Book Review: A Stone Statue In The Future – #SaveIndies

It is probably stretching the definition somewhat to describe A Stone Statue In The Future, by Benjamin Myers, as a book. It is a new short story that has been released to raise much needed funds for two excellent small, independent presses whose finances are suffering because of the current lockdown. Priced at only £3, the reader purchases a digital download. As I do not read ebooks and wished to savour the writing from an author whose work I have previously enjoyed immensely, I made my own hard copy (pictured above).

The story features a young man, sitting by a pond, fishing. I have never understood this activity – how so much time can be spent apparently inactive. Having read this work I feel I understand better the motivation. The young man is taking in his surroundings and allowing his mind to wander. This takes him to a potential future and is a delightful reposte to how we interpret the past from found objects.

A warden makes his way around the ponds where coarse fishermen tend their rods. He offers practical advice to the young man who is impressed and grateful. The denouement is crafted with skill leaving a memorable impression.

The author’s writing evokes a strong sense of place. The vivid, sensuous language whilst rich is never cloying. Rather, there is a playfulness in the observations and characters created. This short story was a delight to read.

A Stone Statue In The Future is published by Bluemoose Books and Little Toller Books.

Do please consider purchasing – click on the cover below for further details.

Book Review: Carrying Fire and Water

Carrying Fire and Water, by Deirdre Shanahan, is a collection of sixteen short stories that convey in rich and evocative prose how solitary life can be whatever one’s situation. Snapshots of the experiences of a variety of protagonists are portrayed as they live through a chasm of longing and inability to articulate. From the outside many may appear to be coping, even thriving. Seen through the lens of their thoughts and feelings – the guilt they carry or grief they bear – their edge is closer than others are capable of realising.

The titular story opens the collection with a couple staying in a hotel. They have suffered a disappointment that the woman is struggling to deal with. Her husband had suggested she choose a new car as a distraction. This led to further marital complications. As in several of the stories, day to day events and the overwhelming emotions these can engender will not be shared for fear of hurting those who care – leading to ongoing recriminations.

The fractures that form in relationships are a recurring theme whether it be between married couples or those conducting affairs. Mostly these are told from the female point of view – vivid and regretful. At times the men, the supporting cast, come across as two-dimensional.

There are stories featuring the elderly and their grown children. Undercurrents of guilt pervade along with the impossibility of opening up with honesty about raw experiences. There is love but also a need to remain unfettered.

Several of the tales feature adults who were abused in childhood and the difficulty of living with how this has affected them. There is a desire to tell aging parents – unaware perhaps but still blamed – or to confront the abuser. Secrets are shown to have weight; sharing, consequences.

Supposedly happily married women cannot put aside their attraction to others. Brief liaisons occur that must then for evermore be kept secret.

The suppression of emotion can grow overwhelming – defining the colour of subsequent days. Partners, not understanding, become frustrated at their loved one’s inability to be as they once were.

The Love Object tells of a child in care who develops a crush on a member of staff at the home where she lives. The depiction of the young people with their resentments and jealousies is skillfully rendered. They posture and act out, there is violence and law breaking, yet they still feel and care.

The author writes with piercing insight in language that may be savoured. Despite the sadness in each life depicted, this was a satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Jolts

“I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad”

In 2002 Fernando Sdrigotti fled the economic turmoil of his home country, Argentina, and flew to Dublin where he knew a friend would put him up temporarily. The morning after his arrival in Ireland he started work washing dishes – a kitchen porter job in the canteen of an office building. He spent the next seventeen years moving countries and cities, acquiring the visas and paperwork that would enable him to apply for British citizenship.

Jolts is a collection of nine short stories that offer snapshots of the author’s experiences living in transient places. As with any memoir there are elements of fiction.

“I may be sitting in a café in London reading these words. And I may be trying to figure out what is actually real, and what made-up. Or I may be rejoicing in the uncertainty. Or aware of the fantasy, I might be rejoicing in the fabrication.”

