By Andrew Hook

Reviewed by Alison Littlewood

Andrew Hook is well known as the brain behind Elastic Press, publisher of speculative fiction and the occasional literary fiction collection such as the outstanding Last Days of Johnny North by David Swan. Andrew Hook has himself had several short story collections published, including The Virtual Menagerie and Beyond Each Blue Horizon. His latest book, Residue, is now available from Halfcut Publications.

I have a growing collection of books from Elastic Press on my shelves, and much of my reading these days consists of speculative fiction and dark tales. I do indulge in the odd literary fiction piece too, although I have a definite preference for stories where something happens. I like a good story, a plot, where characters change, conflict rears its head, and things are finally resolved in one way or another.

This is where I struggled to come to grips with Residue. Many of the stories fall outside that; the book contains vignettes, reflections, and insights into humanity--humanity that is everyday, and sometimes at its least attractive. Hook shows us a man cleaning his house while reflecting on a past relationship; another entertaining various conjectures about a woman he is about to meet; and another searching the faces--and bodies--he meets, with the hope of finding one he can get off on later.

Whatever my preference, however, it is clear that Hook is extremely skilled at observing and describing the small details of life. He sticks rigidly to the 'show, not tell' premise; his stories are told through the details, by describing, quite beautifully, the surface of things. He never stoops to telling us what a character thinks, but rather allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the nuances of emotion that are happening beneath the surface. This style comes together most beautifully in Tight, the story of a man leaving one woman for another, where images and observations lead the reader through a series of small revelations about the way the main character perceives the women in his life.

Other stories look closely into the small, random encounters we share with other people, and the subtle, profound, misplaced, insightful or just plain silly meanings we try to read into them. By undermining the character's attempts at creating meaning, Hook also seems to undermine the reader's own attempt to impose meaning on the stories. Sometimes, maybe we need to accept that things simply are... or maybe it's just that I was left feeling a little baffled by them.

In Paper Aeroplanes a man sets off on a date, only to speculate about the relationships formed and unformed along his way--the woman sitting at the station, the girl sitting opposite on the train. "It's the little touches, the nuances between us, which will determine the extent of our relationship" - relationships which we know exist only in his head.

In Offof we share a meeting with a homeless man in a laundrette. The encounter somehow makes the main character feel inadequate, ill-equipped to deal with it. He keeps expecting to be asked for money and is perplexed until it actually happens; he "paid for the conversation, and felt a whole lot better for it." Until the encounter endorses the meaning he places upon it he is completely off balance.

Doors, Windows and Gutters shows us the break-up of a marriage from the perspective of a new relationship. One of the characters, Crystal, describe how as a child she used to wander in a graveyard, trying to find a death date that matches her birth date; she comments on how we feel compelled to find meaning in things.

Other stories in the collection have a more obvious meaning and more involved plotlines. Double Cross is an amusing story about a young boy fetching some clothes for his sister. When his father catches him he gains an unwanted and unwelcome insight into his father's own behaviour.

By the Time I get to Egypt closes the collection. A phoenix is paying homage to its father and making an offering at the temple that will heal a land that is given over to human violence and carnage. Before his journey is complete, however, he encounters a sniper who cannot bear to see his beauty in a world ruled by ugliness.

Throughout this collection Hook shows us moments of human experience, intensely scrutinised, and in harshly lit close-up, in ways we might not have seen them before. But the subject matter can be unappealing--and I'm afraid I haven't been converted. I was still left with a vague longing for something to happen...

Residue by Andrew Hook. Halfcut Publications pb, 134pp, £7 including P&P. Available from the publisher and other online outlets, including Amazon

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