One From the Archive: ‘Shire’ by Ali Smith ****

First published in 2013

Shire is the newest offering from surely one of our most original contemporary authors, Ali Smith. In these four short stories -‘The beholder’, ‘The poet’, ‘The commission’ and ‘The wound’ – she ‘pays tribute to the sources, the people and the places which produce and nurture life and art’. Throughout, she also draws parallels and similarities between her native Scotland, and Cambridge, the city in which she now lives. The divide between the north and south has been both drawn and erased in this collection, and Smith also places much focus upon ‘poetry and the creative process’ and the ideas of ‘death and renewal’. The entire volume has been beautifully produced, and is accompanied by a lovely series of Sarah Wood’s photographs and illustrations.

Smith has used many different sources as her inspiration for these tales, ranging from a modern myth with an ‘hallucinatory quality’ and a memoriam of two Scottish poets, to an autobiographical meeting with the influential Helena Mennie Shire, a Cambridge University professor. It is perhaps easiest to write about these stories in entirely separate sections, as whilst they do share a common style, the thoughts and subject matter which they deal with can vary greatly from one to the next.

Let us begin, therefore, with ‘The beholder’. In this story, Smith has managed to inject original details into the mundane. The unnamed protagonist is visiting her doctor with regard to a breathing difficulty. When asked how her life is, she informs him: ‘… well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is sueing me for half the value of everything I own and I got redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual’. Just a little further on in the story, the narrator returns to the doctor’s surgery with a most unusual complaint – ‘little stubby branch things’ have begun to grow out of her chest. Later, she describes the way in which ‘the whole rich tangled mass of me swung and shifted and shivered every serrated edge of its hundreds of perfect green new leaves’. This is, on the face of it, an incredibly simple story, but Smith’s inventiveness and her execution of it shines. She has stuffed it to the brim with magical realism whilst also commenting on the human condition and the way in which humans can unite with the world around them.

The second story, ‘The poet’, which follows Olive Fraser, begins in the following way: ‘So she’d taken the book and she’d thrown it across the room and when it hit the wall then fell to the floor with its pages open it nearly broke, which was one of the worst things you could do, maybe a worse thing even than saying a blasphemous curse’. The narrative of this story includes some Scottish dialect – for example, ‘it wasn’t grammatical or real Latin like’, ‘the water had darkened his good trews’, ‘He was too feart even to try’ and ‘time meant a lot more than the face of a wee gold watch, aye’ – which reinforces some of the scenes. In this particular tale, the stream of consciousness style is so beautifully written that the reader cannot help but be dragged into the story. Smith’s admiration of Fraser shines through on every page, and she has created rather a delightful memoriam in consequence.

‘The commission’ is an interesting biographical essay of sorts, detailing what it was like to be a postgraduate student at Cambridge University. Smith states that she applied to Newnham College only so that she could ‘get a book grant’ whilst she was there. In ‘The wound’, nature is prominent from the first richly written page: ‘Look at the dew, so twinklingly like diamonds on every twirl of foliage; look at the flowers falling over themselves to bloom’. This story is a literary criticism of sorts, an interesting and well done reimagining of a poem by Alexander Montgomerie.

Shire is a clever, astute and rather accomplished volume, which blends together seamlessly despite its disparities with regard to genres and subject matter. It is sure to delight every existing fan of Smith’s work, and would serve as a wonderful introduction for any newcomers to her writing.


Eight Great Short Story Collections

I have always been an enormous fan of short stories, admiring them for how much plot and emotion they often manage to pack into such a small amount of space. I have found, however, that I do not review many short story collections for one reason or another. I therefore wanted to gather together eight volumes of short stories which I have read of late, and very much enjoyed.

I have included works by a single author, as well as anthologies, to provide the greatest variety possible. I hope that there will be something here to entice every reader, whether you are a veteran of the shorter form, or a newcomer.

1. Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War, edited by Anne Boston
Includes Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Jean Rhys, amongst many others

‘This collection of short stories written by women when war was a way of life includes some of the finest women writers of that generation. War had traditionally been seen as a masculine occupation but these stories show how women were equal if different participants. Here, war is less about progress on the frontline of battle than about the daily struggle to keep homes, families and relationships alive; to snatch pleasure from danger, and strength from shared experience. The stories are about saying goodbye to husbands, lovers, brothers and sons — and sometimes years later trying to remake their lives anew. By turn comical, stoical, compassionate, angry and subversive these intensely individual voices bring a human dimension to the momentous events that reverberated around them and each opens a window on to a hidden landscape of war.’

2. Collected Stories by Angela Huth

‘These are vignettes and epiphanies that bear all the hallmarks of Angela’s writing skills: her eye for description, her ear for dialogue, her understanding of the subtle intricacies of human relationships. In ‘Men Friends’, a funeral reveals the truth about an odd couple’s relationship; in ‘The Bull’, a rampaging animal provides the impetus for a woman to change her life; and in ‘Sudden Dancer’, a husband’s plan to surprise his wife ends up with him being surprised himself.’

3. Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing, edited by Emma Timpany

‘Ghosts walk in the open and infidelities are conducted in plain sight. Two teenagers walk along a perfect beach in the anticipation of a first kiss. Time stops for nothing – not even for death. Sometimes time cracks, disrupting a fragile equilibrium. The stories are peopled with locals and incomers, sailors and land dwellers; a diver searches the deep for what she has lost, and forbidden lovers meet in secret places. Throughout, the writers’ words reveal a love of the incomparable Cornish landscape. This bold and striking new anthology showcases Cornwall’s finest contemporary writers, combining established and new voices.’

4. Cat Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

‘Playful kittens and ruthless predators, beloved pets and witches’ familiars – cats of all kinds come alive in these pages. Maeve Brennan and Alice Adams movingly explore what cats can mean to their humans; Patricia Highsmith imagines the intriguingly alien feline point of view; Kipling celebrates the independence of cats in his timeless tale, ‘The Cat That Walked by Himself’. Cats flaunt their superiority in Angela Carter’s bawdy retelling of ‘Puss-in-Boots’ and Stephen Vincent Benét’s uncanny ‘The King of the Cats’, while humour abounds in stories by comic masters P.G. Wodehouse and Saki. The essential unknowableness of cats can inspire the most exotic flights of fancy: Italo Calvino’s secret city of cats in ‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’; the disappearing animal in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brain-teasing ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’; the cartoon rodent and his cartoon nemesis in Steven Millhauser’s ‘Cat ‘n’ Mouse’. In these and other stories, this delightful anthology offers cat lovers a many-faceted tribute to the mysterious objects of their affection.’

5. The Beauties: Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov

‘Chekhov was without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its untidy complexity. His short stories, written throughout his life and newly translated for this essential collection, are exquisite masterpieces in miniature. Here are tales offering a glimpse of beauty, the memory of a mistaken kiss, daydreams of adultery, a lifetime of marital neglect, the frailty of life, the inevitability of death, and the hilarious pomposity of ordinary men and women. They range from the light­hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed.’

6. Smoke, and Other Early Stories by Djuna Barnes – my own review

Djuna Barnes’ short stories have proved to be very difficult to get hold of, so when I spotted this near pristine Virago edition in Skoob Books in London for just £4, I could not resist snapping it up. I adore Nightwood, and whilst this collection does not quite reach the same heady heights, it is still well worth seeking out. Barnes herself described this collection as juvenilia. A lot of the tales here – in fact, almost all of them – are very strange in terms of both plot and execution, but there is a wonderful, beguiling sense to them too. One can see the ideas which she adapted and carried into Nightwood. Inventive and absorbing, Smoke and Other Early Stories is just the collection which I was expecting from Barnes; startling and powerful.

7. Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan

‘A beautiful collection—charming, witty, and touching—these stories give voice to a variety of different characters: from the little girl who wants to look “subtle” for her father’s funeral, a child who has an email pen pal on Jupiter, and an old lady who becomes a star through “zimmerobics.” Often writing in a vibrant Glaswegian vernacular, Donovan deftly gives her characters authenticity with a searing power, aided and abetted by tender subtlety.’

