Novella review – The Listening Project by Ali McGrane

The Listening Project book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to sink into a symphony of sensations.

The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.

This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”

McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”

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Poetry review – The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru

The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to have your empathy heightened and awareness deepened.

In her debut poetry pamphlet The Country With No Playgrounds, award-winning British-Romanian poet Elena Croitoru has captured a place and period in time so precisely and skilfully that you’ll find yourself transported.

Stark scenes are highlighted with words that seem fondly chosen for their beauty: “We grew up in our spare time,/ beyond a tower block island/ where pearly cement dust lay…”

Relayed with disarming matter-of-factness, many of the poems are almost cinematic, such as in The Last Wedding: “She looked out of the window/ at the militiamen who watched our balcony/ from below, the way one would watch/ the funeral of someone still moving.”

It’s heart-stoppingly alarming, yet clearly for the inhabitants utterly normal, to live with such a palpable threat. As worrying as the situation must have been for the adults she mentions, for the children Croitoru counted herself among, this was nothing more than ordinary. This gives her the tools to describe moments with a lightness of touch that draws us in rather than pushing us away, so that we read each stanza with wide open eyes.

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Poetry review – We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, Songs for the Arctic, illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in We Flicker too briefly, you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In Birdsong for a Breakdown, we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

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Novella review – The Death and Life of Mrs Parker by Jupiter Jones

The Death and Life of Mrs Parker cover. Shows a guppy with an extravagant tail swimming against a black background.

Book Balm recommendation: read for stalwart cheerfulness in the face of adversity.

Spoiler alert, this wry, tragi-comic novella opens with the apparent lethal poisoning of the main character, but for the dauntless Aveline Parker, these moments are far from the end. While her heart races towards the finish line, memories flood in and we’re treated to chapters from decades filled with love and misadventure. When the paramedics tell her that she seems to have a problem with her heart, she comments inwardly: “I’ve always had problems with my heart, giving it away, getting it broken”, and proceeds to think through the medical attributes of the human heart, ending with: “The heart is fickle.”

Aveline’s voice rings with authenticity as she relays anecdotes that weave threads of excitement into knots of heartbreaking regret, each edging us closer to the paramedics working to keep her alive on a restaurant floor. The originality of the story and its telling is anchored in this voice, the skilful use of colourful clichés (such as when Aveline observes that the lines around an elderly woman’s mouth contract “like a cat’s arse”) that suit the character so well and the rich textural details that pin each recollection in place.

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Poetry review – Much with body by Polly Atkin

Much With Body book cover. Shows figure floating in green water.Book Balm recommendation: Read to remind yourself to pause and pay attention to your natural surroundings.

From frogs and toads ambling into her home to the herons glimpsed nearby to the imposed quieter times of lockdown, Much with body by Polly Atkin is a reminder to take a breath, open your eyes and observe.

In Lakeclean, Atkin immerses us in the magic of wild swimming. The lines are dizzyingly visual and elemental, while hinting at the freedom and physical relief offered fleetingly in water, as opposed to time spent on land. Atkin alludes to the joy of  being: “released from the tyranny of gravity”, dwelling “in transparency”, and sweeping “mountains aside with our arms without wincing.”

Notes from a transect offers series of determinedly hopeful snippets, each of which works as a standalone poem. In What’s Under Your Feet she records: “One school wins a visit from a scientist. When she asks/ does anyone have wildlife stories to share?/ the whole school put up their hands.” In Windows we glimpse “Those lightless days when pain/ keeps you in, under, and the feeder/ at the window is the only source of movement/ you count birds.”

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Novella review – Small Things by Hannah Sutherland

Small Things book cover.Book Balm recommendation: read when you want to taste the bitter-sweetness of love entwined with loss.

Despite its title, Hannah Sutherland’s novella is all about the biggest things in life: friendship, true love, family and loss. Meet Jude, eighteen years old, and as drunk as his dad, Paddy is notorious for being. Now meet Madeline, the young woman who will one day become Jude’s mum. Slip-sliding deftly back and forth through time, each chapter presents a different moment from the lives of four people: Madeline, Paddy, Jude’s beloved best friend Kit and Jude himself, the glow at the centre that the other three orbit around.

There’s so much hope, affection and heartbreak woven into these strung-together stories that at times it’s almost hard to bear. Vulnerability is vividly drawn, not least in The character assassination, a goosebump-inducing account of a parents’ evening in which Jude observes as “Mammy raises her chin and puts on a façade of confidence, seemingly unbothered, which Jude knows will tire her to bed for the next few days.”

This is also our first meeting with Kit, and subtly indicates what these two boys will mean to one another.

Sutherland has a knack for seeding in truths you’ll understand without needing them spelled out, and barely aware of the clues you’ve absorbed until they accumulate and you feel as though you’ve always known.

We, Kit and Jude, invincible captures the exquisite verve and naivety of youth: “We cycle for hours, doing everything and nothing. We build a den in your garden (…) Place your beloved tartan blanket over the top, a temporary sky for us to gaze up at.”

You is a gorgeously tender chapter, written with sparkling honesty from Kit to Jude. “You walk up to me and there’s something inside me, like a butterfly, or a bursting burn, a volcano on the brink, fluttering, rumbling…”

This method of writing directly from the heart of one character to another places us directly at the hub both of action and contemplation. It makes us privy to much that is left unspoken, which gives us an omnipotent view that I found made me care deeply for the key players.

