eight year old boy came up to me and asked if I knew I had entered a force field which transported me to another time. I replied I didn't know that and asked what time I was now in. He said we are now in 2008 which is the year he was born. He looked up thoughtfully and reasoned that this meant he wasn't really here yet. Such an unexpected plunge into the realm of fantasy is entirely in sync with this surreal and surprising novel.

The main story involves a car chase. Seamstress Delia Siffoni's son has gone missing. Believing he might be in the back of a neighbour's large truck that has embarked on a long haul drive, she pursues him. Her gambler husband Ramón pursues Delia and in pursuit of Ramón is a mysterious little blue car. Following all of them is a gust of wind named Ventarrón which carries a wedding dress. There's also a sinister monstrous baby let loose on the world after a horrific incident. This might all sound bizarre enough, but it gets a lot stranger. There's an Alice in Wonderland-type journey through the convoluted labyrinth of a truck. One character's skin colour changes. A meteorological phenomenon falls in love. At all times, you are aware that this novel is a construct as it is a story being composed by a writer sitting in a Parisian cafe. In doing so, Aira creates a bewitching tale at the same time as meditating on the meaning of invention, memory and art.

The writer is upfront at the novel's beginning that all he has for this book is a title. How he goes about constructing a story to fill that title is something he pauses to consider in depth. Most would consider that novels are formed out of a blend of a writer's experience and imagination. What else could it be? But Aira is intent on utilizing the state of forgetfulness for his creativity rather than inventing a story: “In loss everything comes together.” He's mistrustful of imagination because he feels it will always draw upon memory which is unreliable. Rather than tie his creation to the past he wants it to exist freely: “Forgetting is like a great alchemy free of secrets, limpid, transforming everything into the present. In the end it makes our lives into this visible and tangible thing we hold in our hands, with no folds left hidden in the past. I seek it, to oblivion, in the insanity of art.” So the novel is a sort of freeform exercise based in what he doesn't recall and the result is a bizarre episodic series of events and descriptions which follow a dream-like logic.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

I'm not sure I believe it's possible for Aira or “the writer” to create a story untied to the past. You certainly can't fit the strange images and twists of the story into any neat interpretation, but that doesn't mean they aren't based in part on his lived experience or emotional experience. He tries to hold his characters such as Delia in the present as she is spontaneously created: “Delia is not the luminous miniature in the reels of any movie projector. I said she was a real woman, and I submit myself to my words, to some of them at least... to the words before they make sentences, when they are still purely present.” But details arise, such as how the local housewives who don't work look sneeringly down upon Delia for maintaining a profession as a seamstress even though her husband works. This economic imbalance and sexist social injustice feels like it was inspired by the writer's experience either directly or indirectly. Similarly, there is a touching way how the writer describes his boyhood when the trucker Chiquito created snowmen for him to enjoy. The sentiment of this friendly, playful gesture feels real as well. I'm not saying these things happened to Aira and I never try to interpret a writer’s life into my reading, but how can there be any emotional resonance if it didn’t come from a person with experience? It feels to me like there is an emotional truth, rather than historical truth, which comes through whether the writer is conscious of it or not.

César Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian novelist with around eighty novels and novellas to his name. That his output is so rapid isn’t surprising when you read this novel – not because it lacks craft or refinement, but there is a rapid fire quality to the prose where ideas and images are boiling over to form an outrageous plot. His writing has been compared to Borges and it came across like reading an Italo Calvino novel to me or watching a David Lynch film. It’s clearly not cosy fiction, but it’s sophisticated and energetic writing which will leave you scratching your head with curious wonder. I have a feeling certain powerful eerie scenes will stick with me more than his theories on narrative. Most of all, I admire the sheer uncompromising audacity and verve of this novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCésar Aira

Dodo Ink is an exciting new independent press that’s publishing daring fiction which doesn’t fit into the catalogues of more mainstream publishers. I was delighted to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign last year because I know the people behind it are committed and serious readers who want to bring out vibrant and challenging new literature. So I’m thrilled to read their first publication “Dodge and Burn” by Seraphina Madsen which is simultaneously a fable about two sisters Eugenie and Camille who live under the control of a sadistic stepfather doctor, a mystery about a lost heiress, a psychedelic road trip about two lovers on the run from gangsters/the law and a mystical meditation on space/time/being. It’s energetic, feverish writing takes you on a spectacularly wild journey.