8. Games at Twilight and Other Stories by Anita Desai

‘Set in contemporary Bombay and other cities, these stories reflect the kaleidoscope of urban life – evoking the colour, sounds and white-hot heat of the city. Warm, perceptive, humorous and touched with sadness, Anita Desai’s stories are peopled with intensely individual characters – the man spiritually transformed by the surface texture of a melon; the American wife who, homesick for the verdant farmlands of Vermont, turns to the hippies in the Indian hills; the painter living in a slum who fills his canvasses with flowers, birds and landscapes he has never seen.’

Are you a fan of short stories? Which are your favourite collections?


‘Bohemian Lives: Three Extraordinary Women’ by Amy Licence ****

Amy Licence describes herself as an ‘historian of women’s lives’, and has written about individuals from a wide span of periods, from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. The Three Extraordinary Women at the heart of Licence’s 2017 biography, Bohemian Lives, are Ida Nettleship, Sophie Brzeska, and Fernande Olivier. This book marks her second foray into the early twentieth century, and follows a title which I have been coveting since its 2015 publication – Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

I am always keen to read about women, particularly those who subverted convention, as each of the subjects here did to some degree. I am fascinated by the period in which these women lived and loved, a world of drastic change where, as Licence writes, ‘individual rights and personal freedoms were being redefined, where women like them were seeking new ways of arranging their private and professional lives, questioning the traditional roles of dependence and maternity.’ Interestingly, the women whom Licence has chosen to focus on all moved in similar circles, and called Paris their home during the same period, but there is no evidence that they ever met one another.

In Bohemian Lives, Licence has set out to follow ‘the achievements and sacrifices of the three women and how their lives overlapped and contrasted, in education, childbirth, illness, marriage – and psychological disintegration.’ Each of the women acted as a great influence upon their artist partners and so, says Licence, ‘challenged the accepted model of male-female relations of the time.’

At the outset, Licence sets out what she believes Bohemianism consisted of; it was, she writes, ‘a philosophy of opposition’, and its ‘essential component was its cultural “otherness”‘. Each of the three women profiled in Bohemian Lives ‘chose some aspects of bohemian living but not others. In rejecting traditional marriage, they suffered jealousy and censure, in rejecting material wealth they struggled to keep themselves fed and clothed. They were by no means the only notable bohemians of their era; they belonged to a whole legion of women pursuing art and love on a mixed journey of dazzling highs and crippling lows.’

Ida Nettleship is an individual whom I have long wanted to learn more about; she married licentious artist Augustus John, who is said to have fathered up to 100 children (!). In marrying John, and bearing five children in just six years, Ida gave up her own promising artistic career. She also became part of a menage á trois, when John insisted on moving his mistress into the family home. Ida sadly died following childbirth in 1907, when she was just thirty years old. Unlike the other women here, Ida’s childhood was a relatively prosperous one; she was brought up in London, into a learned family, and her parents encouraged her ambition to become an artist.

Fernande Olivier was the first love of Pablo Picasso. Born illegitimately as Amélie Lang, she was unwanted by her mother, and went to live with her aunt and uncle. After they attempted to arrange an unwanted marriage for her, Amélie ran away, and attached herself to a violent man, marrying when she was just nineteen. After escaping his clutches, she changed her name to Fernande Olivier to hide from him, and began to move in the artistic circles of Paris. Her relationship with Picasso, which began in 1904, lasted for seven years, and was categorised as highly tempestuous. She sat as a model for him on several occasions.

Sophie Brzeska, born in the Polish city of Krakow, was a writer who lived with the French artist Henri Gaudier, who was known as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The pair met in Paris, where Sophie, the only daughter in a family of boys which had fallen on hard times, moved to work as a governess. Sadly, Henri was killed in the trenches during the First World War, at the age of just twenty-three. Sophie, almost twenty years his senior, began a ‘slow descent into mental instability’ after his death, and remained in an asylum until her death in 1925.