What comes through is a picture of the life of a writer as he attempts to establish himself, and the adaptations he goes through to fit his changing circumstances. There is a great deal of alcohol and drug taking along with anger and cynicism. There is also humour, particularly in the representations of those he meets along the way. The narrator appears to possess a degree of self-assurance that I have observed in others – mainly males – and always perplexes me (that they can be so sure of themselves and their opinions). He is not, however, averse to turning criticisms on himself.

The collection opens with the titular story. This is structured as a series of brief vignettes set across several decades. They help explain why the narrator left Argentina and provide a basis for several episodes recounted in more detail in subsequent stories.

“the piece is called ‘Jolts’ and is precisely about jolts in time and space, about how some of us are more sensitive to fragments and how some of us are more fragmented than the rest, particularly on some days.”

Several of the stories are set in London where the author now lives. In Only Up Here the narrator has quit a bar job and is taking in his surroundings having spent days festering in bed. He shares a studio flat with another guy in similar circumstances. Both have experienced the high of potential change before crashing to inertia from which the narrator is now trying to extricate them.

Turkish Delight portrays a different type of acquaintance. The cash-strapped narrator accepts an invitation to Sunday lunch from a financially successful Englishman who has plans for an afternoon of mutual drinking and drug taking. High on whatever has been snorted, the narrator can suppress his concerns at feeling out of place amongst ‘beautiful people’.

Methylated Spirits is a story about shopping in Sainsburys in the week before Christmas. From the items purchased and the amount spent the reader may assume that the narrator is now doing better financially.

Barbecue and Exhumation in Victoria Park Village is a biting exposé of casual xenophobia that the characters portrayed would probably deny. One is a ‘published author’ with opinions about writers and their road to success. The guests at the barbecue talk condescendingly on many topics, trading insults as competition amongst them builds with alcohol consumption. The narrator observes this group of friends while trying to fit in.

As well as London there are stories set in Dublin, Rome, and a childhood holiday in coastal Argentina. In this latter tale, the narrator is spending a summer with a young friend’s family, to keep the boy company. The montage presented is piercing in its evocation of the ordinary experiences children must suffer at the hands of peers and those charged with their care.

The final story, Notes Towards A Return, is set in Buenos Aires towards the end of the period covered by this memoir.

“Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me – I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spend this time couch surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires.”

The narrator does not return to his hometown, Rosario, on this visit. When friends there express disappointment he stops responding to their messages.

“Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago – we have nothing in common anymore – we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.”

Although each story in this collection contains an interesting plot and well developed trajectory, it is the keen observations and elucidation that provide their vigour and entertainment. The writing style and taut structure offer an acutely pertinent if wry portrayal of humanity and their treatment of incomers. Whatever truths are being conveyed about the author’s life, it is as short stories about people’s behaviour that they may be savoured. Whilst I couldn’t empathise with many of the choices made – situations beyond my experience – the first person narrative offers a window into the life of a traveller whose circumstances are more relevant than location.

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

Book Review: She-Clown and Other Stories

She-Clown and Other Stories, by Hannah Vincent, is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring women recognisable from ordinary social situations. Their everyday lives require that they compromise their potential in order to survive the hand chosen or dealt. They are described as feminist stories and this is accurate in a myriad of ways. Some of the women are chafing against the restrictions of marriage or motherhood. Others are pushing for their right to be themselves within a family that expects them to be something else – a facsimile or ideal. The tales are succinct, layered and fierce in their observations. They are also funny and refreshing in the spotlight shone on behaviours.

The titular story tells of an entertainer working at a child’s birthday party. The mothers congregate over wine and complaints about husbands and children. On arrival, She-Clown is introduced.

“‘You probably know half the people here,’ the mother said, turning to Charlie, and it was true that Charlie did recognise some of the faces. One of the men had sat in her car. She had given him a blowjob. She recognised his moccasin shoes. Another man, in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, had fucked her in a laundry room among mountain bikes and drying washing while his wife gave out party bags.”

Charlie goes through her routine, aware of how she is being watched by some of the men. The children accept everything offered as their due, refusing to be impressed.

Other stories tell of parents called to schools – teachers expecting them to sort out a child’s behaviour where it doesn’t fit with the expected agenda.

