Book Review: Worlds From The Word’s End

Worlds From The Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh, is a collection of eighteen short stories that play with the meanings of words and the ideas they can convey. Some of the tales employ routine storytelling techniques, others are more opaque.

The collection opens with Two, which keeps the reader guessing what the Two may be. As with many of the stories, it references the passing of time in a not quite linear way. The setting is everyday but is inhabited strangely, reasons for this left to conjecture.

Bookselves considers how those who own books regard their possessions, how they accumulate and are used, how this changes over time. There are some gorgeous, rich phrases – books ‘fat with potential’, books left in bookshops because ‘they do not accuse you urgently enough’, books bought that now ‘ lie primed to spring, ever solicitous of your attention.’

The titular tale looks at a world that has run out of words which were too often misunderstood. It describes a relationship breakdown, where speech has failed as a means of communication:

“In the republic of words, I love you induced anxiety. How was your day? would elicit merely a sigh. I think people just got tired, tired of explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words.”

“You like women who are quiet? In the end it was not so difficult to let you go: you were only interested in the sound of your own voice. Pretty soon we had nothing left to say”

There are many interesting ideas to ponder throughout the book, although at times these rise above the storytelling, diverting attention from plot development. The insights are sharp and precise but translating relevance often less clear. Travelling Light, about the degeneration of a bulky shipment as it traverses Europe, could be a metaphor for many things.

I particularly enjoyed Femme Maison. Weaving the skeins of a familiar situation – going into a room for a reason only to be distracted, unable to recollect why there –  the story explores the changing value ascribed to accumulated possessions, including self.

Two Secretaries is an amusing depiction of unacknowledged rivalry in the workplace.

Enzo Ponzo challenges normalcy, telling an engaging story from an odd premise.

The Suitcase Dog I also found odd, one of the more opaque tales.

The premise and propogation in many of the stories can be strange in places yet each contains phrases that pierce the heart of the ideas they convey. They are perceptive, emotive. Several are also disturbing.

Simple Hans depicted sex acts more graphically than I care for.

Hauptbahnhof, about a person living in a railway station waiting for a person they someday expect to meet there, could be read as devotion yet is clearly obsession.

A collection that impresses for its use of language more than entertainment or ease of understanding. This is a book I have already returned to, gaining new insights with each revisit. It is a clever if not entirely straightforward read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

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Book Review: A Pocketful of Crows

A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne M. Harris, is a dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. The protagonist is a fourteen year old brown girl living wild and alone in woodland. She despises the restrictions under which the tame folk in the villages live with their trinkets and vanity, their societal rules and disconnection from nature. She has been warned by her people to stay apart so watches unseen, curious but content. Her special powers would be lost if she allowed these soft people to own her by bestowing a name.

The brown girl’s powers enable her to put herself inside other creatures. She flies with the birds, swims with the otters, hunts with the foxes and wolves. She will sometimes enter homes inside cats or rats to spy on residents. When not travelling in this way she rests in a hut she has built, eating the fish and small creatures she traps, the plants she picks. She wears garments sewn with feathers, stays warm under pelts.

A chance encounter, an act of kindness, brings the brown girl to the attention of the son of a wealthy landowner, stirring up new feelings she struggles to contain. She goes home with him believing his words of love, his promise of a golden ring. To be together requires assimilation and it is the brown girl who is expected to change. She pays a high price for her taming only to find that the young man is not as trustworthy as she had assumed.

The brown girl seeks advice from an elder. She must use the magic of her people to regain what she has lost if she is to survive this transformation she brought on herself. As the seasons turn and the villagers suffer hardships they look for someone to blame. The brown girl, having drawn their attention, is condemned as a witch. She must evade capture while she awaits the fruition of her carefully crafted vengeance. Nature may be beautiful but she is also merciless, as the brown girl must now be. Man’s power is shown to be weak, his beliefs fickle. Unlike the wild he has but one life and it is as nothing to an ancient earth.

