McTavish Manor – Inés G. Labarta

(Holland House Novella 2016, 136pp, £7.99)

McTavish Manor is a new Gothic novella from Lancaster based Spanish author Inés G. Labarta that takes old forms and blends in new techniques to produce fascinating & original results. 

Set in the eponymous remote Highlands house in 1803, McTavish Manor initially adopts the classic Gothic epistolary framework.  Dr. Charles Bisland flees a rejected proposal to find work with the increasingly strange McTavish family.  We see the household first through the Doctor whose own secrets are hinted at, then through the  black maidservant who Mrs McTavish calls “my dubh” and in the journals of McTavish herself.  As winter isolation progresses so does the madness in the household.   The dubh is attacked by wolves, the lecherous scullion assaults the maid, and the Mother indulges her scientific curiosity to explain all.

Bisland ‘s chapters become increasingly desperate, pleading in self-justification for unstated transgression. The dubh invokes Yoruba mythology and hints at a stolen slave history.  Her febrile descriptions of events she sees part of are scattered with French, Spanish and Yoruba phrases. The Mother uses gaelic, not just dubh but Mr McTavish is always mo duine.  References to scientific substances, techniques and historical texts in Latin abound.  This is not a simple read.  

Yet for all the details Labarta includes there’s no dryness.  There’s attempted scientific evidence explanation for the violent episodes “hydrophobia” for example.  Mrs McTavish is depicted almost as an obsessive like Victor Frankenstein, though perhaps Angus Cauldhame  or Al Binewski are better examples from contemporary fiction.  

Labarta uses different prose styles to both distinguish her viewpoints and to develop a nightmarish and visionary display.  Words and even long paragraphs are struck through, the multiple languages are undefined, historic scientific terms are in the regular vocabulary.  Labarta’s references are to that transitionary era where alchemy was supplanted by science. The doctor has history with Edward Jenner. She quotes  traditional Scottish folk songs in Gaelic and invocations or prayers in Yoruba and expects her readers to understand.  The result is complex and I think deliberately ambiguous.  

Who and what is the villain? The rabid wild dogs? The bhampair of the cook’s hysteria? Mad scientist Mrs McTavish with her monstrous experiments on her own family? The blood obsessed Doctor with the disgraced past and the reliance on poppies? The servant convinced of orishas and abiku controlling the rest?  Even a final letter doesn’t quite clear things up, suggesting instead various further twists.  

The traditional Gothic incorporates an element of transgression, whether social, sexual or scientific.  Labarta has all of these entangled.  Scenes of raging insanity abut dark and illicit eroticism and taboo scientific questing.  The result inverts Dracula’s classic playing of several symbolic roles to have roles played across several individuals to disorienting, but gripping effect.

I drove his bloody hands all all over my body  until I was blessed in crimson. Lust bit inside when I brought them between my legs. I moved my hips forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.  (p80)

Hunterian solution

Oil of turpentine 5 pt

Venice turpentine 1 pt 

Oil of lavender 2 oz 

Oil of rosemary 2 oz 


We have to wait one day.

The twins sleep.  One in the cellar, the other in my bed.

Later. We do not have enough cinnamon. I am substituting ginger. (p74-5)

There will be no metaphors in this letter, no allegories or similar artifices, only the raw truth about your cousin’s miserable soul, which started to fall into corruption the very first time he confronted the Highlands & the rain threatened to dissolve his rational mind. She was there, an ebony body that does not belong to this land where sun is so scarce. You told me about her in Edinburgh, a mysterious, fascinating servant, exotic and lacquered as a scorpion. (p85)

Inés Labarta’s control of language is exquisite and precise, distinguishing characters and situations, and allowing for frenetic action and atmospheric revelations.  Her characters each have implicit back stories that intrigue but don’t quite explain everything.  Her plot a bouillabaisse of Gothic tropes with a multicultural and modern seasoning.  

McTavish Manor is a significant new addition to contemporary Gothic literature.

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Two That Came True – Judith Moffett

Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career.  ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies.  Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here.  ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.

‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society.  The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child, and author of a book about Sally.  They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of ‘that book’, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.

By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees.  After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship.  Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.

As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong.  She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee.  Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.

Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting.  Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.  

The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s.  Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.  

The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.
‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a ‘First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop.’ Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.  

A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. 68 year old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.

The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..  

This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs.  For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support.  Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths.  She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.

‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to.  There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee.  There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison.  As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.

Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume exited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for  Pennterra .  There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in,  issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular.  Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.  

