Books: First-rate talent in the second city

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The Independent Culture
Hard Shoulder eds Jackie Gay and Julia Bell, Tindal Street Press pounds 6.99. This collection unveils promising writing talent shaped by the experience of growing up in England's second city. The final story leaves its protagonist alone in the cold, hitching back into Birmingham. By this point I wanted to join her, to get a tour of the city that I had begun to develop a feeling for. It seems to be a dynamic place and, as the editors tell us, "on the cusp of change".

We travel from a bench overlooking the "mosques, churches, gurdwaras and temples" of the Birmingham skyline, to a trip down the "bottleneck A-roads, the six-way roundabouts, the ski-jump flyovers, the Smartie-tube tunnels". We delve into a sordid world of drugs, crime, adultery and the perverse effects of cookery classes. The disturbed characters, of which there are many, are overlooked and pigeonholed by the world around them: the timid and dumpy office worker whose polite mumbling disguises an extraordinary fetish; the two Asian men forced to suppress their true desires and ambitions by the values and needs of their parents; the boy from the rundown estate unable to share his passion for cars with the man from the rich suburb.

Neonlit ed Nicholas Royle, Quartet pounds 7. Time Out's second short story collection has no unifying theme. Its authors vary in age, nationality and experience. The stories, too, cover a vast range of subject matter which wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the wide range in quality. While there are a few very good stories - Natasha Soobramanien's E8 Vodka Redbull Blues and Rhonda Carrier's St Wilgefortis Blues, for example - others are loosely written, uninspired and self-conscious. If there is a trend it's for the painful simile: "It's like scoring a cup-winning goal or passing your driving test. One more Valentine than you expected, someone landing on your property in the game of monopoly."

We are invited to marvel at the quality of promising new writers and delight in the offerings of established ones. But instead the effect is of the end of term collection of a parish creative writing society, with everybody smiling fondly at the vicar's witty and wise contribution.