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Three Spotlight Books: ‘Cora Vincent’, ‘Crumbs’, and ‘The Haunting of Strawberry Water’

Spotlight Books have recently published a series of six attractive short volumes, three of them poetry collections, and three of which consist of a single story.  It is the latter – Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud, Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić, and The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould – which I am reviewing.  I have chosen to collect my thoughts on these stories together in one review, as I imagine that readers interested in one will want to collect them all.  In these volumes, Spotlight, which is a collaboration between Creative Future, Myriad Editions, and New Writing South, has essentially brought six different underrepresented voices to the fore.

 

Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud **** 9781912408443

Cora Vincent is essentially a character study, in which a ‘derailed actress’ living in Hove is offered a break, quite by chance, with a role in a West End theatre.  This offers her the opportunity to leave her past behind. The story is, says its blurb, ‘set in a country split by politics and disjointed through lives that are increasingly isolated and lonely’.  Indeed, the tale is set amongst the turmoil of Brexit, and examines – although not always in the greatest of detail, given the story’s length – the things which divide us.

Aboud is an award-winning short story writer, whose work, whilst underrepresented, garners a lot of praise.  Cathy Galvin calls Cora Vincent ‘startling and considered’, and notes Aboud as an ‘important new voice’ in literature.  Other reviewers of the story concur.  Susannah Waters writes that ‘very few people put words together on the page as beautifully as this’, and Tom Lee that ‘Georgina Aboud has a voice and vision all her own’.

Cora Vincent opens vividly, on the advent of a new year: ‘Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  The old pier stands undressed, but defiant still, and there’s a boy in fingerless gloves who does a cartwheel, and a girl with a face punctured by piercings and a glittering in her eyes…  And the dog wears one of those jackets that I hope stops her being scared, and I have a whisky tang on my tongue and a brine wash through my hair…’.

We are catapulted into Cora’s narrative, and soon understand quite how aware she is of her own physicality, and the space which she takes up in the world.  She goes on to say: ‘Peel back my skin though, and the truth idles everywhere: in glistening leg muscles and shoulder blades that could, if I say so myself, belong in an anatomy textbook.  There’s a truth in my never-inhabited uterus.  In my fists.  In a jagged crack that runs across my forearm, in a missing tooth lost at a disco, and a lost appendix, dug out from the abyss.’

We move back and forth from 2019 to pivotal moments in Cora’s life.  In her present day, she is taking up the first theatre role which she has been given in years; she says that she owes her newfound job to her ‘totally fudged’ CV.  When she receives the phonecall to say that another actor has broken her arm, and could she stand in, Cora feels ‘a prickle of something, maybe hope, growing inside me.’

Aboud’s prose is both richly layered and easy to read.  Her descriptions feel original; on Cora’s first day of rehearsal, for instance, Aboud writes: ‘And we stand in this thin-skinned room, with tooth-coloured walls, making childlike sounds, and the strip lighting buzzes with homecoming.’  I found parts of Aboud’s writing startling: ‘Fancying someone feels like ulcers, of being trapped in a falling lift.  It’s an acceleration where nerves eat each other and hearts are held in teeth.’

Cora Vincent feels very thoroughly done, and encompasses what feels like a highly realistic protagonist.  There is a lot of consideration which has been given to both plot and protagonist, and Aboud writes believably of how and why Cora has turned out the way she is.  There are thoughtful passages, and a lot of focus upon a past relationship which Cora had with a man named Kit: ‘We are tethered to each other by weighted strings that are snipped and hastily re-tied back together and snipped again, by one or both of us’.  The non-chronological structure, and the way in which Aboud flits back and forth in time, worked really well here.  Cora Vincent is a really satisfying story, and I very much look forward to reading more of Aboud’s work in future.

 

9781912408405Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić **

I must admit that Ana Tewson-Božić’s Crumbs did not sound appealing to me as a reader, as I tend to avoid everything science-fiction.  However, I was keen to read all of the Spotlight stories, in part to see how they differ.  The protagonist of this short story is a teenage girl named Julja, whose ‘games take a serious turn as she becomes inducted into a computer cult.  The surge of dopamine in her brain connects her with psychic aliens and chemical conspiracies, sordid and secret.’

On the whole, the plot sounded strange to me, but I did admire the way in which the author uses it as a frame to explore psychosis. Tewson-Božić herself has spent ‘significant time in mental institutions’, and has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.  She explores the darker side of mental health, says reviewer John O’Donoghue, ‘in a kind of distressed, demented prose which from time to time lets in shafts of reality…’.

