Edward Explores: London in the time of Covid

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As mentioned in the last post in this occasional series for fellow teddy bear appreciators, Edward was very excited to be taken on an adventure that required a train journey earlier this month. He travelled to London where he hoped to visit several of his favourite attractions. Sadly, some were either closed to visitors or had restrictions in place that prevented entry. Nevertheless, Edward had an enjoyable couple of days away with his bearers and returned home with tales to tell his friends.

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On disembarking the train, Edward took pleasure in a lengthy walk across the city, through several Royal Parks and along the river. He passed Buckingham Palace where his good friend Elizabeth sometimes works. Men with guns stood outside so he decided not to get any closer. The place was notably quieter than the last time he was there.

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After such a long walk it was good to arrive at the hotel where Edward would be staying. It had a big bed and a view of passing trains and tall buildings. Our intrepid bear decided that a nap was in order and settled down to rest with the complementary cookies to help keep him going until dinner.

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Edward had hoped to visit St Paul’s Cathedral but it was closed. This seemed strange given it is supposed to be a place for worship and quiet contemplation. He perched on a sign that seemed appropriate. Why it was there remained a mystery.

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Shops were open so a few important purchases were made, selected after careful consideration and tastings. Edward likes Whittard, although was sure on his last visit he was also provided with biscuits.

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Edward understands how important it is to take time to refuel when on an adventure. The Ivy at Tower Bridge provided a delicious chocolate bombe that was much appreciated.

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Edward regretted that he could not gain access to the Tate Modern as it is such an interesting building to explore. Instead, he observed Extinction Rebellion protestors gathered on the lawn as they prepared to cross Millennium Bridge. The surrounding streets were clogged with a great number of police vehicles, one of which had been given a parking ticket. Edward did not appreciate their noisy helicopter overhead but enjoyed the protestors’ musical offerings.

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Before returning home, Edward had a chance to chat to his good friend Paddington who told him the return of visitors has been most welcome, although his station remains quieter than it used to be. Edward then enjoyed a small snack before boarding his train.

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Edward was sad to say goodbye to London but concluded it is probably not worth visiting again until everywhere reopens with a full welcome. He was pleased that the fine weather enabled the outdoors to be enjoyed – especially along the lively South Bank – when so many indoor venues proved uninviting.

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Elizabeth enjoyed catching up with all the news of her capital city. Even with limited access, Edward agreed it was good to go adventuring again.

Book Review: The Song of Youth

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The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press. 

Author Interview: Sam Reese

Sam Reese Author Photo

Sam Reese is an award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. His latest book, On A Distant Ridgeline, was published this week – you may read my review here. I was delighted to be invited to interview him and hope my readers enjoy the answers he gave to my questions as much as I did.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, and I lived and worked in Australia and Europe before settling in York, where I teach at York St John University. I have been writing for as long as I remember, and my first published works were poems while I was at high school. Then, I discovered the short story—and fell in love. I completed a PhD on midcentury American short stories, and have published two critical books (on short fiction, and on jazz and literature) alongside my two collections of short fiction.

Can you tell us about your latest book, On a Distant Ridgeline?

On a Distant Ridgeline is a thematically linked collection of short stories, centred on desire, relationships, and connection to place. The stories span remote parts of Aoteaora, rural Spain, downtown Sydney, the highlands of Peru, and a village in Japan, but share a focus on how we navigate the things, people, and places we yearn for.

You describe yourself as an insatiable traveller. The short stories in your collection are set around the world, exploring themes of displacement and belonging, emotional as well as physical. Where do you feel that you belong?

That is a complicated question! Like most New Zealanders I know, I am deeply attached to the landscapes and rhythms of the country where I grew up. But as a pākehā—someone who is not indigenous to the country—I am also aware of my status as a visitor. Like some of the characters in my collection, my family moved to Aotearoa from France and Norway, along with Scotland and Wales, over the 19th century—and that family mythology has shaped my sense of who I am. There is part of me that has always felt a pull away. I haven’t lived in Aotearoa for more than ten years now either. Still, it is my point of reference when I think of feelings of home.

