Book Review: Solesearcher1


Like Benjamin Myers’ A Stone Statue In The Future, it would be a stretch to describe Solesearcher1 as a book. It is Sara Baume’s first published work, a short story that won her the Davy Byrne Prize in 2014. I was kindly sent a digital copy (a format I struggle to engage with) so I printed and bound it to create a copy I can now keep on my shelves. A little book albeit a mere 17 pages in length.

The protagonist of the story is Phil, a plumber by trade like her father before her. Every Sunday she goes sea fishing, and it is during this pursuit that we are first introduced. She dreams of catching a Dover sole – ‘almost impossible to catch on a line from the shore.’ 

After work each evening Phil goes for a drink at a local pub. Few women other than she frequent the place. Phil lives alone in ‘a tiny terrace house on the seafront of a village’. In stormy weather the downstairs can flood. On Saturdays she visits her father. They share a bland meal and watch television together. Fishing is, however, what Phil cares about.

“Only on Sundays does she cease egging time on until the next thing. Only with saltwater pressing waist-high against her waders does she feel calm, comforted by the squeeze of the sea. Only waiting for a bite is she content to simply wait.”

As the story unfolds there is a mystery around dogs going missing. Distraught owners put up notices. It is discussed at the pub. Phil keeps an eye out for these creatures when driving to and from jobs. The winter weather is making her fishing more challenging. Surrounds are now viewed through a bleak lens.

“she feels very suddenly and very powerfully as though her world is dwindling away, morsel by morsel, without ever being replenished.”

As with the author’s later works – I have read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Seven Steeplesthe tale being told is well structured, spare and taut, while retaining reader attention. The evocative prose style lingers. Each character is well portrayed, adding depth to the narrative and acting as conduits to the sense of place. The denouement pulls the various threads together with a satisfying, somehow vividly understated, scene. 

I very much enjoyed this story, as I have everything so far read by this author. I am now eager to acquire her remaining works.

My sincere thanks to David Collard for sending me a copy of Solesearcher1.


Book Review: On Photography

on photography

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Badger


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Badger is published by Ration Books.

Book Review: Young Farmers

young farmers

Let’s start by saying that Young Farmers, by Jan Carson, is a short story printed as a limited edition chapbook. It was included in goodie bags given to attendees at recent launch events for The Raptures, the author’s most recent novel. I was delighted to be sent a copy as I have enjoyed reading every book Carson has had published.

The story recounts an incident in the life of one of the children featured in The Raptures. Bayani is the son of a local farmer – who insists on calling the boy Ben – and his Filipino wife. Being of mixed race, Bayani stands out in Ballylack, the village where he was born and raised. When his father takes him along to a Young Farmers’ Club meeting, the regulars regard him as foreign and therefore unwelcome.

Bayani has no interest in farming but, at ten years old, has little agency. The young farmers he is forced to spend an evening with are teenagers who end each meeting drinking beer together. The unexpected arrival in their midst adds an extra dimension to their routine entertainment.

“They don’t know exactly what they want. In the rush of it all – the slip quick moment between, here’s a mad idea, and actually firing the boy in with the bull – the Young Farmers have lost the run of themselves. Even the sober ones feel drunk and the truly pissed have surrendered to some baser need. If you asked what the Hell they’re playing at, you’d not get any sense out of them.”

The denouement is particularly poignant and pleasing, a fitting end to a somewhat disturbing escapade. Bayani’s dad is set up well for how his character is developed in the novel.

Carson has a knack for capturing the vernacular and character of the Northern Irish with wit and sympathy. Their flaws, of which there are many, are mined for humour rather than criticism. Prejudices are made clear but it is left to the reader to recognise how this limits and shadows choices and experiences.

A short story that stands on its own merits but also slips seamlessly into the world portrayed in The Raptures. A fine addition to the author’s publications, all of which are worth reading.

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

Book Review: The Pricklet


The Pricklet, by Mazin Saleem, is a tiny book – a noveletta. Described as a companion piece to the author’s novelette, The Prick, this short story is told from the point of view of a baby as he develops from newborn to toddler. Make no mistake, there is nothing cute about the protagonist. As is their wont, this small human is entirely self absorbed as he tries to navigate an existence that is constantly changing in ways he often resents and is trying to make sense of.

At the opening of the tale the baby’s needs are met through the supply of his mother’s milk. Parents are referred to as Tits and NoTits. Baby cannot understand the point of NoTits as none of the ‘good stuff’ is supplied by him. Baby dislikes when NoTits seeks attention from Tits. By making noise, this situation can mostly be rectified. Descriptions are graphic with no gloss or attempt to make any of the bodies appear attractive. Baby’s wants are focused on being filled up with delicious milk.

As time passes things change, and not for the better. Baby is put in a barred box, alone. Tits has the temerity to leave him in a place with other babies and making noise doesn’t bring her back immediately. Baby is trying to work out the differences between Tits and NoTits and what this means for him. He is trying to interpret the meaning of noises his parents make and why they sometimes stop him exploring the differences in their bodies by touch. The noises they direct at each other also raise emotions that can be difficult to interpret. He is shocked when they first shut a door to separate themselves from him.

A crisis occurs when Tits denies baby her milk. What is the point of her if she will no longer supply what he wants?

The directness of the descriptions can at times appear unpleasant but it is fascinating to consider why this might be. Issues raised offer much to consider, especially in the expectations parents have of their young offspring on whom changes are imposed without explanation. Baby’s demands are selfish but also a futile grasping for agency.

Baby’s views of the roles of Tits and NoTits change over time. It is disturbing to think that this could plant the seeds of future gender bias.

A short but imaginative tale offering a fresh lens through which to observe behaviours during the early months of life. We may never know how babies actually think at this stage in their development, but it is interesting to ponder if it could be like this.

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