Tewson-Božić’s writing, indeed, is strange, and quite beguiling.  At the outset of the story, she writes: ‘In this place, I see heaven.  I am buoyed by the souls of the relatives in their homes around me, buoyed by the fact that they’d known and liked me.  With these powers, I see fragile bodies rise through a church steeple and crumble into ash against the ceiling.  I see great alien eyes and tongues of steely poison poised to greet us at our deaths.  They see me back and I never felt so much terror.’

Throughout Crumbs, the prose follows a similar structure, and I found that a lot of elements of the story – as well as the plot as a whole – made little sense.  There is barely any cohesion within it, and at points I had no idea what was happening.  This may be a good representation of what one feels when suffering with psychosis, but it alienated me as a reader.

Crumbs has been split into very short sections.  As I have mentioned above, these are rather abstract.  Tewson-Božić certainly plays on different literary forms throughout her story, but these are not tied together at all.  Part of the story is narrated from a bed on a psychiatric ward; other sections seem to deal with Julja’s absorption into the cult: ‘At some point the sleep deprivation and the journey into a world beyond my means, blew out my brains and I was taken.’

I am sure that Crumbs will find its audience, but for me the story felt a little too fragmented to make any sense.  When the story moves from Earth into space, I was lost completely.  At no point did I feel connected to the story, or to its protagonist.  Whilst some of the prose did intrigue me – for instance, ‘I woke up standing in the middle of the park clutching a Jack of Hearts with an eye scrawled on it in marker.  I was looking at the stars and spinning.’ – these sections ended abruptly, were not elaborated upon, and I was still left none the wiser.  Crumbs is well written, but the plot felt chaotic at times.  I suppose that Tewson-Božić’s story could be seen as illuminating in its way, providing a window into mental illness, but I would have preferred something a little more cohesive and connected.

 

The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould **** 9781912408504

In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, short story writer and playwright Tara Gould focuses upon a new mother ‘in the throes of post-natal depression’.  The protagonist’s pregnancy has thrown up past turmoil, in which she is trying to understand why she herself was abandoned as a baby ‘by the mother she never knew’.  Gould’s story sounded wonderfully mysterious; it is set in a 1920s bungalow in the countryside, in which ‘supernatural forces begin to take hold in this gripping and heartrending tale of the uncanny.’

The Haunting of Strawberry Water has been well reviewed, and the following comments made the story appeal to me even more.  Jeff Noon believes that ‘Tara Gould knows an essential truth, that ghosts exist in the darkness of the mind.  And that sometimes those ghosts can exit the mind and take up residence in the world…’.  Hannah Vincent notes Gould’s ‘elegant and profound’ story, which she sees as much of a piece of nature writing as ‘a compelling ghost story, and an expertly handled meditation on the prickly nature of intimate relationships.’

The unnamed narrator’s childhood bungalow home is named Strawberry Water, after a phenomenon which occurs in certain weathers ‘in late spring and summer’ to the river which runs along the bottom of the garden.  In an odd twist of fate, the house comes up for sale, and she and her husband decide to move there from their cramped city apartment with their baby daughter, Freya.  This throws up a lot of memories for the narrator.  When they first move there, she relates the following: ‘In the woods on the other side of the river, I looked at the grey collection of shapes between the black silhouettes of the trees and I thought I saw a dark form flitting chaotically between them.  No doubt a fox or a deer, but it sent an unpleasant shiver through me.’

The story opens with the single Polaroid picture which the narrator has of her mother: ‘All that’s visible is a section of leg where the knee pushes forward, the point of a black, shiny shoe protruding at the base of the wooden door, and three slim fingers clutching the door half way up.  The rest is simply the vague impression of the form and presence of a person.’  She has never seen her mother’s face, even in a photograph.  As a child, she touchingly collects pebbles from the river, which ‘represented a piece of information about my mother that I’d gleaned over the years.’  She goes on to say: ‘I needed desperately to believe that she was decent.  She had left her husband and her baby daughter, but perhaps she had secret reasons.’

We are led from the narrator’s motherless childhood into the more stable period of her twenties, in which she married and fell pregnant: ‘During the whole of my pregnancy,’ she tells us, ‘I was unquestioningly happy – a deep contentment I had never before experienced…  I felt connected.  I felt… never alone.’  After a difficult birth, in which she states ‘nature revealed her true unmodified self to me’, she visualises herself as follows: ‘… I saw myself putting on a bathrobe and slippers and escaping out of that window, and down the fire escape and away from my baby and the impossible job of being a perfect mother.’

