Book Review: The Song of Youth

song of youth

The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press. 

Author Interview: Sam Reese

Sam Reese Author Photo

Sam Reese is an award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. His latest book, On A Distant Ridgeline, was published this week – you may read my review here. I was delighted to be invited to interview him and hope my readers enjoy the answers he gave to my questions as much as I did.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, and I lived and worked in Australia and Europe before settling in York, where I teach at York St John University. I have been writing for as long as I remember, and my first published works were poems while I was at high school. Then, I discovered the short story—and fell in love. I completed a PhD on midcentury American short stories, and have published two critical books (on short fiction, and on jazz and literature) alongside my two collections of short fiction.

Can you tell us about your latest book, On a Distant Ridgeline?

On a Distant Ridgeline is a thematically linked collection of short stories, centred on desire, relationships, and connection to place. The stories span remote parts of Aoteaora, rural Spain, downtown Sydney, the highlands of Peru, and a village in Japan, but share a focus on how we navigate the things, people, and places we yearn for.

You describe yourself as an insatiable traveller. The short stories in your collection are set around the world, exploring themes of displacement and belonging, emotional as well as physical. Where do you feel that you belong?

That is a complicated question! Like most New Zealanders I know, I am deeply attached to the landscapes and rhythms of the country where I grew up. But as a pākehā—someone who is not indigenous to the country—I am also aware of my status as a visitor. Like some of the characters in my collection, my family moved to Aotearoa from France and Norway, along with Scotland and Wales, over the 19th century—and that family mythology has shaped my sense of who I am. There is part of me that has always felt a pull away. I haven’t lived in Aotearoa for more than ten years now either. Still, it is my point of reference when I think of feelings of home.

Although locals feature in the stories, main characters are often incomers. Were they developed from your personal experience or did you conduct research at settings?

My characters draw on my own experiences and research in equal measure. One of the things that I think is most powerful about fiction is the way that it can take an experience we think that we might understand, and reimagine it, opening up new ways of looking at ourselves—as a reader, as much as a writer. Many of the stories started with a memory or feeling I have had. But I use research, including conversations with people who have had quite different lives to mine, to help me reframe those experiences, shape them into something new.

I liked the idea of people being inherently different in how they understand – read – other people. Taking your descriptors, would you consider yourself an archivist (gathering knowledge) or an architect (able to see underlying
patterns)?

Yes, I find that there is often a wide gulf between the way that I understand other people and the way a friend might read them. I think that I’m more of an archivist, observing, noting down, and storing—though I aspire to an architect’s vision in my writing!

There are several mentions in your stories of: free diving, pottery, etymology and Greek myths. Are these personal interests?

They are! My undergraduate degree was in classics and English, and Greek myths have helped me make sense of my world since I was small—they also link On a Distant Ridgeline with my first collection, Come the Tide. My interest in etymology, too.

The motif of pottery—especially of shaping clay—is part of my larger interest in things made by hand. There are carvers and carpenters in these stories, too, reflecting my fascination with craftsmanship, and my curiosity in offering different ways of understanding the process of writing. I believe that writing is a craft, after all.

Free diving, and descriptions of lakes, rivers, the ocean (not to mention drowning) all reflect a similar double concern. I love the ocean, and feel a deep connection to the water. But swimming, diving, and submerging all offer powerful metaphors for understanding our fears and desires, and can shift quickly from comforting to terrifying.

Have you dived at the Whenuakura (Donut Island) lagoon?

I have visited Whenuakura, but I haven’t dived there—yet!

What is your favourite part of being a writer?

I love the feeling of immersion in the shaping of a story. When I write, I have the same feeling of the world disappearing that I get from swimming. It is a sense of flow. I also love the satisfaction of finding that what I have written has answered the challenge or problem that I set myself—of seeing something that I have shaped and
honed to the very best of my abilities.

And your least favourite?

I hate the process of submitting stories to magazines or competitions. And the feelings of jealousy or competition that the literary marketplace creates (and thrives on).

As a published author, what is the best advice you have been given?

Well, I think the best advice I’ve read was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel prize address: that three dimensional characters are less important than three dimensional relationships. But the best advice anyone has given me in person was to focus on writing in a style that feels true to yourself—rather than trying to write for what you think the market wants.