Bohemian Lives is undoubtedly fascinating, and it has given me a relatively good understanding of three women whom I knew comparatively little about beforehand. I did, however, have a few niggles with the book, particularly the way in which Licence relies so heavily upon conjecture. This is particularly true with regard to Sophie’s life, of which very little fact has been recorded. The first chapter, which focuses upon Sophie as a young girl, is composed of anecdotes which she told to others, and a narrative which she fashioned herself. When Sophie moves to the United States to work as governess to a family, Licence makes a lot of guesses as to which family she might have worked for, but has no concrete evidence. In this manner, Sophie’s biography sadly feels a little vague, and I do not feel as though I knew much more about her when I had finished reading. It must be tricky to craft a biography around an individual whose life was largely obscured, and who left few facts behind them, but I have seen it done a little more successfully in other work.

There is also perhaps a little too much emphasis upon the situations in which the three women could have met one another. I did not feel that this was quite necessary. I do feel as though more attention to the chronological timeline would have made a more successful, and easier to follow, narrative; as it is, each chapter largely follows one different woman, and we therefore jump around a little in time.

There is a great attention to detail in Licence’s work, and I admire the way in which she has focused on little-known women, who have fallen to the wayside of history. Bohemian Lives has been meticulously researched, and there is an excellent attention to detail where the facts exist. Licence excels at setting the scene, and I am looking forward to picking up some of her other books in the near future. I just hope that there is a little less guessing involved in the lives of her subjects.


Three Historical Fiction Picks

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres to read, but I have discovered that I don’t often get around to reviewing books which fall into this category. Here, I have brought together three mini reviews of novels which I have read and very much enjoyed, and which I would urge those who like to read historical fiction to pick up. They provide wonderful escapism, which I have found very comforting during these couple of strange years.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

I have had a galley copy of Caroline Lea’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, on my Kindle for quite some time, but for some reason did not get around to reading it very quickly. Set in Iceland during the 1680s, the novel follows a young married woman, Rósa, and her husband, Jón. Rósa has moved far from her home to an isolated croft, where she is left alone much of the day, and is urged not to speak to the locals. Lea captures her loneliness with care and understanding, and uses the third person perspective to examine her protagonist. One of the real strengths of the novel is the unsettling feel which it has; this builds as the story progresses. The reader is aware that something is not quite right, and that something sinister might be lurking in the croft’s attic space, which Rósa is banned from exploring.

Wonderfully descriptive, The Glass Woman captures space and place very well. She writes about the unforgiving landscape in which Rósa finds herself, and the sadness which she feels at being pulled away from her sick mother. A few other reviews which I have read have commented that The Glass Woman is not particularly well situated, and that its action could quite easily be moved to another location – and even perhaps another time period entirely. I do not agree. Lea mentions specific Icelandic sagas throughout, and also sprinkles a few Icelandic words throughout the narrative, which contribute to embedding the story in one place and time. I feel that this has been rather well done, personally.

Jón’s first person perspective is introduced quite far into the novel, something which I was not expecting to happen. Whilst, as other reviewers have noted, I can see why Lea chose to do this, I would have preferred the novel to use the third person narrative voice throughout. Regardless, my interest in the story did not wane, and I was pulled into Rósa’s world; Lea describes this as ‘a blizzard-blurred huddle of white drifts and blank hillocks, made of nothing more than ice and air. Everything has reduced to an arm’s length away, as if life beyond the croft no longer exists.’ Some of the tropes used within The Glass Woman are arguably a little obvious, but overall, it is a very effective novel, which has been well plotted, and moves along nicely.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

I have heard so much buzz around Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. It is set largely during the Second World War, and encompasses one family who are fractured by the Holocaust. The novel opens in 1939, in Poland, where several generations of the Kurc family are trying their hardest to continue with their normal lives. However, like so many millions of Jews all across Europe, they are forced to try and survive in a terrifying new world, in which they are marginalised and persecuted.

