Book review – The Naming of Bones by Jan Kaneen

The Naming of Bones cover showing a drawing of a woman in front of a green ocean at night.The beauty of this book is dazzling. From the first page, I felt myself being drawn into a work of art where light catches on grains of sand and waves hush continually. There’s a quietness to the prose that’s deeply beguiling. It makes you want to listen harder, to breathe in every word and nuance.

Dreamscapes, memories and make-believe all play their role, climbing into each other’s arms and laps until you can’t be sure where real ends and made up begins.

We commence in the middle of the night with a sound of singing, “soft and faraway.”

Jan Kaneen‘s narrator is in bed, just woken and “straining to hear.” In the following pages, it seems that straining to hear could sum up all her efforts – to identify, to gain clarity of a surrounding resonance that hums always somewhere just beyond reach of full comprehension.

Our location is a shoreline where a beachcomber is seen each day, whatever the weather. It’s a wonderful, wind-swept setting, and one that feels shaped by the narrator’s sense of grief. Kaneen sums up the mood and our narrator’s mood in two lines: “I favour wilder weather and stormier skies, and I only go outside on rainy days. I prefer to watch people rather than be with them, and the rain keeps them away.”

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Book review – Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter

Gaps in the LightThere’s a rare exhilaration that comes from beginning to read a book crammed with written works that you can’t hope to pigeonhole, and to choose instead to dive nose-first and headlong into, trusting the words to catch and anchor you where they will.

Poetry, memoir, flash fiction, sociological and psychological and anthropological study, myth, dream… In Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter, it all builds together into a tidal wave of impressions, sensations and emotions that you’d do well to surrender to and allow it to sweep you away.

Scattering in the Te reo Māori language, where water (wai) and song (waiata) are separated by three letters, and the word for ground is the same as the word for placenta (whenua), Winter ensures that divisions between who and where we are blend as well. The relationship between our bodies and nature are intertwined.

Likewise, the gap between fact and fiction are muddied in the most natural way, for fiction often provides the means to share our most honest emotional truths. If this thing didn’t happen to the author, that doesn’t mean it happened to no one, and the strata of feelings are undoubtedly authentic, regardless of what seeded them.

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Book review – The Yet Unknowing World by Fiona J Mackintosh

The Yet Unknowing WorldLayered like skeins of vivid ribbons, the stories in Fiona J. Mackintosh’s flash fiction collection The Yet Unknowing World strew colours through their readers’ minds.

Each tethers a moment in time, offering a sense of eavesdropping on stranger’s secrets. Many are portraits of love, others a sidewise glance at grief or betrayal. Woven by Mackintosh’s deft fingers, even the deepest losses are shared as exquisite parcels to be marvelled over. In ‘Hindsight’, the author opens with an image of cartwheels and trailing silk, before revealing that it’s these slippery fabrics that led to our narrator waking with his “heart fractured.”

There’s poetry whirled into these tales, and imagery rich enough to leave your senses tingling. Though most of the stories are only a paragraph or so long, they’re packed with details that evoke more than the sum of their words, and yet lie lightly on the page.

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Book review – Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien

Straw Gods coverSet in a coastal village and on the surrounding seas, Tom O’Brien’s intensely told novella-in-flash examines the insularity and isolation of grief.

Our narrator is Rosa, living on the shore of the sea that swallowed her husband Matteo ten years ago. With the sound of waves endlessly within earshot, she can’t move on from the hope that Matteo will re-emerge with the next tide.

It opens with a powerful declaration: ‘“I know that you’re dead,” I said to my husband. He didn’t respond.’

Rituals bring scant comfort – the making of tea for a wraith who can never drink it, the poring over of treasures he gave her as tokens of their love – each repeated as if Rosa can lull nature into letting what it has taken slip back to where it, or rather he, belongs.

Rosa confides: ‘There was no storm when he drowned. A freak wave hit the boat, they told me, caused by something far away.’ The details of this sentence are intriguing – the idea of something so seemingly inconsequentially distant could cause such devastation in the centre of a woman’s life ripples through every story that makes up the novella.