I loved this story for the imagery, for the idea that such magic could exist. It offers a reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

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

Book Review: We Are The End

We Are The End, by Gonzalo C. Garcia, is a book from one of my favourite publishers and therefore a story I wanted to enjoy. Unfortunately I did not. My negative reaction led me to consider not posting this review but I try to be honest with my readers. The structure of the tale may have been intended as edgy, contemporary, experimental. I felt it lacked depth and coherency.

The protagonist is Tomás, a twenty-seven year old computer games designer living in Santiago who teaches at the local university one day a week. Tomás fits the often unjust cliché of the media derided millenial. He is self-absorbed and impractical, seeking validation without effort. Although desperate to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Eva, his attitude towards her is one of ownership and a desire for sex.

Tomás has recently moved into a new flat but has yet to put together a bed frame, sleeping instead on the floor or a couch. Eva took many of their possessions when she left so he drinks his coffee from the jug it is brewed in and eats his take-away meals from paper plates. His inability to move on with his life appears to preclude him from replacing what most would regard as essentials. He may not be rich but, from his other spending, could afford such basics.

Tomás is obsessed by Eva, refusing to accept their relationship is finished, something she has made clear. He drifts through his days achieving little, including the work required by his employers. When he manages to sleep he has vivid dreams. Between his wakeful and sleeping fantasies it can be a challenge at times to understand what is real.

A mutual friend informs Tomás that Eva, a marine biologist, has gone to work in Antarctica. Tomás decides that he will follow her, thereby proving his devotion and impressing her with his ability to be spontaneous. His planning is ludicrous but he does not appear to see this. If the ridiculousness of his purchases offers an attempt at humour it lacks urbanity.

Following a liason with a student, Tomás befriends a group of young people who work at a pawn shop. He attends events where he feels older than most, his concern at aging a recurrent theme. He is mocked for the way he chooses to dress and his general behaviour.

The writing is divided into sections narrating Tomás’s day to day activities, curated memories, ideas for computer games, and his dreams. The continuity can be somewhat fluid in places. His relationships with family and friends appear shallow and deceitful – his personal view of himself requiring that everyone see him in a more positive light than is deserved. His need to isolate himself from reality adds to the loneliness he will not own. His life has stalled.

I suspect that readers are meant to find many of the recurring themes depicted humorous, there is an element of burlesque. Tomás’s sexual fantasies culminate in a disturbing idea for a computer game that I found grotesque.

Tomás is envious of friends’ success, especially their depiction in memes. There is further irony such as a self proclaimed satanist named Jesús, and the absurdity of many situations Tomás finds himself in. He has a preoccupation with used chewing gum stuck under a desk. He considers himself busy yet does little with his days.

Water is referred to in many ways: the polluted river; a bath filled with booze that he climbs into fully dressed; the rainy weather and his lack of coat; a hole dripping water from his flat’s ceiling; his dreams of Eva and a house by the sea. Any joined up significance remains a mystery.

The roles of the protesters, party goers and various retailers add colour but little of substance. Tomás is depicted as impractical and oblivious; there are shades of parody, attempts at panache, but they fall short in conviction.

The book is a little over three hundred pages long. After one hundred pages an event was related which renewed my flagging interest. It was not retained. At just beyond two hundred pages there occured another event which was enough to propel me towards the end. That I was noticing such progress, willing myself to continue, demonstrates my lack of engagement.

I have the greatest respect for this small publisher’s ability to discover quality fiction. I will be interested in how other readers take to this tale with its often puerile representations. It was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Galley Beggar.

Book Review: The Reactive

The Reactive, by Masande Ntshanga, offers a snapshot of life in South Africa under the shadow of AIDs. Its protagonist is a young man named Lindanathi who is HIV positive. He spends his days getting high on drugs with two friends. All three are familiar with death having lost close family members. Lindanathi carries a burden of guilt following his younger brother’s death.