You are yourself a literary critic. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I do—I can’t help it. I know some writers avoid reviews of their work, or find that reading negative reviews really affects their confidence. I find that the insights I get from reviews are always useful in some way, though. My critical brain helps here—a lot of my work focuses on the reception of short fiction, so I have a broader perspective that helps to contextualise what reviewers say. I often think that I would love to read a very critical review of my work—but that might just be inviting trouble!

What small thing do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I buy myself a book! The more I read, the more I want to read

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

When I was a teenager, and theoretically poised for ‘coming of age’ stories, I absolutely hated them. But lately, I’ve been reading and loving some eccentric bildungsroman: Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture
Show, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction, and why?

My dream dinner would be with my favourite mid-century writers—Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Paul and Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty. Not because I’d want to talk to them about their writing per se (I prefer to let writers’ books do that), but because I’d want to talk to them about everything else. It might be unfair on my peers, but I find that those writers had so much sharper (and usually more interesting) insights on the world.

What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

“Why do you write?”

distant ridgeline

On A Distant Ridgeline is published by Platypus Press

Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

distant ridgeline

“Although truth is something that we can experience, it is never possible to express it properly in language because there is always some part that will resist the expression – that will stay unsaid.”

On a Distant Ridgeline, by Sam Reese, is a collection of twelve short stories set around the world. The scope and breadth of the settings are matched by the subjects explored within these pages. That said there are recurring themes: man’s affinity with water; the beauty to be found in creativity; etymology and Greek myths. The tales are tinged with a melancholy born of thoughts of what might have been had other choices been made. Characters are searching for home, to be found in people rather than place.

The author employs each of the senses to create evocative imagery. Food has colour, texture and aroma as well as taste. Music draws out aspects of characters, previously unseen. The way individuals view greens and blues highlight the variations in how surrounds are experienced and remembered, even by those there together. Memory is fragmented, offering comfort as well as regret.

In a note at the end of the book Reese writes of the short story form:

“because they are so short, they must work by implication, giving us the precise words that will make us see a room, a dawn, the start of love, a death. A short story takes a person’s life, perhaps a single day, and shows us the world.”

In leaving much to implication, the reader is trusted to understand both the dissonance and connections in each relationship, how it is only possible to know a fraction about how another person parses their world.

I am unfamiliar with the many locations in which these stories are set but most of the characters are recognisable travellers across time as well as space. Placing characters away from where they grew up enables their sense of belonging and displacement to be explored. Decisions taken haunt with what might have been.

“Did you know that’s what I have admired about you from the start – not your hand per se, but the way you stretch it out and grasp. You want to know more, to begin to glimpse the way that things relate to one another, brush aside the veil, see the place where they connect. It is different to me, the way that you find connections. You are not an archivist, shoring bits of knowledge up against a future loss; you’re an architect, someone who can see the underlying pattern”

A life is described as ‘a whittling, a loss’, in the way fragments of wood get discarded to enable a craftsman to create a desired shape. Others live through gathering, collecting what may appear disparate clutter but has potential to come together as a thing of beauty.

The stories are of: family and friendships, finding love and suffering loss, regret and redemption. Characters include fathers, brothers, lovers, colleagues, young and old friends. Such universal motifs are wrapped within prose that absorbs and transports the reader. There is darkness and yearning but also radiance.

A finely varied collection that is rich and rewarding to read. These are stories to be savoured.

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

Book Review: Stories We Tell Our Children

stories tell children

“There is much conjecture as to how much degeneration occurred from the oral tradition, once it was set down on the page and ramrodded into the literary canon. But nothing compared to the twenty and twenty-first century mutation of the morals such tales were supposed to inculcate. Besides, contemporary children’s imaginations are scarce populated with denizens from the faerie realm. Magic and transformation these days takes place courtesy of fibre optics, usually through a gunsight and lots of pixelated cruor.”

Stories We Tell Our Children, by Marc Nash, is a collection of short stories that explore how children are shaped by the words they hear spoken by the adults charged with raising them. Although dark in places the writing style is playful. It brings to the fore how some of the best intentioned actions and interventions, when observed objectively, make little sense. It is not just parents who are put under the microscope of the author’s perceptive and piercing gaze. Many of the stories included follow the children as they grow and develop. The impact of their upbringing is often not what the parents intended or could have foreseen.