The novel begins with Eugenie’s bizarre account about her mother’s death when a group of bees fiercely attack her. She and her sister are subsequently taken to her mother’s grand house in Maine where their sadistic guardian Dr Vargas subjects them to torturous experiments including fixing electric collars around their necks and making them kill and eat their pet rabbits. Tantalizingly the house contains a number of libraries whose books the sisters eagerly devour but there is one library which is forbidden to them. The sisters are made to stay in different rooms, but read to each other through a ventilation shaft. They engage each other with literature as varied as William S Burroughs, Henry James and Nabokov as well as a number of mystical and scientific writings. They formulate systems of drawing upon ritualistic behaviour to gather spiritual strength and plot to escape from their deranged guardian/captor.

When the sisters become unexpectedly separated, Eugenie spends her life trying to locate Camille and embarks on a path towards a kind of enlightenment or unveiling of the hidden deities which secretly control our reality. She’s an almost supernaturally strong individual who seems impervious to poisoning or overdosing from the phenomenal amount of drugs she consumes. She’s highly intelligent, well-read, an expert poker player and gymnast. Her partner in crime is Benoît, a man she marries and nicknames Venus Acid Boy (after he hilariously mishears the Bjork song Venus as a Boy). They gamble in Vegas and win so dramatically that casino thugs set upon them. Their adventure takes them across the country having encounters with candy ravers who subsist off from a diet of Pez and neighbours who grow a substantial amount of marijuana. Eugenie’s intense drug-fuelled and sexual experiences take her to other planes of consciousness which might or might not be real: “For all I knew I was my own hallucination.” All the while she’s intent on reuniting with her lost sister.

Cave of Altamira

Cave of Altamira

There is another layer to the story where Eugenie herself is missing and her estranged father who is an Antarctic explorer has offered a substantial reward for her recovery. Her notebooks are discovered in an ancient cavern in Spain. Here are Paleolithic cave paintings which inspired the surreal artist Miró. The quest to discover what happened to both her and her sister Camille are layered into this larger frame. It creates a fascinating array of stories which feed into each other and straddle different periods of time and various locations. This style reminded me somewhat of Lina Wolff’s wildly creative novel “Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs” published earlier this year. Similarly, in “Dodge and Burn” episodic adventures are related with great fervour. An intensity of experience and thought dominates over traditional narrative flow. This left me dazzled and awe-struck, but at the same time I wished for the story to slow down at some points to linger and expand parts such as the bizarre perversity of Dr Vargas’ child-rearing methods and the sisters’ joint strategies for surviving them.

Seraphina Madsen is a highly intriguing new author whose writing encompasses both outrageously fantastic and movingly realistic modes of narrative. Eugenie’s intensity of experience is vividly rendered as is her emotional quest to reunite with her lost sister. It’s made all the more meaningful if you read Madsen’s process behind writing this book and her personal experiences here. This novel gives a highly amplified version of the painful injustices of childhood and our quest for deeper meaning in life. It’s a bold and imaginative debut from this new author and promising new press.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It's easy to scoff at literary fiction which experiments with form given our existing canon of literature which is already packed full of wildly eccentric novels. Everyone from Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett to Gertrude Stein to William S Burroughs to Eimear McBride has twisted not only conventional grammar but the shape of the story on the page to say something new about the experience of life and art. So a novel that is one long continuous sentence which lasts more than two hundred pages may seem like it's being wilfully unconventional, but really the style of Mick McCormack's “Solar Bones” perfectly suits the flow of thought for its meditative and entertaining narrator Marcus Conway.

Marcus is an ordinary Irish man who worked as an engineer in County Mayo with his wife and raised two children. Moving through his house he hears the chiming of a bell and this sound resonates throughout the whole novel as it captures a moment and highlights the way our lives are paced out in marked time alongside the flow of life around us. The novel has a poetic brilliance which shines through the very readable prose as Marcus sifts through the experiences of his life. He recounts the trials of his family life, the recent financial crisis in Ireland, local politics and a virulent strain of flu which made his wife very ill.

The effect of reading this extended sentence which is uninterrupted by any full stops made me feel like if I stopped reading I'd miss out on some crucial bit of information which was about to come next. So I was mesmerized and intrigued, but also frustrated because I naturally long for a conclusion or break point. Marcus himself gets frustrated when he wishes at points to halt the stream of his musing: “stop mother of Jesus stop this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish if given its head”. Really that's partly the point; there are no neat conclusions in our experience - just a continuous flow of thought running through our heads melding the past with imagination, an internal conversation with oneself and those we’ve known in the past. It makes you aware of the way you are a constant subjective witness to both your life and the world around you. You are both the absolute authority of this experience and someone utterly bewildered by it all.