Gould successfully uses a series of short vignettes to weave the story together.  The narrative is interconnected, as one vignette leads into the next.  Gould’s prose is beautiful, and her story feels like such an honest one, as she relates the everyday struggles of motherhood.  Once the more sinister elements start to creep into the narrative – strange noises heard around the house, the baby being unable to settle – I was absolutely invested in the story.  By this point, I felt as though I really knew what moved and motivated the bewildered protagonist, and the fear she had surrounding her baby.  The inclusion of herself being motherless added an interesting element to the story, and I felt as though it was well explored by Gould.

The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a highly successful short story, which does and says a lot.  It is an enjoyable piece of prose, which is beguiling from start to finish; I only wish it had been longer.

 

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Three Disappointing Books: John Wyndham, Belinda Bauer, and Samanta Schweblin

Today I bring together three reviews of books which I expected to enjoy, but which I found disappointing.

 

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ** 9780141032993
I have read and enjoyed several of John Wyndham’s books to date, despite the fact that his plots and science-fiction focus are not part of my usual reading fare. I found the storyline of The Kraken Wakes intriguing, and was expecting that I would be pulled into the story quite quickly.

However, this novel feels like a real anomaly in Wyndham’s oeuvre. It took too long to get going, and I did not connect at all to the story. The narrative voice was relatively dull, although it is perhaps fitting that it mimics the style of an article of sorts throughout, given protagonist Mike’s profession as a journalist. The plot is meandering, and the writing stodgy.

Had The Kraken Wakes been the first book of Wyndham’s which I had picked up, I doubt that I would have sought out any more of his work. I got halfway through the novel, before acknowledging that any interest that I had in it had completely disappeared. I expected The Kraken Wakes to be engaging and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the current climate crisis which the world is facing, but I feel as though a real opportunity has been missed here.

 

9781784164034Snap by Belinda Bauer ***
I purchased Belinda Bauer’s Snap on a whim whilst browsing in a local Oxfam store. It has received a lot of hype – and quite a bit of criticism, too – for being long listed for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Snap was not quite what I was expecting, if I’m honest. I found it an easy, quick read, and it did not always feel as though there was enough substance in some of its chapters. The writing was rather matter-of-fact – perhaps too much for my personal taste – although it does fit with the general style of thrillers.

The different threads of the story caught my interest enough that I read to the end, but I did not feel as though the mystery element was strong enough. I’m unsure whether the novel disappointed me, as I came to it with a few reservations, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pick up another of Bauer’s books at some point in future.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin ** 51jifqcd9ml
I really enjoyed Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream, her first book to be translated to English from its original Spanish.  I was therefore keen to get my hands on her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, a copy of which I found in the library.  These tales have been translated by Megan McDowell.

Publishers Weekly calls Mouthful of Birds ‘canny, provocative and profoundly unsettling’, and the Library Journal deems it ‘surreal, disturbing and decidedly original’.  I felt as though I knew, therefore, what the collection would hold.

The twenty stories here are incredibly strange, on the whole.  The first story, ‘Headlights’, is about new brides abandoned by their husbands by the roadside; the narrator of ‘The Test’ is tasked with killing a dog (I was unable to read this gory story in full); in ‘Olingiris’, six girls have to pull out every single hair on a woman’s body, only using tweezers.  The premises are odd, and a lot of the imagery caused me to feel queasy, rather than in awe of the author’s imagination.

There is little emotion to be found within these stories, and I felt rather detached from them.  I imagined that Mouthful of Birds would be highly immersive and unsettling, as Fever Dream was, but most of it simply did not sit right for me as a reader.  The writing is largely matter-of-fact, and I found it impossible to connect with any of Schweblin’s characters.  Whilst I might pick up a longer work of the author’s, and perhaps another novella, I am certain that her short stories do not work for me.  The characters and scenarios were flat, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief.

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‘Things We Say in the Dark’ by Kirsty Logan ****

I am a big fan of Kirsty Logan’s prose; I love its mysterious quality, its beautifully dark and evocative imagery, and the wildness which exists within it.  I was so looking forward to picking up her newest collection of short stories, Things We Say in the Dark, and am pleased to say that it lived up to my very high expectations.

819ouwhj2b4lLogan has been compared, variously, to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Jeanette Winterson.  I can see elements of their work echoed in hers, but Logan has something entirely her own.  Her narrative voice is taut, and her stories often feel wholly original.

The stories in Things We Say in the Dark are described as ranging from ‘chilling contemporary fairytales to disturbing contemporary fiction.’  The premise behind the collection is to examine fears.  The blurb comments: ‘Some things can’t be spoken about in the light of day.  But we can visit our fears at night, in the dark.  We can turn them over and weigh them in our hands and maybe that will protect us from them.  But maybe not.’  For Logan, the expansive night allows a kind of freedom difficult to hold onto during the daylight, but it also serves to make the more creepy elements stand out.  Logan has used quite typical tropes at times – abandoned buildings, a séance – but rather than becoming clichés, she makes them all her own.

