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on 23 November 2010
I'm not a fan of short stories in general, but I am a big fan of Magnus Mills. Some of his novels are not much longer than short stories anyway, so I decided to give these a go. I knew 8 of them had been published before (I read the description of the book before buying) but I hadn't read them so they were new to me.

These aren't so much short stories as micro stories, many of them only being a few (small) pages long. They all have the Mills hallmarks of a nameless narrator in fairly ordinary circumstances, such as hitchiking, visiting one's mother, and doing some work on a house. but there is always something uncomfortable, something left unsaid, lurking in the background and it is these things that make you think; What is it about the house that makes it so...creepy? Why is the mother shooting at the police? Where are the other guests in the eerie guesthouse? We are never really told, just as we aren't told things in any of his novels.

On the whole, I liked these stories. Some of them, however, seemed to me to be the start of longer pieces that Mr Mills had abandoned for some reason, and that he had adapted into these little gems. One or two of them were weaker than others, but as taste of what a Magnus Mills novel is like, this book is a nice morsal.

Just a word on the price. I would have been a bit miffed to pay the full £10 for this book as it takes no time to read. (it took me a little over two hours and that was with a half-time break!) Buy it off Amazon for less and it you might not feel so hard-done by when you finish it.
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I hadn't read anything by Mills before, but I found this little collection (and it is little - eleven short stories, most of which I gather have been published before) entrancing and will be looking for more now. He has a great knack of taking something very ordinary - a sheet of plastic caught on a railway viaduct, a boring meeting - giving it a quarter twist in an unexpected direction, and making something that's just strange and enthralling. There are few names in the stories. Most of them feature a nameless, genderless narrator, an 'I' who may or may not be quite what (s)he seems: so in 'The Comforter', the story of the meeting, the 'I' is assumed by the muddled archdeacon to be an architect but '... architect would be one way of describing me... I sort of plan things. Set things up.' The overall effect builds from one story to the next, as much a function of minute description and mood as any plot. It's hard to say too much about the stories themselves without undermining the effect, because sometimes he works this trick in the last sentences, leaving the reader wondering, but the one I enjoyed most was 'Vacant Possession' with its feeling that everything, or nothing, might happen after the story ends. I also loved the idea of the understaffed police station where the subject of the interrogation had to imagine the "bad cop".

This book is like a small selection of rare chocolates, perfect for a quick story binge but not enough to fill. Definitely recommended.
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on 5 December 2010
I kept reading through these short stories hoping that something would happen and it never did. No surprise endings, no twists and no real surprises.

It is all quite pleasant and some of the stories are intriguing but this collection was pretty pointless.
The value for money was severely lacking as it's extremely short, there aren't many words to the page and many of the stories have already been published.
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Magnus Mills first novel, The Restraint of Beasts (1998) was a wonderful creation, comic and tragic at the same time, portraying an episode in the life of two fencing contractors Tam and Richie and their un-named supervisor. A deceptively simple read, it addressed issues of crime and punishment in a setting quite unlike anything I have read before and I was not alone in finding it stayed in my mind long after I'd finished it. I have since reread it several times and find it equally beguiling every time. Other books and short story collections have followed, but nothing has quite equalled The Restraint of Beasts, but I now read everything by Mills in order to capture something of the magic of The Restraint of Beasts - and there is usually just enough there to keep me reading him.

In Mills' story collection Screwtop Thompson, ordinary things happen to ordinary people, but the effect is sinister and unsettling. His characters seem to live stilted emotional lives with a preference for home and the routines of a boring job. Humour is never far from the surface, but the reader laughs in an uneasy way, never quite short whether he is on safe territory or not. His characters love the everyday and the routines that support them, but they seem to be locked into situations that ultimately do them no good and from which they would best advised to get out of as quickly as they can.

Screwtop Thompson is a bit of a disappointment - because only three of the stories are new, the other eight having been published before But here and there we catch enough of Mills' sideways-on humour to keep us reading on - and waiting in hope for the next offering.

I will just take one story to try to capture a little of the flavour of this collection. "They Drive By Night" opens with the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night, with the threat of rain moving rapidly in from the west". A hitch hiker waits by the side of the road, but there is little traffic. He has a hundred miles yet to travel and has been on the road since early morning. He hears a faint roar in the distance, "like a great beast labouring under an enormous burden".

