Book Review: Pupa

Pupa

Pupa, by J.O. Morgan, is another triumph from the Henningham Family Press. The author has created a story of the pains and pleasures of young love – although the emotions portrayed are never described in this way – that is eerily disturbing. It explores repercussions when one party chooses to move in a new and unanticipated life direction.

The protagonists – Sal and Megan – are not human as we would understand the term, and yet they populate a world recognisable for its behaviours. The power of the novel comes from the skill with which this world is built and gradually revealed, avoiding detailed exposition yet giving the reader everything they need to know to understand why choices are made. What comes to the fore is how any future remains unknown until personally experienced, however much research and preparation is undertaken. Even those trusted will, at times, prove unpredictable.

The story is divided into two sections – early phase and late phase. It opens with Sal in bed at home recounting a dream, and provides the first descriptions of what we will learn are known as larvae – the juveniles of the population. Sal lives with his father, Madox, although this older being is also a larval.

Adults exist, such as a family acquaintance, Inspector Augustine, who claims he wants to help Sal with whatever decisions he makes. Free choice and support is available, but the young do not always fully understand or trust the vague promises and reassurances of their elders. Occasional transcripts from radio broadcasts suggest a strange type of propaganda is being deployed.

The larvae are humanoid if not human. The young are fragile creatures but as they grow become capable of working repetitively. I was drawn to examine, as the story unfolded, how every stage in their development can easily be transposed onto our own life choices and changes – emotional as well as physical. Any such comparison is subtle and nuanced, adding depth without clagging the flow of reveals.

Larvae can pupate and, in this world, it is a choice, but one that comes with risk. Lurking in the shadows are beings who choose to destroy potential lives, something Augustine’s job requires him to investigate and which he attempts to share with Sal.

There are areas of housing within the locality of the setting regarded as dodgy, in which goings on are kept hidden despite authorities being aware of what is likely happening there. Sal and Madox are just beginning to explore what lies beyond the routine of their safely controlled day to day, although doing so individually. Each wants to share with the other but fears their disapproval.

The undercurrents may be disturbing but this is not a horror story. Rather, it holds a mirror to our own supposed civilised existence, reflecting attributes that discomfort when stripped of veneer. The precision of the prose is impressive, enabling the plot to retain pleasing momentum even as it percolates.

The build up to the denouement is imaginative while oozing trepidation. The author skilfully renders some of the costs of maturation.

As with every book from this press, the physical form is something special. From the feel of the cover through the artistic end papers and quality typesetting, the complete product is a pleasure to hold and peruse. All this would, of course, add little if the story told were not so beguiling and engaging. An audacious and highly recommended read.

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

Book Review: No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall

building a wall

No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall, by Ruth Brandt, is a collection of eighteen short stories that explore, in eminently readable and engaging prose, a myriad of challenging lived experiences. Whilst there is an undercurrent of melancholy, this is infused with the beauty to be found when one pays attention. Love, with its many shades, is valued yet cut through with the cruelties inflicted by individuals who, inevitably, look out for themselves. There is also humour alongside an appreciation of transitory moments that prove pivotal. It becomes clear that the now can only be experienced through a lens coloured by what has gone before.

The collection opens with Happy Ever After, in which a mother waits desperately for news of her grown son, who is missing. The structure is clever and effective in offering the reader events from a variety of perspectives. The ending elicits sympathy despite its shocking nature.

Several stories explore child and parent relationships – the love and the disconnects alongside the damage inflicted by parents’ chosen actions, however well intentioned.

Strands features a young boy as he is moved between foster homes, a process that colours his development into adulthood, his ability to trust others and himself. He is regarded as trouble and continues to believe this.

There are a number of stories that follow the difficulties encountered due to sexual attraction. Petrification, set in Iceland, follows a hoped for holiday romance. Lifetime looks at the worries caused by age difference, but in a wonderfully off-centred way.

I enjoyed Superstitions in particular with its supposedly practical and fact valuing protagonist. She is taking part in an experiment involving a ladder and a cat but with questionable measures and aims. The humour provided in the ending was neatly executed.