Things We Say in the Dark has been split into three parts: ‘The House’, ‘The Child’, and ‘The Past’.  Each of the tales contained within the sections revolve around the central subject, but each is, on the whole, really quite different.  Before each, Logan has added a sort of continual narrative, which builds to a story of its own.

As is often the case in Logan’s fiction, there is such strange and compelling imagery threaded throughout the collection.  In ‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’, the narrator makes tiny houses out of parts of their body: ‘My ear-house got buried in the window box; my eye-house was squashed under your winter boots; my tongue-house was snatched by a neighbourhood fox.’  Mythology and fairytale-like imagery make themselves felt at times; at others, magical realism creeps in.  Logan makes the weirdest things feel entirely realistic; it is a real skill of hers.

Logan makes a series of profound observations in several of these stories, too.  In ‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’, for example, she writes: ‘When she thought of what she – and probably you – had learned at school, about the universe and its vastness, the infinity of it, the insignificant tininess of her within it, it made her sick and cold and dizzy.’  There is humour – most of it dark – here too.  In ‘My House is Out Where the Light Ends’, protagonist Jay ‘opens the door to the cellar, but she doesn’t go down the steps because she’s not a fucking moron.’

Logan excels at both short fiction and longer work.  This collection of dark tales is wholly immersive.  It looks, largely, at the lives of women and those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and in their entirety ‘speak to one another about female bodies, domestic claustrophobia, desire and violence.’  Things We Say in the Dark is filled to the brim with original ideas.  Each of Logan’s stories is unsettling; some are downright creepy.  They and sent quite delicious shivers down my own spine, and would be a chilling choice to read aloud.  Things We Say in the Dark is such a beguiling collection, and another excellent book in Logan’s canon.

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Two Collections: ‘Heads of the Colored People’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’

My local library is a wonderful place to browse, and on one trip there earlier this year, I came across two short story collections which I had heard a lot of.  Both Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? explore black segregation, identity, and experience in the United States.

36562557._sy475_Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires ****

Published in 2018, Heads of the Colored People is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection.  Reviews on the colourful hardback edition which I read call it, variously, ‘fresh-laundry-clean’, ‘superbly witty’, ‘wholly original’, and ‘one of the best short story debuts I’ve read in my whole life.’  I was therefore, understandably, looking forward to discovering Thompson-Spires’ work for myself.

In Heads of the Colored People, the author ‘interrogates our supposedly post-racial era.  To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.’  Her collection of twelve stories, which comes in at just under 200 pages, ‘shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic’, and ‘marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.’

A lot of the stories within Thompson-Spires’ collection are immersed in popular culture, much of which, I must admit, went straight over my head.  She takes different approaches throughout the stories.  The title story, for instance, is made up of different interlinking character portraits.  Another, ‘Belles Lettres’, is told entirely using correspondence between two warring mothers, and is laugh-aloud funny.  There is a consistency to Heads of the Colored People, but the use of different formats and perspectives which Thompson-Spires has employed makes it more interesting.  There are recurring characters who appear throughout the collection, something which I personally enjoy.

Thompson-Spires’ writing is sharp and memorable.  Her characters are clear, and all have a depth to them.  She focuses upon all sorts of topics and issues: the obsession with social media, ‘fitting in’, trolling, bullying, race, police violence, rivalry, alternative lifestyles…  In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, for example, protagonist Lisbeth has become a ‘fruitarian’ after having tried a variety of different diets.  She makes her husband and daughter join her: ‘The groceries became more expensive and the lifestyle more time-consuming the closer they tried to get to earth, to original man, to whatever…’.  She also practices what she calls ‘detachment parenting’, largely leaving her young daughter to get on with it alone.

I felt absorbed by every single story in Heads of the Colored People, and appreciated the numerous flaws which each character had been given.  Thompson-Spires is incredibly perceptive, and each of her stories packs a punch.  Some build to a crescendo; others open in arresting ways.  ‘Suicide Watch’, as an example, has this as its opening sentence: ‘Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light.’

Ultimately, in Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires examines what it means to be, for want of a better word, different.  I appreciated the dark humour which she uses, and the unexpected twists which come.  There is certainly a freshness to her writing, and whilst not a favourite collection of mine, I can imagine that I will return to it in future.  Heads of the Colored People has a lot to say, and Thompson-Spires does this well.  Her authorial voice is commanding and authoritative, particularly considering that this collection is a debut.  I very much look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins ***

Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is set in New York during the 51rythrc7gl._sx334_bo1204203200_summer of 1963, a city ‘full of lovers and dreamers’.  This was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.  Collins’ stories take place ‘on university campuses and in run-down Manhattan apartments’, where ‘young women grow out their hair and discover the taste of new freedoms, praying for a world where love is colour-free.’