A huge eight-wheeler truck emerges from the darkness and pulls up and a face appears at the window to offer a lift, "the whole cab seemed to be shaking with the motion of the engine". The traveller gets in and has to climb over the driver's mate in order to sit in the middle of the bench seat, his leg crushed against the gear stick. He is expected to converse, but the noise in the cab is so great he can only hear snatches of what the other two men are saying and when they ask him a question he is uncertain how to reply.

The weather worsen and the wind-screen wipers don't work properly but the lorry hurtles on through the atrocious conditions. The traveller has never said where he is going and seems to have no idea where the truck is headed to. It all seems very sinister and not a little threatening. Mills' flat style of writing has created a strong impression of something unfinished. Is the traveller going to continue his journey with the two men? Will it get him to his destination? This seems like an endless night and we feel that he has perhaps slipped into a hellish world where there is no destination and no way of getting home.

There is plenty more of the same in this little book. With eleven stories spread over 114 pages, it takes very little time to read this book, but despite its brevity, it sticks in the mind and is a must-read for those who Mills first entranced with The Restraint of Beasts.
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on 8 October 2010
I concur with what 'egroeg' has to say about most of the stories being already published by Acorn but probably out of print.

However I disagree as to their quality. If you haven't read Mills before then this is the ideal intro to anyone of his full length books.

I feel a tad cheated because I had no inkling that 'Screwtop' was to be a book of shorts despite my being familiar with the title. I expected perhaps a longer version of the short story. In fact Mills' last book 'The Maintenance of Headway' read more like one of his short stories that had been puffed up slightly and it's not his best.

I too will be glad when he gets back on novel length form. I'll still give 5* for the stories though but not for this edition.
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on 14 January 2011
Read a review for this book in a newspaper and thought it sounded really interesting. However, I am really disappointed. I either don't 'get' it or there's really nothing to 'get'. These short stories are too short! I, like another reviewer, kept waiting for something to happen which never did. The only story I found mildly interesting was 'Vacant Possession'. There was very little reading in the whole book. In the end I was glad it was all over and I could go back to reading decent novels! Sorry!
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on 27 September 2010
Yes, potential rip-off. You may decide when you realise that only three of the eleven short stories in this collection are new. The other eight appeared in Mills' ONLY WHEN THE SUN SHINES BRIGHTLY and ONCE IN A BLUE MOON. They were pretty poor in their debut and their reproduction here serves only to remind this reader of the paucity his experience in his first reading of them. The three new stories continue in the same rock bottom rut that Mills appears to have found to house his short stories. So save your £7, go have a couple of pints instead and hope that sometime soon Magnus will return to the form of THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS.
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on 21 October 2010
Most of these short stories have been published previously and im my view there is only one gem, namely "Once in a Blue Moon". The rest are an odd mixture, tending to lack good punchlines. Altogether a bit disappointing.
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on 18 March 2014
Whether Magnus Mills will ever better his debut novel, The Restraint of Beasts, remains an open question, but I have enjoyed reading his later work, even if it never seems to quite match the excellence of his first book (The Scheme for Full Employment seemed promising, but didn't quite get there). This collection of 10 short stories is typical of his output: a mix of the mundane and the surreal, and in its own way very English. Though always engaging, some of the stories here are a little clichéd, relying on strategies used by many short story writers (the deferred suspenseful ending, for example), but the collection does contain one stand out piece, 'Once in a Blue Moon', and this alone is worth the price of entry. Will someone please photocopy this story and send it to Bill Forsyth, and ask him why he has not yet made a film of The Restraint of Beasts starring Robert Caryle - it's long overdue.
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on 6 August 2015
Mills has a deceptively simplistic narrative style which belies a very sophisticated humour. He is able to convey sinister undertones in the most seemingly innocent and mundane situations. I have read all of his novels, the more you read the more you find certain themes are reworked and key phrases appear as refrains, which I really enjoy. He can be Pinteresque in the oblique resolution but there are also echoes of Dickens in narrative, Fielding in suspense, Orwell in themes and Tom Sharpe in humour. Mills engages you but makes you work to decipher meaning. I recommend his most recent work, 'The Field of the Cloth of Gold'.
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