Many of the stories have a pleasing ‘life is for living’ element, one that feels particularly valuable given our current situation. In Heading West an elderly man sets out to visit the seaside. His pursuit may seem foolish yet comes across as hopeful. His attempts to gender a young driver who helps him adds nuance to a poignant yet uplifting tale.

Snow Blindness is set during a ski holiday. A woman is spending her time focused on living longer by not taking risks.

“obsessing over whether the next check-up will be clear, retreating from the world to live in total safety all those extra minutes, months or years gifted her by expert doctors.”

Meanwhile, her partner determines to enjoy the moment, however foolhardy this may appear to a woman who believes he should deny himself pleasures she does not approve.

“Today he is going to squander his life, spend every last moment of it. Christ, today he feels alive.”

Stories include: spies and refugees, the bullied and depressed, young carers and children caught up in parental conflict.

Stop all the clocks imagines a seventeen year old Turing, dealing with school in the aftermath of his best friend’s death. Knowing how this affected him in real life adds to its power – how authority at the time tried to quash and ignore what was a desperate cry for understanding.

The writing is skilfully rendered, offering stories that are affecting and humane. There is much to consider in how we choose to live, the effect choices and personally proclaimed edicts have on others in the longer term, the walls being built between loved ones when they will not act in an approved way.

This is an engaging, timely and worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Book Review: Colchester WriteNight

colchester writenight

Colchester WriteNight is a monthly community event that offers members the opportunity to learn from guest speakers, write together, and share their work. The group has been running for ten years and decided to commemorate this anniversary by publishing a short prose collection, in collaboration with Patrician Press. The contributors are a mix of published and as yet unpublished authors (until now…) – members who accepted the invitation to contribute a piece that would fit the theme Open/Open Book. The editors’ choices provide an eclectic mix of short stories from writers honing their craft.

I found this book a tonic to read. On a personal note, when I first started writing I enjoyed creating short works of fiction inspired by weekly prompts put out by the editors at Yeah Write. After a year or so of taking part, and carefully considering the feedback given, it became clear to me that I did not have the requisite skills to write the novel I had dreamed of. What I had learned was that writing is fun and therapeutic but writing longform quality fiction requires a high level of imagination, research and dedication. It takes time, and at the end there may be no publisher willing to take it on. It was this that made me decide to attempt to raise the profile of others’ books rather than create my own. It is good to know that community writing groups exist elsewhere – in person when allowed – and offer encouragement to writers wishing to test their mettle, either for fun or as a stepping stone to potential publication.

What we have here then is sixteen tales, some raw, a few finishing somewhat abruptly, but all highlighting the eagerness of the storyteller to entertain readers. There are impressively imaginative ideas at play in places – Jesus On A Park Bench by Jonathan King was a particular favourite. Life sparks from the pages in many forms.

Recurring themes are explored. Isolation, especially within families where role can subsume innate character leading to often unacknowledged despondency, struck a chord – especially given the ongoing effects of lockdown. Couples struggle with emotional bullying. On Reflection by Helen Chambers takes a possible alternative life to a new level.

There are also more hopeful stories. Lives open up new vistas following the death of a partner. Humour is employed to effect. Open by Wendy James was fun to read despite being about a relationship breakdown.

I enjoyed the idea behind Ms Wiffle’s Open Book by Katy Wimhurst, in which a young woman finds herself capable of offering fellow village residents very specific warnings of future events. I also appreciated the meta aspects of Open Book: 1995, 2009, 2021 by Alice Violett.

The book is described as a ‘celebration of community creativity’. It is a delight to see these writers being given the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It is also good to know that groups like WriteNight exist to offer them friendship and support.

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

Robyn Reviews: Far from the Light of Heaven

‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is pitched as a locked room mystery in space, with elements of space opera and elements of old-fashioned detective drama. It’s an audacious premise, and while it doesn’t entirely come off, it’s still an entertaining and fast-paced story.

