Book Review: On Photography

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On Photography, by Wendy Erskine, is the sixth release from the excellent Ration Books small press. This latest work introduces the reader to Frances, a young woman who has travelled to London for a brief visit to check in on her mother, a renowned photographer. Frances knows nothing of her father other than his name. Growing up she would watch as her brother, Denny, benefitted from the time he could spend with his father, although Denny also suffered from the upbringing their mother inflicted on them.

In fewer than fifty pages the author conjures a vivid and evocative life story. Before Frances’s mother gained attention and success, the family would move from place to place, living in cramped accommodation that prioritised the photographer’s work. Frances was often required to be the subject of her mother’s artistic endeavours, something the child did not feel comfortable with. When success came, it was still her work that retained the mother’s focus. Frances was offered no choice in what this meant for her.

Told from Frances’s perspective, the reader views each secondary character through her lens. The author is skilled, however, at granting them depth, carefully placed shadows revealing much more than is said. Although poignant in places, there are many injections of humour along the way. The couple Frances meets in a restaurant add an inspired splash of colour. The brief descriptions of her hotel room perfectly capture the quirks of the budget sector.

Although a short story, this little book provides the lingering satisfaction of a more standard length tale, exploring the nuances of a potentially damaging family relationship. The denouement in particular lifts what was a highly enjoyable read to the next level.

Erskine is, of course, a master at her craft and this is a fine addition to her impressive and growing oeuvre. Ration Books and their ilk are what pockets were made for.

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Book Review: The Badger

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The Badger, by Jenn Ashworth, is the fifth release from Ration Books, a small press publishing pocket sized books designed to be read in one short sitting. It tells of a pivotal episode in the life of a woman who is trying to mine memories of what exactly happened many years ago.

“Now and again the adult will settle on a perspective: there’s no such thing as the past, only the stories we tell about it now”

There are horror elements to the tale but nightmares are not always what may be envisaged. The ‘what happened’ doesn’t bother the protagonist so much as the why.

The story opens with an early morning visit to a dentist when the woman was a six or seven year old child. Woken unexpectedly by her father, she goes along with him because children’s lives consist of doing whatever adults require.

“Children experience the world as a series of confusing and inexplicable incidents inflicted upon them by people who they have to assume know what they are doing”

This is not a visit to have teeth checked but rather the delivery of an unusual item. The child asks questions and, on realising the dentist is pleased with her interest, asks more. She enjoys the attention and is eager to impress. She also recognises how the dentist regards her father.

What her older self cannot quite pin down is the detail. She muses over how what went on that day may have impacted some of her major life choices. She admits that subsequent incidents could also have had an effect, that she may now be assigning this strange visit too much importance.

The author does a fine job of putting the reader inside the head of a child. She then pulls back to consider the literary structure of the developing narrative. Do the dentist and the father require inner lives to avoid them becoming ciphers or props?

“Basic storytelling technique demands that an adequately compassionate attention to the inner lives and motivations of secondary characters must be deployed.”

In reality, of course, life can only be viewed through the eyes of the self, and they are constantly rewriting what is happening. The child has grown up and been subjected to many further experiences that may feed into the memories now being recounted.

A story requires a conclusion and this is offered. It reflects how real life is never as tidy as some literature may suggest.

Despite the somewhat spine-chillingly detailed elements, this is an enjoyable take on the unreliability of memories from childhood. A skilfully constructed and rendered short story.

The Badger is published by Ration Books.

Book Review: A Sprig Of Yarrow

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A Sprig Of Yarrow, by Jim Ghedi, is the fourth publication put out by Ration Books. These pocket sized literary delights offer ‘small books to be read in short sittings’. They are a welcome diversion from their bulkier counterparts.

What we have here is a collection of poems and songs. Themes explored are often political but the focus is on community, how it has been fractured, and the enduring beauty of nature, despite contamination by man.

A few highlights:

Terrace Row is a powerful evocation of poverty in a former mining town. The voice is working class, dripping with anger. Characters are presented as clotted by resentment at the turn their lives have taken. The next generation festers or has left.

Sheaf & Field offers a similar story but set in an area blighted by the closure of its factories and forges. This is one of the longer poems, the lyrical cadence belying the bitterness entwined due to the subject matter.

Raven At Arbor Low looks at grief. Running through all these poems is an appreciation of the natural world, here taught by the person now being mourned.

“the unknown that you taught me to see,
in every moment.”

Stolen Ground is a song that tells of the scavengers who have uprooted a people settled for generations, moved on that more money may made by landowners.

“the landless weep on pastures cleared
as the sparrow rides the wind.”

The book is dedicated to Keith How, whose poem written during the first Covid lockdown prefaces the collection. This offers a reminder of the hopes we had then that things could change. What comes across in Ghedi’s work is how futile such thoughts proved. The wealthy and powerful will trample on all and any to maximise their profits, and always have.

Despite the somewhat depressing depiction of the working class people detailed, these poems and songs offer enduring hope in the form of nature. A prompt to look up and out, to walk gently and listen to the trees.

Book Review: We’ll Meat Again

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“The owls are hooting in the afternoon again

or maybe the world is just quiet enough to hear them.”

We’ll Meat Again, by Benjamin Myers, is the third title published by the recently formed Ration Books (I review the first¬†here and the second here). These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. Ration 3 is described on the back cover as ‘quarantine dream scenes disguised as fleeting poems’. In reading them I pondered if the author had been ingesting the special cookies (not that I am suggesting he indulges in such behaviour).