McCormack is extraordinary at capturing the personal reaction we feel witnessing societal shifts which we feel powerless to stop. It felt particularly poignant to me with the recent referendum and the vote for the UK to leave the EU. At one point Marcus and other citizens of his town witness a large ship passing and he thinks “something in me recognizing this as a clear instance of the world forfeiting one of its better ideas, as if something for which there was once justified hope had proved to be a failure and the world had given up on some precious dream of itself, one of its better destinies”. The consequences of these changes and lost ideals reverberate through our personal and collective history. It makes us question the solidity of a society we need to believe in to go about daily life, but which we know in reality is just a collective agreement and, ultimately, an illusion.

He records this feeling when Marcus considers how in 2008 the profitable boom in the Irish economy turned to a nationwide recession. He reflects how “the whole thing ridiculously improbable, so unlikely in scale and consequence it's as if something that never was has finally collapsed or revealed itself to be constructed of air before eventually falling to ruin in that specific way which proved it never existed”. The ways in which we can personally react to these shifts in society are represented in the lives of Marcus' children. His daughter Agnes is an artist whose confrontational work thrusts her into becoming a local icon for a discontented generation. His son Darragh emigrated to Australia. The focus of his interests shifts from subject to subject so he's not able to focus in any substantial way. He becomes consumed with playing the video game Civilization which is a game I've also spent countless hours playing. The player in it leads the development of a civilization while also interacting and trying to dominate the rival nations which are simultaneously growing around you. It works poignantly in this novel as a way of showing how we seek to control the changing society around us, but in reality we are in many ways powerless.

Mike McCormack reads from Solar Bones at Kennys Bookshop

It's impressive the way this novel reflects how daily life can be so caught up in particular moments as global news is filtered through our brains. Marcus comments on how “dawn to dark six or seven news bulletins needing my attention all spaced out at regular intervals, the day structured like the monastic rule of some vigilant order synched to the world's rhythms and all its upheavals” so that his mind is constantly bombarded with outside information that slightly shifts or confirms his own points of view. It makes him feel both at the centre of a nexus of global change and like a helpless pawn being moved by larger forces.

This is a novel which many might feel hesitant about approaching because of its unusual style, but I bet if you start reading you’ll be hypnotised by its engaging and fascinating voice. Marcus’ gripes and wry perspective are very relatable plus the flow of language is a thing of fine-crafted beauty. Mike McCormack captures the movements of everyday life whether we feel engaged with the world or deeply resigned about it: “rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible”. It's an electrifying experience being swept so fully into one man's uninterrupted meditation on life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMike McCormack
2 CommentsPost a comment

I’ve never participated in a reading week with other book bloggers before although I’ve been very tempted. So I was delighted when Jacqui who writes so wonderfully about books at her blog JacquiWine’s Journal invited me to co-host a week of reading centred around Jean Rhys. I read much of Rhys’ writing when I was at university, but I’ve not read much since then and, to be honest, her early novels somewhat blur all together in my mind. I’ve been wanting to go back to read through them all again and this week will be the perfect excuse.

If you’ve ever wanted to read or reread Jean Rhys then pick out some books you’d like to read and discuss with us during the week starting September 12th. Jacqui and I will be posting about Rhys' books and fielding discussions on our blogs, twitter, goodreads, etc. We’d love to know your thoughts about Rhys’ writing, life and the significant contribution she made to literature.

Jean Rhys was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica and first came to prominence publishing books amidst the Parisian literary groups in Paris during the 1920s-30s. She then dropped off the map for over 35 years before emerging again with her masterwork “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is a prequel to “Jane Eyre.” She also published many short stories and an unfinished autobiography. She’s certainly a distinctive author with a unique writing style. There’s much to discuss and explore so we hope you’ll join us.

Do any of the above books tempt you? What have you read by Rhys and what are you interested in reading/rereading? We're planning lots of exciting and special things for this week in September. If you’d like to make any more substantial contribution do get in touch with me or Jacqui while we continue to plan for the reading week!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment

The reading wrap up video I made at the end of last month felt way too long so I’m breaking it up this month. Here is the first part of July’s videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hk8YN6dcEpQ I’ve really been reading some excellent fiction lately and rate all six books I’ve read so far this month very highly. What do you think of these wrap up videos? Should I continue doing them or try a different style? Is there anything else you’d like to see me making videos about or talking about in these videos? And what good things have you been reading?

