Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017

Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

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

Robyn Reviews: The Absolute Book

‘The Absolute Book’ is a contemporary portal fantasy novel of epic scope, drawing in influences from Norse mythology, the Fae, and tales of forbidden books and burning libraries. However, it’s also very much literary fiction, written in a style reminiscent of Dickens and other classics. The combination will work for some readers, but unfortunately I found the fantasy elements unoriginal and the literary elements tedious, labouring too much on tangents and unnecessary description and never allowing the reader to connect to the characters. I suspect this is a book for literary fiction readers who wish to dabble in fantasy rather than established fans of the fantasy genre.

Seeking revenge for her sister’s death, Taryn Cornick – the spoilt daughter of a well-known actor and pampered wife of a wealthy husband – allows a man called the Muleskinner to murder the supposed killer. Her actions draw the attention of DI Jacob Berger – but they also come to the attention of those far more otherwordly. For her family’s library has been hiding a secret, and those in a realm very far away now see Taryn as key to finding it. Thus begins a quest that will span the breadth of the Earth, and several other words as well, to find the secret – and perhaps save all the realms in the process.

There’s very little to say about either Taryn or Jacob, despite them being the protagonists. Knox doesn’t focus on her characters as more than plot devices. Taryn is a spoilt, wealthy woman who’s experienced a great deal of grief – the loss of her beloved sister, and the subsequent decline and loss of her mother. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for her given how insubstantial and selfish she is. She has no clear motivations or drive, no wishes in life. She publishes a book, and seems to have knowledge and passion on the subject, yet has little to no interest in her own life. It’s possible she’s intended to portray someone with severe depression, but she’s so underdeveloped as a character it becomes almost impossible to tell.

Jacob, a police detective who becomes unhealthily invested in both the case against Taryn and Taryn herself, is equally insubstantial. His life before Taryn is never shown – he simply appears, and his life becomes her bizarre story. Once again, he has no motivations – he claims he wants to solve the case, yet shows little interest in pursuing it once the answers become apparent. Almost nothing about the plot would change if he wasn’t in the book at all, which shows how flimsy he is as a character.

The plot is very standard fantasy quest fare – a missing, very powerful, world-changing object must be found to save the worlds. Similarly,world-hopping, with secret passages to worlds beyond Earth, is well-trodden ground in fantasy because it’s a device with huge creative potential. The world Knox creates is intriguing – the inhabitants have very different morals and politics to humans, with the ethics of how they dip in and out of human lives and history mused on in an engaging way – but overall it’s underutilised. Powers are introduced only to be very mentioned again, and ethical dilemmas discussed only to be summarily brushed over and never dealt with again. There are glimmers of brilliance, but none of them come to fruition.

My biggest issue, however, is with the writing. Knox favours writing filled with lavish descriptions and constant tangents, almost like a stream of consciousness. Passages which start as serious conversations meander off into observations on the weather, characters outfits, memories of the past, random and entirely unrelated facts. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s actually happening as there are constant diversions, most of which are entirely irrelevant. The novel could tell the same story with a fifth of the words, leaving some room for developing characterisation and narrative tension. Some people will likely appreciate the wealth of descriptions, but whilst I enjoy descriptions that create atmosphere, I’m less fond of unneccessarily long novels that lack purpose.

My other issue is the sexual undertones that several passages have. There are frequent references to Taryn’s breasts in strange moments, and several times when it is explicitly mentioned a character is getting an erection in an otherwise non-sexual moment. Each of these moments jarred me, throwing me out of the story. This isn’t a sexual story – it doesn’t even have a romantic sub-plot – and whilst streams of consciousness may, naturally, contain the odd sexual reference, none of these felt like they belonged.

Overall, ‘The Absolute Book’ is definitely a literary fiction novel that happens to contain fantasy elements rather than a typical fantasy novel. For those fond of complex descriptions, unreliable narrators, and books inspired by Norse mythology it may hold some appeal – but for those looking for a character-driven novel, or even a novel primarily driven by plot, this may not be the book for you.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’ chronicles the life of the Roux family, including the titular Ava Lavender Roux. The Roux’s all have one thing in common – they’re what other people would consider strange. One turns into a bird without any explanation. Another has such an exquisitively sensitive nose she can immediately tell where you’ve been and what you’ve been eating. One struggles to remain corporeal and eventually vanishes entirely. Ava, the narrator, is arguably the strangest of them all – she was born with the wings of a bird. The story ranges from sad, to happy, to hopeful, but at its heart is a beautiful story about humanity and all its complexities.

The cover states that “Love makes us such fools.” This is a thread that runs throughout the novel, making up the underlying theme. There are many different kinds of love – romantic love, sexual love, unrequited love, familial love – and all our shown in their complexity.

Ava’s family have always hidden her away, knowing that her differences make her vulnerable. However, Ava – like the birds she resembles – longs to be free, and eventually she must venture out into the wider world. There, she experiences all its joy – but also its cruelty, especially to those who are different. Everything comes to a head the night of the Summer Solstice – a night Ava will never forget.

Ava is a great character – curious but also exceptionally sensible, a rare trait in a protagonist. For most of the book she’s a teenager, and its fascinating seeing how her differences and family’s attitude juxtapose with the normal worries of a teenage girl. She has some adorable interactions with Roux, a friend’s brother – and whilst her best friend Cardigan doesn’t always come across well, it’s nice to see a close friend and confidante in a fantasy book who’s actually true to her word. I also love Ava’s mother Viviane – she makes some terrible life choices, but she always intrinsically wants the best for people. It’s impossible not to root for the Roux’s to find happiness. The other brilliant character is Henry – a brilliant surprise who I will leave for you to discover.