Single parents push against their situation, and against their lack of agency in the face of authority figures.

Working mothers juggle the satisfaction of their professional lives, trying to find balance with family needs amidst parental criticism.

One story features a young couple recently returned from travelling, who are considering going down the road of motherhood. A catching up is required of one of them if they are to remain together. Love is all very well but people change over time and have diverging desires and expectations.

Not all of the women’s lives revolve around children.

Carnival offers the reader a young women whose office life demands she dress up (never well enough) and accept her boss’s disturbing behaviour. Making a fuss is frowned upon.

I enjoyed the stories featuring older women, many of whom behave badly in the eyes of their offspring. One mother gives her grandson an inappropriate gift, watching carefully for her daughter’s reaction. The grown up daughter of a controlling mother finds a novel way to exert her will when the mother is hospitalised.

These power plays between family members are presented with insight and wit.

In The Mermaid and the Tick a young couple go on holiday abroad at the behest of the husband. The wife is compliant, submitting to his plans despite reservations. When he notices she is fitting in better than he expected and that, while his needs are met, she can enjoy herself without him, his enjoyment is not as he anticipated.

Many of the men featured do not come out well in these stories, mainly due to their habits of wanting wives to revere them while they look lasciviously elsewhere.

A few of the stories offer more surreal elements, set in a world that may be futuristic. One explores how important it actually is for experiences to be real or useful if they are enjoyed by those who partake. Another is set at a dinner party where nobody knows who invited them or the purpose of the evening. There is a hankering for the past, or a might have been present, yet women continue to behave as others expect them to – even in the face of impending chaos.

The Sparrow is set on a successful doctor’s retirement day. It has a poignancy wound around why she ended up in the profession.

“‘Couldn’t be more proud’ is an expression of a surfeit of pride, and that wasn’t David. It wasn’t Daddy’s way either. I assumed it would please my father to have me follow him into medicine, and at a time when there were far fewer women doctors than there are now, but he was more concerned with Howard and his career, for all the good that did either of them. It will be good to have more time for my brother after today.”

It is interesting to consider the drivers in decision making – how women are conditioned to be pleasing. The denouement of this story is quietly moving.

Another moving story in the collection is 3 o’clock which is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she struggles with the tasks necessary to enable her to leave the house – remembering to take her smart bag and good purse, doing up the buttons on her coat – voices from the past haunt her. Each time she opens her fridge she hears ‘Close the door, it costs me money every time you go in there!‘ As she does her very best to make herself presentable she hears her mother-in-law say ‘You could wear the same outfit, Clem, and it wouldn’t look so smart.‘ Oh for more kindness within families…

I commend this collection to you for the variety of themes explored and the assiduity with which they are presented. The lightness of the writing belies the intricacy of the narrative. An entertaining and deeply satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Exercises in Control

Exercises in Control, by Annabel Banks, is a collection of a dozen short stories from an author whose writing style brought to mind that of M. John Harrison, although these are neither fantasy nor science fiction. The stories have an unsettling and elusive quality that requires the reader to delve beyond what is obvious and engage with characters who are slippery and complex. There is an undercurrent of violence that manifests in actions against the narrators and those they encounter.

The collection opens with an impressive tale titled Payment to the Universe. A cleaner is working alone in deserted offices. Against instruction she enters a room and must make a decision about what she finds there. The sparse prose conveys her reasoning and packs a punch.

I was less impressed with Susan Frankie Marla Me. A woman describes outings with friends and the copying of behaviours that alter depending on who she is with. My aversion likely stems from the fact that I couldn’t warm to any of the characters or what they were doing in each situation.

Exercises in Control is a strong story but contained an upsetting element of animal cruelty that I would prefer not to now have in my head. A train station guard is watching a woman who he regularly sees on his shift. Curious to find out how she reacts, he stage manages a scenario and then observes from his unseen vantage point. His apparent lack of feeling, other than to satisfy his own needs, is shocking.

Rite of Passage recounts a weird date on a beach in Cornwall.