Michelle ‘Shell’ Campion is from a line of astronauts, and there was never any doubt in her mind that she’d end up in space. For her first mission, she’s assigned as First Mate on the starship Ragtime – an entirely ceremonial position, providing backup to an AI captain that’s never failed. Except, when Shell wakes in the Lagos system, she discovers the AI has failed – and some of her passengers are dead. With the help of Rasheed Fin, a disgraced investigator from the colony Bloodroot, his robotic partner Salva, and a couple of unexpected allies, Shell must figure out who’s attacking her ship – before they kill them all.

The story starts strongly, introducing the main players and setting the scene organically, without resorting to reams of description of technology or futuristic culture. There’s also clear foreshadowing, with emphasis on the infallibility of the AI and hints of characters needing a redemption arc. It’s unclear exactly how far into the future the novel is set, but the Earth described retains hints of current culture whilst also showing hints of divergence, making it easy to settle in.

All the characters are likeable enough without being particularly memorable. The strongest is probably Larry, an ageing governor on Lagos Station and friend of Shell’s late father. Fin also has an intriguing backstory and brings an emotional element sometimes lacking from some of the others.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that there’s a level of disconnect between the reader and the characters throughout – they’re deliberately kept at a distance, very much observing through the keyhole rather than sitting down at the table. It makes the characters seem a little two-dimensional, and also makes them less memorable. Every moment of tension loses some impact because the reader empathises less without that connection. In a book that relies on a fast-pace and constant threat of danger, that’s a major downside.

The second criticism is related to the first, and it’s a loss of believability towards the end of the novel. Science fiction and fantasy as a genre revolves around the reader believing in the major or science within the book – believing that, in this world or version of it, these things are possible. Perhaps due to the lack of reader connection, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ starts to lose its plausibility towards the end. There are certain elements I couldn’t bring myself to buy, and it affected my enjoyment. That being said, the novel tries to pack an awful lot into a short space of time, and I admire Tade Thompson for having the guts to try and pull something so difficult off.

The mystery element is creative, twisty, and keeps the reader guessing, so in this way the novel excels. Thompson isn’t afraid to blend genres and go down rabbit holes to hide the twists, and many of the new directions are completely unpredictable. Some of the foreshadowing is there, but it would be incredibly difficult to guess the ending before at least three quarters of the way in.

Overall, ‘Far From the Light of Heaven’ is a solid mystery novel that utilises its sci-fi setting well. For fans of character-driven stories it’s a weaker tale, but for fans of fast-paced, audacious novels that like to try something new it’s a recommended read.

Thanks to Orbit UK for providing an arc – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 26th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021

Book Review: A Narrow Door

narrow door

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and had been looking forward to reading A Narrow Door since she mentioned some time ago that her work in progress was a return to St Oswald’s school in Malbry. Whilst not a particular fan of Dark Academia as a genre, I very much enjoyed two of the previous books in this series – Gentlemen and Players and Different Class. The books are described as psychological thrillers and I was expecting the tense and taut pacing of the earlier works. Sadly, I struggled to engage this time round.

The story is told from two points of view and across two main timelines. Roy Straitley, the elderly Classics teacher now with worrying health issues, makes a return although he mostly serves as a listening ear, only occasionally adding a noteworthy opinion. The protagonist is Rebecca Buckfast, the new headteacher. It is made clear that appointing a woman to this role is quite shocking in such a traditional setting. She has taken the reins in the year that the Boys Grammar School merges with its sister school, Mulberry House, thereby admitting girls to the hallowed halls. In an attempt to create a fresh start after two difficult years, St Oswald’s has been rebranded an Academy.

The opening draws the reader in immediately. There are introductions to other members of the teaching staff, alongside key pupils, bringing readers who are new to the series up to speed on internal loyalties and enmities. References are made to events that damaged the school’s reputation and therefore finances – these were the plotlines of the earlier books in the series. Aspects mentioned would be better understood if the stories were read in order.