In places, this can be quite a dark novel, so don’t go in looking for a light, whimsical read. It makes liberal use of metaphors – mostly beautiful, occasionally clunky – but there are awful scenes as well as lovely ones. The world is not always kind to those who are different.

“To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel”

I do have a few issues with the book. While the writing style mostly works, in some places it goes from lyrical to contrived. Certain phrases are jarring and throw you out of the story. It also suffers from being incorrectly marketed by its own prologue – Ava Lavender in the almost-present describing how the following is her life story. In truth, it’s her family’s life story; the book ends with Ava still a teenager, so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually complete. The ending would feel more final without the prologue, which isn’t really required for the rest of the novel. It should be a beautiful and poetic finale, but given the setup and expectations it doesn’t work as well as it’s meant to.

Overall, this is a recommended read for fans of magical realism, fabulism, and stories about the complexity of human nature and love – with the caveat that it does get dark at times.

Content warning: Rape and sexual assault

Published by Walker Books
Paperback: October 1st 2014

Robyn Reviews: The Witchling’s Girl

‘The Witchling’s Girl’ is a quiet young adult fantasy that burrows under your skin and refuses to let you go. The magical elements are intriguing, but the real heart of the story is in its emotions – sadness and longing and heartbreak and love. This is not a happy story, but it’s a profoundly impactful one that lingers long beyond the last page.

The story follows Haley – a perfectly normal child until, aged seven, she accidentally resurrects the family cat. The only people with the ability to resurrect the dead are the Witchling’s – healers and herbalists, but also those with death magic, who can resurrect the dead or take them to the afterlife for judgement. As she knows she must, Haley’s mother takes her to the current Witchling – Marion – and abandons her, leaving the Witchling to train Haley to be her successor. At first, Haley fights her fate – but every town needs a Witchling, and the costs of Haley not becoming the Witchling are worse than those she faces becoming one.

It’s impossible not to become attached to Haley. She’s introduced as a terrified seven year old, not understanding why her mother has left her behind in a strange place. She hates the Witchling and longs so badly for a freedom she will never achieve. As time passes, she grows and matures – but some of that defiant seven year old always remains, and it’s a flaw that’s eminently relatable. Haley is, at heart, a nice person – she cares about people, and wants to do the right thing – but she often cares too much and that starts to become her downfall.

The world Helena Coggan crafts is exquisite in its simplicity. In many respects it feels like Medieval Britain – small towns run by rival Lords, each with their own healer-herbalist who works to balance the humours – but Coggan has taken this framework and built a fantasy world out of it. In her version, there is death-magic – a way of healing severe wounds by giving some of your energy to another, and a way to resurrect the dead – but only once, and at the cost of that person never going to the afterlife. It’s a familiar feeling magic system, but one which works perfectly with the setting and is beautifully described.

The plot is nothing like what I expected when I picked this up. It’s cleverly crafted, with little hints dropped throughout, but still manages to catch you by surprise. The first few chapters are reminiscent of novels like ‘The Sin Eater‘ – historical fiction about a child outcast – but this goes in an entirely different direction, weaving in political upheaval and supernatural entities and, above all, a child forbidden from connecting with others trying – but failing – to follow that vow. Haley doesn’t make good, or logical, decisions, but each one is completely understandable, and the story doesn’t shy away from the consequences. This is magical realism, but the fact that the protagonist is allowed to make these childish decisions makes it feel more real than many similar novels that follow stricter historical fiction.

The writing is one of the best parts. It doesn’t try to be flowery or lyrical; doesn’t craft elaborate descriptions – it just tells the story, but it does it in such a way that every emotion is a stab through the heart. There are a few moments where the flow isn’t perfect, but beyond those this is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simplicity.

Overall, this is a story that’s far more than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for fantasy filled with action and bold characters this isn’t the book for you – but if you want to read something quieter, something that focuses on character and connection, something that crafts a little bubble of a world and explores the delicate dynamics within that, then this is a recommended read.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7th January 2021

Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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

Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Children’s Children

Children's Children Front for Web

Children’s Children, by Jan Carson, is a collection of fifteen short stories exploring the concept of legacy and the influence of one generation upon the next. Many are set in and around particular streets in Belfast. They capture the cut and concerns of the people of this city to perfection.

The author writes with a distinct and original voice. Her prose is rich and satisfying offering up the humour and poignancy of the folk she creates with heart-rending perceptiveness. She inhabits their troubles allowing the reader to get to know their true selves better than they would ever be comfortable with. Their cultural reticence and need to be seen in a certain way is as darkly comic as it is tragic, yet they are presented in a way that cannot help but create sympathy for the situations they must survive.

Each of the stories offer insight into typical family dilemmas: ageing, bereavement, guilt, resentment, the misunderstandings that exist between the sexes and the generations. Some of the tales are told in a straightforward style whilst others stray into allegory and surrealism. Always the prose is beautifully structured, the words invade the senses. These are snapshots of ordinary lives being lived in all their glorious, wretched humanity.

It was pure pleasure to read these tales. The author has an eye and a zest for what is behind the facades people present to others, and can capture these observations with turns of phrase that delight. I could quote again and again but out of context the acuity may be lost. Buy this book and enjoy for yourselves.

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