Both stories in Two That Came  True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry.  She was a poet long before turning to fiction.  These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre.  The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work.  It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed.  Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.  

It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story.  Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.

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Fell – Jenn Ashworth

Fell begins with a beginning and ends with an ending.  That may seem obvious, but most novels have a before and an after implicit or explicit in their body.  We step into Fell however as the narrators awake and begin to recognise their own existence.  

The Sycamores was Annette’s family home 50 years ago, now as she returns to the dilapidated seaside former boarding house she has reluctantly inherited the house awakens, the former occupants awaken, her parents awaken.  

“Her key in the lock wakes us.  It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky.  They don’t fly far; before the door is open, they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge.  We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff As bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.


Our names.

Yes.  We are. We are.  Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place.  A respectable house.  Netty. Jack.  That’s what they called us.”

So Jenn Ashworth leads us into her fourth novel, Fell, the story of a haunted house before it became haunted and to a degree, why.  
“This is our house. And here is our daughter and the words for all our objects start to come back to us now, and with the words come the objects themselves: the house and the garden, and the town around it which unrolls like a map, right down to the salt marsh, and it is all ours and this is all we wanted and all we would have wished for if anyone had asked. To stay.  To have it all back.  To have stopcocks and light switches and – what are they called? plugholes – and sticking plasters and skirting boards and feather dusters. To have ourselves back.  To be restored.”

Already we are made painfully aware of a loss, of a longing.  Desiderium.  What has been lost and what refound, however?  We see see Annette in the now uncomfortable in the house she hasn’t visited in decades, that appears to have been empty for as long.  But it is through her dead parents’ eyes that we see this, with their anxious compassion for their daughter who seems alone and unhappy here.
Memories return, through Annette first, of the summer of 1963.  The house was full of lodgers, Netty’s ‘boys’ who worked in the seaside resort of Grange Over Sands, and 8 year old Annette remembers one.  The one who hit her father at the lido.  Her memory is false though, he didn’t hit Jack he touched him.  It is a crucial scene that we then see replayed by the narrator.

On a hot afternoon at the lido Jack has a headache, but Netty is worried about the boys splashing and showing off by the pool, worried about little Annette, so she asks Jack to go down and speak to them.  One of the boys grabs Jack and something happens.  Timothy Richardson cures the headache with his grip, and more, cures Jack’s shortsightedness too.  There is a moment of recognition which leads to Jack inviting Timothy to move into The Sycamores.  Netty, we are to learn, is sick and Jack wants Timothy to cure her.
In this one short scene Ashworth introduces several of her major, intertwining, themes.  Jack challenges Timothy but finds his challenge diverted, his masculinity neither affirmed nor demeaned yet somehow queried.  Timothy’s healing power is introduced, and Netty’s illness.  More importantly we see both the parental concern for Annette which reappears in their contempory incarnations, and Jack’s fears for his wife.  