Hunter’s novel is sweeping; it moves across five continents, and spans a period of eight years. The novel is based upon true events; the author’s own family, she discovered in her teenage years, were Holocaust survivors. Whilst some names have been changed here, a lot of the details echo reality, and the novel is the result of incredibly extensive research. The author is clearly attuned to the world of which she writes, and the numerous events which affect every single family member. Her characters become almost helpless, as they begin to lose control over every aspect of their lives.

From the outset, I very much admired Hunter’s approach, wherein she follows different members of the family as they move away from their home. A lot of what they have to face – the sacrifices which they are forced to make, and the acts of bravery which they choose to – is difficult to read, but it is obviously also incredibly important to remember. Hunter has interspersed her family’s story with brief factual details explaining the political situation at each particular point in history. The present tense which she uses throughout infuses We Were the Lucky Ones with a real sense of urgency, and the different threads of story have been wonderfully tied together.

The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio is an author whom I have become really interested in reading of late. Every single one of her works of historical fiction appealed to me, and I ended up selecting The Last Camellia to begin with merely because my local library had a copy which I was able to reserve. I also love stories about botanists during the wars – rather niche, I know.

I very much enjoy novels with dual timelines, something which The Last Camellia uses to its advantage. Jio has crafted a clever familial saga which stretches across two timelines – the 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s story, in which a young woman named Flora Lewis travels from New York to a small English village to take over as the nanny for the Livingston family – under false pretences – was my favourite, as I felt that the historical context had been really well thought out. There is also the trope of a mildly unsettling housekeeper, who is somehow still working at the house in 2000. In this more modern timeline, we meet Addison, whose husband’s family has just purchased the manor. She works as a landscaper, and this ties in nicely with the mystery of the rarest camellia in England, the Middlebury Pink, one of which is thought to be still living somewhere around the grounds of Livingston Manor.

I loved the element of mystery which has been woven in here, and it certainly kept me guessing throughout. The different threads of story were well handled, and whilst I felt that some of the denouements were a little far-fetched, I still very much enjoyed this absorbing reading experience, and the transporting stories within it. Jio’s prose is really quite nice; it did not make me swoon at all, as some historical fiction does, but it is undoubtedly vivid. I reserved another of Jio’s books from my local library before I had even finished The Last Camellia, and am hoping that she could fast become a new go-to historical fiction author for me.


‘Missionaries’ by Paul Klay **

Paul Klay has followed on from the success of his short story collection, Redeployment – the recipient of the National Book Award for Fiction, and lauded by none other than Barack Obama – with a debut novel entitled Missionaries. Klay himself is a veteran of the US Marine Corps, and served in Iraq.

Missionaries is a work which encompasses relatively modern-day history, moving from the mid-1980s to almost the present day, with much of the action set in the mid-2010s. The conflicts which it covers relatively briefly include the highly contested wars between America and Iraq, and America and Afghanistan respectively, and the consequences left in their wake. The action then moves to Colombia, where violence perpetuated by narcos and guerrillas is rife, affecting the lives of so many citizens. In Colombia, ‘the US has partnered with the local government to stamp out a vicious civil war and keep the predatory narco gangs at bay.’

The novel takes four protagonists as its focus – a US Special Forces medic named Mason; foreign correspondent Lisette; Colombian coca farmer Abel; and Juan Pablo. Each chapter focuses on a different individual.

At the novel’s beginning, we are introduced to Abel, in a chapter which quickly spans his entire childhood. He has grown up in the shadow of conflict, between guerrillas and paracos. When he is just eight, his father tells him: ‘”When men with guns ask for something, there are no favors. You only obey.”‘ Abel reflects: ‘To talk about this part of my life is to talk about another person, like a person in a story, a boy with a father and mother and three sisters; one pretty, one smart, and one mean… Most people think that a person is whatever you see before you, walking around in bone and meat and blood, but that is an idiocy. Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live, and bone and meat and blood alone is not a person.’