The edition which I read included a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, who writes of the years which it took to track down Collins’ film, ‘Losing Ground’, and the great effect which it had upon her.  When Alexander found that Collins had also written short stories, and was able to ‘encounter with a start her singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives – is akin to discovering a treasure trove.’

Collins never saw her work published; it wasn’t until almost three decades after her death that her stories were collected together by her daughter in this collection.  They were all originally written during the 1960s.  A lot of the issues which she deals with are as important today as they were then; perhaps, most pivotally, depression, poverty, and issues of race which still sadly prevail in modern society.

The first story, ‘Interiors’, is a duologue; we first hear from a husband, and then a wife. This is an incredibly insightful work, where both characters address one another, and, in the process, lay themselves bare.  The husband comments: ‘I’m moody, damn it, and restless… and life has so many tuneless days…  I can’t apologize for loving you so little.’  In this manner, Collins’ writing is striking, and revealing.  ‘How Does One Say’ begins: ‘When she left home for the summer her hair was so short her father wouldn’t say good-bye.  He couldn’t bear to look at her.  She had it cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”.’

Each of the stories in this collection is beautifully considered, and Collins’ characters are deftly introduced, with all of their feelings, their foibles, their flaws.  We do not often learn their names, but they feel wholly realistic.  I found Collins’ prose evocative, and quite sensual in places.  ‘Treatment for a Story’, for example, opens as follows: ‘A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, and paintings, and smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a mélange of female scents.’  Other stories contain descriptive writing in this vein, which wonderfully sets the scene.

Oddly, then, the sixteen short stories were not quite as memorable as I had hoped.  There were a few stories which did not capture my attention at all.  From the outset, I imagined that Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? would be a four-star read for me, but from around the halfway point, this had changed to more like a three.  The collection was not quite consistent enough for my taste, although I can see why people love Collins’ prose, and admire her stories.

4

‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley

Nick Bradley’s debut novel is a collection of intertwined stories that take place in Tokyo, this fascinating, terrifying, overpopulated and lonely city. Although the stories initially seem separate from one another, the reader will quickly recognise the recurring characters and realise that they are all connected in one way or another. And, of course, there is a calico cat that makes an appearance in every single one of these stories, leaving its mark in the lives of all these struggling characters. 41zU1ZzTcRL.SX316.SY316

Japanese literature is known for its frequent fascination with cats, and Bradley, having himself lived and worked in Japan, attempted to weave a story of this complicated city where anything and everything seems possible. Instead of an ode to Tokyo and Japan in general, Bradley often seems to view certain events and practices with a critical eye, which is quite refreshing, since most foreigners who write about Japan tend to over-romanticise the country and everything they have experienced whilst there.

I also enjoyed Bradley’s prose and writing style a lot. While I started this book with a certain level of caution and apprehension, I was quickly drawn into the author’s words and found myself reading one story after another, curious to discover which character we are going to follow next and what kind of role the calico cat will play in the story. I also loved how Bradley’s writing seemed to change and shift according to the needs of the story, while some stories surpassed the boundaries of conventional prose as they were enriched with pages of a manga comic one of the characters was writing, the case notes of a detective, etc.

Although my experience reading The Cat and the City is mostly positive, there were a couple of things that I had an issue with. Firstly, there were a number of words that were purposely left in Japanese throughout the text (but especially in the first few stories), although there was no need to. I understand that since the stories are set in Japan and most of the characters are Japanese it seems more natural for them to use certain Japanese words, but when there is an English equivalent (which was often used right after the Japanese word anyway), it seems rather redundant to me to use the Japanese word. Also, although I gather that most of the book’s readers might have an interest in Japan, not all of them will be acquainted with the Japanese language, so it might be quite bothersome and interrupting for them to encounter random Japanese words.

Secondly, even though Bradley created very solid characters and stories that covered a wide spectrum of personalities and interests, I still felt like I was reading Japanese characters written by a non-Japanese person. Of course, I understand that the author is not Japanese and this is to be expected, but I simply couldn’t shake off the feeling that quite often his characters would behave or speak in a way that felt a bit unnatural for a Japanese person.

Still, The Cat and the City is a very entertaining, unique and well-written book that is definitely worth reading, especially if you have an interest in Japan and its culture. As a debut work, it is quite promising and Bradley is definitely a writer I will be looking forward to read more of in the future.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Being Various: New Irish Short Stories’, edited by Lucy Caldwell ****

I was thoroughly impressed by Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection, Multitudes, which I recently reviewed.  I was therefore even more keen than I had previously been to see which stories she had selected for an edited collection, entitled Being Various: New Irish Short Stories.