Although locals feature in the stories, main characters are often incomers. Were they developed from your personal experience or did you conduct research at settings?

My characters draw on my own experiences and research in equal measure. One of the things that I think is most powerful about fiction is the way that it can take an experience we think that we might understand, and reimagine it, opening up new ways of looking at ourselves—as a reader, as much as a writer. Many of the stories started with a memory or feeling I have had. But I use research, including conversations with people who have had quite different lives to mine, to help me reframe those experiences, shape them into something new.

I liked the idea of people being inherently different in how they understand – read – other people. Taking your descriptors, would you consider yourself an archivist (gathering knowledge) or an architect (able to see underlying
patterns)?

Yes, I find that there is often a wide gulf between the way that I understand other people and the way a friend might read them. I think that I’m more of an archivist, observing, noting down, and storing—though I aspire to an architect’s vision in my writing!

There are several mentions in your stories of: free diving, pottery, etymology and Greek myths. Are these personal interests?

They are! My undergraduate degree was in classics and English, and Greek myths have helped me make sense of my world since I was small—they also link On a Distant Ridgeline with my first collection, Come the Tide. My interest in etymology, too.

The motif of pottery—especially of shaping clay—is part of my larger interest in things made by hand. There are carvers and carpenters in these stories, too, reflecting my fascination with craftsmanship, and my curiosity in offering different ways of understanding the process of writing. I believe that writing is a craft, after all.

Free diving, and descriptions of lakes, rivers, the ocean (not to mention drowning) all reflect a similar double concern. I love the ocean, and feel a deep connection to the water. But swimming, diving, and submerging all offer powerful metaphors for understanding our fears and desires, and can shift quickly from comforting to terrifying.

Have you dived at the Whenuakura (Donut Island) lagoon?

I have visited Whenuakura, but I haven’t dived there—yet!

What is your favourite part of being a writer?

I love the feeling of immersion in the shaping of a story. When I write, I have the same feeling of the world disappearing that I get from swimming. It is a sense of flow. I also love the satisfaction of finding that what I have written has answered the challenge or problem that I set myself—of seeing something that I have shaped and
honed to the very best of my abilities.

And your least favourite?

I hate the process of submitting stories to magazines or competitions. And the feelings of jealousy or competition that the literary marketplace creates (and thrives on).

As a published author, what is the best advice you have been given?

Well, I think the best advice I’ve read was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel prize address: that three dimensional characters are less important than three dimensional relationships. But the best advice anyone has given me in person was to focus on writing in a style that feels true to yourself—rather than trying to write for what you think the market wants.

You are yourself a literary critic. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I do—I can’t help it. I know some writers avoid reviews of their work, or find that reading negative reviews really affects their confidence. I find that the insights I get from reviews are always useful in some way, though. My critical brain helps here—a lot of my work focuses on the reception of short fiction, so I have a broader perspective that helps to contextualise what reviewers say. I often think that I would love to read a very critical review of my work—but that might just be inviting trouble!

What small thing do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I buy myself a book! The more I read, the more I want to read

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

When I was a teenager, and theoretically poised for ‘coming of age’ stories, I absolutely hated them. But lately, I’ve been reading and loving some eccentric bildungsroman: Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture
Show, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction, and why?

My dream dinner would be with my favourite mid-century writers—Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Paul and Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty. Not because I’d want to talk to them about their writing per se (I prefer to let writers’ books do that), but because I’d want to talk to them about everything else. It might be unfair on my peers, but I find that those writers had so much sharper (and usually more interesting) insights on the world.

What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

“Why do you write?”