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Book review – Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff

Stray Our Pieces cover photoLeo Tolstoy opens his novel Anna Karenina with the legendary lines: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In Stray Our Pieces you’ll discover one of the most authentic representations of the latter – an ordinary family scraping by, with little to bind them together other than inertia.

At the centre of this apathy you’ll find the family matriarch, Gloria, a woman who drifted into marriage and would love to drift back out, if only she could dredge up the energy that would require. Author Jason Graff has created an anti-heroine whose howling discontent reminds us never to grow complacent. Whether you warm to her or (more likely) not, there’s no doubting that she’ll get under your skin.

Gloria grew up with a strong idea about who she would be as an adult. When that plan got derailed in her early twenties, she honed the full force of her ambition into a seething exasperation with the life she’s found herself mired in. This includes her son David, at times gloriously full of promise, and at others, in Gloria’s eyes, achingly disappointing. He, too, has failed to meet her expectations.

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Book review – Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins

Scratched Enamel Heart cover_Amanda_HugginsThere’s a conciseness to Amanda Huggins’ writing that makes me think of a stitch being drawn taut – her words pull the core of you to the core of a story until you gasp for breath.

Her Costa Short Story Award shortlisted tale ‘Red’ uses crimson dust to create a vivid, slightly melancholy landscape where a lone stray dog provides the hope, and a memory of better times provide the drive to reach like a scrawny sapling for light. Like Rowe, the protagonist of the preceding story “Where The Sky Starts’, Mollie needs to leave the place she’s supposed to call home or risk being trapped in a life that could suck her beyond sight of all hope, drive and light.

Huggins has a vivid mastery of words that whips up a setting you can virtually walk into, and uses that mastery to construct scenery that weaves the story’s mood around you: “Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.”

It’s poetically precise and powerful.

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Book review – Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold

SOUL ETCHINGS, SANDRA ARNOLDIn a book of trees, dragonflies and birds, stories flit and alight on wings crafted from printed paper. Each page contains a world of sunlight and shade, many trailing heartbreak, maltreatment or the bruises of being misunderstood,

Author Sandra Arnold’s heroes are strong-willed, sensitive souls who are often spirited away by the end of the page and a half that comprises their world.

As I read, I could visualise each setting vividly, and my head filled with branches of sun-dappled leaves. It reminded me of my own childhood in trees, and of living more inside imaginary worlds than the so-called real world.  Flash fiction is a form that requires immense discipline, and Arnold paints carefully selected words into exquisite scenes: “spider webs shivered like torn lace” and “the sea was polished glass,” and dawn’s many beauties, aglow in Blood of the Stone, include “the first pale notes of birds.’

In The Girl Who Wanted to Fly, our heroine is “breath in the newborn calf.”

Yet running beneath the poetic imagery is a great deal of anger and grief for damaged childhoods. This is a book of lost children, and the people who abuse, bully and drive them away, or who simply lack the power to save them. A yearning to flee flutters throughout, alongside a deep passion for the natural world over the urban.

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Book review – One Scheme of Happiness by Ali Thurm

One-Scheme-of-HappinessA deliciously discomforting read that will creep under your skin.

Set against a vividly realised setting of a small Northern town in the shadow of a defunct lighthouse, author Ali Thurm paints a journey into obsession and manipulation with steadily building menace. The title is drawn from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Helen, Thurm’s narrator, regards Fanny Price as her role model. They are both quiet and easily overlooked. Helen hopes to share in Fanny’s happy ending, and is prepared to do whatever she can to achieve that.

Helen has been living with and caring for her ailing mother for twenty years, and has become a little set in her ways. When her mum passes away, it feels like the start of something, but at first it isn’t clear what. A friend of her mum’s suggests a trip abroad, “now that you’ve got some money”, but Helen isn’t ready for the unknown. “Why would I give up the comforts of home to wait around in airports and be ruled by timetables? (…) I don’t want anything to change. This is where I want to be.”

