More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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The whole sky ablaze

The Tulip Touch
by Anne Fine,
Puffin Books 1997 (1996)

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect.

This award-winning teenage novel — it was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 1996 — is a hard-hitting psychological portrayal of an abusive friendship which poses the eternal question, are people ever born evil? It also asks whether it is enough for people to shake their heads and pass judgement while assuming it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with the root causes of antisocial behaviour.

But it wouldn’t be enough for a work of fiction to be preachy, it has to engage the reader in personal stories and relationships, and to put that reader in the position of thinking, would I behave like this or act like that, especially if they were an impressionable youngster like the narrator.

And adult readers may also pause to consider how even grown-ups can be powerless to change situations, either because of their own inadequacies or because systems aren’t in place to allow justice to be done. Through moral ambiguities, challenges and personal courage we are led along the narrative path this novel hastens to take us.

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Novels about gardens

Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.

As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.

Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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What the Dickens!

Engraving of snail by Orlando Jewitt

George Braintree:
Poverty and Oysters; how words inspired Charles Dickens
Gotham Press 1970

“It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
— Sam Weller to Mr Pickwick

One of the most striking things about Dickens’ writings is the range of curious names his characters, places and book titles sport — Micawber, Chuzzlewit, Mudfog, Uriah Heap, and so on.

Georgian literature was replete with artful names, of course, usually suited to the nature of the person so called: Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals, for example, is from the French mal à propos (meaning ‘inappropriate’), and religious allegories like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were chock-full of them.

But the names Dickens invents are altogether more playful and seemingly pointless except for their memorability. Where did he get his inspiration for them? George Braintree thinks he knows.

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Something rotten

Jan Mark: Heathrow Nights
Heinemann New Windmills 2002 (2000)

Three teenage tearaways from Hertfordshire, Adam, Curtis and the narrator Russell, disgrace themselves on an outing to see a performance of Hamlet and as a result are banned from a school trip to Cumbria. Rather than confess to their parents — and having intercepted letters from school — they arrange to spend the week in London. Alas, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves in limbo wandering around the terminals of Heathrow Airport.

While they do so Russell is able to meditate more fully on his situation: his father having suddenly died, his mother hasn’t taken long to get remarried, to the person who was with his father when the latter unexpectedly passed away on a plane.

His resentment at a changing situation over which he has no control causes him to see parallels between himself and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the prince learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his uncle Claudius and that his mother Gertrude rushed to wed his uncle.

But is the comparison exact? Are there also parallels between other characters and the people he knows? And what will happen when his week in limbo comes to an end?

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Passing ships

Katy Mahood: Entanglement
The Borough Press 2018

“Trains don’t stop at every station.”
— A mother’s response to her child’s query, from a moving railway carriage.

“Ships that pass in the night,” as Longfellow wrote, are like all us humans “on the ocean of life,” engaging with “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Sometimes there is not even that look or voice, the encounter completely unconscious, and yet the voyagers may still have unforseeable influences on each other.

This is the kernel at the heart of Katy Mahood’s impressive debut novel Entanglements. The title refers to a concept in quantum physics, a connection (as I understand it) whereby subatomic particles may be separated by distance but still affect one another; observation of this connection, paradoxically, causes it to change or even cease to be.

Of course, non-physicists see entanglement in a much more mundane way, along with the frustration that comes from strands of string or wool being intertwined, and this more prosaic aspect is present too as a potent symbol in this most engaging of novels.

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Nostalgia revisited

Image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

Roddy Doyle: Two Pints
Jonathan Cape 2012

It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.

Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.

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Sense and sensitivity

Book title image generated by https://t2i.cvalenzuelab.com/

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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