Jenn Ashworth reading the opening of Fell at Waterstones, Lancaster King Street

The longing in Fell, that forms the fundamental existence of the narrative voice, is as noted earlier, for a restoration.  For Netty to be made well, for Jack’s role to be reaffirmed, for order and repair to the home, and to Annette’s life.  Even Timothy, the fantasist who would be a tailor, a businessman, on Savile Row, back in Edinburgh, over in America, dreams of a control over his ability.  Late on  comes a scene at his old job with a butcher.  Dead rabbits are somehow brought to life by Timothy’s power and so must be killed again to preserve reason and order.  It is another scene of crucial import, narrated by the butcher with a sense of disbelief, fear and confusion, to Jack who has gone to investigate who the mysterious young healer is.  Jack is afraid that his wife will not be healed, and that the boy is replacing him, with Netty or with Annette, he is unsure which.  It is a longing for certainty of identity as much as for material result.  
In the present Annette has other feelings of loss, the house was left to her not directly by her parents, but by Candy, the family friend who becomes Jack’s second wife.  She is detached from it, unable to engage fully with the repairs, wanting immediate results.  This climaxes in a heartbreaking scene of breakdown where she desperately attempts to cut down the huge trees in the garden herself, at night.  Just as Jack helplessly watches Netty’s illness, the parents agonise as their daughter suffers.  Each character/voice struggles impotently against entropy.
Candy too has a longing.  A religious woman, who believes herself to be able to heal by faith, she also tries to help Netty.  Unlike Timothy, she has no ability for miracles, and eventually her healing visits transmute into excuses to bring food for Netty, Jack and Annette.  In this way her need to help is partially satisfied, whereas Timothy is more complex.  He regrets his ability, whilst knowing he must use it, and dreams of both adventure and domesticity. He also knows he cannot ultimately save Netty the way Jack needs, or the way he saved the rabbits, the dead bird in the grate, or how he repaired Jack’s vision.  His wish seems ambigious, to be able to heal properly, to not be able to heal at all.
This is the story of Fell, a haunting of lost certainties.  The telling of Fell is equally fluctuating.  The first person plural semi-omniscient voice is suffused with moments of recognition.  Both Jack and Netty are dead, ghosts in effect intrinsic to the house, so they look back into various viewpoints.  This leads to Jack/Netty being in Jack’s head as he rages at Timothy to help the dying Netty, a view that Netty obviously didn’t see in realtime.  Simultaneously Netty/Jack is in Netty as she is upset at Jack’s distress.  And both see Timothy and how he ses them.  Through their telling we see Annette return but nothing of her intervening years.  She has awakened her parents’ ghosts somehow as one, and we remember Timothy as he taught the child simple stage magic recognising some innate ability of which the older woman clearly has no knowledge.
Fell, the title has various interpretations, is different to Jenn Ashworth’s three previous novels in the brooding imminence of doom that seeps through every scene. Previously Ashworth has created blackly comic characters, narrators who are unaware of their unreliability, but the voice of Fell questions our assumptions of honesty.  So much is made plain early in the book that spoilers aren’t an issue really.  The sense is always of knowing what’s going to happen, if not how exactly, and therefore doubting it.  The fluctuations of the omniscient voice had me feeling watched as the characters were watching/watched.  At times it’s Netty, or other times Jack, or is it Netty and Jack, or the house itself, or maybe as I began to suspect, the narrator is actually, and that’s a spoiler of sorts. Unless you’re a close reader, recognising what you’re told.
There are similarities though with Ashworth’s short fiction in the details of the dark shadows of domesticity that she shares with Shirley Jackson.  The boarding house setting, the small, already declining seaside resort, the shifting sands all contribute that solid mundanity that the fantastic elements need.  Fell exists, like Grange over Sands, on the edge of something. The fellside above, the sea around, and that moment in the early 60s when things were changing in a world that hadn’t quite reached this small town.  Jack’s fascination with the Great Train Robbery, Timothy’s fantasy of Savile Row, Netty’s desire to join the guided walk across the treacherous sands, are dreams of escape, but oddly grounded escape.
 Fell is an often discomforting look at how it feels to watch loved ones suffer, and it’s an intriguing twist on the haunted house trope.  It also looks askew at faith healing and masculinity.  Jack’s provider and carer roles are usurped by Timothy and by Candy, yet Candy is replacing Netty, and perhaps Timothy too challenges Candy’s self perceived carer role. And then in contrast, the only other characters of note, Annette’s ultimate saviours, the couple Eve and Maddy whose relationship is simple and unquestioned here.  
We never learn why Annette stayed away, but we are left instead to wonder at her reluctant longing. There’s almost denial yet she has brought back Jack and Netty, and she will lay them to rest again, scatter them to the winds, the bonfire, the rooftops, the saltmarsh that once was sands.  And then, nothing. The end is, for once, an ending.  One last thing to admire in a novel to admire greatly.  
Fell is published by Sceptre £18.99

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Four Shades of Blue: Adrift On the Sea of Hull

(Probably NSFW )

I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Spencer Tunick’s art but I did ponder taking part in the Salford Lowry piece in 2010 but was too late, disorganised, hesitant.  When I heard about his new Hull project I was quicker and signed up online a few months ago.

And that was it.  Two weeks ago an email arrived with details.  We would be assembling in Hull by 3am.  And we would be wearing blue body paint.  Oh. OK.

I hadn’t told anyone at work, or actually anyone at all, until Friday.  Then a colleague on the phone asked what my weekend plans were.

“Taking part in an art installation by Spencer Tunick”

“Not heard of him but sounds cool.”

Then a few minutes later, Google time later, up pops the email: “Really????”


For a moment, driving home from work, I pondered not going. Hull is a long trek across country, but I might never get this chance again.  More than that, nothing gets me down more than feeling I’ve wasted free time by abandoning plans through lethargy.  So I had a nap, gathered suitable old clothes, loaded up some driving tunes and set off about 1030.

Now I don’t know what a typical Hull Friday night looks like these days, but walking from the car towards Queens Gardens I quickly got an idea that some of those around might be going my way.  Casual clothes, gym bags, at 230?

