Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

My favourite books of the autumn – A selection of mini-reviews. Part 1

I haven’t been around Vulpes Libris as much as I’d have liked over the past few months, but in the time I’ve been away I have read a stack of books. So today I’m trying something different. Rather than offering a detailed, longer-length review of a single book, I have a selection of mini-reviews, which cover Part 1 of my favourite books of the autumn.

I’ve been around the fictional world and back again and have come up against bizarre new universes, the grit of London gangsters and a short story collection from a university press that has knocked my socks off. To begin with though I’d like to talk about the quietly powerful Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines.


Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines.

Illness, that’s what the family decided had happened to me. There were quiet managing phone calls, terminated quickly when I walked into the room. Female relations came to stay and cleaned out the cupboards and wiped the grease off the front of them.

The phone rang and Richard’s mother went to answer it. ‘Funny’, she said, putting it down again, ‘must have been a wrong number.’

I stood with my back to her and stared at the garden which was hovering between the frozen and the sodden.

Too Many Magpies is a dreamlike novel come prose-poem with a haunting beauty. I read most of this book in one sitting as I could not drag myself away from its eerie storytelling. The novel lays out in stark detail the ups and downs of infidelity. At times it reads almost like a warning: look where one silly mistake could take you.

Elizabeth Baines has a gift for creating lyrical, penetrating prose, and characters who seem all too real in their flaws, obsessions and neuroses. Her depiction of life as a mother to young sons is both unflinching and compassionate.

The world of Too Many Magpies is one that is distinctly middle-class, but this setting provides an excellent background for the drama which takes a turn for the ‘weird’ as the protagonist’s previous self-satisfaction begins to unravel. An accomplished, thoughtful novel that offers us a strange new lens with which to view the world.

Salt Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1844717217, 144 pages, £8.99.

An A-Z of Possible Worlds, by A. C. Tillyer.

A-ZIn terms of the wildly imaginative, I’m not sure anything can beat A.C. Tillyer’s An A-Z of Possible Worlds. The collection offers us golfing robots, rebellious (bum-flashing) historians, super-rich retirees and their death lottery, paranoid islanders who brick themselves behind gigantic walls, reality TV stars stranded in space, and much, much more. I have always been quietly envious of those authors who can conjure magnificent and complete new universes for their characters to inhabit. In this collection there are 26 individually bound short stories, each of them offering a glimpse into strange and fantastic worlds that echo elements of our own. Or as Charles Lambert describes An A-Z of Possible Worlds: “Each small tale is both a parable and a perfectly realized world; taken together they turn into reflecting facets of a single world, that of Tillyer’s remarkable imagination, irreducible to mere allegory, a world that contains bog-people and multi-storey car parks without embarrassment.”

The collection dwells more on place and culture than individual character, but I found that rather refreshing. The tales here range from the absurd to the sublime and one can detect a touch of genius in A.C. Tillyer’s inventive storytelling. My favourite stories tended to be those with a drily humorous edge and include: “The Inn”, a wry commentary on pub culture; “The Underground,” in which overweight suburban vampires feast on commuters; “The Holiday Resort”, a funny and disturbing critique of the Western approach to ‘exotic’ holiday destinations and finally “Zero Gravity Zone” a wonderfully witty and science fiction-esque look at the reality television phenomenon.

There is an intertextuality to the tales and several stories reference others in the collection. An A-Z of Possible Worlds is perhaps even better than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which I adored), and I couldn’t help wondering whether this book would have been more likely to scoop literary prizes if it had come bound in a handsome hardback rather than in its fun box-set form. I hope An A-Z of Possible Worlds is as successful as it deserves to be, but the steep cover price of £19.99 might well go against it.

Roast Books, ISBN-13: 978-1906894061, £19.99 (although the book can be purchased for almost half this price from various online retailers). 300 pages, hardcover.

ShortFiction3Short Fiction 3.