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment

In a case like the 1969 Manson Family murders a lot of focus has been centred on leader Charles Manson, his background and his bizarre ideas. Less emphasis has been given to what would motivate young women to follow such a fanatic and commit such horrendous acts of violence. In Emma Cline's debut novel “The Girls” she creates a situation which highly resembles the Manson cult and crime, but gives voice to fourteen year old girl Evie Boyd who is drawn into becoming a part of this group. Moving back and forth between the summer of 69 and a point many years later when the crime has become notorious, Cline gives Evie's account of the inner workings of this Californian quasi-commune and why she becomes involved with them. With great insight and sensitivity she writes about female adolescent development to create a hypnotic and powerful tale.

Evie comes from an upper-middle class background and lives with her single mother Jean. Her long-time friend Connie has shrugged her off in the way that friends sometimes do around this age when our development causes us to grow apart from those we were at one time intensely close to. Jean is more concerned with her own love life and building her own self confidence than caring for her daughter. So Evie is somewhat isolated struggling to understand who she is and what this new body is that she's growing into. Like many adolescents, she learns from magazine and the media that she should work to make herself attractive: “the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” At that time, boys weren't held to the same standards and so don't feel the same level of self consciousness. She remarks “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love.” There's a sense that if only they can find someone to recognize and value them then they will have worth in the world. It leads Evie to long for a role model to look up to and she finds it when she sees a confident black-haired girl named Suzanne.

Cline describes very well that feeling we have as teenagers where we become so enamoured by someone we want to do whatever we can to be close to and be seen by them. She inveigles her way into Suzanne's circle of friends and the ranch commune she lives at centred around the charismatic Russell. But, for Evie, Suzanne is always her focus. She's powerfully drawn to how Suzanne and her friends “were sure of what they were together”. Evie believes that there must be a point when your identity becomes a solid knowable thing “As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed.” Of course, in reality our identities are constantly shifting as we continue to grow and change throughout our lives, but a vulnerable girl like Evie has no way of knowing this without guidance.

There's a section I love where Cline also gets at that teenage feeling of wanting to be numbed. She references “Valley of the Dolls” and that desire for drugged stasis and Evie's wish for “my body kept alive by peaceful, reliable machines, my brain resting in watery space, as untroubled as a goldfish in a glass bowl.” Rather than face the difficult task of understanding who she is and what she wants as she grows into her adulthood she'd rather be unconscious and wake up at some later stage fully formed. It's a powerful notion and gives one perspective on why teenagers in particular are perhaps so drawn to the blissful effects of drugs and alcohol.

Camp Fire Girls

Camp Fire Girls

Cline also has a powerful way of describing the psychological impact of sex at this age. Evie has a number of sexual encounters which show her natural curiosity, the draw of pleasure and a desire for closeness more than a wish for the physical act itself. Her wish to be near Suzanne produces complex feelings. Men such as Russell have a persuasive way of psychologically manipulating young women into participating in acts they aren't ready for when they aren't outright forcing them to have sex with them. After the fact, Evie expects there to be a shift in the world to match the shift in her own post-sexual mindset: “I wanted the world to reorder itself visibly around the change, like a mend marking a tear.” This strongly describes the way we want the world to substantiate the confusion and internal changes that occur after such a significant life experience.

Although this novel is centred around a violent incident and flashes of this horrendous crime are shown, “The Girls” is more about the incremental stages of adolescent development. Emma Cline's writing reminds me somewhat of Joyce Carol Oates for the way she captures this experience so well while also creating vividly rendered characters, scenes and metaphors. There is a relatable intensity to Evie's psychology as she is not innocent, but stumbles towards finding what she wants in life and can be persuaded into discarding any sense of morality in favour of being accepted by people she idolizes. This is an intense, insightful and engaging novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Cline
2 CommentsPost a comment

Anyone who lives within or has visited a major city will have an opinion about its character. Each individual point of view will present a different picture no more or less true than the next. London, with its population nearing nine million, has more perspectives than most cities. Yet it's rare that we see the landscape that real Londoners inhabit in the films we watch or the novels we read. I’ve lived in this city for over 16 years and seldom have I seen or read stories set in the capital which feel like my recognizable home. Even when my local tube station of Oval appeared in the entertaining film Attack the Block the characters instantly turned down a street to arrive at a council estate that doesn’t exist. A rare instance of recognition I had was reading the recent novel “I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo featuring the street Chapel Market in Islington (which I know very well.) In this case, I felt pleasurably disorientated like I was able to see it from a wholly new perspective. How to further represent the city of London in fiction to make it recognizable to its hugely diverse range of inhabitants while also making it powerfully individual?