When skimming through the contents page of Being Various in my local library, I found a lot of authors whom I had never heard of; this is something which I love in thematic anthologies such as this one.  Amongst the new-to-me names were quite a lot of authors whom I already know and admire – Danielle McLaughlin, Louise O’Neill, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, and Sinead Gleeson are particular favourites.

419wqpvllsl._ac_sy400_In Being Various, Caldwell was keen to bring together contributors from Northern Ireland and the Republic, all of whom have been published since the Good Friday Agreement.  The stories here have been specially commissioned for this anthology, and therefore cannot be found anywhere else.  In her introduction, Caldwell comments: ‘Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent.  I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness…  Writers who are truly the inheritors of Bowen and O’Faolain, telling twenty-first-century stories with effortless elegance and grace.’

Caldwell goes on to reflect: ‘I thought about how far Ireland has come in my lifetime and how far it has to go.’ She wanted to highlight this, and welcomed tales of ‘subjects that have long been unspoken or dismissed or taboo, with a ferocity and unsentimentality that’s breathtaking.’  Indeed, the stories deal with a lot of pivotal and topical themes – puberty, separation, change, eating disorders, death; what it means to belong, and to grow up, and to feel.

There is some really beautiful writing to be found within Being Various.  In ‘A Partial List of the Saved’, for instance, author Danielle McLaughlin writes: ‘The last time they’d travelled this road it had been summertime, not a dull day like this one, but a glorious day with the sun beating down… and bodies, eerily pale, prostrate on lawns like pieces of salt cod left to dry.  Today the fields were shrouded in drizzle.  The light was otherworldly, silver on the distant surface of the bog lakes.’

I find Irish fiction entirely engaging, and this short story collection reminded me why.  There are so many moments of clear-eyed brilliance here; so many fully-formed characters; so much emphasis upon what makes up real life.  There are characters who move to Ireland and away, and some who return to it.  The focus of Louise O’Neill’s ‘Legends’ is a young girl with an eating disorder, her ‘waistbands skimming empty spaces where flesh used to reside, the number on the weighing scales decreasing every day’; Elske Rahill’s ‘Stretch Marks’ has at its heart a woman set adrift by her latest pregnancy: ‘The baby shifts under her skin, hooking a piece of itself into her rib – a hand or a foot.  It must be mid-afternoon at least.  Thursday afternoon.  Beside the bed, two slices of toast have cooled and warped.’

Being Various presents a bold collection of stories, the majority of them realist, but with a little magical realism creeping in from time to time.  Every single story captured my attention, and I found a lot to enjoy here, and a lot to admire.  Even those which I did not like as much were very good stylistically.  The stories are so diverse that they can be read one after another, and still be entirely memorable.  There is striking imagery, and a lot of hard-hitting content, and I cannot recommend Being Various enough.

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Short Story Fridays: 5 Unique and Compelling Fantasy Short Stories

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It is no lie that most of fantasy literature consists of chunky tomes and series that go on for multiple volumes. A well-built fantasy world needs space and time to be fleshed out, since it’s something completely new to the reader. As much as this is true, however, one can also find shorter pieces of fantasy that might lack the volume but are equally captivating and well crafted in their world building and execution.

So here are 5 fantasy short stories (some might be considered novelletes, but they are all less than 50 pages long) that I have read recently (some not so recently), and which I believe are excellent bite-sized stories for anyone who craves a quick dose of quirky and enchanting fantasy without needing to invest in hundreds of pages. From Indian and Chinese inspired fantasy settings, to steampunk and fairy tale worlds, you’ll definitely find at least one story that tickles your fancy.

(Most of the following stories are available to read for free online. I have provided links to their official sites where applicable for those interested.)

‘The Shadow Collector’ by Shveta Thakrar

“In the garden where girls grew from flowers, their days washed in the distant trills of the queen’s wooden flute, a gardener toiled. His name was Rajesh, and in his spare time, he collected shadows. Shadows of nectar–loving hummingbirds, shadows of laughing fathers, shadows of hawks who preyed on squirrels.”

‘The Shadow Collector’ is one of the most unique fantasy short stories I have ever read. In just a few thousand words, the author manages to create an enticing and mesmerising world inspired by South Asian culture. Her writing is lyrical and evocative, so much so that you can almost smell the fragrances and paint a rich mental picture of the scenes described. I loved every single word of this story and my only complaint is that I wanted more of this world and more of Thakrar’s writing (luckily, she’s coming up with a full-length novel in August).