It takes the return of two old school friends to help her realise that this is only partly true. Through the fog of grief and coping strategies, Helen’s former bestie Vicky emerges, with her husband Sam, who Helen adored at school, coming home for reasons unspecified until the novel’s end.

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Novella-in-flash review – An Inheritance by Diane Simmons

An Inheritance Diane Simmons coverLifetimes pass in a twinkling in this novella-in-flash from Diane Simmons. Eighteen tightly woven short stories sew together moving glimpses into the love, betrayals and reconciliations of four generations over a span of seventy years from 1932 to 2002.

We enter their world via a door into a pawnbrokers’, where kind-hearted Thomas is moved to help those who enter his dad’s shop in their darkest hours. By the end of the novella, we’re rediscovering the unclaimed items from that shop, alongside Thomas’ grandchildren, and understanding the desperation and hope those shops and their glinting miasma of contents represented.

The book’s earliest flashes stream by at disconcerting speed – it took me a few disconcerted chapters to adjust to their pace. Deaths and funerals rattled by with unnerving rapidity, and I found myself craving deeper delves into the lives Simmons’ wafted past my eyes. One blink, and I felt I might miss a crucial triumph or catastrophe.

The velocity eases as the novella progresses, however, and I realise now how accurately Simmons has captured a sense of the past through the her use of acceleration in those early chapters. Ask anyone about an ancestor, and the likelihood is that in return you’ll receive a blurred array of snapshots – births, marriages and deaths, an anecdote of a feud or act of selflessness and little more.

As we near the current century, we have a chance to catch our breath, and fully focus on the people before us.

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Book review – My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonI have a stubborn streak that makes me shy from the books that hit mainstream esteem. Part of me wants to seek out the underdogs that will really benefit from the boost of a review. However, My Name Is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman whose childhood placed her squarely in the camp of underdog, with a level of poverty that Elizabeth Strout paints with visceral skill, rendering it utterly relatable without oiling the hinges with sentimentality.

Throughout the novel we are entirely within Lucy’s head, seeing her experiences through her own eyes. At times her memory is uncertain, in the way that all childhood memories are to a degree, but because she doesn’t view her early years as pitiful, neither do we.

We join Lucy during an extended stay in a New York hospital following an operation to have her appendix removed. Lucy’s long-estranged mother arrives to keep her company, and the pair drift through anecdotes from the past, while Lucy observes her mother with a fond yet wary eyes. It’s an interesting set up, made more complex as Strout parkours into Lucy’s future, where she is taking a writing class and the novel, or rather Lucy’s memoir, is taking shaping. The opening line forewarns of this chronological fluidity: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”

Strout is an agile and fearless writer, freerunning between past, present and future in a way that sharpens our understanding of Lucy’s nature, as well as the backdrop of her life in Amgash, Illinois and New York at the start of the Aids epidemic, when yellow stickers were placed on the hospital doors of patients suffering from the virus, and outside “gaunt and bony men continued to walk by.”

We learn that Lucy is the youngest of three children in a family once so poor that for a time they lived in a garage, that she was aware from an early age of her differences compared to the other children (“We were outcasts”) and minds this less than her older sister does, and that as soon as she can read she takes refuge in fiction.

We know that her parents punish their children for crimes such as lying or wasting food, but that they, particularly the mother, also on occasion hit out “impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our blotchy skin and sullen dispositions.”

Yet she feels a great fondness for that childhood and her family. “I missed my mother, I missed my father, I suddenly missed the stark tree n the cornfield of my youth, I missed this all so deeply and terribly.”

Lucy, like any of us, is complex, contrary and swirled through with emotions built on experiences, deprivations and desires. She sees her good fortune in having moved on from the meanness of her beginnings, but argues, if only in her head, with those who believe she came from nothing: “No one in this world comes from nothing.”

This is a novel that will deepen your empathy for others, while impressing on you the value of compassion and forgiveness, as demonstrated by Lucy. It’s a story that is relatable at the most innate levels, and one that will give you hope that however dire things seems, a bit of courage and obstinacy might just carry you through to something brighter.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin Books and is available to buy here.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.