Book Review: Don’t Cry

This post was written for and originally published on Bookmunch

Don’t Cry is a collection of ten short stories that explore the complexity of human interactions and the concerns these cause. It took me some time to connect with the voices of the narrators. The serrated edge of the prose in the first three tales grated as the subject of sex was granted seemingly unnecessary importance within the context of each plot. Although character driven I struggled to empathise with the varied casts being created. Their predicaments evoked desolation and lacked the percipience to draw me in.

By the fourth story, ‘The Agonized Face’, the prose began to resonate. A reread was required to fully appreciate but I could now enjoy the warp and weft of the author’s words. I had found that important reader connection with her style. ‘Mirrorball’ impressed for its experimental approach to the differing impacts of a one night stand on a boy and a girl. The souls taken and discarded neatly encapsulate the nuance of sexual encounters and their lasting significance, however casually approached. ‘Today I’m Yours’ explores the relationship between an author and an editor over many years as they move in and out of each other’s lives. Early in her career the author ‘fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed’. The story follows the creation and maintenance of this identity, and how it changes the private person underneath.

“Sometimes it seemed to me an empty life, but that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t empty; it was more that the people and events in it were difficult to put together in any way that felt whole.”

‘The Little Boy’ looks at family and their loss of connection over time. It opens with an elderly mother returning from a visit to her grown up daughter. She thinks through her changing relationship with each of her children, feeling sanguine about where they are with each other now despite obvious irritations. In an airport waiting room she observes a young mother’s negative reaction to her child’s lively behaviour and attempts to offer understanding. She has experience of lasting resentments growing from such minutiae.

The stories present the underlying loneliness of never being fully understood alongside both sympathetic and caustic internal reactions to others. War veterans recognise the difficulties faced by fellow survivors yet judge harshly their observed behaviours. Prejudices remain despite understanding the personal cost of conflict of all kinds

The final story, ‘Don’t Cry’, is set in Ethiopia where two middle aged American women wish to adopt a child. Themes of privilege, guilt and grief run alongside the violence of poverty. Moments of hopelessness are transformed into anecdotal entertainment when subsequently recounted. There is an expectation that pain will be internalised, that to cry is to make a fuss when always someone else is worse off.

Any Cop?: Despite my initial antipathy, these stories were enjoyed for their varied and succinct insights. The author offers a jagged understanding of life powerfully presented within contexts that affirm the stoicism of survival.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Ornithology

Ornithology, by Nicholas Royle, is a collection of sixteen short stories interwoven with recurring references to birds. Within each plot these avian creatures provide interest, distraction, disturbance. They, along with the human protagonists, are transformed into both predator and prey.

The stories explore ordinary situations and events, places and people. The characters go on holiday, form and break relationships, observe their surroundings from inside homes, rural locations, cities and at work. The locations are as much characters in the tales as the people. The prose radiates quiet menace.

The collection opens with Unfollow. Written in the first person it chronicles an obsession with a woman known only through Twitter and with whom there is little interaction. The narrator and their cat form a deadly pact to gain her attention.

In Murder a group of academics take a holiday together. Their relationship is tenuous having developed mainly through correspondence. The shadow of a couple who do not attend casts an eerie darkness over what should be straightforward diversions.

It is the recurring darkness that makes these stories so delicious to read. It is subtle, creeping through the cracks like an icy breeze.

Several of the stories veer into the surreal. There is violence, transformation, a stretching of possibilities and belief.

In The Nightingale the boundary between people and computers becomes blurred and a hacker takes advantage.

In The Lure, which is set in Paris, a young teacher struggles to translate more than simply spoken language. His minimal contact with others in the city leads him to pursue ill advised interactions, but is he stalker or victim?

Several stories use books to provide a theme that then spills out into action. A knowledge of the many bird species referenced may add further depth. I know little of such things which did not detract from my enjoyment. Throughout I remained engaged.

The writing is fluid and precise with a haunting undercurrent that at times manifests as horror but is more often suggestion. An uncanny, mesmerising read.

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

Book Review: Darker With The Lights On

Darker With The Lights On, by David Hayden, is a collection of twenty short stories written in captivating, modernist prose. The language is lyrical, in places magical, the plot progression often surreal. There is a dreamlike quality to many of the tales which explore loneliness and reactions to lived experience. The agitation in the telling adds intensity to even the mundane.

The collection opens with Egress, narrated by a man sharing his observations after he steps off a ledge outside his office, high above street level. Whatever his consciousness may be travelling in has not yet hit the ground after several years.

In Hay an engineer is called to solve a problem in a mine being flooded by workers’ tears. His solution turns into a capitalist triumph, for which I constructed my own interpretation. The continuing presence of the giant haystack added to the deviance of this tale.

There follow several stories exploring disconnection: a man coming to terms with the woman in his life leaving by selling their belongings; a house where each physical object is a memory, although it is not clear whose; a man buried in sand as the tide comes in while others dance on the beach; a dinner party where nobody mentions the presence of a charred corpse ceremonially laid on the table.

A number of the tales take enjoyable events and inject them with a quiet malignance. In others there is sudden violence, barely acknowledged in plot progression.

An Apple In The Library has a customer borrowing the eponymous fruit which he consumes and then returns, his hunger sated. At face value this could be a simple metaphor for books, but I consider it unlikely this is all the author intended. In reading prose of such perspicacity I wonder how clever I am expected to be.

Much is left for the reader to ponder; the opacity can be disquieting and sometimes weird. Morbidity and the tarnishing of innocence since childhood is ruminated, although it is not a depressing book.