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On A Distant Ridgeline is published by Platypus Press

Robyn Reviews: The Devil Makes Three

‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a contemporary young adult fantasy following two students – Tess, a cello prodigy on a scholarship, and Eliot, the headmaster’s wealthy son – at an exclusive private school in Pennsylvania. It weaves a dark tale of bargains, demoncraft, and possession alongside commentary on elitism, family, and growing up too fast. The execution isn’t always there, but it’s a bold and ambitious story that makes an interesting read.

After Tess’s father spends all the family’s savings on his failing stationery business, Tess uses her family connections – and her abilities as a cello prodigy – to get both herself and her sister accepted into an exclusive private school. There, she works two jobs to try and earn enough money to fulfil her sister’s dream of going to medical school. It’s through her job at the library that she makes the acquaintance of Eliot Birch, the charming, entitled son of the headmaster. But there’s more to Eliot than there seems – he’s a witch, looking for a piece of magic powerful enough to save his dying mother. In search of a forbidden grimoire, Eliot enlists Tess’s help. However, instead of a grimoire, they find themselves unleashing a demon from his book bound prison – and he’ll stop at nothing in his quest to take Tess’s body for his own and ensure his freedom forever.

Tess and Eliot make excellent protagonists. Tess wants nothing more than to be left in peace to play her cello, but instead she’s found herself stepping into the figure of surrogate mother for her sister, Nat. She’s sacrificed her own dreams – and a place at a prestigious art institute – to get her sister into a school with the connections to get her into medical school. She works herself to the bone to earn money for her sister’s college fund, and earns her sister’s ire telling her off every time she steps out of line. Tess is a tough character, hardened by adversity and sheer force of will, but she has plenty of guilt and insecurity too – it’s impossible not to respect and feel sorry for her.

Eliot, meanwhile, at first glance seems every inch the entitled private school boy, but it doesn’t take much more than that to realise he’s the human equivalent of a marshmallow. All Eliot wants is to save his mum – but instead, he’s trapped on the other side of the Atlantic with his tyrannical father. With considerable resources at his disposal, Eliot doesn’t care how many toes he steps on – or how many librarians he drives to despair with endless book requests – as long as he can find a spell to help his mum. Eliot and Tess’s interactions are golden – the way they meet is hilarious, and Eliot quickly realises that Tess is way out of his league. Their growing relationship is adorable, and surprisingly free of many YA cliches.

This is a dark book in many ways. The devil torments Tess – and to a lesser degree Eliot – in a way that’s both gory and has significant elements of psychological horror. There are some graphic descriptions of corpses and decay. Eliot and his father also have an exceptionally unhealthy relationship – Headmaster Birch is controlling to the extreme and there’s a scene of physical abuse. It’s still a YA book, with nothing too heavy for the teenage reader, but it’s worth bearing in mind for those with sensitivities around horror or abuse.

I did have a few issues. There’s a little too much ‘telling’, with elements just stated to the reader rather than being discovered organically or even left a mystery to heighten the suspense. Certain elements are also a little too black and white to be believable – Eliot’s father has absolutely no redeeming features yet somehow manages to have a nice girlfriend, which I personally couldn’t understand. However, for a book which tries to pull a lot off, it mostly succeeds in telling an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Overall, ‘The Devil Makes Three’ is a solid entry into the YA dark fantasy or horror genre, with some interesting commentary on elitism and education too. Recommended for fans of psychological horror, soft male love interests, and complex family dynamics.

Thanks to Netgalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 14th September 2021

Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

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“Although truth is something that we can experience, it is never possible to express it properly in language because there is always some part that will resist the expression – that will stay unsaid.”

On a Distant Ridgeline, by Sam Reese, is a collection of twelve short stories set around the world. The scope and breadth of the settings are matched by the subjects explored within these pages. That said there are recurring themes: man’s affinity with water; the beauty to be found in creativity; etymology and Greek myths. The tales are tinged with a melancholy born of thoughts of what might have been had other choices been made. Characters are searching for home, to be found in people rather than place.