It is one of several stories that detail people behaving strangely. Men think violent thoughts that they sometimes act upon. Women self-harm in a variety of ways. If the stories are about self control – or its deliberate absence – then this comes with a need to exert power, to push against the strictures that family or society attempt to impose. There is a lack of hope, a struggle to cope, in many of the lives depicted.

Limitations turned me off with its sexual description in the opening lines – a man looking forward to seeing a woman again because of “how wet she gets.” Few of the men featured in any of the stories are given likeable traits.

Free Body Diagram features a woman who hitchhikes as a means of courting danger. She is a serial dater with no interest in forming a relationship. I enjoyed the ambiguous ending.

The Higgins Method is a violent interpretation of My Fair Lady. It has a quietly inserted side thread on how we treat and judge celebrities.

I enjoyed the oddness of Momentum with its suggestion of something inexplicable in a local man’s homemade box of tricks.

The oddness in With Compliments was more difficult to navigate. The character jumps lost me in places – who was who – although several of the scenarios resonated.

Harmless offers a wickedly delicious comeuppance for a man who tells a random woman he encounters to smile, expecting to be paid attention. I felt guilt at my feelings over the outcome and the woman’s reaction.

A Theory Concerning Light and Colours has an intriguing premise and unnerving ending but didn’t entirely hold my interest.

The closing story, Common Codes, features a man who wishes to impress a woman and ends up losing control of a lie he tells. I wondered what would happen next.

Seven of these stories have previously been published in literary magazines with some nominated for awards. From what I had heard of the writer I expected to enjoy her work. Perhaps it was this that led to my ambivalence with the overall collection. There is much that is admirable in the style and structure of the writing, which has obvious power and depth. Nevertheless, I struggled to engage with too much of the development. The inherent violence and relentlessly flawed character traits marred my enjoyment. A book that may benefit from rereading.

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

Book Review: Escape Routes

I was drawn to read Escape Routes when I learned that the author used to be a bookseller at one of my favourite shops in Bath, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It was only when I read the acknowledgements that I realised she is also the daughter of Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro – quite the pedigree for an aspiring author. I subsequently discovered that, in April of last year, Tinder Press ‘snapped up’ this, her debut short story collection. I am pleased not to have known these facts before I started reading. It is a book that could easily have come from the carefully curated lists of my beloved small indie presses rather than the accountant driven committees of one of the big five publishers (that I suspect can stymie the literary passion of commissioning editors and publicists).

Enough. This eclectic book is so good.

There are nine short stories in the collection although three are one story presented as a trilogy. Titled, The Rat Catcher, this divided tale is set in a kingdom suffering from rodent infestation and associated disease. The new young king has gone into seclusion, abandoning his rundown palace to his half sister. The titular rat catcher is commanded to rid the palace of its vermin. Unbeknownst to him, his work will stoke a family feud with unsettling consequences. The writing is fable like with elements that are dark alongside the playfulness.

The opening tale, Wizards, features a ten year old misfit, Alfie, who is counting down the days to his next birthday when he expects to attain magical powers.

“he realised he loved being on holiday. Perhaps most of all like this, alone, the sea like a magic door or threshold he just had to cross to find another place where the things to be afraid of were clear, monstrous things you could face down with weapons and with shouting and heroic resolution, like magic beasts or evil armies. He would be much more suited to a life like that, he considered, than the one he had been allocated here.”

Alfie is in Brighton with his sad, controlling mother and her out of work partner when the child encounters a man working a beach booth as a fortune teller. Luciano the Diviner, also known as Peter, has ideas of himself as: a dude, a child of the universe, catching rays, drinking in the beauty of a place, living for the moment. Peter’s confidence in his self-styled persona is too often punctured by a voice in his head that reminds him, annoyingly, of his eminently sensible father. Peter’s reaction to Alfie sets of a potentially catastrophic chain of events, for both of them.

Bear is the story of a newly wed couple who buy the titular large, stuffed animal and then find it becomes a metaphor for their marriage. It is a fine evocation of how love can cause individuals to invent the person they want their beloved to be, blinding them to reality and creating lonely resentment.

In a strong field, the prose in Heart Problems impressed. Dan is living in London with his fiancée, Beatrice, but is deeply unsettled.