The collection opens with a mother teaching colours to her young offspring. It highlights how parents simplify facts and work to keep children engaged in such supposedly fine educational forays, while drifting off at tangents themselves. This is followed by a tale of a boy caught in the crossfire of warring parents, fearing that their battles will escalate, resulting in a murder. Children do not, after all, see the world through adult eyes. The third story looks at the tooth fairy myth, begging the question why such lies are propagated when children are routinely castigated for fibbing. The children in many of these stories are the ones offering the voice of reason.

Several of the tales are imbued by classic stories, pointing out that many of these have recently been sanitised with dubious rationale. Others deal with the lasting damage that closely involved parenting can wreak. It was interesting to consider that a degree of parental neglect can encourage a burgeoning imagination – required to overcome boredom. Many of the parents trying to raise future successes are shown to be attempting to fulfil their own dreams vicariously.

Rescinderella is a clever inversion of the Cinderella story – one I particularly enjoyed, if that is a suitable word for what is a tragedy. Certain of these tales include disturbing incidents – this is not a collection demanding a happy ever after. And it is not just the troubled who have issues. The gifted and talented also end up with crosses to bear.

The impact of books and reading are recurring themes. The author explores the fictions characters devour alongside those they create to make their lives appear more acceptable and interesting, especially to themselves. When stripped back to what is basic existence, where time passes however filled, there is a shadow of nihilism.

Yet this is an entertaining, not depressing, collection. While some of the stories resonated more than others, there is much to glean from each entry. As well as parenting habits, the author pokes fun at the conceits of creatives – with wit rather than callousness. If readers find mirrors within these words it is with a droll recognition.

The writing style employs much play on available language. The author does not employ simple language when more interesting forms of expression may be utilised. That said, there is nothing difficult in the reading.

The overarching theme may be the stories we tell our children and how these impact their development, but the tales also bring to light the stories we tell ourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Intimacies

intimacies

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: 3″x 1″

3-x-1

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: The Last Resort

During the Lockdown of 2020, Jan Carson was commissioned to write 10 short stories that would be broadcast by BBC Radio 4, one story per week for the first 10 weeks of 2021. I mention this to add context as, when reading this fabulous collection of interlinked short stories, they truly come to life if imagined being read aloud.

All are set in an aging caravan park on the North Antrim Coast during a wet February half-term. Tenants staying in each of the caravans offer their perspective on events as they happen. The narrators include: the elderly, the homeless, the park caretaker, a young family, an aspiring detective who has learned crime solving from reading Agatha Christie. This eclectic band of ‘holidaymakers’ must contend with: their varying forms of grief, a crime wave, the Northern Irish weather.

Carson’s writing stands out for her ability to conjure, with minimal description, fully formed characters who anyone familiar with the province will recognise. Although offering much that is humorous, she does so with a deep sympathy and regard for their foibles – even those one may wish could be changed.

The elderly lady whose married life has revolved around her husband’s staunch religious convictions struggles between her desire to spend time with their new grandson and their daughter’s choice to marry her girlfriend. A case worker for the council masquerades as a more financially successful businessman so as not to disappoint his father. An immigrant struggles with the knowledge that his life may after all have been better had he stayed with his stifling, insular family. The park caretaker has been made an offer by family he cannot refuse, just as he was on the cusp of escape.

“You’ll be surprised to hear I had no great ambition to run a failing caravan park. Six months ago, I was all for leaving. London. Berlin. Amsterdam. I won’t be telling Uncle Jim – he’s big up in the orange himself – but I got the Irish passport and everything. Sure, we’d no notion what Brexit was going to mean. There were mad rumours flying around. You’d need a visa to get down to Dublin. Derry was declaring independence. They were digging a moat around the border. I knew if I didn’t leave soonish, I’d end up staying. Here, you either go when you’re young, or you’re stuck for good.”

