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

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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.

Book Review: Treats

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Treats, by Lara Williams, is a collection of twenty-one short stories exploring the challenges of navigating modern life in the twenty-first century. With insight, poignancy and wit the author presents her cast of independently minded, mainly youngish adults who are each searching for love, meaning, or simply a way to get through each day in a British city.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, appropriately titled ‘It Begins’. In this an arts graduate returns to the parental home ready to start the next stage of her journey. All too soon she is assailed by reality.

“You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn with a badge of honour. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. […] Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers […] Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier? You grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.”

Subsequent stories look at the excitement of lust, falling in love, and the inevitable disappointment. There are attempts to make a solitary life enough. For all the progressive ideals the various characters espouse there are still expectations to be met, small lies being told, frowned upon behaviours downplayed in order to impress. There is the hankering after a mate despite the recognition that this is unlikely to fill any void more than temporarily.

Dates are recognisable. There are backhanded compliments, men whose eyes linger on vaporous women passing by, excuses pouring forth for behaviours deemed inappropriate as these condescending alphas attempt to maintain the false idea they have formed of the woman they asked out.

Throughout each story the protagonists endeavour to mould themselves and those granted access to private spaces and lives. There is a strong desire for acceptance.

The freedoms offered by contemporary life in a metropolis come at a cost which these stories present with acuity and compassion, concisely voicing the equivical experiences of many. Although sharp in focus, harshness is avoided. This is an empathetic, satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, by Diane Williams, is a collection of forty very short stories exploring such wide ranging themes as life, death, love, sex and associated, often fractious, relationships. There is a rough honesty to the thoughts and interactions in each snapshot – for a snapshot is all that can be offered in a tale that plays out in so few words. These are little moments of detail, vividly recalled with a point that is not always clear.

The opacity adds to the sense that the reader is observing rather than participating in each scenario. Characters share their thoughts with a dark, sometimes fevered intensity. There are moments of quiet reflection, gatherings where participants seem barely able to tolerate each other’s company, family groups displaying their love and despair at behaviours. Partners and friends huff over habits that grate.

A number of the stories provide observations on possessions when moving house or dealing with inheritance. The changing dynamics of relationships caused by the passage of time and a perceived lack of appreciation are touched upon. There is an apartness to each individual with occasional geysers of feeling spilling over those who happen to share proximity. Participants wade through many petty vexations.

Although easy enough to read and offering plenty to ponder I did not find this collection satisfying. As with incidents in life few tales offer a tidy conclusion. They are ripples in time, keenly considered, but sometimes frustratingly opaque. There is depth and immersion but too often I missed the point, if there was one, being made.

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

Book Review: The Long Gaze Back

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The Long Gaze Back is an anthology of short stories written by Irish women whose collective work spans four centuries. They are presented in chronological order, thereby offering the reader the chance to observe how much, and how little, has changed in women’s lives.

The editor, Sinead Gleeson, comments in her introduction that, with a few notable exceptions, it is only in the past few decades that women writers, particularly Irish women writers, have been selected for inclusion in anthologies. In recent years there has been a new energy and enthusiasm for Irish writers of both genders, an increased visibility that has enabled new voices to be heard.

The short story is described as a form whose brevity belies the scale of thoughts and ideas within. The thirty tales included here offer:

“a triptych: deceased classic writers sit alongside the feted names of the last two decades and the next generation”

The collection opens with The Purple Jar by Maria Edgeworth, a story of a young girl whose mother allows her to make a choice, knowing it to be a foolish one, and then insists that she live with the consequences.

Frank’s Resolve, by Charlotte Riddell, is an observation of a marriage where both partners appear dissatisfied, each blaming the other. The reason for this lack of understanding becomes clear, although I felt little hope, given the way Frank inhabited his world, that a satisfactory resolution would be found.

The third story was amongst my favourites – Poisson d’Avril, by Somerville and Ross. It narrates a fraught train journey across Ireland as a man attempts to reach his family who are congregating for a wedding. He has been instructed to bring with him a salmon, caught whilst holidaying. The trials he encounters are presented with a dry humour and easy empathy.

Most of the stories revolve around family life and the associated day to day battles faced. There are tales of birth and death, of both the old and the young; the impact of collective decisions made without consultation; how expectations can lead to resentment, particularly across the generations. The authors highlight the discomfort felt when personal problems are disclosed. The small communities may wish to know everyone else’s business, but few wish to become involved when troubles they prefer not to acknowledge are aired.

There are stories of those who have left and those who have returned. The self proclaimed success stories expect to be feted whereas those who feel they have failed to live up to their former promise seek an anonymity that is often denied.

The Meaning of Missing, by Evelyn Conlon, explores the relationship of close siblings when one emigrates to Australia, fails to keep in touch, and then returns for a visit.

The Crossing, by Lia Mills, offers the reader the complexity of family dynamics when a middle aged couple take their teenage son to Egypt on the holiday of a lifetime. The husband’s assumptions about his wife resonated – that the brightly coloured top she bought for herself must be a gift for her more conspicuous sister, that she had somehow failed by paying too much for the item whereas the value to her was in the act of purchasing.

There are relationships – between a young girl and an older man, between a young man and an older women. There are the resentments of children who suffer their parents mistakes.

Frogs, by Molly McCloskey, looks at childhood friends, separated when parents move house, who meet again after more than thirty years. There is still a spark between them but they carry baggage that may prove too heavy for the other to bear.

A Fuss, by Bernie McGill, explores a theme that presents itself in many of these stories, that families prefer to keep their ideas of each other intact, retaining an aversion to any distasteful reality.

“she will remember the important lesson she learned from this, from him and from her mother, that it is more agreeable to be quiet than to make a fuss by telling the truth.”

Children return to the parental home to attend funerals. A surviving spouse must find a way to live alone. Reasons for leaving are unpicked alongside the pull of duty. Suppressed grudges resurface when challenged by familial guilt.

The writing is consistently impressive and varied making this a collection that effortlessly holds the reader’s attention. There is a strength to even the most broken of the characters, each are recognisable from everyday life.

An enjoyable read that offers a taster menu of authors deserving further attention. I will be watching the trajectory of those previously unpublished with interest.

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