“it is so uncomfortable, so unpleasant to exist here in this city, only the fittest allowed to survive and all the elderly and children tidied into hospitals, nurseries, and goodness knows where else, conveniently out of sight.”

Without a job, Dan spends his days wandering the streets, talking only briefly each day to a newspaper vendor. His father, back in Ireland, is ill and Dan misses the life he and Beatrice had amongst their mutual friends in Dublin. In trying to articulate how he feels, he dwells on his fear of being unwell. He keeps a suitcase packed with ‘essentials’ and imagines escaping.

“I added a compass, because it’s always useful, I’ve decided, to know where you are in relation to something fixed, even if you’re unsure of where you’re going.”

What keeps him in London is Beatrice, but he is unconvinced this is enough to sustain him.

“Beatrice is one of those individuals who is consciously trying very hard to be a good person. Not that she isn’t naturally a good person. It’s just that she’s always making such an effort at it”

Another favourite story was Shearing Season. Jamie is a ‘strangely gifted eleven-year old’ who wants to be an astronaut but lives on a remote sheep farm in the Lake District. When Miles, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering, comes to lodge at the farm the boy sees a potential opportunity to ‘break into the space travel industry’. Miles sets Jamie a series of tests. The denouement of this tale is exquisitely rendered.

Accelerate is a fabulous read – layered and nuanced with the added bonus of a scene set on a hill not far from where I live. It gently mocks office work, and unrealistic expectations in relationships where each partner will try to mould the other rather than accepting difference. I wasn’t convinced that the dialogue section fitted (I am reviewing a proof so it is possible this will be changed in the final edit). I adored what the author did with the starling murmuration. The poignant ending was perfect.

The Flat Roof is one of the shorter of the stories and offers less breadth and progression. It is a study of grief, the weight of it, again using avian imagery.

The voices used throughout are original, quirky in places but perfectly fitting the structures employed and character development.

An enjoyable, striking collection with a fine balance of contemporary elements and more mythical themes. This is an author to watch (in her own right) and a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Splice 1

Splice was set up by Daniel Davis Wood in 2017 (you may read more about their aims here). It has three main pillars: a small press that publishes short story collections by outstanding writers; online, in-depth book reviews; a biennial anthology showcasing previously unpublished work by three of the press’s authors, each of who selects and introduces the work of another writer deserving more attention. These selected writers will then be

“commissioned to publish new work in future and to nominate new and interesting writers of their own.

In essence, the anthology functions as a way of consolidating the Splice community and broadening its scope.”

Splice 1, as its title suggests, is the first anthology. It opens with a foreword by the editor, Daniel Davis Wood, who also writes the introduction to the work of the three Splice authors included: Dana Diehl, Michael Conley, Thomas Chadwick. After each introduction there is a complete short story from the author plus an extract from a further work by them (the full second story is available to read on the Splice website). The author then introduces their chosen writer whose contribution is presented in the same format – a short story and an extract.

Having read and reviewed the three featured authors’ short story collections, it was interesting to read the editor’s take on their work – what drew him to want to publish them. The short stories included here are all impressive examples of the form. One features an apartment that is carpeted in three feet of soil. Another has a character whose hair starts to talk when he allows it to grow. A story written entirely in dialogue is set on what I assume is a distant planet. Fantastical though these concepts may be they do not read as fantasy. The authors have grasped the essence of writing fiction and created distinctive and mesmeric voices.

As a reader I will have personal preferences but can recognise fine writing even in those stories I don’t enjoy so much. The final writer, Victoria Mansfield, includes vivid imagery that I found unpleasant in Whitegoods for Your Daughters. She describes sex, food and even travelling by public transport in ways that made me recoil. Yet I can appreciate her way with words and the emotional resonance. For those less squeamish than me her work may be better appreciated.

Despite such a strong field, my choice of standout story was by Abi Hynes. A conversation recorded before the end of the experiment presents man and alien attempting to communicate. The arrogance of humans is skillfully foiled by the encounter. Man is trying so hard to be reasonable, failing to comprehend the purpose and place in this new world that he has been granted. It is a fabulous tale, perfectly paced, both humorous and tragic.

