Book review – Don’t Tell The Bees by Mary-Jane Holmes

Don’t Tell The Bees by Mary-Jane HolmesIn this powerfully layered and tightly stitched novella-in-flash, author Mary-Jane Holmes weaves a world where nature waits in corners and on the edge of hearing, barely out of sight.

Our protagonist, known as ‘No-more’ after the refrain her mother was rumoured to have repeated after her birth “over and over again”, is as spirited as the wild creatures who share the landscape she roams. The opening story deposits her in our lap as her mother leaves her “howling in twitch grass by the river” so that she survives only  because her father finds her stumbles back to the loom, leaving her father Maurice to tie her to his back so that her waking moments are spent “in quarry and field” with his blood pulsing against her own.

Although rooted in “the marshlands from Damvix to Gruelle” in France, there’s a sensuous texture to the novella that evokes folk tales from all parts of the world where people are in rhythm with the land.

Holmes draw us ever deeper into a place where we can feel the cool mud under our feet, and when No-more’s beloved father is hooked by a tip of a weather-vane he is repairing, we fly with him, caught on the same breeze, so visceral is the writing.

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Book review – Seventy Percent Water by Jeanette Sheppard

SeventyPercentWater coverJeanette Sheppard’s debut flash fiction collection brims with sensitively perceived, reflective stories that creep beneath our surfaces, reminding us how drops of water can change a landscape, physically, aesthetically and psychologically.

These compact stories embrace big topics. The shifting boundaries of awareness linked to ageing and dementia recur throughout, like ripples spreading outwards, inexorably.

‘Rattle and Spin’ is a beautiful story of a woman who is growing unrooted from her sense of self, yet retains her dignity. The tale flows with steady momentum from line to line, guiding ‘you’ to treat this woman with the respect she has earnt and discover how much more she is than what you take in at first glance.

“Go on, sit in her chair. She will pull up a seat, make you laugh until your mouth swells ready to burst.”

The last sentence is heartachingly tender.

‘How to Enter Another Galaxy’ is another instructional piece. This time, the subject in for exaltation are those annoyingly futile calls to corporations, while you, the caller, have one hand gripping the phone and the other juggling a cat. Naturally, the intergalactic being you need to speak to is never the one on the end of the line.

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Book review – Stillicide by Cynan Jones

Originally written as a commission for BBC Radio 4, this spare, vivid book conjures a time when drinking water has become a rare and precious commodity.

Cynan Jones describes Stillicide as a collection of interlinked short stories. Each provides additional viewpoints and textures to the overarching examination of a future in which water is commodified.

As with all of Cynan’s writing, individual sentences have been honed into missiles, designed to carry and deliver information and emotion in the most efficient way possible, with the spaces on the page designed to make their impact all the more resonant.

Far from being bleak, the chapters or stories are a comfort to climb into, as each is understood from inside a single character’s mind. There’s an unexpected but welcome sense of being sheltered by their grey matter, and of gazing outwards at the strange, thirsty world they inhabit. A meditative quality seeps from the pages, even as the themes themselves ripple with injustice and quiet rage.

The space Cynan has created is far enough removed to give him the freedom to invent at will, yet close enough to remain dauntingly recognisable.

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Book review – Oothangbart by Rebecca Lloyd

Oothangbart By Rebecca LloydDonal Poseidon is an ordinary citizen, living an ordinary life. Each day he gets up and goes to work and each day he does the things expected of him, without grumbling or questioning the way things stand in the town of Oothangbart. But he’s also a fellow with a secret yearning, a quiet curiosity about the world beyond the town’s gates, and a tendency to daydream without meaning too.

And in a place like Oothangbart, all these things spell trouble.

In Oothangbart: A Subversive Fable For Adults and Bears, Rebecca Lloyd has created a world that seems both fairytale perfect and disturbingly controlled. Rules include ‘No slumping or giving the appearance of dejection.’ The greatest insult is to be referred to as “an irregular fellow”. The jobs carried out by the majority of citizens are stultifying dull and even pointless. Indeed, pointless seems to be the key word here, as notable citizens – the top fellows – are allowed privileged access to The Escalator that goes nowhere but up to a flight of steps they then need to climb back down. The exercise seems full of pomposity, yet utterly pointless.

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Book review – Songs Without Music by Tim Stevenson

Songs Without Music coverAuthor Tim Stevenson is a master of the final line, turning a tale on its head with a few carefully chosen words. Throughout his collection of “flash-fictions and curiosities” (what an enticing sub-head!), in just a single page or so Tim creates worlds that feel like close parallels to our own, where our own fate, and how to avoid (or embrace) it, is shown up in eerie technicolour. Human nature is spotlit and dissected, not only in the tales themselves, but through toying unsettlingly with our preconceptions, so that we’re caught off-step without even realising we’ve been led astray, as in Feral Oxide and in An Artist’s Impression.

I’m not a great devourer of sci-fi, but literary thought-provoking futuristic tales please me as much as any well-wrought fairytale, and Stevenson is particularly adept at these. Mother’s Milk is gorgeously chilling, ending with a satisfying pinch of justice, while The Mr Jones Emulator raises questions about what it is to be a person, while remaining a soothingly jolly read.

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Book review – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The-Miniaturist coverThis richly detailed, immersive book draws you into the life of Nella Oortman, 18 years old in 1968 and freshly married to a man she barely knows. At the start of her story, she arrives in Amsterdam, a very different place to the rural Assendelft she’s left behind. Her life is on the brink of changing forever, but not in the ways she anticipates.

Told solely from the point of view of this naïve yet spirited girl, The Miniaturist is a story that crackles with suspense, straining at the seams with vivid descriptions and characters so finely sketched they seem utterly real. Within the first few pages we meet Marin, the stern sister-in-law with a hunger for distant shores, and Cornelia, the servant who will prove a crucial ally as the novel unfolds, and Otto, the first black man Nella has ever seen.

The actual miniaturist of the title, however, is a far more intangible creature, difficult to meet and impossible to grasp, yet armed with an uncanny knowledge of Nella’s new household and its many mysteries.

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