Saturday, 18 September 2021

on a distant ridgeline - Sam Reese

 Sam Reese may be a new name to many of you. He was to me! But he is no longer thank goodness! If there is any justice in the world his name should become well known with the publication of this short story collection.  

About Sam
Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an award- winning writer, critic, and teacher. Currently a lecturer in creative writing at York St John University, he is the author of the short story collection Come the Tide and non-fiction books on jazz, literature and loneliness, American short fiction, and Cold War politics.

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach. Between the past and present and potential reconciliations —and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.

I always feel the modern short story is an underrated literary genre. I have likened it in the past to a tennis Grand Slam tournament! The big players eschew the doubles so that they can focus on the singles. And yet the doubles matches are so entertaining and skilful, they can be delightful to watch. And so the “big” writers eschew the short story in favour of the novel. Of course I know that’s a sweeping generalisation, before you clamour to object and cite writers like Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood but you know what I mean? And whilst I’m sure that publishers would bite off their hands to get a collection of short story from a “big“ writer how difficult must it be for the lesser known writer to get a collection published? 

So I am always delighted when I get my grubby little mitts on a short story collection, particularly from a lesser-known writer. There is something so satisfying and so completist about being able to read a story in its entirety which it is so possible to do with a short story because obviously it’s of less duration than a full length novel. And yet in the hands of a competent author a short story can contain as much depth, emotion, comment and fulfilment as the aforementioned full-length novel.

And Sam Reese is a competent author! His collection offers twelve seemingly diverse stories and indeed they are diverse but somehow there is a common feel that runs through the entire collection giving a cohesion to the volume as a whole. Something that struck me so forcibly was the quality of the writing. There is a fusion here between poetry and prose. The language is vibrant and exciting, full of imagery and metaphor that gives the work a substance that might not exist were it “mere“ storytelling.  I did not feel they were plot driven stories, more language and character led. That’s not to say that the plots were uninteresting, they take the stuff of ordinary lives and just add a quirk or two here and there which allows the characters to run with that and the prose, to explore an idea or two. 

There is cooperation demanded from the reader for in several of the stories the conclusions are open-ended and it will be down to the imagination and the thought processes of each individual reader to ponder what might be, or even their own experiences of life. There are  coming of age stories, stories about filial love, friendship, the observations of children, and how we can misconstrue the past. My own  particular favourites were An Experience, Magpies, the titular on a distant ridgeline and the opening story - and the glow worms sing.

All in all a thoroughly edifying experience and my thanks to Isabel Kenyon of  Fly on the Wall Press for the opportunity to read this engaging collection of short stories.

Friday, 17 September 2021

A Single Rose - Muriel Barbery

  From the implications of the title to the final full stop this elegant novella almost had me lost for words. I knew nothing of this author when I picked this slender volume up. I was simply not prepared for the beauty of the prose and the composition of the narrative. Muriel Barbery is a French novelist but this fragile tale is set in Japan and somehow seems to have conjured that Japanese style of narrative writing and the nuances and customs of the country.

When the Japanese father she never knew dies, Rose heads to Kyoto to hear the reading of his will. But before Haru’s last wishes are revealed, Rose’s tour of the city of temples will uncover his true legacy - and at last open her heart to love.‘

The story is beautifully structured. Each chapter is preceded by a fable, legend or allegorical tale and the last line of each of these forms the heading for the next chapter. There was something delightful about that. It offered a cohesion and completeness to the whole book. The prose was poetic and graceful and conjured a gently tormented Rose experiencing the gradual realisation that she was searching for something and was on the brink of finding it. 

Japan is palpably described; the temples and the cherry blossom and the restaurants and teahouses. I had a sense sometimes of being there, walking alongside Rose trying to understand her father’s wishes. I could almost taste the saki and smell the Japanese cuisine. 

Rose is an intriguing character. At the start of the book she seems so spiky, so disillusioned with life. She seems to be programmed to initially mistrust. It was quite beautiful to see how, like a rosebud, she blossomed and bloomed as the book unfolded. She is a fortysomething botanist so you know that flora and nature are an important part of her life and so the title of the book takes on a subtle and deeper significance.