The streets near the Gardens were closed off to non-participants much to the confused consternation of one chap on his way home. “I need to go that way, I just came down there” I was waved through so I don’t know if he understood the detour.

At the Gardens we were pointed to various registration tables, where we handed in model release forms in exchange for a clear plastic bag with a number. I was B4 so I joined the huge queue to assemble at  B4.  There we got the important things: a tub of paint and a packet of wipes.

Just before dawn, in the cold light…

And then… We milled around, waited and tried to keep warm. Somebody had been at the police briefing so told us the planned schedule.  Apparently 6000 had signed up but typically up to half don’t show up.   People chatted. Alan from Newcastle asked if we were naturists too.  In fact he seemed to assume we were regardless of our denials.  Teacher Mandy from nearby said she’d never done anything like this before, nor had I, but the Geordie naturist continued talking about his favourite spas and beaches as though we knew them.

It was nearly 4 by the time Spencer Tunick himself took to the microphone to greet and instruct us.  At first he seemed awkward, nervous, starting sentences and not finishing.  He apologised several times for not liking speaking by PA but perhaps he’d have been wiser handing some of this to an assistant.  There was an Irish woman with a clear voice who helped corral us and would have speeded this part up.  But eventually we were told to head back to our areas ready to get the word to start.  Despite repeated instructions otherwise a few had already started to paint up and undress.  Others headed for the line of portaloos. Already the banter had started. The toilet line to my right moved much faster than mine as the 5 minute call went out.  But I made it back to Mandy and the Geordie naturist in time.

“OK can you start undressing and applying paint please.”  It was almost 430 a.m.

I’d already noticed how some people had come prepared to undress and presumably dress quickly.  Around me people took different approaches.  Some stripped almost in two movements. Shirt over the head, pants down, done.  Others kept underwear on while painting the rest.  Nearby four young women faced inwards, and one counted to three and they braved the air together.

We’d been told to cover everywhere, hair, ears, eyelids, even those hidden places like the soles of our feet.  At first it was easy. Odd but easy smearing gloopy blue paint on arms, face, torso.  Glancing not at others’ naked bits but at how they applied colour.  People helped each other, strangers unfazed by it all.  I bent to do my calves, and Mandy reached across to smear over a missed spot on my neck.  She asked me to check her back, tooI pointed out a white patch on her bum, so she began to try to cover it.

“Oh what the hell, you do it” she said.  Setting a tone of comfort and acceptance that was to grow as we continued.  Strangers stood chatting, laughing and helping.  I know I wasn’t alone in having had a quick glance at the bodies becoming exposed around me, but that was it. Just a glance and then get on with it.  It was clear at once that we’re all different and all the same.  I saw big bearded hipsters, pensioners and young people, at least two wheelchair participants, the out of shape (me) and the athletic, (Mandy was to run a 10k on Sunday morning) and one woman well into third trimester by appearances. I wondered how a woman with spectacular ginger hair would turn it blue, and watched others covering tattoos.  The park was becoming a sea of blues, four shades of blue from a pale, white blue to virtually green.  To the east between the buildings, a pink sunrise glowed briefly in contrast.  It was a mild morning, it didn’t feel cold as we prepared ourselves.

Soon it was time to move, two processions down the sides of the Gardens to the Rose Garden.  Without my glasses, in the twilight, the palest blue looked beautifully spectral from a distance.  Closer they took on a statuesque quality.  Even as we assembled the beauty of this project was becoming clear.  And the humour was coming through.

The Rose Garden is laid out as a spoked circle, a ship’s wheel in Spencer’s vision.  I found myself on a spoke at due South from the camera view. The photographer was on a balcony some 6 or 7 floors up, directing models and crew.  One of the crew, his assistant Steve, got a lot of his instructions and sometimes ire, but became our folk hero. Every mention was greeted with a terrace chant of “Steeeeeeeeeeve!!!”

Spencer wanted people evenly spread out, prompting a glorious Carry On moment as he announced in apparent innocence: “If you see a hole, fill it!” And 3200 people responded “Wahey!” Incredibly, impressively, with 3200 naked bodies in close proximity, that was as sexual as it got.  Comic humour.  Like the urge to leave a dark blue handprint on a nearby pale blue bottom, and later on a parked red van. Neither urge was followed through however.