Rebecca Buckfast has a high opinion of herself and is proud of her appointment, believing she has worked harder for it than a man would have to. She also admits in the first chapter that she has committed two murders. The rest of the book contains her life story, as she tells it to Roy. She is his boss yet reveals intimate details, including aspects of her sex life. To this reader such divulgences felt inappropriate. The author worked as a teacher so maybe such behaviour happens. Fiction, of course, is often not realistic. Nevertheless, the way this book is structured too often jarred.

The plot revolves around the fallout from a pivotal event that occurred when Rebecca was five years old. At the end of the school year her teenage brother, Conrad, disappeared from his school – the neighbouring King Henry’s Grammar – never to be seen again. All but his parents believe he is dead. The parents’ lives paused on the day Conrad went missing. This has shadowed Rebecca’s life. She believes her parents remained sad that the wrong child stayed with them.

Rebecca struggled as a single, teenage mother yet managed to qualify as a teacher. She met her partner, Dominic, when they both worked at the local comprehensive. He was unhappy when she accepted a role at St Henry’s. Roy grows more interested in the history she is telling him when he realises her time there coincided with that of his long time friend, Eric, whose reputation couldn’t survive damaging allegations that previously shocked Roy to the core.

As is to be expected in a thriller: breadcrumbs are dropped before reveals are made; certain characters turn out to be not quite what they seemed; memory skews what later pulls threads together; and our main narrator proves she is not averse to underhand measures to get her way. There are hat tips to contemporary issues such as the treatment of gay and transgender pupils. There is an excellent ‘prank’ by Roy’s favoured Brodie Boys.

I enjoyed the ending, and not just because I could now stop reading a story that seemed at times to move along glacially. This is not a bad book but is not as good as I have come to expect from the author. Despite all the revelations, too many characters lacked sufficient depth, their role coming across as inauthentic. My main gripe remains that I wasn’t captivated as previously in the series.

Any Cop?: A thriller that failed to thrill this reader.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Dead Relatives

dead relatives

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is the book for the spooky season. It is a collection of thirteen short stories – eight of which have previously appeared in other publications, the remainder original to this collection. The author is expert at writing the macabre into the ordinary. The shadowed and shifting undercurrents permeate characters’ everyday interactions and behaviour.

The titular opening story is also the longest, building tension from the first page. It is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Iris, who lives with her Mammy and their two loyal servants in the crumbling family mansion. Iris has never been beyond the grounds, which she remembers were once well maintained. Set in the 1960s, the family own neither television nor radio. She learns of the outside world only from the array of ladies who periodically come to stay. Iris’s best friend is her doll, but even this must be kept hidden.

“‘Cold hands, cold heart,’ I say, which is what Mammy always says, and I smile my special smile, just for her. I want to show her Dolly. I think Nancy would like Dolly, because Dolly is a lot like me and it seems that Nancy likes me. But I remember what Mammy has said, and so I keep quiet about Dolly. Instead, I put my hand out and rest it on Nancy’s belly.”

The second story, Jutland, tells of a young family moving to the Danish island where the artist husband hopes to concentrate on his painting. The wife, Ana, is a writer, struggling to revive the novel she was forced to set aside following the birth of her second child. The couple’s firstborn has yet to speak, communicating with gestures. Ana is not happy, resentful of her husband’s demands now her role is defined as mother and milking machine.

“He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit. But me? I’m a writer. Would you like to hear about that? About the awards I have won and the reviews in the broadsheets?”

There are subtle links between individual stories, small mentions of features previously employed in the varied narratives. What runs through each tale is the unhappiness inherent in families. Some revolve around tragedies, others ingrained character traits. All are nuanced, the reader trusted to make connections.

The Pickling Jar is as shocking as it is darkly humorous, telling of a village community with competitive traditions that are seriously questionable.

Cavities is one of the shorter stories but packs a powerful punch. The lingering sadness makes it hard to blame the protagonist for her actions.

Likewise, Resting Bitch Face, provides a warning of the potential repercussions when women are badly treated. Many of these stories are not for the faint hearted.