We meet Lisette in 2015. She is living in Kabul, one of just a handful of special correspondents still remaining in Afghanistan’s capital city. She comments: ‘When I first came here, I was full of rage at the indifference most people back home showed to the death of Afghans. All these human beings, suffering, dying, and fighting… These days the thought will sometimes run through my head as I lie in bed, trying to sleep: I am broken, I am broken, and I do not know how I will ever fix this whole I’ve carved into my soul.’

The first section of Missionaries follows Abel and Lisette, and the second Mason and Juan Pablo. We meander in and out of their stories, each of which is suffused with a great deal of violence. The violent scenes and occurrences kept wrenching me out of the story, and quickly become so commonplace in the narrative that they lost the majority of their power. Klay’s prose is to the point, largely quite matter-of-fact, and his stories move along at a steady pace. There is an urgency to the novel, but more in terms of the violence which is perpetuated throughout.

Klay undertook six years of research before embarking on Missionaries, which he carried out in both the United States and Colombia. The ultimate aim of the novel is to examine ‘the globalization of violence through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.’ He does set the scenery well, and understands what it is like to live in a culture of fear, as all of his characters do. Missionaries is undoubtedly intelligent in what it divulges, and Klay’s research is far-reaching. Whilst the author offers a lot of topics of interest, however, I felt as though these were never quite collated.

I do not feel as if the resolutions offered were highly satisfying; neither were the ways in which the individual stories come together. There seems to be a lack of overall cohesion, and the novel reads more like a collection of loosely connected stories about four characters from different walks of life. The novel’s structure is often rather too slack.

I did not find Lisette’s narrative voice at all convincing. As the only female protagonist, I imagined that her point of view would be written rather differently to the three male perspectives; however, this was not the case. I do not feel as though there was enough distinction between the different characters, and the initial interest which I held for each of them waned quite quickly. Each of the narrative voices also held a curious detachment, as though Klay did not want his readers to become overly absorbed in any of the individual stories.

The novel is advertised as a great choice for fans of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which I very much enjoyed, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which I very much did not. I was keen to see whether Missionaries would appeal to me as a reader, but it sadly did not capture my attention at all. I was never absorbed in the story, and largely felt quite indifferent to it, which is obviously not the author’s intention. Whilst I am sure that Missionaries will find a large audience who admire it, it did not work for me on several levels as a reader.


Merry Christmas!

Today, we would like to take the opportunity to wish all of our lovely readers a wonderful Christmas season. After what has been a difficult couple of years for all of us, we hope that this time affords you the ability to do what you love, and to be with those whom you treasure.

May your festive season be merry and bright, and filled with beautiful books.

Kirsty and Akylina x


Update: Authors I Would Like To Read This Year – The Bad

During 2021, I decided not to set myself any specific reading challenges, preferring instead to pick up books on a whim. Regardless, I did make a tentative list of authors whose work I had not read before, but wanted to try. You can see the full list here. Of course, I haven’t met all of the challenges; I became a little sceptical as to whether I really wanted to read the only Vikram Seth available to me in my local library, A Suitable Boy, which comes in at well over one thousand pages, and I went off reading Naipaul entirely after reading a slew of sexist comments which he had made over the years.

As you can see, I got off to rather an inauspicious start. The books below – all of which I awarded just two stars to, and could not wait to finish – were the first three which I began with. I must admit that I didn’t actually get much further than this with my challenge. The moral of the story is that I just don’t do that well with structured yearly reads; I am far better with making a weekly TBR to stick to. This is a practice I began during March, and which I have enjoyed putting together every single week. I will be continuing with this, and this alone, during 2022; at least it’s something I have proven I can stick to!

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke **

Attica Locke was the first of these which I picked up, beginning with Bluebird, Bluebird, the first book in her ‘Highway 59’ series. On the face of it, her books really intrigue me; she writes thrillers based in Texas which, alongside quite gruesome murders or crimes, deal with wider issues within the community – inequality, poverty, racism, and injustice. I have heard a great deal about her books – the majority of it incredibly positive – and fancied sinking my teeth into a thriller set somewhere rather different to the UK- and US-based thrillers which I generally gravitate toward.

