Unthology 1

Edited by Ashley Stokes and robin Jones

Unthank Books
2010, Paperback
First Anthology

"I turn and run as fast as I can. My heart is a pulse, pulse, pulse in my ears. I race through the field snatching handfuls of the long meadow grass. In the middle of the field I stop. The blood in my ears slows to a thump. I pick the seeds from a stalk of grass and lay them on my flattened palm"

Reviewed by Mira Mattar

Unthology 1 is the first collection of short stories from small press Unthank Books who profess to be purveyors of unconventional and unpredictable fiction. The criteria for the collection was loose – no word limits, no themes, just high quality, original writing. The introduction expands on Unthank Books' mission statement focussing particularly on the state of the short story today: while noting the sheer amount of short and flash fiction being published it simultaneously and bravely admonishes the dearth of quality, dismissing much published short fiction as mere "overdressed anecdotes or marginally evolved pub jokes". Editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones make an astute and daring claim and stand up to it well; they have compiled an admirable and exciting collection of stories from up-and-coming as well as more established writers.

Having said this however, the collection immediately undermines itself by starting with an extract instead of a short story, which somehow dwarfs the passionate and relevant introduction. Nonetheless, while Viccy Adams' extract from Doing it by the Book takes a while to get going, it transpires into a disorienting and surreal piece on the loss or rather the theft of a man's identity. Similarly Sarah Dobbs' extract from The Lemonade Girl seems a bit out of place, yet is an excellently observed short piece focussing on a man's obsession with a missing ex-girlfriend. 

Mischa Hiller's The Burning also operates within a familiar domestic sphere but does not for a moment lose tension. It details the dissatisfactions, irritations and small betrayals endured by a couple, yet opens up to unexpected, tender moments of relief. Hiller, whose novel Sabra Zoo was recently published to much acclaim, is certainly one to watch. As is Lora Stimson, whose Post Day perfectly captures the angst of being young and the lonliness of family life. Complex relationships are simply mapped in this atmospheric, sensual and quiet story detailing the observations of a young girl and the significance and ambiguity of the smallest things. Its tone is unflinching, intense and free of any "adult" justifications.

Another stand-out piece is Sherilyn Connelly's The Last Dog and Pony Show. Written from the point of view of a transsexual at a very niche sexual role-playing event where participants identify with and dress up as animals – or "furries'"– Connelly impressively handles what could otherwise be open to mockery. In these unlikely and un-real circumstances the characters find ways to interact and express their emotions in ways they cannot in "real" life. The dynamics and possibilities of sexual role-play are examined and communicated excellently – real tenderness emerges in this unusual, funny and daring story.

Also of note is Sandra Jensen's impressive Write or Die which showcases a writer's narrative control in a dark, well-paced and original piece – a prisoner's confession of a murder written entirely in dialect. Furthermore Michael Baker's sustains the voice of his psychotic narrator in Bleach to great effect. The story is wicked, brutal and hilarious – impressive, from such a young writer. Jenni Fagan, who won 3:AM Magazine's Poetry Book of the Year in 2010, also masters the darkly comic in Impilo – a visceral and horrific story of a man losing his leg, imbued with absurd humour, and an elegant control of the surreal.

Finally, James Carter's Herringbone is an interesting and clever short piece, a meditation on a repeated pattern – the herringbone - an original and odd story that has nothing of personal relationships. A man interacts with the world, subconsciously noting all the times he sees the herringbone pattern, and ends in a serendipitous and thoughtful surprise.

While the limits of space mean I cannot discuss every piece, it is worth saying all the stories in Unthology are enjoyable and well-written, with some unique voices emerging. The collection keeps its promises: this is a varied, well put-together collection showcasing some interesting writers in an unrestricted and playful place. It will be interesting to see what Unthank Books do next.

Read a story from this collection at Unthank Books

Mira Mattar is a tutor, freelance writer and reviewer for the TLS and other publications. Her fiction has been published in Spilt Milk Magazine, Melusine, 3:AM Magazine and is forthcoming from Dog Horn Publishing. She is also one third of Monster Emporium Press. She lives in South London where she is currently working on her first collection of short stories.a
Mira's other Short Reviews: Jo Glanville (ed) "Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women"

Gyula Krudy "LIfe is a Dream"
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Authors Viccy Adams, Sandra Jensen, Mischa Hiller, C D Rose, Melinda Moore, James Carter, Lora Stimson, Martin Pond, Deborah Arnander, Sherilyn Connelly, Sarah Dobbs, Jenni Fagan, Maggie Ling, Tessa West, Karen Whiteson, Ashley Stokes, Michael Baker

Ashley Stokes is a writer, editor and lecturer in creative writing based in Norwich. His fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies and won a 2002 Bridport Prize for The Suspicion of Bones. He has also co-written a screenplay and co-written and presented four series of satirical arts programmes on Norwich’s Future Radio. His first novel, Touching the Starfish was published in February 2010 by Unthank Books. He is currently working on The Syllabus of Errors, twelve stories of loss, obsession and getting in a state

Robin Jones read Russian and Philosophy at Exeter and Westminster universities. He translated the state judicial inquiry into the tragedy at Chernobyl for Piers Paul Read’s book, Ablaze (Secker & Warburg), and the catalogue for the Hermitage museum (Booth Clibbon). He worked in not-for-profit as a freedom of expression campaigner for writers worldwide at Index on Censorship and as Co-ordinator of International P.E.N.’s Writers in Prison Committee before entering the book trade as an international literary scout for publishing groups in eleven countries. During this time he also worked for the only Russian literary agency in this country – Synopsis Literary Agency. Having worked at The Hanbury Agency and Imrie & Dervis he now runs Robin Jones Literary Agency where his authors include John Parkin, CJ Hart and Sir David Madden. He is a founder and director of Unthank Books and the Unthank School of Writing.