It’s a book with few characters but those characters have such an impact; from Sayoko who seems to be a housekeeper, Beth, the English woman who knew Rose’s father and seems to elicit an air of disapproval from some of those around her. Even the driver, Kanto, who does nothing in the book but drive has some kind of serene, reliable presence throughout. And then there is Paul, gentle, reliable Paul, who has loved and lost, who understands loyalty and respect and guides Rose, according to her father’s wishes but in the truest sense of the word too. 

There’s something languorous about the progression of the narrative. It’s not a book to be rushed through. It’s a book to savour, the prose and the philosophies contained within, to shadow Rose and will her to see what’s right in front of her. 

Like so many good books this is a book about love. The search for love that was always there , the dealing with love that has been snatched away and the search for love that was simply waiting.

I was about 100 pages into this book, I guess you could say halfway, when I stopped. I ordered two more books by this writer because the beauty of her writing was just so moving. However such literary beauty cannot be conveyed to an English audience without the skill and empathic translation of Alison Anderson who, to me, has understood so well the intentions of the author. 

My thanks to Gallic books for a gifted proof of this wonderful novella plus the finished copy and a place upon the blog tour. 


Monday, 13 September 2021

even the birds grow silent - Alex Nye

 I first became aware of Alex Nye when I read Arguing With the Dead, an historical novel for adults centred around the life of Mary Shelley. I was struck by Nye’s ability to really get into the head of Mary Shelley so convincingly. And this author now features on my list of ‘writers whose books I will always read’. And if ‘dead’ figured in the first book of Ms. Nye’s that I read then it surely dominates this one! For Death is the narrator of this collection of ‘fragments’ as the cover advises us. And whilst the personification of death is not a new one in the world of the arts this is, I believe, a unique take on her. Oh yes, Death is a woman. For here Death gets to give us her side of the story and we are taken though history from the early cave painters to the ‘baffled king’ Leonard Cohen. All your ‘favourites’ are here! Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Lady Jane Grey to name a few…. some notable events as well, the Great Fire of London, the village of Eyam, but hey, I must stop for I will not go down the spoiler route. (Gotta say, though, the George Harrison one is a killer! (No pun intended))!

Arguing With the Dead and the next book I read, When We Get to the Island, showed an ability for detailed and relevant research whether it be of an historical nature or, as with the latter, looking at more contemporary issues. That same skill is evident in this latest volume as, alongside the famous deaths, are some lesser known accounts. and the interesting thing is I am not certain whether they re fictional or based on real life events! I’ve googled some to find out and my results are inconclusive.  The stories all work alongside each other seamlessly. (The last fragment is a cracker, let me tell you!) There is a pleasing balance between the more sombre side of death and a sense of something lighter hearted, witty even, so that the end result is not as much of a downer as you might anticipate from a book where Death is the main theme.

Interesting, too, is the consideration of Death and her motives, she presents as an emotional and intelligent entity, and this could possibly spark some interesting spiritual discussions among book groups etc.

I think it is a unique book, very easy to read and relatively undemanding of your time since it weighs in at just over 200 pages but don't be deceived because it will make you think, it will elicit a smile or two and maybe even a tear or three….

Friday, 10 September 2021

Storyland - Amy Jeffs

The first thing that struck me whilst reading this book was how extensive my knowledge of Greek myths and legends is but how sparse and how little I know of the mesmerising legends from my own country. It made me wonder why? Did Homer have a better PR team than Geoffrey of Monmouth?! I am somewhat incredulous that it's taken until the 21st century for  inspired artist and art historian, Amy Jeffs, to redress the balance with her wonderful volume, Storyland. The second thing that struck me was what better way to thrust the mythology of our own fair isle into a wider consciousness than produce a book of this quality.

An elegant fusion of history, story telling and geographic commentary enhanced by the most exquisite linocuts (Oh, how I wish I could behold them in the flesh - especially Edward the Martyr) steers the willing reader through this country’s history from the Deluge to the Norman Conquest. It’s a wondrous achievement in itself - to have all this contained within one volume but the construction of the texts and the layout of the book is just so satisfying and complete. The presentation is superb. For me it was love at first sight and I am not easily seduced by the physical veneer of a book, it’s the words I’m attracted to usually.