Honourable mentions must go to Dana Diehl’s The Earth Room and Renée Bibby’s That Boy. Both stories draw the reader into the day to day difficulties individuals face and how they regard themselves, particularly when dealing with others. They are quirky and clever but never too much of either. The tales flow and entertain while offering much to consider.

I also enjoyed Thomas Chadwick’s The Unsuccessful Candidate. Office workers rarely wish to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of becoming a target for blame. The idea that someone could turn up daily for work, despite being rejected at interview, and co-workers would be flummoxed about how to deal with them, was just delicious, especially as the successful candidate was proving far from ideal.

The extracts included in the anthology provide tantalising tasters. I must find time to seek out the rest of Thomas Chadwick’s Politics. It opens

“David killed the Queen. It was nothing personal he said. It was just politics. All he wanted was to make a political statement about the abuse of power in the country”

The media twists the facts to fit their agendas. Peers are interviewed and quoted out of context.

“”Who told you that?”
“We can’t say.”
“Was it Charles? Because if anyone needs locking up, it’s Charles. He thinks wealth trickles down. He knows all the verses of the national anthem. He sleeps beside a copy of Atlas Shrugged.”
David was told that for all his sins Charles had not shot the Queen.”

Splice 1 provides excellent and varied reading. It is also a fine introduction to a literary endeavour that deserves wider attention from readers.

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

Book Review: American Midnight

American Midnight: Tales of the Dark is a collection of nine short stories selected and introduced by Laird Hunt. They are described as classics of supernatural suspense from authors who have inspired generations of writers to explore the dark heart of the land of the free (America). I found the collection decidedly mixed in terms of chill factor or even engagement.

I had heard of a fair proportion of the authors whose work was selected although am familiar with the writing of only one, whose story turned out to be my favourite. The style of a couple of the tales was too dated for my tastes. Another adopted a local vernacular that was apposite but still grated.

The opening two stories offer dread tales with moral undertones. The settings were interesting, featuring darkly imaginative touches, but plot development failed to inject any spine tingles or even, really, sense.

The first is set in a castle where a wealthy prince has shut himself away with a large number of his friends and those who can serve them, in order to avoid a virulent plague.

“The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.”

After several months a masked ball is held, in rooms that seem designed to bring trouble down on those who use them.

The second story is set in and around Salem which piqued my interest. I ended up feeling sympathy only for the protagonist’s wife.

The Eyes, by Edith Wharton, is excellent. A group of friends gather around a fireplace and start to tell each other ghost stories. Their host is reluctant to join in but eventually shares a tale of time spent abroad where he ended up supporting a young writer of questionable talent. Alongside the spooky elements is the horror of feedback on mediocre writing.

“At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head the detestable delusion that it held a brain. […] The stuff he turned out was deplorable”

“I had sent his stuff to various people – editors and critics – and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it”

“At first it didn’t matter – he thought he was ‘misunderstood’. He took the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another to keep it company.”

This story is followed by The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers, which is set amongst wealthy artist friends. A sculptor has discovered a chemical mix that turns living things to stone in an instant. The reader is asked to consider: if a thing is preserved is its life taken – is its essence destroyed? The sculptor compares the potential for producing perfect sculptures in this way to the challenge photography presents to painters. Between the friends there is a hint of ménage à trois along with the dubious morality of killing creatures for art. Despite these interesting threads I was less than taken by the tale, especially its denouement.

Home, by Shirley Jackson, is skilfully written and nicely developed but with a somewhat vanilla ending. A couple move into their new home on the outskirts of a remote village and the woman sets out to become an important part of the local community. Unbeknown to her the property has a tragic history. Even her strong personality cannot control its consequences.

There follow some fairly uninspiring entries – the only other story in the collection that I would rate is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is quite a slow burner – not ideal in a short story – but vividly portrays a wife whose agency has been taken by her husband – for her own good of course – and the damage this causes. The tension builds gradually and there is an excellent denouement that suggests a more subtly layered tale beneath the repetitive descriptions.