The trio are intelligent and articulate yet appear lacking in ambition. Perhaps it is the circumstances of their time and place that leaves them devoid of hope in a better way of living. They trade the drugs Lindanathi is given for his condition, using the proceeds to keep them supplied with alcohol, tobacco and glue. They hold down jobs they do not care for yet accept as their due.

The story, such as it is, unfolds slowly. An uncle gets in touch with Lindanathi calling in a promise made when his brother died. A mysterious client offers an unusually large sum of money for a supply of drugs. There is a disturbing scene played out with prostitutes. There are accusations of cultural appropriation.

Although working through these various plotlines the narrative provides cognisance more than action. In one scene the trio of friends are smoking on a beach pondering the history of a place where two foreign armies once fought over which of them owned the natives. Slavery is a shadow that has not fully dissipated, skin tone still affecting life’s possibilities.

Lindanathi had achieved a place at university but chose to drop out, causing a rift with his family. He drifts through each day seeking only chemical sensation. Whilst feeling compassion for the impact of his compromised health on his mental wellbeing, his inability to believe in a future for himself, it is hard to like his character given his actions.

The temperate prose and teasing out of the backstory engage the reader in a subtle yet substantial tale. I did get lost in places, failing to understand the significance of certain scenes, particularly involving the masked man. When reading any book it is necessary to interpret an author’s intended meaning. I suspect important elements of this tale were lost in my translation.

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

Book Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell, tells the story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the sibling. It is told from the point of view of Helen, born in Korea and adopted when a baby by Paul and Mary Moran of Milwaukee, USA. Helen was raised in her adoptive parents’ large if frugal home alongside her younger brother, also born in Korea and adopted when a baby. Their upbringing was not a happy one for multiple reasons, poignantly portrayed.

Helen now lives in New York City, in a shared studio apartment, where she is phoned by an uncle to be told of her adoptive brother’s demise. She describes herself thus:

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror I saw something upright and plain.”

Helen decides that she will fly to Milwaukee, despite not having contacted her parents in several years, to provide comfort and discover why her brother took his life. Arriving at their childhood home without warning she resents that the welcome given is less than effusive. She is irritated by the presence of a grief councillor as this was the role she had assigned herself.

In the days leading up to her brother’s funeral, Helen questions those who had spent time with him in the years since she left. He had remained in Milwaukee and still lived with their parents. Helen’s interrogations prove upsetting. Even her attempts at being helpful are not well received.

It is clear from early in the story that something about Helen is out of kilter. She prides herself on her ethical practices and reliability, that she has transformed herself into someone she regards as virtuous. She aims to offer succour yet seems incapable of empathy.

The narrative voice has a disturbing undercurrent. Helen’s scattered thoughts, inappropriate sharing, her ragged memories and attempts at fitting in, can erupt into antisocial behaviour. She believes her needs are often ignored in favour of others. She has cultivated a strategy for survival that proves brittle under stress.

There are moments of humour, particularly around Helen’s work as an after-school supervisor of troubled young people. That she can support herself in this way perplexes those who knew her from Milwaukee. She feels satisfaction that she managed to get, and stay, away.

The restless prose travels inexorably towards a climax that is deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered. Helen’s isolation pulses with dark energy.

A powerful evocation of a family damaged despite well meaning intentions. A tragedy of the living as well as the dead.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: Selected Stories

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Selected Stories is a collection of twelve short stories written in spare, understated prose that resonates with poignancy and perception. Many are set in or link back to the same small corner of Gaeilge speaking north-west Ireland. Time frames differ but the characters harbour familiar hopes, joys and despairs. These are tales of small yet complex lives as lived inside individual’s heads where experiences are curated to fit personal ideals. Resulting disappointments or absurdities are sympathetically rendered. There are few surprises as the plots develop but portrayals are replete with insight.