The author employs each of the senses to create evocative imagery. Food has colour, texture and aroma as well as taste. Music draws out aspects of characters, previously unseen. The way individuals view greens and blues highlight the variations in how surrounds are experienced and remembered, even by those there together. Memory is fragmented, offering comfort as well as regret.

In a note at the end of the book Reese writes of the short story form:

“because they are so short, they must work by implication, giving us the precise words that will make us see a room, a dawn, the start of love, a death. A short story takes a person’s life, perhaps a single day, and shows us the world.”

In leaving much to implication, the reader is trusted to understand both the dissonance and connections in each relationship, how it is only possible to know a fraction about how another person parses their world.

I am unfamiliar with the many locations in which these stories are set but most of the characters are recognisable travellers across time as well as space. Placing characters away from where they grew up enables their sense of belonging and displacement to be explored. Decisions taken haunt with what might have been.

“Did you know that’s what I have admired about you from the start – not your hand per se, but the way you stretch it out and grasp. You want to know more, to begin to glimpse the way that things relate to one another, brush aside the veil, see the place where they connect. It is different to me, the way that you find connections. You are not an archivist, shoring bits of knowledge up against a future loss; you’re an architect, someone who can see the underlying pattern”

A life is described as ‘a whittling, a loss’, in the way fragments of wood get discarded to enable a craftsman to create a desired shape. Others live through gathering, collecting what may appear disparate clutter but has potential to come together as a thing of beauty.

The stories are of: family and friendships, finding love and suffering loss, regret and redemption. Characters include fathers, brothers, lovers, colleagues, young and old friends. Such universal motifs are wrapped within prose that absorbs and transports the reader. There is darkness and yearning but also radiance.

A finely varied collection that is rich and rewarding to read. These are stories to be savoured.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Platypus Press.

Book Review: Some Rise By Sin

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“But do not be like one of those cold, calculating men who know much and in consequence, believe others to be of lesser worth. Acquire knowledge and understanding of the world and also of your neighbour, not for what it may bring in worldly goods, but for its own end.”

Some Rise By Sin, by Siôn Scott-Wilson, is historical fiction set in 1829 London. Told from the point of view of a young man named Sammy, it focuses on the hardships faced by those who possess scant assets and capital, who must scrape together a living by whatever means available. Sammy works with Facey, a friend from their shared childhood in Portsmouth. With help from a network of friends, informants and labourers the pair steal freshly dead bodies from graves to sell to wealthy men with an interest in anatomy. These grave robbers are known as Resurrection Men.

The story opens with a heist that, unbeknown to Sammy and Facey, will lead to a great deal of trouble. Amongst the poor and struggling there are those who would wield power through violence, raising themselves up by crushing any who threaten their nefarious business dealings. Sammy and Facey are well aware of who to steer clear of but cannot always avoid coming under the radar of those with eyes across the city’s underworld. A mistake can lead to brutal punishment, sometimes death, and the authorities have little appetite to investigate.

The tale told focuses on those living hand to mouth existences, who must do jobs such as: collecting faeces for tanneries and vegetable gardens, running errands, transporting goods on handcarts, begging from those passing by on the streets. In the background are the wealthy, most of whom care little for the labourers and scavengers who they regard as no better than animals. As in any strata of society, some are capable of kindness but there are also many users and ne’re-do-wells.

The first half of the book sets the scene, bringing to life a dark and vicious London barely imaginable to the privileged of today. Descriptions are sordid and explicit, capturing the stench, gore and violence. The rich men who feature are a mix of callous and condescending. Those who mean well often conflate poverty with ignorance. The author’s character development is impressive, the sense of place key. Although a somewhat slow read in places, details add depth and are there for a reason.

Around the halfway mark the pace of the plot picks up markedly. There is a chase scene that crosses the city, almost descending into farce but adding welcome elements of black humour. From here the tension is retained, the reader becoming more invested in outcomes as characters’ mettle is tested – sometimes in what may seem foolish confrontations. The brutality continues but the pulling together of threads – kick-started by one key section of expository dialogue – makes sense of the inclusion of previous descriptions. I was left with questions but these did not detract from the page-turning race to the ending.