The Geordie naturist reappeared to tell us that naturists would probably have at least shorts on at this temperature.  Around 14°C at start, by the way.  It was OK we’d been told we’d only be naked for a short time.  But as Spencer directed people around each shot took a while.  A clothed person was in the frame, he complained. “Streaker!” Cried the naked people.

Then we moved on, across the road “Wait for the green man to flash!”, past a construction site “a hard helmet area”, and down the street.  It was curious how different road surfaces were such different temperatures, even individual paving slabs were suddenly warm.

I think it was around this point, as I walked with school dinner lady Sharon and a Londoner whose name I didn’t get, that I really felt the rising camaraderie. Broken pavements, rough patches of road, were pointed out. Jokes shared.  The open top press bus was mildly jeered and taunted.  Steve (“Steeeeve!!!”) was cheered, we all deliberately feigned not understanding an American assistant telling us to not use the “sidewalk” and there were choruses of Eiffel 65’s Blue to keep us going.
Down the street we were halted and we waited. Spencer had to change his film, disproving the theory he was using an iPhone4.  Meanwhile we discussed doing this again, how about outside Betty’s in genteel Harrogate?  Then he was ready. And we lay down as directed on the hard street.  Then the same pose facing the other direction. Oddly it felt colder that way.  Those trembling sensations though, were raging giggles at the jokes, not shivering at the cold.

Up til now the shades of blue had intermingled though with little cross contamination that I saw.  Now we lined up in our separate colours.  And we waited.  Somebody started the Hokey Cokey, a Mexican Wave was called for but those at the front didn’t get it going so it came from the back.

More paint came around for those who needed “touching up” and again strangers turned friends helped without coyness.  It all felt so incredibly natural, normal, comfortable.  Nobody seemed to judge, all just bonded.

My hairy chest was thickly matted and sticky, elsewhere parts were tightening as the paint dried.  Somebody mentioned sticky thighs.  Nobody went there.

Further through town, to the Guildhall, where it was colder. The wind had got up, but nobody was saying where it had got up.  We all knew.  Our short time naked passed two hours.

Spencer rose above us on a gantry to check and take his shots, always calling on Steve (“Steeeeeve!!!!”) to move people. A drone flew over too, but was that official?  This photo involved us bent over at the waist, the one shot you really had to be careful where you looked.  I can still touch my toes though!

There was one last set-up but only room for 800, so some headed off to warmth, clothes and the long clean up. The group I’d been around dissipated but I’d come this far so why not.

This meant the longest walk so far, down cobbled streets at times, in looser formation.  By now residents were waking, and one or two got a surprise when they leaned out their windows.  Gradually people gave up and headed against the tide but still there were a few too many for the swing bridge and we missed out.  Ah well, that led to a different memorable moment or two.

Sharon and I walked back to the Gardens in a pair, more exposed but no more uncomfortable by now, than as a crowd.  The City was waking, so we saw traffic, and a few amused and bemused delivery drivers and workers. They looked, we waved and grinned.  Actually I think I’m still grinning.

We had spent over three hours naked on the streets of Hull now. Just a “short time”? Now to clean up.  But first some personal photos. Selfies and shared photos of new friends.

I’d decided to just clean my hands for the drive, so as not to mess my car up.  That took 20 minutes scrubbing with wipes anyway. Meanwhile all around people talked about how good it felt. The vocabulary was consistent: Liberating, Comfortable, Normal, Equal, Beautiful, Awesome, Fantastic. The mood was blissful and shared ecstasy.  People spoke of the paint being a mask, but maybe implied that adding paint removed our daily masks.

Folk from the bridge shot appeared, having been provided white paper suits for the walk back.  The walk others did naked.  Oddly blue heads and arms poking out of clothes looked far weirder than bare bodies.  Near us a blue woman pulled on a bold peach bra that emphasised her large bust in its contrast far more than her being topless had.

Even the walk back to the car alone, sometimes a reflective or downbeat moment after events, was joyous. Other blue faces waved in kinship, non-blues smiled or looked puzzled.  One goth woman in bold blue lipstick made eye contact, unsure perhaps if she’d been upstaged or found a fellow traveller.  An elderly couple were parking near my car.  She wanted to know if the blue was everywhere. It was, and I showed a little belly.  Her husband said he’d seen us on the news, and told me the significance of the shades.  It seems Tunick had identified the four shades as dominant and prevalent in commissioners The Ferens Gallery collection of Hull related sea paintings.  His aim to highlight Hull’s relationship to the sea was thus tied to its artistic history too.  From the ground, in the middle at times, on the fringes at others, there was a curious feeling of how would this look? But also as we packed down the street, a sense of some kind of transformation.  The old stone buildings and the flow of blues made sense together where they may not have done with clothes or unpainted bodies.