You can read ‘The Shadow Collector’ at the Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 here.

‘The Terracota Bride’ by Zen Cho 29387827._SY475_

After reading Sorcerer to the Crown in April, I’ve been mesmerised by Cho’s writing style, so as soon as I found out about ‘The Terracota Bride’, I dove right into it. The story is set in the Chinese inspired underworld, where Siew Tsin, the main character, finds herself after her untimely death. Conspiracies, revenge, love and heartbreak, as well as a mysterious artificial woman made out of terracota are intertwined in a gripping story with a truly relatable female protagonist.

 

10290982 ‘Clockwork Fairies’ by Cat Rambo

Not only is Rambo’s ‘Clockwork Fairies’ set in a re-imagined version on Victorian England, but it also features a female woman of colour who is also an inventor and a brilliant steampunk setting. Desiree is a talented engineer who creates mechanical fairies and has to face the prejudices of the men-dominated society she inhabits. The story is told through the eyes of Claude, her fiance, who is a truly unlikeable character. I wouldn’t want to reveal more about the story, but I do enjoy a refined steampunk world and ‘Clockwork Fairies’ certainly lived up to all expectations.

You can read ‘Clockwork Fairies’ at Tor.com here.

‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ by Theodora Goss redasblood

Steeped in fairy tale elements and tropes but featuring a dark twist (and not the kind of dark fantasy twist you might imagine), Goss’s ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a charming fairy tale-like story that punches you right in the gut by the end of it. Klara is a young and rather naive kitchen maid who, having grown up as an orphan, is a strong believer of fairy tales. One day, a ragged woman appears outside the castle where Klara works, and the girl immediately assumes she is nothing but a princess in disguise…

I really enjoyed the story and the fact that it was written like a fairy tale made the ending even more powerful in my opinion. Whether you enjoy fairy tale retellings (although I wouldn’t really call this story a retelling, rather simply inspired by fairy tale traditions) or you just want a story with an expected twist, ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a perfect choice.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

brightmoon‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by J.Y. Yang

Last but not least, ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ is one of the most original and imaginative tales I’ve read lately. J.Y. Yang is mostly known for their Tensorate novella series, about one of which I had talked a bit more in my Favourite Books of 2018 post. Yang weaves fantasy worlds that are inspired by Chinese tradition and folklore and yet are so original and inventive that are truly a delight to sink one’s literary teeth into. This story is filled with starmages, ansibles (people who use their singing voice to open portals), queer romance in space and schemes to overthrow the government, taking the reader to a wild ride through its wholesome world.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

Have you read any of these short stories? What are your favourite fantasy short stories? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Better late than never, they say, and so my first contribution for the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event is of course posted a couple of days before the end of the month 🙂 I’m thinking of making Short Story Fridays a weekly staple, in order to talk about short stories and short story collections/anthologies in a more regular manner.

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

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‘Multitudes’ by Lucy Caldwell *****

I have wanted to read Lucy Caldwell’s work for such a long time, and decided to start with her short story collection entitled Multitudes.  It has been praised by reviewers and critics alike since its publication in 2016.  Eimear McBride comments that these tales are ‘beautifully crafted, and so finely balanced that she holds the reader right up against the tender humanity of her characters.’  The Scotsman remarks that the collection ‘feels like a truly unified work of art.’  Caldwell has won numerous awards, and was also shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012.

9780571313501The eleven stories in Multitudes largely take as their focus childhood and adolescence, and each one contains the concept of growth, rendered in different and interesting ways.  The lives which Caldwell captures here are described in the book’s blurb as ‘caught in transition between the in-crowd and the out, between love and loneliness, between the city and the country, between home and escape.’

I was immediately struck by the way in which Caldwell captures things.  In the story ‘Thirteen’, she writes: ‘Susan and I have been best friends since nursery school – since before nursery school, we always say to each other, in actual fact since Mothers and Toddlers in the hall of the Methodist church on the corner where her street meets mine.  I don’t remember that far back, only vaguely – plastic cups of orange squash and dusty, frilled-edge biscuits, the smell of floor polish – but I can’t remember, let alone imagine, life without her.’

Caldwell has such a realistic perception of how spiteful adolescents can be, and how elements of our childhood become inescapable in adulthood.  The concerns of her characters, and their actions and reactions, are so human.  In ‘Poison’, the narrator sees, years later, a teacher who caused a scandal at her school; ‘Killing Time’ presents a sudden impulsive suicide attempt; the narrator of ‘Chasing’ moves back to their childhood home, and finds very early on that this course of action is ‘not the answer’; and a lesbian relationship is hidden from everyone around the protagonist of ‘Here We Are’.  There is much exploration in Multitudes of female friendships, and the small toxicities which they so often hold.  Love, lust, deception, desire, and guilt have all been chosen as major themes in Multitudes.