We know that myths and legends, although fictional, were used to aid understanding of various phenomena within the cultural and sociological framework of the time. But I do believe that there is many a true word spoken in myth! And like the Mount Olympus of the Greeks locations like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, which obviously feature in these tales,  have retained their mystical pull though the centuries.

Amy Jeffs has made all of this accessible to a wide audience. Her ability to retell and enhance these stories offer an appeal to people who ‘just’ love a good story as well as the history buffs thirsty for a cohesive account of the misdemeanours of our nation and enable, in part, to contextualise the current state of our land and how we arrived at this place politically and sociologically.

The author has a relaxed and flowing narrative style and the book is easy to read. But it’s not just the ability to create atmospheric art to accompany these stories but her perceptions as to the nature of them is pertinent.

Myths hold the echo of collective emotion whatever they reveal of events.

How wonderful is that?

This is a book that I will treasure. I’ll dip in and out of it and explore these old stories over and over. It has me in its thrall. So much so that before I had even finished it I had sent off for a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain’!


Monday, 6 September 2021

Dear Reader - Cathy Rentzenbrink


I’m sure there’s many a reader of this book, like me, who has sat back in disbelief at the words they’ve just read because everything they’ve ever felt about books and reading has been expressed so eloquently. Then sat up with the belief that this is surely the book they could have, should have written. But the simple truth is they didn’t and I didn’t. But Cathy Rentzenbrink did though. And how!

Something I found fascinating was comparing my childhood diet of reading literature with the author’s. They were practically identical. Is this mix of books guaranteed to form somebody who will read for the rest of their lives? Or is it a certain kind of person who seeks out and responds to these books because they are and always have been, intrinsically, a reader?

Some people measure their lives with the music that triggers memories and emotions about certain periods in their lives, others do that with books. And this book tells the story of this writer’s life and the books that accompany it as a literary rather than a musical soundtrack. I love the eclectic mix of books covered. I love it that there was no one genre that the author restricted herself to. I loved it that there were classic and intellectual works alongside lighter, more frivolous books. The book is divided into various chapters detailing the author’s life and within those chapters are the books relevant to those sections. So be prepared to add an abundance of titles to your TBRs! 

This is such an uplifting book to read. There is no pretension. In places it’s funny, in spite of some challenging and harrowing periods in the author’s life.  Ms. Rentzenbrink has the ability to look at herself objectively and her self perception is so honest and real. Her experiences as a bookseller in both Harrods and Waterstones is fascinating. Envy isn’t a pretty emotion. But I did feel it from time to time! 

I think that anyone who finds a solace and an escape in books will relate to this so strongly. 

Reading has been a great source of comfort, knowledge, pleasure and joy. It is the most central aspect of my identity; the truest thing I could say about myself is, I am a reader.

How perfect is that?! 

This is a book I shall dip into again and again for there’s a reassurance and a camaraderie to be felt from reading about a kindred spirit and their companionship with books 

My thanks to NB Magazine for a gifted copy. 

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Trimming England - M.J.Nicholls

 My first perception of this book was that it would be a charming little novel expressing discontent with the state of our nation. I read the blurb and imagined a story set in Jersey with a number of irritating people and I thought the story might revolve around how they might be irritating each other when placed together in the same location. Oh, how wrong could I be?

This is unlike any story I’ve read before. The premise is that the British Prime Minister decides to rid each English county of its most irritating citizen by sending them to a horrible hotel on the island of Jersey for sentences of varied lengths. 

Taking each county in turn M.J. Nicholls offers us its most irritating citizen stating their name, their age, their sentence and their crime. What follows is a tour de force of creative and satirical imagination. Some had me almost crying with laughter. For example Somerset’s most irritating citizen, Wilbur Austryn, 63 years old was sentenced for 10 years for creating an offensive index in the fourth edition of the Somerset Hill guide! I quote, ‘ Staple Hill - as Fats Domino sang: “I found my thrill, nowhere near this smelly scrofulous chit of a hillock.’ Of the 40 or so hills featured Wilbur has nothing good to say about any of them!