Myers’ trademark appreciation of nature, alongside his willingness to face down brutal realities, are injected with elements so surreal that they at times perplexed this reader. His lockdown observations are undoubtedly pithy and witty but some remained opaque even after several attempts to decipher meaning. Others honed in on tropes that garnered media attention as life grew ever more constricted. Images evoked are often playful, if morbidly so. This is not an offering that celebrates the best of what man can be in a crisis.

“A man accidentally strangles himself with the clanking chain of his sex swing

Neighbours are alerted by the black smoke pluming from his burnt sourdough”

My reaction after first perusal was to question what I had just read. Be assured, enjoyment improves with rereads. There is play on language alongside a reminder of what lockdown featured. Perhaps this work is intended as an aide-memoire for the times we have experienced over the past year.

“Keep two claps apart
and wash your metres

Social the unprecedented
extension hands.

Isolate a lockdown.
Panic immediately.”

As a literary reminder I personally prefer Jonathan Gibbs’ Spring Journal. There is, however, room on my shelves for a collection such as this that both provokes and entertains.

Book Review: 3″x 1″

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3″x1″, by Bill Drummond, is the second title published by the recently formed Ration Books (I review the first here). These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. Ration 2 is a collection of three short stories reflecting on changes that occur between boyhood and encroaching old age. They are described on the back cover as a three track sampler. The first story in particular is asking to be continued.

The Skull tells the tale of a trio of young Scottish lads, pre-teens enjoying the outdoors in the days before parents demanded to know their offspring’s every move and whereabouts. The boys are wandering by a burn when they come across a human skull. Delighted, they bestow exciting origins on their find and the narrator takes it home with some ceremony.

The author captures the moment, the way youngsters think and act. When he moves the characters forward in time it is clear how the magic of childhood becomes jaded yet is looked back on with nostalgia.

“I thought that the march with the skull on top of a broken branch from a hazel tree […] was maybe the best thing I had ever done”

The narrator ponders the veracity of his memories and considers the possibility of reconnecting with those who were there at the time and, like him, have moved on with their lives. He recognises that the episode has so much potential history, backstory. As boys they simply enjoyed the moment. I wondered if his vague plans to dig deeper could cast a shadow on what made it special.

The Worm also starts with the narrator as a boy, this time four years old. Intrigued by a worm he finds in his back yard he experiments in ways many would perceive as cruel but to the boy was curiosity – a desire to see what would happen. He recalls how later his father took him fishing with worms for bait, and he continued this practice with friends. It was done with little thought for the creatures who died at his hands. These days he shows more compassion, pondering if his concern for the creatures is a reaction to his earlier treatment of them.

The author captures the lack of ethical questioning in youngsters actions, how this changes with age.

“There is me with all my ‘issues and insecurities and rampant ego’ and there is the passing worm just getting on with his day and trying to survive”

The final story in this short collection, The Sparling, considers how much of our lives is spent waiting. As a nine year old the narrator has an annual ritual, much anticipated, in which he has an opportunity to catch fish in a local river with his bare hands. He looks back and recognises the deaths necessary for him to enjoy the feast that follows. His life remains one of waiting.

“I need the waiting.
The waiting proper begins when I see the first snowdrops in late January.
And it builds, when it’s the purple and saffron of the crocus in February.
I try to pretend the waiting is not there because it becomes too intense at times.”

Man’s yearly calendar moves forward relentlessly. He ages, commemorating past actions on significant days. Meanwhile nature continues its regeneration, welcoming back creatures from afar. Whatever the dissociation in attitude or action, there remains a deeply felt connection if surrounds are granted head space.

These evocative stories skilfully capture a time and place but, more than that, they provide a window into the world of childhood and how much it differs from what a person becomes later.

A touching reminder to look outwards and appreciate. An impressively thought-provoking and satisfying read.

Book Review: Stay Alive Till ’75

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Ration Books were launched into the world early last month. The first print run of the three opening titles sold out within a fortnight. A reprint was arranged. These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. They are the antithesis of the glossy, spredged, author signed and personally dedicated, collectable editions currently proliferating in the ‘Big 5’ book world. They will not be made available for reading on screens.

The first Ration is a triptych by Adelle Stripe, each piece connected to the Holderness Coast. Its preface offers an introduction to ‘this oddly hypnotic place’ where the author’s mother and her family originated. What follows are two memoir pieces bookending a poem/lament narrated by a fisherman’s wife.

The first memoir piece recounts summer holidays spent with maternal grandparents. Banish any images you may conjure of a loving grandmother. The author was granted no choice as a child but to be left in the care of a woman in thrall to the ‘shady religious cult’ known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Her personal cruelty was masked by religion as if it were a way of appeasing inner demons. The more she preached, the less her shadow self was shown to Him and the rest of the congregation.”

Despite pontificating that a wife should be subservient to her husband, the grandfather was henpecked and secretly rebelled. The author ponders if many of her own later interests were the result of kicking against the life her grandmother attempted to inculcate.

The writing slants towards the humorous yet contains much that is grim.

The second piece – structured as poetry and written for live performance – appears less personal but equally poignant. When dealing with an often absent and unreliable husband, a woman is advised to earn for herself. The narrator lives a hard life but, even when his boat goes down, never loses hope that her beloved will return.

The third and final piece is a study on grief set a year after the death of the author’s mother.

“Instead of sitting around feeling sorry about it all, I listened to her talking – my now imaginary mother, who only exists as a memory.”

These three short works deal with challenging restrictions – abuse, poverty, death – yet they remain uplifting. Negativity is countered by internal strength – pushing against trials and using them as life lessons. If this sounds like saccharine woo woo fear not, there is plenty of bite within these pages. Notable is the lack of blame, the ownership of what a person becomes, however influenced.

An impressive opening for what is an interesting endeavour. Whatever its length, fine writing provides worthwhile reading.

adelle laceImage credit: Lisa Cradduck