The final story, An Itinerant House by Emma Frances Dawson, did not appeal particularly except for the idea that places continue to harbour the more shocking experiences of those who have passed through.

“Houses seem to remember,” he said. “Some rooms oppress us with a sense of lives that have been lived in them.”

When a group of men take extreme measures to save the life of a woman, they do not expect to be cursed by her. Neither do they believe at that point that curses have power.

Whatever one may think of the contents, this is a gorgeously produced little book with a wonderful cover by artist, Joe McLaren. It is smaller than most paperbacks making it pleasing to hold and read. The French flaps and quality paper add to the aesthetic appeal.

Perhaps my disappointment with too many of these stories stems from my expectations of dark, supernatural writing born from the work of writers such as Michelle Paver. None of the tales in this collection is shoddily written. They simply failed to provide sufficient disturbance.

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

Book Review: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis), is the third book in the publisher’s 2019 ‘There Be Monsters’ series. It is a collection of thirteen interlinked short stories set in France across several decades. The initial tales, whilst evocative, struggled to capture my full attention. As reading progressed common threads and characters emerged. Meaning and depth increased thereby strengthening engagement.

The collection opens with The Lake’s Favourite which tells of an almost too perfect period in the narrator’s childhood. At just a few pages in length this offered a snapshot with little development.

The Jigsaw Puzzle, whilst still short, offered more to consider. It portrays a marriage faltering in the shade of an old and popular lime tree that draws visitors to the remote location. The couple’s young daughter happily copes with each change in circumstance until her mother tries to impose her concerns on the child, against the girl’s will and that of her father. I was pleased when, later in the collection, this family was revisited from several perspectives.

The Short Cut is set largely around a funeral. A woman is returning to an area she left as a teenager to watch as her cousin and doppelgänger is buried. The women made choices when they went their separate ways but neither could predict where these would lead.

“I knew what frightened her most: it was the life that I had chosen where nothing is known. She had tried to persuade me not to leave, telling me other places were the same as here but worse”

I read through this story twice and still it remained elusive until the characters were revisited in subsequent tales.

Blind Spots is told from the point of view of a hitchhiker who has worked out a way to gain lifts by taking drivers by surprise. I found this story overlong and repetitive although it had a good ending. It turned out to be a pivotal tale in the collection.

“The faster you go, the less you can see on either side. The bigger your blind spots. On the motorway it’s as if we’re looking down a tunnel […] lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision.”

The Loony and the Bright Spark is one of several stories looking at the elderly and misfits in society – how they came to be where they are and the strange rituals they adopt to give them some reason to keep on living.

Mum at the Park is a snapshot of a child’s view of their book reading parent who has no interest in other people or playing childish games. The city doesn’t suit her but the boy regards it as a playground filled with potential friends.

I enjoyed Just a Dad – another view of a parent as seen through the eyes of their child. By this stage in the collection the reader is observing recurring characters at different times in there lives. This fragmented approach to storytelling added interest but required a going back to reread previously portrayed details.

Over the Aquaduct tells of a childish joke that has unintended consequences, driving apart good friends.

The penultimate story, The Dropout, revisits characters, this time at a wedding where a wrongly invited guest causes the bride to behave badly.

“life is just that, a whole lot of hitches, contradictions, mishaps and revisions, and it’s all the better for that. It’s the opposite of inertia.”

Having read each tale I would say that overall I enjoyed the collection even if it was quite a slow burner. The writing is choppy in places as is the subject matter. The sense of place is strong and the characters interesting. I suspect this is a book that would offer more on rereading.

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

Book Review: This Way to Departures

This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, is a collection of eleven short stories by an author capable of using the form to impressive effect. Each tale is expertly crafted, evoking a passionate response in the reader. That this is achieved by harnessing everyday language and action – nothing feels overdone – makes for an immersive reading experience.

The collection opens with Noir, a tale set in Miami. Laura and Sam are enjoying their fledgling relationship when Laura, a journalist growing bored with her mundane assignments, is approached by a handsome but sad eyed stranger, Miguel from El Salvador. He is trying to track down missing friends.

