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Two Tall Tales and One Short Novel

15 November 07 words: James Walker
Apis Books release one of the best short story collections of the year, including the literary equivalent of 'I will Survive'

Apis Books was conceived in 2005 as a development of Tales of the Decongested's  commitment to shorter fiction. Backed by an Arts Council grant, their ethos is to revive the short story format, particularly in relation to up and coming authors. For having the guts to go against the popular (some would say pessimistic) wisdom of the publishing industry that there is no market for shorter fiction in Great Britain, Apis represent the kind of solely determinism which we chant daily from our Leftlion offices.

For those readers out there who did not benefit from Latin lessons during schooling, Apis means Bee. For those readers out there who are metaphorically challenged, think of Apis as a compact editorial unit who produce succulent words rather than golden honey. So metaphors and Latin aside, do Apis deliver the goods with Two Tall Tales and One Short Novel? Yes or ‘Ita vero’ in Latin.

Heidi James, who writes regularly for the 3am magazine, opens the book with The Mesmerist’s Daughter the story of a young girl who stopped speaking when she was four years old. Her muteness is brought about by the hypocrisy and awful secrets her mother ‘feeds her’ that leaves ‘linguistic splinters’ sunk into her flesh. The wolf, as the mother is described, has an ability to entrance anyone with her fanciful lies and heaps misery on her poor daughter and those around her. Her most hurtful act, and there are a few to choose from, is when the wolf has an affair behind her husband’s back as he is a hard working honourable man who treats his family well.


The use of the wolf metaphor works very well and is an interesting means of dealing with issues of betrayal and disrespect which kept me personally entranced within the narrative. To help her get over her loveless upbringing and bring about her speech the daughter is sent to a psychiatrist where eventually ‘my larynex dilated and I puked all her filthy secrets over her clean carpet. I watched my voice, crusted with barnacles, pull itself up off the floor and tell the truth to all her lies’. The story is a metaphorical rollercoaster which is impossible to put down.      


Kay Saxton’s Smokin’ the Queen is also to some extent about lies. The lies that a young man tells his pastor to keep him happy and the self- deception which comes about through skunk addiction. This addiction has incredibly powerful effects on Darius, the man in question, and leads to him being committed. Whilst in rehabilitation his mother dies of a heart attack, which may factually explain her death but Darius knows secretly she died of a broken heart.


Darius inherits a house from his neighbour Cecil. Cecil was an old jazzman and the only white in their street when he grew up. The two form a relationship which inverts the usual stereotypes, taking the narrative in unexpected and refreshing directions. Darius teaches Cecil the history of fusion music, dub and Bhangra. Cecil in return teaches him about jazz. Thanks to their shared musical histories, Darius becomes a DJ rather than a rapper and learns to mix Miles Davis with Eminem. As the story progresses, it is clear that Cecil’s life was just as eclectic as his musical orientation, which we learn about as Darius begins a journey of his own.

In the Clear by Lucy Fry is the longer offering of the three and explores an obsessive relationship whose breakdown sends its narrator into a spiral of depression. It is one of the most lucid and beautiful stories I have read and had me absolutely captivated. Rarely have I felt such empathy with a narrator. Each second of that dissected break-up is heaped upon the reader in the most beautiful and weighted prose ‘Penis is an anagram of spine and anagrams never lie so it is true then, that men think with their cock. It is the backbone of their thoughts’

It reminded me a little bit of Paulo Coelho's Veronica Decides To Die, which also deals with the fragility of life. In ‘Veronica…’ the main protagonist is told that despite surviving a suicide attempt, she only has a few days left to live due to complications in her recovery. This turns out to be a lie, to try to help Veronica be thankful of her limited allotted time on the planet. In the Clear works on a similar premise but instead it is a boyfriend awaiting tests results and the effects this has on forming and maintaining a relationship. The story is also from the perspective of the other person in the relationship, which is an unusual stance to take.

I would probably say that In The Clear is not necessarily the best short story I have read this year, but certainly my favourite. I’ve read it twice already, although this may have something to do with my own personal circumstances. Anybody who is able to link failed love with burning cattle has more than passed their debut literary test. ‘The fire is reducing; their hides have disintegrated and it is just the last, tough pieces of meat that will still burn’. This story should be handed out at therapy groups across the country. It is the literary equivalent of ‘I will survive’.

As a collection I highly recommend it because you have three completely different approaches to the short story format, all sublimely executed. My only criticism is the absolutely awful cover which looks like it has been knocked up in Coral Draw in the mid-eighties and is an injustice to the exceptionally high quality of writing inside. Please don’t let it put you off. This book is the perfect stocking filler. And if you don’t trust this reviewer then rest assured, it comes with Will Self’s stamp of approval.     

Vital Statistics 

Price: £7.99

Publisher: Apis Books 2007

Pages: 178

ISBN: 0-9552538-1-0

Apis' website  

Kay Saxton’s blog

James Walker's website 

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