The yearning to and impossibility of protecting those we care for from all harm shines throughout too, heightening the potency of the varieties of love encompassed here. At times you may want to pause to fully absorb the emotions rising from these pages.

Challenging topics pattern scenes like wallpaper, often visible on the peripheral without demanding your full attention. Madeline’s mental illness and grief for her “halfway babies” is explored gently through both Madeline and Jude, as well as bonding Jude to Kit, who has his own “halfway sister.” This shared understanding of what’s it’s like to be framed in the light of those lost is written with startling surety, delivered alongside the understated but distressing revelation of the threats Kit faces at home, with the “bruises on his wrist. choking it like an ugly beaded bracelet.”

Many of the titles speak volumes by themselves. Examples include Losing your virginity, yourself and your preferences.

Paddy’s love for Madeline draws a ‘before and after’ line diagonally through this complex and rich novella, evoking empathy in his less dignified moments.

But it’s the purity of Jude’s feelings for Kit that will stay with you, longing for the innocence of a childhood garden den with a tartan blanket keeping all the world’s dangers firmly at bay.

Small Things by Hannah Sutherland is published by AdHoc FictionBuy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

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, please get in touch.

Novella review – Crossing the Lines by Amanda Huggins

Book Balm recommendation: read when you need reminding that every person you meet has their own story.Crossing-the-Lines-by Amanda Huggins cover
Reading almost like a novella in flash and expanding outwards from her Costa Award shortlisted tale Red, Amanda Huggins’ latest creation is a tensely told yet heart-affirming work. The focus is fifteen-year-old Mollie, seemingly trapped in a nightmarish situation until she finds the courage to escape with stray dog Hal.

The friendship between Mollie and Hal is a steel thread through the story, offering solace and strength in the face of disappointments, betrayals and the occasional kindness. This is a journey full of perils and adventure, with happy as well as sour memories trailing behind and the hope of a safe return to what was once home ahead.

When Mollie’s mum Ellie meets Sherman Rook, it’s clear almost at once that he’s no good. “Something in his eyes glittered hard and bright as he appraised her cloud of unruly blonde hair, the jut of her determined chin and her long tanned legs.”

Before the chapter’s end Ellie and Mollie are moving to live with Sherman far from everyone they know. The sense of danger is palpable.

It contrasts sharply with the coastal life Mollie loves, close to her brother Angel and father. The close yet roaming third-person narrative allows chapters to read like flash fictions, with some focused on Ellie and opening up insights into her behaviour, while others share aspects of people Mollie meets only briefly, providing an exterior view of Mollie that helps us see both her vulnerability and gumption.

It all contributes to a richly layered whole.

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Book review – The Fisherwoman and Other Stories by Philip Charter

The Fisherwoman and Other Stories coverThis richly packed collection of short stories by Philip Charter carries you across planets and through time. In each instance, Charter shows his talent for summoning just the right level of detail, painting in scenes with startlingly precise vivacity so you can picture and feel the exact slant of sunlight and depth of shade.

The collection opens with the title tale – a story about stories set in a futuristic world. It centres around a koi pond and an old women noticed daily by the narrator, who feels compelled to open up to this stranger during the course of the tale. It reads as a curious and confident fable with a whisper of warning about the harm we’re doing to our home planet.

Other intriguing fables include Peloten, which reports the sighting of “thousands of riderless bicycles” and their impact on the populous.

“They travelled clockwise, around a huge circuit of streets, like they were competing in a race with no rules and no finishing line. Capturing and dismantling them didn’t help, it just resulted in the appearance of an identical one the next morning, completing the herd of exactly eight thousand one hundred and twenty-eight machines.”

Knowing what to resolve and what to leave unknown is clearly another of Charter’s skills. Continue reading

Anthology review – The Weight of Feathers

The Weight of Feathers cover. Shows purple book cover with pink, yellow and orange dots loosely shaped into a feather.The Weight of Feathers anthology comprises the winning, short-listed and highly commended fictions plucked from the riches submitted for the Retreat West Prize 2020. It opens with The Stonecutter’s Masterpiece by Jennifer Falkner, a bitter-sweet short story with a vivid sense of place, opening as it does with a paragraph that includes an expertly crafted line on the valley setting: “His workshop was the only thing in it, curled at the bottom like a sleeping cat.”

As short story judge Peter Jordan writes in his report: “It won because the writing on an individual sentence level was superb.”

In fact, there are outstanding sentences throughout this anthology. The book brims with intriguing short stories and flash fictions, each of which shimmers and hums with sensory details: a butterfly fluttering inside a double-glazed window; a woman turning to stone; a mouthful of damson jam. The delights are myriad, offsetting the sadness at the heart of many of these tales.

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Book review – Random Observations

Random Observations cover. Shows sepia photo of woman and boy.One afternoon in September, a slim envelope was pushed through my door. It contained a book with a title but no indication of the authors, and 32 pages of text interspersed with curious images.

Random Observations begins with a foreword that encompasses in two pages a rescue from a crevasse and a devastating marital rift, plus an introduction to Nevil Short, the apparent author of this work. What follows are snippets of klutz – a spaceship gone awry, a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, and her child, Short, looking on. Our narrators vary from Short himself at various points in his life to Xyllophital, aka Colin, the extraterrestrial who accidentally kidnaps a human. Oh, and then there’s Inky the dog, who gets a chapter all of his own.

Often the people stepping into the spotlight seem incidental to Short’s central tale, but as he explains in his introduction: “The notes below have been painstakingly compiled through my lifetime’s association with persons of a perplexed disposition.”

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