Some of the later tales move in the direction of the supernatural rather than the macabre. Mostly these uncanny elements invade insidiously. Children in particular struggle through lack of what they long for, even those being raised by parents who care for them. Those whose lives are followed into adulthood carry with them the damage inflicted.

Wretched is set in a near future Britain and provides a timely warning about acceptance of government propaganda. Citizens are given a Value Index that determines what goods they have access to, including food. The Initiative clears the streets of undesirables, processing them to provide a compliant labour force. Even those who perceive what is being done often choose to look away for fear of social censure and personally damaging repercussions. There is a chilling recognition of the direction England could currently be heading.

The final story, The Birds of Nagasaki, details a key event in the lives of a young brother and sister. The cruelty featured is deeply upsetting despite centring on an item of clothing. The skill with which the author makes readers care is impressive.

In fact this entire collection is impressive. The writing is taut and fluid, disturbing yet compelling. The horror is subtle yet penetrating. A darkly fabulous, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Robyn Reviews: My Dark Vanessa

‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a challenging book – immensely uncomfortable to read but impossible to look away from. It’s also a powerful one, brilliantly written and thought-provoking. As a debut novel, it’s an exceptional achievement, establishing Kate Elizabeth Russell as a literary force. This is the sort of book you have to be in the right mood to read, but one that lingers long after the final page.

Aged fifteen, a scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school in Maine, Vanessa Wye entered into a sexual relationship with her forty-two-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, the same teacher is publicly accused of sexual assault by a former student, and Vanessa’s entire world turns on its head. He can’t be an abuser. The relationship he and Vanessa had was love, the greatest love story of her life – wasn’t it? As the world shakes with the #MeToo movement, Vanessa grapples with everyone’s insistence in painting her a victim – and the man she has never shaken free from a villain.

Vanessa Wye is a brilliant protagonist, but not a likeable one, which is at the heart of what makes this book such a powerful read. Aged fifteen, she’s an outcast – she’s lost her best friend, Jenny, to a new boyfriend, and as a poor kid from rural Maine she doesn’t really fit in her polished, exclusive school. Her connection with Mr Strane feels like fate – he’s the only one who truly sees and understands her.

Aged thirty-two, she’s still an outcast, but an outcast with sharp edges. Her entire life has been defined by one teenage relationship, and she can’t seem to extricate the broken pieces of herself from him; she isn’t sure that she wants to. She fills in the gaps with alcohol, weed, casual sex – men who make her feel like she did at fifteen. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she still calls him. She hates herself after, but it’s the only time she ever feels at peace.

The story is set across two timelines – Vanessa at fifteen, and Vanessa at thirty-two. The entire book is told from Vanessa’s perspective. Russell mentions in the author’s note at the end that she was advised by editors to explore Strane’s perspective, but she refused, and I think it’s all the better for it – Vanessa’s head is an uncomfortable place to be, but there’s a real tension and atmosphere from being constantly submerged in it. It forbids the reader any escape from the horrors of Vanessa’s life – after all, she has none.

“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?… it’s my life… This has been my whole life.”

The writing style is exquisite, but also challenging. Vanessa struggles with seeing her relationship with Strane through a negative lens – part of her knows it was wrong, but she’s also always seen it as a love story. He’s the most important figure in her life. Accordingly, parts of the novel are written very much like a romance, albeit a twisted one, a narrative choice that won’t agree with every reader. This is an explicit book, and while some elements are clearly abusive, Vanessa sees others quite differently, forcing the reader to consider them through that lens too. The writing is highly readable, flowing beautifully and painting incredibly detailed imagery – but its strength forces the reader to take a step back during certain scenes because of its sheer visceral and discomforting nature.

A big part of the novel focuses on what it means to be a victim. Vanessa struggles to see herself in any of the victims splashed across the media in the #MeToo era. Can you still be a victim if you didn’t say no? Can you still be a victim if you enjoyed it? Can you still be a victim if you love your abuser? Vanessa has been groomed and moulded until she can’t look at herself without also seeing Strane. To hate him would be to hate herself. Her musings are painful but vital – it’s easy to sympathise with abuse victims in an abstract way, but far more challenging to consider the marks left behind and the effects those have for the rest of a person’s life.