It was a long drive home, punctuated by several stops.  I know I raised eyebrows at services, but some recognised where I’d been, or were intrigued when I explained.  That seems to be the main reaction.  Well done, I bet it was amazing, I wish I’d the courage.  And how long did it take to get clean? About an hour in shower and bath, but it was totally worth it.  One of the most incredible experiences of my life so far.  I’m still grinning!  Can’t wait to see the finished prints and the exhibition next Spring as part of Hull City of Culture 2017.

Oh and if you were there too, thank you so much for sharing.  And Mr Tunick, thank you for the opportunity, the inspiration and the beauty.

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Women Up To No Good – Pat Murphy (Untreed Reads, 2013)


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Pat Murphy’s first short story collection Points of Departure was one of just two collections to win the Philip K Dick Award. This second collection appears not to have even been reviewed anywhere. 
Women Up To No Good contains 16 stories including several reprinted from Points of Departure in six subsections.  They range from urban fantasy through psychological sf, fantastic western, and retold legend to Austen-pastiche.  Most, perhaps all, are distinctively Murphy above all.

Opener ‘A Flock of Lawn Flamingos’ sets a tone of mischief and moral.  In a quiet California suburb a new arrivals, the mysterious Joan Egypt sets cultural ripples in play that challenge and break the dominance of one white male.  It isn’t SFF as such but has the sensibility of genre as its effects spread.  By the end we are left feeling empowered, knowledge and small actions have restored a harmony to the street.  It’s a story where we believe in what can happen next.
That’s a feeling made explicit in the next story, ‘One Odd Shoe’ is a moral tale of male privilege being turned about.  It references Coyote, acknowledging but querying his external role in our lives.
Coyote is a force for entropy. But Coyote is also a force for good (though whose good is always open to question).
As with many of these stories there’s a layer of telling involved, the narrator is a woman, the agent of the story is a woman. Who is up to no good? Clearly the latter, except that, perhaps the former in her telling is the subversive?
‘On the Dark Side of the Station Where the Train Never Stops’ talks of her heroine the fireborn fey bag-lady Lucy as a different person yet with knowledge that suggests something shared.  In the middle of a charming love story are conversations about seeing ‘past one kind of truth to another kind’ and the need of the world to have teeth and pain. It might be my favourite here.


Kari Sperring in her Strange Horizons review of Sisters of the Revolution laments an aspect of community in much feminist SF.
Western feminism, like much of Western culture, has tended to prioritise individualism over community, and again, most of the stories in this collection reflect that. We have women fleeing, women resisting, women fighting back, but all too often they are alone, marked by their special status.”
Pat Murphy, (represented in that anthology by ‘Love & Sex Amongst the Invertebrates’) is an exception.  Repeatedly in this collection Murphy finds ways to stress the strengths of community. Joan Egypt may be an individual with her lawn flamingos, but it is the community that responds, and the baton is handed down.  Lucy the firecatcher goes on her star run, but the community shares her story.  In ‘A Cartographic Analysis of the Dream State’ a four woman team undertakes a Martian Trans-Polar Expedition.  A community of seven old women in the woods looks after a princess in ‘A True Story’ Her stepmother has hidden her away from the paedophile King. 
That reimagined Snow White ends with Queen and Princess reunited and the narrator saying “Sometimes, I tell them of Snow White, the true story rather than the storytellers’ lies. I think the true story should be known.” 
But the next story, ‘Dragon’s Gate’ “is unruly and difficult. It refuses to conform to any of the traditional forms.” This is often Murphy’s way, knowingly, and openly telling her readers she is subverting their expectations, she then subverts the new, revised version too.  ‘Dragon’s Gate’ is one of several stories reminding us that we are told how the world is by authorities and begin to believe it, but if we remember then the truth is revealed. The lost colours sought by ‘Iris versus the Black Knight’ are easily seen as the forgotten women of SF, of Science, of History that were there though we are told they weren’t. 

The truth is that Pat Murphy’s Women Up to No Good are in fact up to a lot of good, restoring balance, and supporting each other for the betterment of the world.  Murphy’s women are retelling the world their way. They do this in self aware stories of wit, and humour, and charm, but with shadows too.  You will hope Joan Egypt moves next door, you will wonder which star is Lucy, smile knowingly at that shoe by the road. and you will start to question the stories we are always told. Joan Egypt, who I keep returning to as touchstone here, and Pat Murphy are akin in setting ripples on ponds. Hopefully you will also seek out more of Pat Murphy’s brilliant SFF.