Whilst I cannot fault the pace or plotting of Bluebird, Bluebird, there was not a great deal about it which personally appealed to me. The prose style is very matter-of-fact, with relatively few descriptions; things within the novel are told, not shown. It was rather too hardboiled in style for my taste. Whilst one does get a good feel for the landscape, the characters are focused upon far more. Sadly, these characters – whom I felt were introduced in far too quick a succession – feel two-dimensional. They are not quite realistic, and have not been fleshed out enough to be believable. In consequence, some of their motives seemed strange and unlikely.

There are rather a few tropes within the novel which I was expecting, and parts of it felt rather predictable. I am pleased that I started my project with such a lauded novel, but I can safely say that I will not be continuing with this series – even the cliffhanger ending did not encourage me to read further – and probably will not pick up anything by Locke again, either.

The Gathering by Anne Enright **

I read Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, at the end of 2020, and must admit that I found it rather underwhelming. I wondered if her style would suit the longer form better, and decided to download the audiobook of The Gathering from my library’s app. I love listening to books with Irish narrators, and whilst the delivery of this one was undoubtedly good – at first, at least – I had a few issues with the text itself.

The story within this novel is a bleak one, but I loved the central idea of the ‘gathering’ of the title, when a family of siblings meet one another en masse, after their brother drowns in the sea off the coast of Brighton. Unfortunately, this gathering took up barely any space in the novel, and seemed rather shoehorned in toward the end. The rest of the book goes off on random tangents about the characters’ difficulties, much of which is centered around abuse. Everything, for this narrator, harks back to sex, and I did not feel that this obsession actually added a great deal to the whole.

As I began to listen to The Gathering, I found it quite engaging. However, after a few chapters had passed, the way in which Enright had crafted the novel began to frustrate me. She can certainly write, but this was rather too rambling for me. There are far too many characters to keep track of in a relatively short book, particularly at the outset. The listening experience quickly became rather chaotic, with rushed sentences, and nothing feeling quite clear enough. Had I not picked up her short stories beforehand, I would probably try and read something else of Enright’s in physical form. However, following The Gathering, I just do not feel that she is an author whose work I could wholeheartedly enjoy.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch **

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children really appealed to me, drawn as I am to books set within the landscape of Eastern Europe. The novel is shaped around a ‘heart-stopping image’ taken by a photographer, of a young girl running from the explosion which engulfs her home, and kills her family. This photograph has won prizes and a great deal of acclaim, and it soon becomes a ‘subject of obsession’ for the photographer’s best friend.

At first, I must admit that I was enjoying this book. The prose is beautifully rich in the first couple of chapters, and feels almost fairytale-like; it makes much use of colour and space, and focuses on both the known and the unknown. Yuknavitch has an interesting approach to writing, using lots of single, snappy sentences alongside very long and descriptive ones. She flits between perspectives and settings throughout, something which I usually enjoy in fiction. However, the fact that none of the characters whatsoever were named until very late on, and were described only by their professions – ‘The Poet, ‘The Playwright’ – did become a little confusing, as they were not explicitly different from one another on the whole. Sometimes it felt as though their professions were the only things which set them apart, but as these professions were almost entirely creative, I feel as though any distinction was lost.

There are some memorable scenes and images here, but overall, The Backs of Small Children has left me cold. I did like the strange, almost otherworldly feel of the book at first, but this felt almost overwhelming as it went on. The primal, animalistic edge, with its often unnecessary obsession with sex, suffused everything, and I regularly found the novel uncomfortable to read. It did not hold my interest all of the way through, either. Whilst the beginning of The Backs of Small Children felt promising, I found it too muddled a book to really enjoy. I am now conflicted as to whether I would read anything else by Yuknavitch; if it all follows a similar pattern to this novel, then I am happy to move on to other authors.

I am afraid that as I did not get much further than this with my challenge, there will be no further updates.