This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. Anyone with sensitivities around abuse, especially sexual abuse or abuse of minors, will likely find this book too much. Similarly, those who need a likeable protagonist they can connect to won’t find that here. However, for those with interests in human psychology or who want to understand the impact of abuse, this is a powerful read. Highly recommended.

Published by Fourth Estate
Hardback: 31st March 2020
Paperback: October 2020

Book Review: The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved

passing of forms

“Looking back at the altar I see that my mother is crying again. Bea’s hand is on her shoulder and she is comforting her. I watch the two of them and they are little more than apparitions.”

The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved, by Christopher Boon, is narrated by a man looking back on a traumatic period in his life. It is written as if what is being described is current, which gives the prose an immediacy, although can, in places, throw the reader as to when, chronologically, events are taking place. Details are rich in imagery with a wide array of language used to effect. With much to savour in the rendition, it is not a tale that can be rushed.

The story is told in three parts: Death, Disintegration, Dismemberment. The first of these details the deterioration of the narrator’s father as he slowly and painfully dies from cancer. During this time the son visits his parents regularly and witnesses the harrowing and grotesque effects of the disease. The account is blisteringly honest and repellent.

When not at the family home he lives in a house share and works at a wine warehouse. Here he meets Bea and they drift into a relationship. The narrator is much taken with the idea that the two of them could have a future together but is often distracted by the horror of his family circumstances. He is reaching for an elusive side to himself, unable to communicate his desires due to emotional reticence. In describing the burgeoning relationship there remains a detachment, a void he appears yearning to fill. The memories recounted are tinged with an almost suffocating melancholy.

The narrator is regretful that he cannot feel closer to his parents, to enjoy their company and converse with ease. It is obvious that he has always been loved and supported, yet he wears this as a yoke rather than a blessing. He remains unable to appreciate the happy lives the couple built for themselves over many shared years. Following his father’s death he cannot shake the feeling that any effort made in life is wasted. All will one day turn to dust, hard won achievements forgotten by others, valued possessions consigned to a skip.

The introspective descriptions include much detail on surroundings. The narrator closely observes objects while failing to see people as anything else. His recollections jump between the ‘now’ of the tale and his past – childhood, adolescence, the tentative steps into adulthood. The reader only knows he is looking back because of occasional mentions of future events. He is considering choices made and the shadows these cast. His memories, rich in detail, remain stunted emotionally.

“watching it all as through muslin such that the details of whether it was by medics or undertakers into ambulance or hearse remain murky yet still somehow vividly formed with the minutae of incidentals”

While deep in his grief, even if this is not in the form he imagined, a childhood friend reappears. The narrator’s inability to communicate thoughts and feelings with others results in unrealistic obsessions. He becomes consumed by his past and what might have been.

“Melancholy with remembrance and with the slow burning away of time”

What should be fun and beautiful experiences become devoid of meaning. He wallows in an invented future populated by a character he projected.

“I find it difficult to formulate meaningful responses because I’m caught up in this almost demented mythologising of her”

Fiction is often either plot driven or character driven. This is neither. The plot progresses slowly with details foreshadowed and then revealed gradually. The characters lack depth – as fits the failure of empathy in the narrator. What comes to the fore in reading this work is the richness in descriptions of observations – that ‘minutae of incidentals’.

The narrator revisits places that had resonance to try to resurrect what are blinkered memories. Throughout his life beyond childhood, the people he has interacted with are rarely valued unless players in his imagined future. When the facade he has built in his head crumbles, so does he.

There are complex and interesting layers in the tale: the impact of grief, the parent / child relationship, potential personality disorders, depression and its effects. Although still young at the time the story focuses on, the narrator is well educated and widely travelled, yet he struggles with day to day socialising – with reading people. There is much to mull from the history revealed as to causes of this.

An interesting work that may be appreciated for the intensity of language used and ideas explored. Not a quick or easy read but one that will linger.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.

Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

distant ridgeline

“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.