Five Stars for ‘Stories of an Awkward Size,’ by Jonathon Swords-Holdsworth
So, how does one approach reviewing a book of five imaginative, unique, intrinsically different and exceptionally well-written short stories?
This question germinated when I finished the second story and was in full bloom midway through the fourth.
Chucking my typical format, I believe I will, relying on my own instincts and imagination, just have to ‘Wing it!’
‘Stories of an Awkward Size,’ by Mr Swords-Holdsworth, may not only be the best book I’ve read by a contemporary fiction writer, it may also be the best compilation of shorts I’ve read to date.
The author blends his superb writing style with his equally vivid imagination and tosses in the perfect serving of credible science and technology [The writer obviously has a background in a tech field] that makes each story resound with a thumping bass line of plausibility.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
‘The Black Prince.’ Story one.
Henri Roseboro’s marriage ended three months earlier. He ruminates on the sour feeling he now has for his house. Directionless, and disconsolate, he ventures into his alley where he encounters the shadow apparition of Rufus, a long deceased cat, on a Graf Wall, a white anti-graffiti stretch of masonry, in his alley.
The apparition of the cat consumes Henri as it responds to him as he passes – as he approaches – as he attempts to communicate with it, first with visual gestures, and later with direct Wi-Fi communication via a tablet computer and an obscure terminal buried within the wall.
His research will bring him to Viktor, a neighbour, his son Erik, and an elegant story of the wall’s designer, Alley Ellie, who, he concludes, may have designed Rufus.
There is also a tale of an unsolved crime which Rufus may have observed, adding to the mystery and allure, but, as this part is integral to the story, I’ve chosen to omit it from my review.
‘The Black Prince’ is nearly flawless. The detail is laudable, and the author’s stylistic writing is inspiring.
‘Mr Devries’ Red Bowler Hat.’ Story two.
It’s difficult, in my mind, to assert an argument with an imaginative story that opens with, ‘I died.’
This, in my opinion, was the author’s attempt at writing a story guaranteed to bend the minds of even the well-seasoned hard Science Fiction readers.
Jon dies in an automobile accident, then wakes and meets Gwenn who died falling from a balcony. Together they meet Tom who has also recently perished. Then, of course, they meet a road which takes them to, where else, ‘The Conference Centre.’
[I mean, where were you thinking you’d end up after this life-on-Earth thing wound down?]
From there, the author delivers up a brilliant and creative smorgasbord of mind-rattling fantasy, surreal imagery, and afterlife hypotheticals.
From ‘The Numbers,’ who endlessly walk the Conference Centre’s grounds, to ‘The Quiet,’ the purported afterlife’s boundaries, to Mr Devries himself who, as it will turn out, may have this entire afterlife ‘Realm’ manifesting in his mind.
And there’s oh so much more. Including some of the cleverest, albeit modestly abstruse, dialogue I’ve yet found in a fiction work.
Here is one example [I highlighted 20 passages as I read] of the author’s writing prowess.
“Four-hundred years passed. Yes, I know that sounds flippant, but there really isn’t much about that era to report.”
“Well…. Ok. Maybe a few things.”
This one story would make the book a worthy purchase if the others were complete rubbish. They aren’t!
‘Come Silent Winged Sleep.’ Story three.
In story three, the author shifts gears and takes us into a crime investigation with elements of an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery.
Detective Andrew Mahoney witnesses a military grade drone missile strike that takes down a hotel casino. Was it terrorism? If so, why that hotel and why was the determined target the 31st floor?
And, as they will later discover, why were two city councillors and a local media tycoon meeting with the minister for air safety? On the 31st floor?
This story goes deep into drone technology, special interest groups, and an undisclosed entity, or organisation, [This part is left unclear – intentionally] with unthinkable power wielding it for some assumed greater good.
Spectacular writing –superb pace – plausible plot, and, again, just enough science and technology to make the story real and compelling.
‘The Ghost of Magritte.’ Story four.
As this was my favourite story of the book, and one I would label a ‘Must Read’ to anyone, I will trim my review as to avoid spoilers.
Fiction writing, in my opinion, doesn’t get much better than this.
The theme is enhanced VR (Virtual Reality) experimentation, and the company is called Pacific Dwarf, and some test subjects are having disastrous residual effects causing them to blur the line between actual and artificial reality.
The author, in story four, ‘The Ghost of Magritte,’ reaches into the world of mind science and something AI designers have termed Phenomenal Consciousness, and pulled out a thought provoking winner.
‘Elsewhere,’ the VR world, essentially a construct, is un-real, but, at which point does the mind decide what is real? And, if our minds have the ability to create reality out of the un-real, will we one day see reality as something producible, or in this case, programmable?
Will reality one day evolve into something flexible? Less defined? Less definite?
Great, great story.
This one scores slightly above my highest recommendation. Read it!
‘The Thousand Yard Stare.’ Story five.
The subject, in story five, is the quest for longevity, and, in a sense, immortality.
Though my least favourite of the five, this story, with admirable depth, touches on the questions that have plagued mankind from the Sumerians and Egyptians to the 17th century European alchemists who searched, inexorably, for the elusive ‘Elixir of life.’ Why do we age? And, is there a way to reverse the process thus making us essentially immortal beings?
Here, in ‘The Thousand Yard Stare,’ we have technology replacing Egyptian mummification and misguided 17th century Alchemy in the form of manually imprinting cellular technology and 3d cellular printing.
People are having tissue, skin, organs and their skeletal structures re-layered. And, as a result, reversing the aging process.
The author also does something rather crafty, and decidedly clever. He touches on the potential societal and political consequences. People are living longer. How many people can the Earth support? Tolerate?
With so many elderly people (Voters) hanging around, how will this affect the political climate?
And what about the young? What will their response to this development be as they see themselves at a potential disadvantage?
As I stated in my preface, this story may have the most depth and relevance to our present world environment. There are also some rather clever twists near the end with one that put an almost painful grin on my face.
Brilliant selection of stories. Almost phenomenally imaginative and the author’s style is, as I stated earlier, unrivalled by the current authors I’ve read.
Remarkably, I have not a single one.
Buy the hard copy. This is a book you’ll want in your library as you WILL be reading it multiple times. I’m currently rereading it myself. This time just for fun!
Review by T.E. Mark – Author