Notably, there are few female characters with only one fully developed, who also serves as a love interest for Sammy. This was a time when death was common – from violence, illness, infection and childbirth. The precarious healthcare of the time is explored within a thread, as is the means of survival for children left without parents. Poor men lived through their wits, fists and dubious morality. If those featured sought women this is not mentioned.

For readers who cannot bear mention of animal cruelty, be aware this is graphically described – a reflection of the times portrayed. Entertainments often involved watching the deaths of fellow creatures, with betting on outcomes amidst heavy drinking. The book opens with a dog being cruelly punished for theft and this is accepted as fair.

In amongst the stench and dirt there are good people, although also many who will place acquaintances in danger when offered money for information. The law exists only for the gentry – one scene brings to life the flawed reasoning for this. Justice for any is rare, predicated as it is on protecting wealth and status.

The tale told provides a strong depiction of an historical period focusing on the paucity of lives being lived day by day rather than on aristocratic marriage machinations, politics or national affairs. Although not always a comfortable read this is due to the realism. As well as offering a strong story featuring goings on many may not have been aware of, it is a timely reminder that if an underclass exists without redress to legal protection, they will seek to survive by whatever means they feel necessary. For those who derided the pomp and inaccuracies of escapist Bridgertonset in a similar time period – this antithesis may be right up their street.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Deixis Press.

Gig Review: Launch Party for Dreamtime by Venetia Welby

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Last Wednesday I travelled to London for my first book event since lockdown began in March 2020. Venetia Welby, author of the fabulous Dreamtime, had invited me to the launch of this, her second novel. The venue chosen was Vout-O-Reenee’s, a private member’s club perfect for what turned out to be a well attended and convivial party. Copies of the book were being sold by Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books. I was delighted to hear afterwards that he sold out, although do hope that those who couldn’t pick up a copy on the night have now made their purchases elsewhere. Dreamtime is such a good read.

Attendees were warmly welcomed to the party and invited to partake of a Dreamtime Cocktail. Deliciously refreshing as it tasted I suspect a few of these may send the imbiber to their own dreamtime a tad earlier than anticipated. I made the pragmatic decision to switch to white wine after one glass.

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A selection of fine cheeses and chutneys were available for the hungry. Seats in a small outdoor terrace offered a few moments respite from the friendly hubbub inside. 

Numbers quickly increased with new arrivals finding friends and acquaintances to chat to. There appeared to be a good mix of family, friends and fellow authors, although I spoke to only a handful of guests. With my natural reticence I was grateful Venetia had been happy for me to bring along my husband. We enjoyed observing and soaking up the atmosphere.

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All were in attendance to celebrate the publication of a book so there was excitement when the author stepped forward to give a reading, the crowd gathering round to hear her bring life to her characters.

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When finished, the appreciative audience applauded and called out as one, ‘More! More! More!’ – a first in my experience at a literary event. Venetia’s riposte was perfect, suggesting that those wishing to find out what happened next could buy the book. And they did.

The evening was far from over with more mingling (me trying to recognise faces from social media). As numbers gradually started to thin husband and I took our leave.

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It was lovely to be back amongst bookish folk after so long, and well worth travelling to the city for. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Dreamtime, I recommend you rectify this soon.

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Dreamtime is published by Salt and is available to buy direct from the publisher (click the above cover for link) or from any good bookshop.

Book Review: Stories We Tell Our Children

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“There is much conjecture as to how much degeneration occurred from the oral tradition, once it was set down on the page and ramrodded into the literary canon. But nothing compared to the twenty and twenty-first century mutation of the morals such tales were supposed to inculcate. Besides, contemporary children’s imaginations are scarce populated with denizens from the faerie realm. Magic and transformation these days takes place courtesy of fibre optics, usually through a gunsight and lots of pixelated cruor.”