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The Books of 2015 (Fiction)

About this time last year I posted on Facebook that I hoped to see new books from about 10 of my favourite authors. Four made it, and one at least is due this year.
Meanwhile which books were my favourites in 2015? Honourable mention first of all to The Loney which slipped out in a smaller press edition in 2014 but which I only discovered recently.  Aside from being deliciously creepy, the Catholic retreat personal politics are acutely, but never nastily, observed.  On the TBR pile are a couple of highly praised 2015 novels I expect to enjoy when I reach them, Aurora of course, as a longstanding Kim Stanley Robinson fan, and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings.  I’m also very much enjoying Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time for, amongst other qualities, a rich depth of place and meaning of place. But for the Top Ten, I had to exclude the unfinished, despite its claims. 

10 Malcolm Pryce – The Case of The ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste.
A departure from Pryce’s wonderful Aberystwyth Noir series of gentle absurdity, but still recognisable as his unique style.  This time our hero is a ‘Gosling’ one of the semi-legendary railway detectives of the 1930s imprinted on steam trains at birth and brought up as orphans. Pryce uses this surreal start to tell a charming, melodramatic hard boiled thriller with a touch of idiosyncratic secret history and a delicate romance.

9 Lisa Goldstein – Weighing Shadows
A time travel novel, ostensibly Goldstein’s first SF novel proper. The genre of her The Dream Years is ambiguous, but the majority of her subsequent work makes Goldstein consistently one of the finest fantasy writers of the past 30 years. 
Weighing Shadows therefore was one of those hoped for titles a year ago, and almost a disappointment at first.  Only when patterns coalesced through the seemingly naive plot did this Fantasy of History take on meaning beyond its surface.  One to ponder I think.

8 Attica Locke – Pleasantville
Sequel, that stands alone, set some years later, to Locke’s impressive debut Black Water Rising.  Another crime novel where the crime isn’t the point, it’s a stage for a deep, historical political depiction.  Locke has a way of putting her readers into a milieu to show it in historical context without labouring hindsight.

7 Kit Reed – Where
Reed has, in a way, been doing the same thing for 57 years so far. The white rooms she uses as settings are incongruously realistic though. The simple premise of Where, a town vanishing, its people finding themselves mysteriously transported elsewhere, is brought to life by a detailed sense of place previously, and by the domestic details and relationships Reed is still using to imaginatively explore our sense of self and of place.  One of the best novels by one of SFs best.
6 Silvia Moreno Garcia – Signal To Noise
It’s no secret that I like my Urban Fantasy to be properly urban, ie for the city to play a part rather than be wallpaper.  Signal To Noise, set in Mexico City now and the 1980s, does that magnificently.  Three misfit teens bond over music and the magic of music until, of course, something goes wrong. Garcia’s musical references avoid cliches, are diverse, real and feel right. A rare book that had me reading with YouTube open. Oh and in Meche a sympathetic, sometimes unlikable heroine to live alongside.
5 Ian Sales – All That Outer Space Allows
The fourth Apollo Quartet novella turned out to be a novel, and better for it. Sales typical NASA details combined with rich knowledge of 60s women SF writers make for an interesting alternative history. Then Sales breaks the fourth wall to discuss his aims and devices within the novel. I think at one point he even breaks through that to explain that approach as well. 

4 Sunny Singh – Hotel Arcadia
As reviewed here a powerful, moving thriller set entirely (apart from flashbacks) in a luxury hotel occupied by terrorists.  There’s so much to enjoy in Singh’s third novel, both in her wonderful characters, the well-paced unfolding of traumatic events, and in the parallels she creates so skilfully. 

3 Elizabeth Hand – Wylding Hall
Too often the use of music and musicians in SFF feels self-indulgent, with a tendency to Mary Sue. Not so with Hand, especially in this haunting ghost mystery.  The story is of a folk rock band retreating to a remote country house to write and record, told as oral history by the various protagonists.  Suitably obscure references to the hunting of the wren, a mysterious barrow, and hints about the death of the band’s previous singer all combine in classic gothic style.
2 Carter Scholz – Gypsy
The return of contemporary SF’s great modernist with a starship hard SF short novel unlike any other I’ve read or heard of.  A bold assertion, but Scholz has regularly questioned genre’s treasured shibboleths.  At first Gypsy echoes Scholz’ good friend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, no spoilers but this is a bleaker tale on the surface. So finely is it written though that its sheer inevitability is the only option, and utterly rational.