But behind the wit and humour I extracted a more serious intent - a satirical and perceptive observation of our society, currently. I had a sense of Spike Milligan meets Charlie Kaufmann. There is an absurdity to some of the unlikely situations but sometimes the absurd gets closer to the truth than the truth itself. 

Nicholls has a way with words that I envy! I sometimes wondered if some of them were of his own invention - ‘blabberoonification’ - my spellchecker could only shrug and say “no results found“. But each word was just so perfect and conveyed exactly, I hope, what the author intended. Certainly this reader found them perfect. It’s a kind of improvised prose, spontaneous prose such as Kerouac produced. Perhaps one of the best, or more accurately, one of my favourite entries is for Warwickshire. It’s blistering prose that just begs you to read it aloud, barely pausing for breath, like a virtuoso instrument break. And there are plenty of literary and musical allusions throughout the book. Mr Nicholls is culturally enhanced.

Illustrated by Kathleen Nicholls, a relative possibly? It matters not. They are an appropriate addition with their deceptive simplicity to the stories they accompany .

In one sense it’s hard to place this in any specific genre. It could be seen as a collection of flash fiction. But it’s one of those books where you just know that it’s okay to throw genres out the window. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, sadly. But for those who read it and enjoy it and appreciate the creativity, their lives will be richer for it.

My thanks to New Books magazine for a gifted copy.

Monday, 30 August 2021

We Are Animals -Tim Ewins

 I truly believe that sometimes books choose us rather than the other way round. Maybe that’s a tad whimsical or maybe I’m just a victim of the subliminal, subversive nature of social media! But this book infiltrated its way into my consciousness. So strongly I had to buy a copy. I had that sense that this would be a book I’d love. I never know where that feeling comes from. But I get it from time to time. And it’s never let me down. No matter that I know nothing of the author, nothing of the publisher etc. It’s just such a strong impulsive instinct. 

And with We Are Animals it’s happened again. The impulse.  Has it let me down,  my instinct? No it damn well hasn’t!

Oh I loved this book. It’s just full of everything that makes reading such a pleasure. Wit, warmth, an eye for a good story, an understanding of plot construction, some delightful characterisations with mixed locations and varied chronologies. There is delightful use of what I’d called leitmotif if this was a musical composition but maybe quirky repetition is the literary term!   All these elements are mixed together with exactly the right balance. You’ll laugh, and you’ll cry too, and it’s not a book that’s afraid of emotion. It’s a clever book, subtly clever, unassumingly clever, not an in-your-face, look at me, I’m smart, kind of book. 

The premise is quirky. A boy and a girl both called Jan meet in unprecedented circumstances and I’m not going to be queen of the spoilers but that’s the catalyst really for all that follows. There are some coincidences that will make you chuckle and there is an element of fate intervening and interfering on certain occasions. Poxy fate! 😉 There is an observation of people and their idiosyncrasies. There is an understanding of peoples’ need to find themselves and follow intuitions no matter how off centre they may appear to be. The story just misses being completely surreal but there is sometimes that feeling to it. The characters are so well defined and so likeable. You’re rooting for them, you’re rooting for everything to work out. As a reader you find yourself irrevocably committed to everybody and you don’t want to stop reading until you know that every one is okay.

And of the title? How about a cow on the beach with a puppy for a friend, fishes in Fishton, cockroaches and horses…… not to mention the humans. In some ways it’s a Backpackers Guide to the Universe. But it’s exactly the kind of book that we need right now. Because it takes you inside yourself and outside yourself, it takes you all over the world to places you didn’t know you needed to be and there’s no green, amber or red light. And if you really want to pare it down to the bare, bare minimum. It’s about love.

I want to read it again. Now.

I bought it from Lightning Books online. But, cheapskate that I am, I did have a discount code. I regret that now. It is worth every penny of its full price.