Stories We Tell Our Children, by Marc Nash, is a collection of short stories that explore how children are shaped by the words they hear spoken by the adults charged with raising them. Although dark in places the writing style is playful. It brings to the fore how some of the best intentioned actions and interventions, when observed objectively, make little sense. It is not just parents who are put under the microscope of the author’s perceptive and piercing gaze. Many of the stories included follow the children as they grow and develop. The impact of their upbringing is often not what the parents intended or could have foreseen.

The collection opens with a mother teaching colours to her young offspring. It highlights how parents simplify facts and work to keep children engaged in such supposedly fine educational forays, while drifting off at tangents themselves. This is followed by a tale of a boy caught in the crossfire of warring parents, fearing that their battles will escalate, resulting in a murder. Children do not, after all, see the world through adult eyes. The third story looks at the tooth fairy myth, begging the question why such lies are propagated when children are routinely castigated for fibbing. The children in many of these stories are the ones offering the voice of reason.

Several of the tales are imbued by classic stories, pointing out that many of these have recently been sanitised with dubious rationale. Others deal with the lasting damage that closely involved parenting can wreak. It was interesting to consider that a degree of parental neglect can encourage a burgeoning imagination – required to overcome boredom. Many of the parents trying to raise future successes are shown to be attempting to fulfil their own dreams vicariously.

Rescinderella is a clever inversion of the Cinderella story – one I particularly enjoyed, if that is a suitable word for what is a tragedy. Certain of these tales include disturbing incidents – this is not a collection demanding a happy ever after. And it is not just the troubled who have issues. The gifted and talented also end up with crosses to bear.

The impact of books and reading are recurring themes. The author explores the fictions characters devour alongside those they create to make their lives appear more acceptable and interesting, especially to themselves. When stripped back to what is basic existence, where time passes however filled, there is a shadow of nihilism.

Yet this is an entertaining, not depressing, collection. While some of the stories resonated more than others, there is much to glean from each entry. As well as parenting habits, the author pokes fun at the conceits of creatives – with wit rather than callousness. If readers find mirrors within these words it is with a droll recognition.

The writing style employs much play on available language. The author does not employ simple language when more interesting forms of expression may be utilised. That said, there is nothing difficult in the reading.

The overarching theme may be the stories we tell our children and how these impact their development, but the tales also bring to light the stories we tell ourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Edward Explores: A Happy Birthday

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In last month’s post readers were told that Edward likes birthdays. His favourite birthday is his own, which he celebrated recently. It was decided that such a special day deserved its own post in this occasional series.

A reminder, Edward Explores is written for fellow teddy bear appreciators. If you are here purely for the books you may wish to come back tomorrow.

As Edward’s birthday is such an important occasion there was champagne and cake. Edward shares the date with Chief Bearer who had requested chocolate brownies be made. Robin, a bear adopted from the wonderful Flump Bear Care, helped Edward check their quality. After several sizable tastings they declared the brownies excellent.

edward birthday pic 1Birthdays also benefit from a delicious meal out, preferably in the company of favourite people. Edward was happy to be taken to one of his favourite restaurants. Naturally, he dressed for the occasion.

Deciding what to eat can be a challenge when there are so many tasty options to choose from. Edward decided to try: bread and butter pudding with custard, warm chocolate brownie with ice cream, and chocolate chip banana bread with ice cream. 

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After carefully considered (and repeated) tasting he opted for the brownie. It was that sort of day.

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Bears will normally be in bed by 8 o’clock but birthdays can require a later night, especially when they have involved so much rich food. Thus Edward had a recovery lie in the next day. He enjoyed a healthy breakfast incorporating the last of the brownies.

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Freshly energized and determined not to waste what time was still available, Edward decided that, as a thank you for his birthday dinner, he would make chocolate truffles for his bearers and friends. These were much appreciated.

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Since his birthday, Edward has been on another adventure, one requiring a train journey! As it has been such an exciting month there will be a second post to tell his readers all about it. He is very happy to be out and about again. 

Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law