The collection opens with a tale about the installation of a memorial bench for the daughter of a long time tenant. She died at the park many years ago while holidaying there with her family (the line introducing her cause of death is a blinder). Pete, the caretaker, is expected to carry the heavy bench to the, perhaps unwise, chosen location as a cortege of the elderly follow to be a part of this event. Armed with flasks of tea, sandwiches and tray bakes, the relentless rain is no deterrent when condolences are to be offered and absence may be noted. Pete, meanwhile, regards moving the bench as a test of his abilities now that he is considering staying.

“There’ll be no leaving now. Seacliff’s got me. There’s something stuck about this place. All the caravans here are statics; nobody’s going anywhere fast. It already feels like the future is dragging me down. In fairness, it’s probably just the bench.”

After meeting the band of oldies, the reader is introduced to a young family who have also been coming to Seacliff for many years – to stay in Granny’s caravan. This time, however, is different. Lois’s husband has recently left them, lured away by a lucrative job in Norway. Their children are now of an age where decent Wi-Fi is more of a draw than tales of sea monsters and a cold, damp beach. When their phones and iPads go missing, Lois cannot help how she reacts to her furious offspring.

“I’m seeing what I want to see, when I should be giving the kids my full attention. The kids I have, not the kids I want them to be.”

The other key players in the unfolding drama are sixteen homeless men, mostly from abroad and unable to communicate fully with each other or those encountered when they sneak outside, against the orders of their benefactor. The men are kipping on the floor of a caravan that can somehow stretch to accommodate them. These touches of magical realism are signature in Carson’s writing and somehow fit perfectly.

With the characters in place, the plot moves forward with tales of further items that go missing. These include: an elderly dog, a valued tool belt, a wife suffering from dementia. The final story pulls everything together beautifully, adding depth to the study of how and why people value possessions, however much they put on the appearance of good citizens.

With the lightest of touches, the author draws the reader in to share the absurdity of day to day decisions made and ripples generated.

With a summer ahead that may preclude foreign travel, I was amused by her dedication in the acknowledgements:

“This one’s for anyone who’s ever spent a wet weekend up the north coast in a caravan.”

I’ve been there, done that, and if I’d had this book to read my stay would have been much improved.

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

Book Review: Like Fado

Like Fado and other stories, by Graham Mort, is a collection of thirteen short stories, the final one of which would pass as a novella in structure and length. Each tale rides on an undercurrent of melancholy. The lives explored are tinged not so much with regret as with an understanding of their transience. Histories are revealed through day to day activity, decisions made coloured by reaction and memory more than ambition. What is conveyed is told as much through the silences as conversation.

“So little time between now and then. Between one moment and the next. Between this moment and the future.”

The collection opens with Emporium, a understated yet powerful evocation of grief and its inevitability due to aging. An elderly widower walks through the small town he and his wife retired to, uncomfortable in an expensive coat that is a tad too small for his girth. The place is as much a character as those he encounters. The life he is living resonates with poignancy.

Each of the stories focuses on people and place more than plot. What is happening is used to deepen understanding of those involved. This is strong and emotive writing, presented in an engaging if often wistful tone.

Tempestade de Fogo hit hard given our current enforced inertia. It explores the pointlessness of existence when days are filled with little of note. A widow living alone in Portugal reflects on how her life as a professional musician could not continue, and the changes this brought. She is accepting of her fate, recognising the hand she had in where she is now.

Via Urbano features a younger cast of characters, yet is another story that portrays how the continuance of life cannot be taken for granted. It is also one of several tales that explores the chasms that exist between friends, however close.

There are stories exploring prejudices in many forms, including racism in Africa and homophobia in Cumbria. These are never polemic. Much else goes on alongside these attitudes. Settings are important and impressively redolent.

The final story, Whitehorn, has a distressing opening that effectively sets the scene but did not appear entirely necessary to what follows. This is a story of a son returning to confront his past following the death of his father. There is more tension in this tale, its length enabling a drawing out before the denouement.

Life and how it changes, including dealing with deaths, are recurrent themes. Each are presented as inevitable rather than something to be fought. Choices made when young have repercussions. Situations drifted into cannot be undone.

The writing is fluid and impressive, conveying thoughts with honesty, although not always the physical pain of certain moments. At times there was an almost nihilistic feel to characters’ reactions. Beauty is found in place and music with people flawed and accepting of this – any worth they may have ephemeral.