I was lucky enough to be at the launch of Short Fiction 3, which is a journal of stories published by the University of Plymouth Press. The collection consists of sixteen stories and these represent the best out of over six hundred entries. The speaker on the night of the launch was author Mike McCormack who read his excellent short story, “Prophet X”, an engrossing tale of friendship, technology and the return of God as a machine. Since then I have had a chance to delve through the other stories, many of which were chosen by fellow blogger and Short Fiction 3 Assistant Fiction Editor, Tom Vowler, and I have been amazed and impressed at the settings, characters and the level of authorial skill on display. I’m not sure what I expected of this collection, but what I found was one of the most enjoyable and impressive short story collections since Annie Proulx’s Close Range, which I reviewed here.

Short Fiction 3 privileges ‘voice’ first and foremost, but I also felt there was a very strong focus on place. For those of you who appreciate interesting artwork, each story is accompanied by at least one commissioned illustration. My favourite stories of the bunch were: “Little Man”, which vividly depicted the tensions between young brothers and sisters; “Emile in the Circus”, a prize-winning story about the decline of a circus and its bear, set against a background of destitution and famine; “The House of Cranes”, a haunting oriental tale of a family’s enchanted plate; “The Red Fox”, a beautiful and terrible tale of love, family and ageing; “The Tree”, about a tree’s passionate love for a child who grows up and leaves for college; “A Dinky Little Shitsville”, which sums up the frustrations and comedies of small town life and “The Affliction”, a parable of blindness, charity and human pettiness. I cannot recommend Short Fiction 3 highly enough. It is an astonishingly good collection. To order Short Fiction 3 from the University of Plymouth Press, click here.

UPP, Edited by Anthony Caleshu, ISBN 978-1-84102-234-5, £8.

The Guv’Nor by Lenny McLean and Peter Gerrard.

Last but not least is the tale of the late Lenny McLean, a bare-knuckle fighter (who was often referred to as ‘the hardest man in Britain’), self-confessed ‘lunatic’ and the actor who played ‘Barry the Baptist’ in the film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Part of me feels slightly guilty for enjoying this book so much. I know I should be appalled at some of the tales of unlicensed boxing and crime, and yet Gerrard and McLean spin a darn good yarn. This was quite possibly the most gripping book I have read this autumn. From the opening accounts of Lenny’s childhood in Hoxton woven with memories of his violent stepfather and incidents of petty mischief, right through to Lenny’s final days, I was utterly engrossed. At the end of the book I was overcome with emotion and my thoughts have often returned to the fights, trials, and triumphs of Lenny’s life.

As Lenny narrates the book, one has the sense of a man who takes pride in providing for his family, protecting his friends and working hard to establish a reputation as a person of note and a man not to be trifled with. It is clear that Lenny is an effective ‘money-getter’ but it is also clear that however much money Lenny earns through his fighting or dodgy dealings, there are always others making more off the back of his efforts. This is a slightly uncomfortable realisation for the reader and Lenny certainly never admits this, but it is there in the subtext. If Lenny has a weakness as a criminal, it is his fierce loyalty which makes him easily manipulated by those who claim to be his friends (but who profit handsomely from Lenny’s fearlessness). This is autobiography at its very best.

Lenny McLean died of lung cancer on 28th July 1998, just weeks before the release of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which Guy Ritchie subsequently dedicated to Lenny in tribute. The Guv’Nor has sold over a million copies.

John Blake Publishing Ltd, ISBN-13: 978-1857825701, 226 pages, £7.99, paperback.

Lisa is the author of Prince Rupert’s Teardrop and several other books and short stories that she really must finish one of these days.

If any of our readers would like to discuss their favourite books of the autumn, please do add your recommendations in the comments section below.

16 comments on “My favourite books of the autumn – A selection of mini-reviews. Part 1

  1. kirstyjane
    November 27, 2009

    What a fantastic set of bijou reviews, Lisa. I especially liked your review of The Guv’nor, which is a book I might not have thought to pick up myself, but it sounds as if it has a lot to offer.

    Rebellious bum flashing historians, eh. Oh dear.

  2. annebrooke
    November 27, 2009

    Fabulous – love this whole mini-review idea – very enjoyable! And some definite ones for my list too, hurrah!



