Book Review: 'Open Pen Anthology' edited by Sean Preston

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

'Open Pen Anthology' edited by Sean Preston, a black cover showing multi-coloured shapes making up a face, on a bed of shredded paper

I've never reviewed an anthology before (or read that many, to be honest) but now that we will soon be announcing our winners for Stirling Publishing's inaugural anthology, I guess I'm in the mood to examine what other publishers are doing with theirs. I bought this anthology almost a year ago, but just couldn't get past the first two stories, which felt cold and difficult to read, but with nothing else to read this week I persevered with it.

As a whole, the anthology has a definite literary feel to it, like the kind of thing you'd study at uni. The introduction and foreword both read a little pretentious at first, but maybe this lowly reader just isn't quite ready for the words of the greats. Admittedly as the anthology progressed I found myself getting into it more.

First story 'D.E.A. (Minor)' by Will Ashon has a rollercoaster opening, bouncing around expectations and then offering some great lines such as "A few people looked at him without looking at him" and "It was constantly surprising to him how hard he found it to hang on to this fact, as if it were an extremely smooth rock slathered in butter, on which he balanced, naked, also covered in butter." It does feel a little like one of those world-weary stories where nothing much happens except an appreciation for the inevitable, eroding passage of time. His following story 'Down Into Night' is an even more clinical dissection of the wake up after an enigmatic one night stand that was even less endearing, but either the stories get better or Ashon's prose throws you into the spirit of the anthology so that you're acclimatised to what comes next.

Peter Higgens' two stories are some of my favourites. ' 'Smoking in the Library' has some cool writing, and accurately depicts the numbing pessimism of rejections, the excitement of one tentative "kinda, maybe." His following story 'The Gloves' is intriguing and interesting, almost a mystery at first, and to me was a perfect short story, exploring the intricacies of privilege and of giving. Another favourite is Ben Byrne's 'Waiting for a Hurricane', which is evocative, sweet, and charming, and so I was disappointed by the masochistic cruelty of 'Low Tide at English Kills'. Ian Green's 'Haar' is interesting, different from the others in the anthology, and 'Laika' is emotive, sad, and powerful.

Darren Lee's 'The Elephant' is obviously a metaphor for both the crushing weight of repressing our mental anxieties, but of course for me it is a reminder of how animals must bear the brunt of human malevolence and disregard. 'Mickey Awful' builds slowly to drama that veers towards ridiculous (despite a number of typos). Kate Smalley Ellis' 'Lazylegs' also breathes tension; I just wish it was carried through. Her 'Great Uncle Ron', as well, is interesting.

Xanthe Barker's 'Love in the Time of Ketamine' is like Trainspotting for our times (only, yeah, with Ket) whereas her 'Baby Faces' is actually uncomfortable to read. Mat Woolfenden's 'Wildlife Nuisance' and 'The Crass Gang' are weird and less enjoyable than the rest of the anthology. 'The Boy Who Bit His Nails' by Max Sydney Smith is strange, as is the metafictional 'The Heart of Sunday Morning' 'Pure Fields' by Anna Harvey felt amateurish compared to the other stories, like a chick flick, and 'Backslip & Tyrone' felt forgettable, as is 'Jo Gatford's 'If, Then' and 'Take Off Your Shoes'. 'About a Weapon' by Tadhg Miller wasn't my thing, nor was 'The Giant Tree' or 'After the Hunt', both by James King.

The micro fictions initially felt pretentious and over-wrought, but I found some real gems that spoke to me. 'Player 2' by Piers Pereira is sad and hard-hitting, as is Dave Clark's 'Hidden Criticism.' Rhuar Dean's 'Weeds' plays on the mind, demanding second and third readings.

What I initially thought was a one-time read revealed some wonderful writing that would never have been my first choice for pleasure. I can't say now whether I'd read it again, but it's something I'd definitely pass on to budding writers and those looking to hone their craft.

If you fancy a read, you can buy it from their website.

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