The new anthology of short stories “An Unreliable Guide to London” from Influx Press isn't a corrective for how we view the city in fiction so much as a broadening out to encompass a wide range of points of view showing you the city as you've never read about it before. In these stories you'll feel the uniquely strong gust of wind which ushers you out of a South London tube station, smell the toast sold by a trendy charitable cafe, see bizarre reflections on canal waters, hear the shouts of protest at the closure of a historic landmark and taste the complex flavours in a lunch box from a local Thai stall. You can then travel around London in reality having these sensory experiences for yourself. Or maybe it’ll be different for you because as editors Budden and Caless note in their introduction “London is an unreliable city, always changing” from the endless constructions and flow of people moving in and out of the city. So this book acts as a kind of historical document while also telling evocative and entertaining stories. More than anything it encompasses a variety of diverse personal takes on this fascinating and ever-evolving city. 

The book is divided into geographical sections of London with stories usually focused around a particular borough. The stories vary widely in their style, subject and tone. There are starkly realistic accounts such as an ex-drug user/seller encountering a suspicious rucksack in Courttia Newland’s 'The Secret Life of Little Wormwood Scrubs' and a homeless boy who is given shelter by a black American mechanic in Stephen Thompson’s 'The Arches'. Then there are wildly fantastic tales such as 'Soft on the Inside' by Noo Saro-Wiwa where dead animals that have been immortalized with stuffing by a villainous taxidermist in Islington are given a short lease to live again and take their revenge. Or there is the ambitious, fascinating and outrageously inventive story ‘Filamo’ by Irenosen Okojie where an abbey of monks battle and break through the fabric of time to emerge disorientated in a humdrum shopping centre. Some stories employ aspects of genre like Sunny Singh’s 'In the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens' which is in part a political thriller about a tentative romance centred around a secret service agent. Salena Godden’s atmospheric fantasy 'The Camden Blood Thieves' recounts a female musician’s encounters with vampiric gentlemen who try to seduce her into nefarious corners of London’s night life.

The stories have a variety of techniques for bringing the physical space of London to life. Some focus on a very specific locale and raise questions about who really owns these particular spaces. In Gary Budden’s 'Staples Corner (and how we can know it)' the second person account notes “You are trapped in the fevered dying dream of a brutalist architect.” This meaningfully evokes notions of how the imagining and planning of buildings by proceeding generations have shaped the physical spaces we inhabit for better or worse. Tim Wells’ ‘Heavy Manners’ recounts the lost culture and manners of record shop patrons. Nikesh Shukla’s sharply observed ‘Tayyabs’ is an ode to a famous Pakistani restaurant where a narrator records the ridiculous statements and cross-cultural confusion between the diverse patrons who all enjoy their mouth watering lamb chops. 'Mother Black Cap's Revenge' by George F recounts how the notorious Camden club was closed by developers. Groups of queer punks fought to save its vital history from being lost and want to maintain its use as a unique mixing point for social progression and artistic expression. These stories raise vital concerns about the conflicting claims which can be made on the same physical space by different people and how these clashes can lead to intellectual, verbal and sometimes physical battles.

London boroughs

London boroughs

The challenge of who claims intellectual ownership of a space is shown on a personal level in a conflict between friends in Koye Oyedeji’s deeply thoughtful story ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Here the narrator is a journalist who returns to the Walworth area and meets his boyhood friend who is a rising star named Emcee. His friend’s fabrication of their area’s urban danger betrays the reality of their upbringing. It makes a commodity out of cultural stereotypes the general public want to see reflected back at them rather than representing the reality of their experience. The narrator laments “the way history can be stolen from under your feet as well as the way it has been plastered over in Walworth.” It’s a poignant portrayal of the different ways we lose where we came from.

In some stories the intense focus on a particular location entices the reader to wonder more about the peculiar and mysterious narrator. Paul Ewan’s story 'Rose's, Woolwich' examines an old-timers pub in the middle of a bustling business area, the regulars who sit stationary within it all day and how their behaviour mimics the pub’s pet lizard. But any specific knowledge about the peculiar teller of this tale who is prone to erratic behaviour remains elusive. Equally, the mesmerising 'In Pursuit of the Swan at Brentford Ait' by Eley Williams recounts in meticulous detail all accounts of a legendary bird in this particular body of water – an obsession which has driven its studious narrator to lose everything: “In many ways, it was lucky that I lost my job so that I could devote all my time to my research, and luckier still that I was able to commit a whole extra room to my studies and to the paperwork once my wife left me.”