The collection opens with ‘Blood and Water’ which explores a family’s treatment of an aunt, regarded as odd yet fortunate to have been born in a time and place that accepted atypical behaviour without need for scientific labels or state sanctioned treatment. There are kindnesses and cruelties dealt. Neglect is passive if selfish, discomfortingly familiar.
Family and how members regard each other’s behaviours is a recurring theme. Duty visits assuage guilt more than helping the afflicted. Those who leave are expected to desire a return, their reasoning regarded as insignificant. The difficulty of understanding other’s feelings shines through.

In ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ two sisters travel to America to take up positions as housemaids. The younger decides en route that she will marry instead. Particular challenges of tying one’s life to another are deftly depicted. The sisters believe they have each made the better choice and must thereafter continue to convince themselves.

‘The Day Elvis Presley Died’ explores a relationship between an Irish and an American student on holiday with his parents. The first shine of lust has worn away revealing still unacknowledged differences.

“She heard him, and understood what he was saying. But she went on imagining another story for herself”

‘The Banana Boat’ is also set during a holiday and explores the precariousness of life and randomness of death. It is told from the point of view of a mother trying to involve her teenage boys in family activities, which could too easily go awry.

The latter stories in the collection revolve around writers and their literary world. They explore the value of the craft, the possibility of originality, and how quality can or should be measured.

‘Literary Lunch’ offers an acerbic look at those who select the recipients of grants and prizes. There is sycophancy and favouritism alongside the desire for recognition. Those continually passed over become increasingly venomous. The consequences of revenge are ironically dealt with in the following tale.

‘The Coast of Wales’ provides a fine conclusion, dealing as it does with the impact of a death. Despite the morbid setting and subject matter it is an uplifting read.

Any Cop?: These stories are richly satisfying with a voice that is distinctly Irish yet universally relevant. It is fluent, effective storytelling.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Attrib.

Attrib. (and other stories), by Eley Williams, is a collection of seventeen short stories exploring the difficulties inherent in human communication. The author wields her prose with sensory precision. Her words and the silences between convey both the beauty and the grotesque nature of relationships. They reveal the distance between internal thought processes and their articulation.

Each tale captures a moment and the attendant waterfall of words cascading inside a protagonist’s head. These include simple observations, tangential dreams and unspoken aspirations. The difficulty of conveying even a fraction of understanding demonstrates the limitations of dialogue. A hand held, a kiss or a silence can say more than many words.

The collection opens with The Alphabet in which the narrator is slowly losing their vocabulary due to aphasia. As time passes their abilities deteriorate despite concerted efforts to slow degeneration. The telling is both poignant and piercing.

Swatch presents two young boys sitting in a cramped cupboard during a game of hide and seek. Peter considers objects through a lens coloured by the paints his father utilises. Stuart’s interests as they wait to be found are more prosaic.

I enjoyed Smote for the anguish of the narrator over whether or not to attempt a simple action, the consequences of which they chew on fiercely before having the decision taken from them. I will not pretend to understand all references made, as was the case with several stories, but the undercurrents still resonated.

Birdsong makes a recurring appearance, as does the complexity of lovers’ relationships and their misunderstandings. In And Back Again the protagonist ponders the possibility of proving their devotion by acting out the lyrics of a song despite being told clearly by the object of their affections how ridiculous they would consider such a gesture. The question hovers, who any romantic deed benefits the most.

Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef had me Googling to see if this grotesque practice had any basis in reality. I was distressed to find it did. Also distressing, for similar reasons, was Spines. Although an excellent study of the compromises made in order to maintain relationships the unnecessary and casual cruelty to small creatures had me in tears.

Platform considers a stranger inadvertently captured in a photograph during a moment missed by the narrator at the time due to their own concerns. It is a reminder that the whole world turns wherever we are with our own lives.

These stories offer much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression. The moments of quiet brutality left me raw with their honesty, but this was a worthwhile read.

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