“I remembered the instructions Inez and I had been handed when, as children, we went out to play in the street: strangers should be left as you found them, sob stories promptly returned to their owners. Somewhere along the way, Inez had decided to dismiss this as cynicism rather than wisdom; no one we knew had ever stayed safe by avoiding risk.”

Laura agrees to help Miguel. To do so she must involve one of Sam’s good friends.

Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months explores the world of youngsters placed under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Every year hundreds disappear. Foster parents take on their role as it is a chance for them to earn a little extra income in areas where jobs are hard to find. Overburdened caseworkers struggle to deal with every query and reported incident. When the papers or television pick up on an individual missing child, the Secretary of the Department must offer a response.

“Every time, the panels have come to the same conclusions – that we must invest more in the programs. And every time, the state has said it cannot provide that funding.”

The story offers a concise indictment of the fickle nature of public outrage and then insouciant acceptance.

Butterfly McQueen on Broadway provides a glimpse of the problems faced by a successful actress of colour when she refuses to take stereotypical roles in films. The titular actress appeared in Gone With the Wind yet ended up accepting any available casual work in Harlem. Her career is compared to another actress of colour who went on to win an Oscar, yet whose story remained peppered with shocking racism.

The Place That He Can Never Return To recalls the narrator’s childhood visits, with their father, to a restaurant frequented by fellow exiles. Here they would be served German food and encouraged to speak the language while being told tales of a homeland, recalled with nostalgia.

The lasting impact of the immigrant experience is a theme that runs through each of these tales.

This Way to Departures is one of several stories set in or around an American campus. Danny was born in Poland but his parents were determined to start afresh somewhere they regarded as better.

“He would know Evanston, Illinois, where his parents tried and tried to become middle class and American. And if they failed, well, they were not the only ones failing to become happy Americans after the war.”

Danny becomes a successful economist but, as a committed socialist, needs to follow his ideals. His wife, who compromises her career for him, must make further difficult choices. Danny thinks he knows what she wants but can only see this through the prism of his own needs.

“He leapt up when he saw me, took me in his arms, gave me more of a clinch than an embrace. At first I half-believed he knew what I was going to tell him, sensed it. But he hadn’t of course. His anticipation – the way he held his breath, watched me carefully, and could barely sit – all that was because he had something to tell me.”

Facsimiles is set in New York City, mid September 2001. The narrator and her girlfriend survive the attacks but, like so many who had worked at the World Trade Centre, were deeply affected. The story is heartbreaking yet beautifully rendered.

The World’s Fair tells of a young couple eager to escape the confines of their neighbourhood – built on what was once landfill – and their stifling upbringing.

“‘All of this,’ she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, ‘it used to be garbage.’
‘When did it stop being garbage?’ I want to ask her.
‘Before you were born,’ she offers, ‘this neighbourhood was beautiful.’
As if my being born ruined it.”

The author captures the hemmed in frustrations teenagers suffer yet never overplays them.

Waiting for Daylight is another campus story exploring the abuse of power. Like the following story, The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, the protagonists are not depicted in the way most books, films or TV shows paint American college kids. There are drugs and sex but these students are more universally real, more nuanced in their wider trials and experiences. Studies may be neglected but their importance feels understood. The difficulty of funding them remains an issue.

The Christmas Story offers a glimpse of the festive season through the eyes of those living with poverty and illness in a capitalist society. The narrator is now grown and living in comfort but the time she recalls is seared in her memory. As a child she lived in an apartment with broken heating. Her Jewish mother would not bow to the conventions of Christmas. The young girl’s furtive prayers to the Jesus she finds in a ‘comic book’ represent just another of life’s empty promises.

Dangers of the Sun covers a court case in which a widow is suing her late husband’s doctor for negligence. Told from the point of view of an old friend, the reader is shown the machinations of the legal system. It is a painful portrayal of distancing.

What these stories have in common is the feeling of disconnection as people grow and change. Many of the characters have roots in different countries. Past experiences haunt what their present can be. The author pierces each topic with intrepid yet empathetic succinctness – I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality and style of her writing.

This is a gratifying and recommended read.

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