Sarah Hall photo by me

1 Sarah Hall – The Wolf Border
Ok I’ll say this here. Reviews of this novel of rewilding wolves into a private Lake District estate have all talked about the wolves (and the sex, but I’ll come to that.)  What they missed, and I raised with Hall at Hay, is the other word: Border.  Set alongside a successful vote for Scottish independence, I’ll argue that makes this alternative history.  Absolutely every scene and every relationship in The Wolf Border occurs across a threshold (doorways, fences, seasons, town/country,) or emphasises such by viewing across or transition (class, culture, gender, pregnancy/motherhood etc).  Sex, too, in this intimate but not openly eroticised novel, is an interface, a transition, a border crossing. Hall is one of our finest writers, The Wolf Border both fits perfectly with her previous novels and surpasses them. From first reading through second and third readings Hall’s clarity illuminates fascinating depths.

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The Top Albums of 2015 part 2 the Top 10

Part one Albums 20-11 appeared a couple of days ago. Now the Top ten.

A couple more near misses though. Tamikrest put out an excellent live album for Record Store Day but in the absence of new material it didn’t quite fit the Top 20.  From the same part of the world many lists have included Africa Express presents In C Mali but the digital version was out in 2014 and was high up last year’s ranking for me.

10 Drenge – Undertow
Muscular new wave now with added bass on another second album to make this list.  At times sounding like heavier Joy Division with dark pop melodies I even think I heard a momentary echo (sic) of Martha & The Muffins.

9 Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m not a hip hop fan in the sense of following it closely, but every so often something catches my ear. Lamar’s lyrics are diverse but consistent in passion & intelligence. Add a rich organic tapestry of jazz & funk classicism and you get a great album.

8 Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space
It isn’t much remarked on but there’s a jazz tinge and some classical structure to PSB’s electronic arrangements. It’s the deft use of transmission recordings from 60s & 70s space missions that bring the emotion & drama though. Most years there’s an album that sounds like very little or nothing else around. PSB are that band this year.

7 Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe
In a year of great female auteurs (see also Björk, Joanna Newsom, Grimes and others) there was a point where Weaver might have been even higher ranked.


Jane Weaver at Cloudspotting (photo by me)

6 Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Ignore the backstory about Bruce’s cancer, for 10 tracks this is the best Maiden album in an years. There were great songs on previous albums but less coherence. I said 10 tracks, because it gets better on track 11 is the 18 minute epic piano led Empire of The Clouds about the R101 that is among the finest things Maiden have done (yet!)

5 Bathymetry
As reviewed previously Bathymetry’s debut is sweetly deceptive, chiming guitars and intricate basslines, harmonies concealing dark lyrics and a fine-tuned indie pop sensibility.


Ariel Bathymetry at The Joiner’s Arms, Lazonby (photo by me)

4 Lianne LaHavas – Blood
Ok whodathunk it?  Me, the arch obscurist putting a genuine pop hit artist in the Top 5? Discovered Lahavas by chance at Hay, was impressed, bought the album when it hit #2 in the charts. Catchy, soul folk tunes, a glorious warm voice a standard template but a well above standard usage. Saw her again in Manchester’s Albert Hall and was even more blown away.


Lianne Lahavas at The Albert Hall, Manchester (photo by me)

3 Kamasi Washington – The Epic
A triple album. The man responsible for much of the gorgeous arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s album above also put out his own magnificent, up to date yet classic post-Coltrane jazz album.  It soars.

2 Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – Ba Power
Rock album of the year made by four guys playing proto-banjos that look like homemade cricket bats with strings.  Kouyate and his family have taken the Ngoni to multiple new levels though, and just like Chicago blues begat rock’n’roll they’ve taken desert blues to new places too.  And Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko stands comparison with any and all the great singers already noted.


Amy Sacko & Bassekou Kouyate at Electrowerz, London (photo by me)

And at number 1 Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
If there’s a theme running through this list it’s a nuanced multi genre eclecticism about most of the artists here.  Julia Holter’s been compared to Kate Bush but I also hear In A Silent Way era Miles. Keyboards harmonizing with a powerful voice, instrumental passages taking off in directions you don’t expect but make perfect sense.  Complex but totally accessible tunes like nobody else achieves.

Turns out 2015 was a pretty good year.  Some great voices and amazing musicianship and for me a blend of classic and modern that goes somewhere.

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