Some authors take a more forensic approach to examining their locales. ‘Babies from Sand’ by M John Harrison examines the paintings in a gallery and how these works of art reflect upon the city while the city reflects back at them. Truth is found in the details and the detritus. 'N1, Centre of Illusion' by Chloe Aridjis looks at the nocturnal side of a particular part of the city and how its shadows make a very different kind of impression from its sturctures. Gareth E. Rees’ ‘There is Something Very Wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park’ is a dynamic look at the way a city’s physical space exists both in reality and in the imagination. The narrator sees “A sketch of a place waiting to happen, tainted with the melancholy that it might not” and recognizes how our images of how we want reality to be often bear little resemblance to the truth of our surroundings.

There are (of course) extreme economic and social disparities between people in London. This is poignantly reflected and dramatized in many stories. In 'Corridors of Power' by Juliet Jacques a group of struggling artists who live in a warehouse crash a private members’ club party and become privy to alarming discussions about benefit cuts. Tim Burrows’ moving story ‘Broadgate’ relates a successful banker’s encounter with a desperate cleaner. It reflects how compressed urban spaces can create a perilous lack of empathy and a sense of isolation where there should be expressions of humanity.  On the more positive side, ‘Warm and Toasty’ by Yvvette Edwards shows how instances of meaningful exchange across economic divides can inspire heartfelt connections and that appearances can be deceiving.

One of the funniest stories is Will Wiles’ creatively disarming alternative history 'Notes on London's Housing Crisis'. In this vision of London traditional houses are abandoned for mass-produced housing and megastructures that can be slotted into different parts of the city on a whim. However, some people inevitably abandon the social cause for this free flow of movement to lay claim to particular areas. This means that people may have to revert to the abandoned and devalued traditional housing. The narrator hilariously begrudges the fact he’ll have to pay £675 for a three-bedroom terraced house in Notting Hill when in reality such a property would cost millions.

When I reached the end of this anthology, it was a personal pleasure to read Kit Caless’ story ‘Market Forces’ which centres around the lunchtime food stalls at Exmouth Market – a street that happens to be right around the corner from where I work. Not only have I seen all the market stalls he mentions, but I’ve eaten lunch from all of them. So I could both imagine the rich sensory experience of eating these dishes through his evocative writing, but I could remember tasting them myself. He creates fascinating micro-stories centred around five different characters who purchase lunch boxes from various stalls. These characters and the food they eat are from a wide range of backgrounds making a fitting statement about the confluence of cultures which is at the heart of London life. 

Something that is so refreshing and exciting about this group of stories is the true diversity of people included. They feature characters named Khalil, Manja, Graham, Malik, Fire, Rupie, Wasim, Tawaiah, Daniela, Olu, Dom Filamo and Tuma. Some stories go into their ethnical and racial backgrounds. Others simply let them stand as individuals who habit the names they’ve been given or that they’ve given themselves. There are people with backgrounds in Algeria, Mauritius, Pakistan, Nigeria, Slovenia, America, Columbia and many other countries. Reading these stories isn’t an exercise in cultural tourism; it’s a true reflection of what it’s like walking down many streets in London. As Aki Schilz powerfully states in the book’s opening story “The town broadcasts its stories at a precise frequency; you just have to learn to tune in.” The stories in this collection will make you see the London and the people you pass on its streets in a new way.

I enjoy reading anthologies of different writers because it’s like getting a sampler of authors whose stand-alone books you might want to read. I’m certainly interested in reading more writing from many of the authors included in this compelling collection. Some have published several books and others are up-and-coming writers. An added bonus is included in the author bios at the end of the book where each writer names some of their favourite London-based novels as well as noting their favourite physical locations in London. You'll get a very different look at London from novel to novel when reading authors as diverse as J.G. Ballard, China Miéville, Hanif Kureishi, Virginia Woolf, Bernardine Evaristo, Alan Hollinghurst, Charles Dickens, Stella Duffy, George Gissing, Alan Moore, Monica Ali, Elizabeth Bowen, Zadie Smith, Howard Jacobson, Angela Carter, Iain Banks, Xiaolu Guo or Peter Ackroyd. Of course, no one can definitely capture London but all of them add to a fuller more pluralized vision of the city. “An Unreliable Guide to London” is a timely and significant contribution to the rich tradition of London literature. It’s a particular pleasure reading it on a London bus when you have no set destination.