Caldwell perfectly controls the vividly rendered physical environments of her stories, and often juxtaposes out-of-place characters into them.  In ‘Poison’, for example, she writes: ‘She had too much make-up on: huge swipes of blusher, exaggerated cat-eyes.  She glanced around the bar, then she took out her phone again, clicked and tapped at it.  She wasn’t used to being alone in a bar like this.  It was an older crowd and she felt self-conscious, you could tell.’

Caldwell creates such empathy for her wholly memorable cast of characters, and deals with a host of very serious subjects along the way.   The author has such a knack for writing plausible characters, and I found myself repeatedly unable to guess where the stories would end up.  Multitudes is such an absorbing collection of short stories, and one which I savoured.  I found myself pulled into each one of the narratives from their very beginnings.  Thought-provoking and refreshing, this is a collection which I cannot recommend highly enough, and I am now on the hunt for the rest of Caldwell’s books so that I can become absorbed within her writing once more.

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‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor *****

William Trevor seems to be a much adored author in the blogosphere, and he has been on my radar of authors to try for a number of years.  Before picking up his posthumously published collection, Last Stories, I had only read a Penguin Mini entitled Matilda’s England.  I liked this well enough, but it did not push me to pick up any more of Trevor’s work, and I wish it had.

9780241337769Trevor is described on this particular book’s blurb as an author ‘widely regarded as the greatest writer of short stories in the English language’.  This high accolade is matched by John Banville, who calls him ‘at his best the equal of Chekhov’, and Yiyun Li credits him with her entire writing career.

I chose to begin what will hopefully be an exploration of Trevor’s entire oeuvre with his final collection of stories, simply because it was the only volume written by him which my local library had in stock.  It is comprised of ten stories, all written towards the end of his life.  The blurb of Last Stories declares that Trevor ‘illuminates the lives of ordinary people, and plumbs the depths of the human spirit.’

Largely, Trevor’s stories focus upon normal, everyday occurrences, which could, in theory, affect us all.  In ‘At the Caffè Daria’, two women who used to play together as children – ‘Anita round-faced and trusting, Claire beautiful already’ – meet by chance in a London café, and Trevor recollects their complex history.  Of single mother Rosanne in the story entitled ‘Taking Mr Ravenswood’, he writes: ‘Sometimes it wasn’t bad, being alone, especially when she was tired it wasn’t, no effort made, none necessary, and the silence when the television was turned off came like a balm.  But the silence could be a vacuum too, and often felt like that.’  The protagonist of ‘Giotto’s Angels’ is suffering from amnesia.

There is such a knowing quality to Trevor’s writing, and in consequence, one immediately gets a feel for each of his characters.  We are made aware of what is important to them, as well as things that have occurred in their lives which have some impact upon their present selves.  He displays such complex human emotion, and dignifies every single one of his characters in Last Stories with motives and realistic feelings.  In ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’, for instance, Trevor writes: ‘All her life, she often thought, was in this room, where her father had cosseted her in infancy, where he had seen her through the storms of adolescence, to which every evening he had brought back for his kitchens another chocolate he had invented for her.  It was here that her lover had pressed himself upon her and whispered that she was beautiful, swearing he could not live without her.  And now, in this same room, a marvel had occurred.’

Relationships and loneliness are at the core of Last Stories.  In ‘The Unknown Girl’, a young woman is killed in a traffic accident, and one of her previous employers, Harriet, is asked if she can give any details about her, for ‘nothing appears to be known about the girl.  Little more than her name.’  In the same story, Trevor sets out, in a discerning manner, the relationship between Harriet and her son, Stephen: ‘… this evening, as on other evenings, an undemanding affection one for the other made their relationship more than it might have been.  Their closeness came naturally, neither through obligation nor for a reason that was not one of feeling; and it was never said, but only known, that different circumstances, coming naturally also, would change everything.  They lived in a time-being, and accepted that.’

Last Stories is an exquisite collection, by a thankfully prolific author.  The tales here are thoughtful and perceptive, and I felt pulled into each of them straight away.  The stories are all quiet ones, but they and their characters are still rendered highly memorable by the strength of Trevor’s prose, and his insight.  There is an element of unpredictability here, and some of the stories certainly surprise.

I feel so lucky that I have Trevor’s entire oeuvre to read my way through, and imagine that the stories which I find will be just as touching and memorable as those collected in Last Stories.  I can see him becoming one of my favourite authors, and cannot recommend this collection enough.

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