  3. Lisa
    November 27, 2009

    Ooh, glad you like the minis. And thanks, Anne. I’m really getting into short stories at the moment. Some wonderful treasures to be discovered in short story collections and anthologies.

    Kirsty, when I was reading that particular story (called “The Excavation”) I could not stop thinking of you! The historian in question was involved in several minor acts of defiance against a totalitarian state. I think the bum-flashing (he regularly moonied out of his office windows) just made him feel better. 🙂 And The Guv’Nor is a cracking story. Anyhow, thanks both!

  4. Sam
    November 27, 2009

    Love the mini-reviews, Lisa.

    I still haven’t surfaced from starting the Twilight series. Am presently on Eclipse, indulging myself fully and loving it. But then i am a huge fan of popular, very commerical fiction.

  5. Elizabeth
    November 27, 2009

    Lisa, thank you so much for reviewing my book – and glad you liked it!

  6. Nik Perring
    November 27, 2009

    Ooh I loved an A-Z – fantastic!

  7. RosyB
    November 27, 2009

    Nice idea, Lisa. But if we all have to read 4 books for one post I’m going to faint! Hats off to your prodigious reading ability. What a brilliant mix, too. Am particularly curious about Short Fiction 3 now.

  8. lizzysiddal
    November 27, 2009

    You’ll have to stop this mini-review nonsense, Lisa. ‘Tis no good for my willpower. I want to read 3 out of the 4.

  9. Lisa
    November 27, 2009

    Thanks, all! Rosy, it did turn out to be quite a mission in the end…

    Elizabeth, you’re most welcome! Thanks for stopping by. Always nice to hear from authors.

    Glad to see you enjoyed the A-Z, Nik. I’m in awe of A.C. Tillyer’s imagination.

    Sam, I know you’re probably busy with Strictly Writing but if you’d ever like to review Eclipse for us, that would be fabulous! We’ve had lots of Twilight talk on VL so it would be excellent to have another piece.

    Sorry Lizzy…My book buying has spiralled out of control lately so I sympathise! 🙂

  10. Jackie
    November 27, 2009

    I liked this mini review post, too. Great idea!
    The Magpie book sounds really atmospheric from the quote, very moody. I like the cover, though the bird doesn’t really look like a magpie, tail’s too short.
    The short story collection is tempting, what variety & you say they’re all high quality. You gave us little bites of the best ones & I recall how much you liked “Close Range” (which I didn’t, *wink*), so it’s impressive that you compared the 2. I’d also like to see the artwork you mentioned. The cover at first bothered me, but it sort of unraveled the longer I stared at it & now it seems rather clever.
    Looking forward to part 2.

  11. Elizabeth
    November 28, 2009

    Jackie, what a shock you have given me re the magpie. I actually took the photo myself, and I certainly thought it was a magpie – as I think did the other magpies sitting with it in the same tree! Seriously, though, I think it’s probably the perspective: the magpie was directly over my head and I was pointing the camera straight up at it. Just shows, I guess…

  12. Moira
    November 28, 2009

    Oh, that’s a magpie all right. We’re absolutely surrounded by them, the cocky little pests. Absolutely beautiful cocky little pests, mind you … but I recognize that very characteristic pose.

    What a terrific idea for a review, Lisa – and very effective, too.

    I’m really intrigued by The Guv’nor … I’ll look out for that one …

  13. Pingback: Publisher Interview: Faye Dayan from Roast Books « Vulpes Libris

  14. Pingback: A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds (2009) « Follow the Thread

  15. Anne
    July 15, 2010

    Dear Lisa,
    Thanks so much for your review of the A-Z. I really must read Cloud Atlas now as you’re not the first person to mention it in relation to my book. It’s been on my shelf for ages but it might be a while – I picked up Anna Karenina to check something the other day and now I can’t put it down. Glad you liked the historian, though somewhat worried that his bum-flashing reminds you of someone you know…
    Best wishes
    ps I like your site very much, though can see the next few hours dissolving as I have a proper roam around it.

  16. Pingback: Beautiful Words by Nik Perring | Vulpes Libris

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