While I could appreciate the literary quality, this was a collection that left me dispirited. Perhaps it was just not the right read for a time of lockdown when it can be hard to find a point to the existence we are being forced to endure.

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

Book Review: Nordic Fauna

In his notes on the text, the translator of this collection of six short stories describes the tales as

“depictions of human struggles with identity, regret, vulnerability, truth and our place among our fellow creatures.”

The creatures featured are both human and various. There is a touch of magical realism, although this is grounded in characters’ perceptions. It is kept in check by underlying questions around what they are experiencing and their own doubts about what they see and feel. Characters try to rationalise fears – to talk themselves down from emotional precipices.

Within the stories, ordinary events are transformed into sinister happenings, with a question hovering over what is real or imagined. This adds tension to interactions with vistas and people – that possible movement glimpsed in the periphery growing eerie and unsettling. Narrators struggle with darkness of thought that erodes the anchors of their existence.

The collection opens with The Bird That Cries in the Night. This is narrated by a young man who regularly visits his estranged parents one after the other. He is concerned about his father, moreso when the older man admits to not sleeping well. He keeps hearing a bird he cannot place that others insist on naming for him. The mother urges her son to concentrate on taking better care of himself. Memories from childhood haunt the man’s attempts to move towards a relationship – he dreams of a future but is distracted by his past, unacknowledged fears. As the story progresses, what unfolds is a spiral.

The Cat was my favourite story. In it, a mother removes herself from her family, leaving the daughter unsure of her standing. Father and son bond, then attempt to force a break in the family impasse. Control they take as their right, they do not possess as expected. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. There is power in the spaces between what is shared.

The Father Hole is another story where what is happening in the shadows is not always clear within the text. A young girl is sent to spend time with her father – a virtual stranger she is afraid of despite how often he lavishes her with gifts. His love is transactional – her physical reaction treated as an ailment. The climax and then her return to him left me with rather too many questions – the weirdness of certain key scenes harder to follow and explain.

The Girlfriend has a slower pace than the other tales. This was fully compensated by the excellent ending – clever and unexpected.

The unpredictability of direction within each of these stories is managed to fine effect, never overdone but keeping the reader on edge and engaged. There is a poignancy within the darkness. Liminal spaces are conjured from what may be passed as mundane. It is easy to empathise with characters whose hidden concerns harbour threats they struggle to articulate. The Swedish setting provides an evocative backdrop to an arresting and enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: Signal

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks by individual authors. Having checked their website, these books sell out quickly.

I am familiar with the author of Signal from his recent novel, The Complex, published by Salt in 2019. Like his longer work, Signal has a dark underbelly. Framed by a contemporary town on the eve of Christmas Eve, the glittering façade of partying nightlife contrasts with the loneliness behind the invisible masks people don on such occasions.

The story opens with a young woman, Kate, walking home after work. As she passes an apartment block on her familiar route she is looking for recognisable faces at lit windows – a kind of distant companionship. A glitch in her personal electronic device distracts her, after which she notices a naked man looking out from one of the top floor residences. He is not the only disturbance in her periphery. The narrative pulls cankers from a variety of encounters – perturbing imagery abounds.

We learn that Kate is estranged from her parents and that her sister died while at university. The grief from this latter event is still raw, invading Kate’s dreams. Unable to face her housemate’s plans for the evening, Kate embarks on a moonlit walk. The sense of foreboding is masterfully deployed.

“Town had a circus vibe.”

Throughout the unfolding tale the reader is kept guessing as to what is illusory and what real. Kate takes what some may consider to be risks, seeking closure on a period of her life denuded of prospects. It is not the darkness or shadows she fears but rather the relentless reality of her day to day existence. Her sense of loss pervades.

The reader is drawn into the tale, its unsettling developments rising like smoke to mingle with the vestiges of sense Kate tries to cling to. The writing is liminal, so much on the edges distracting from actions and reasoning. The denouement leaves much to ponder – vestiges of a storm in which Kate’s evening was the eye.

A study of grief and loneliness set around the season of glitter and hollow cheer. A broodingly atmospheric and memorable read.

My copy of this story was provided gratis by the publisher, Nightjar Press.