Dark themes may pervade but attention is drawn by the stunning imagery. Whatever my considerations on each story, I appreciated the author’s weaving of words.

This anthology would, I suspect, offer further insights on repeated readings. It is challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing.

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

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: You Will Grow Into Them

You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin, is a collection of ten short stories exploring the shadows that lurk beneath the surface of everyday lives. Set in a variety of times and imaginative places, each multi-layered tale offers the reader a glimpse of personal demons, psychological and physical, and the blindness many choose to affect to avoid engaging with other’s pain. Although extraordinary in places, the narrative conjures trials that are all too recognisable. Vividly constructed, these stories resonate with insight, however weird they may at times seem.

The collection opens with Passion Play, in which a teenage girl is asked to appear in a televised reconstruction of the last reported sightings of a missing friend. Although feigning care and concern, the adults take no time to discover her views on this exercise, assuming she will want to help. Told from the girl’s point of view, the undercurrents of fear that pervade a teenager’s life become manifest.

In Two Brothers, twelve year old William awaits the return of his older brother Stephen from his first term at an exclusive boarding school. Forbidden from mixing with the local children, William looks forward to resuming the games they have created together throughout their lives to date. The Stephen who steps down from the train has been changed, a transformation more complex than William first realises.

Breadcrumbs is also a story of transformation although it is more fairy tale in style. Fourteen year old Ellie is home alone when her tower block home, and the city below, are brought to a standstill by an apparent freak of nature. As all around and within are impossibly altered, she must choose to accept and merge with her surroundings or risk everything to break free.

Her First Harvest is set in an alien time and place but also explores the theme of choosing to fit in. A young girl attends her first ball in a metropolis, far from the country home she agreed to leave. There are those who wish to possess her. She seeks pleasure, recognising the transcience of this moment in the life she must surely face.

We All Need Something to Hide deals with the cost of trying to fight society’s unacknowleged demons, and the lengths to which some will go to protect the image desired by those they love.

In Dogsbody the world has been rocked by the sudden appearance of werewolves. Unable to explain why, they are first locked up and then registered and monitored as they attempt to reintegrate with society. Some propose they be culled, fearing a monstrous return. The blighted must live with the knowledge that this may someday happen, defined now by their affliction.

Songs Like They Used To Play explores reality and memory in a wondrously imaginative way. Each person’s life experiences are shared and remembered in edited highlights, with viewers filtering to their own bespoke screens.

The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him considers aspiration, the benefits and costs of taking action in a controlling state.

“they are precious things, children. You fill them up with your hopes and fears and you send them out into the world as though such thoughts will sustain them. But they are their own souls and ours is but one influence upon them. It is sobering indeed to see how willing they are to open themselves to others.”

Set in a small town, The Bridge explores what is valued and the effect of loss. A young couple move into a house vacated by a widower who spent his time constructing a detailed model of the streets where they now live. The husband is intrigued by the detail, and then the omissions. The wife recognises the danger it represents.

The End Of Hope Street is, in my opinion, the oddest of the tales but only because it was the one story I struggled to interpret. It is a story of neighbours, neighbourliness, and of houses that turn against occupants with deadly results.

Whilst reading this collection I was blown away by the quality of the writing and by how much each story got under my skin. They are subtle, empathetic, yet eerily strange; disquieting in places with the accuracy of the human condition portrayed through a darkly playful lens.

I recommend you read this book. It has the power to move, and to challenge the way each reader perceives the everyday.

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

Book Review: Light Box

lightbox

Light Box, by K.J. Orr, is a collection of eleven short stories exploring the multitudinous ripples caused by people as they interact and react to life’s experiences. The writing is vivid and sharply felt. As each of the characters is affected by the actions of others and their surroundings there is a shift in perceptions, be it a realisation of regret or the understated recognition of required change.

In The Inland Sea two brothers skip school to set out on an adventure. Although no strangers to personal loss they have lived a sheltered life within a close community. Recent visitors from abroad expanded their vision and now they can envisage a wider world than they have known thus far. They do not yet comprehend the potential cost of broadening their horizons seeing only the beauty and excitement of new experience.

The Shallows and Blackout look at the impact of small decisions made by young people which have far reaching effects, not only on themselves. Although not dwelling on how they cope with any regrets there is a knowledge that life has many such ‘what if’ situations and that even inadvertent wrongs cannot be undone, becoming hard to forget.

Disappearances and The Ice Cream Song is Strange offer perspectives from those approaching the latter stages of their lives when what they have made for themselves, what seemed important, is somehow stripped back and laid bare offering a discomforting insight on what they are and what could have been.

“What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?”

In several stories the dislocation of travel is explored, both the getting away and the return. There is the seeking out of an expected satisfaction that may prove difficult to attain. There is the repulsion felt when personal space is invaded.

By the Canal and The Island present young men acting in ways that cause their partners to view them in a new light. How they are subsequently perceived is altered; going forward requires a change of direction. Partners are chosen based on an image created by the beholder which will always be at risk unknown by the beheld.

The snapshots of each life look at what is shown to the world, what is hidden and what seeps out anyway. The stories are intricate webs of emotion as much as action. They speak of the shifting sands of each protagonist’s inner thoughts and how these are shaped by the ripples caused by those they meet.

The writing is subtle, precise and elegantly put together. Each tale offers a clarity of thought that demands careful contemplation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each work and especially what it revealed about wider peoples. This is a recommended read.

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