Novella review – Burn It All Down by Karen Jones

Burn It All Down by Karen Jones_front_coverImagine a farm on a seashore where two sisters celebrate the possible death of their brother-in-law, and the third, his wife, isn’t sure whether to mourn or join in with her sisters’ revelries.

Imagine a home where chickens, guinea pigs and hedgehogs roam free with the memory of a pheasant on a leash.

Imagine if you couldn’t be sure what was real.

Inspired by the artwork of Andrea Kowch, Karen Jones paints a world where loneliness etches figures against the dusk. Beth has been married off to a man she doesn’t love, which means that the farm where she grew up now belongs to strangers. When her husband fails to return from a sea voyage, the mood grows unstable and Beth’s main concern is whether she will ever be touched again.

Her sisters Olivia and Esther are wild, riddled with spite and mockery, yet seem to want more than anything to lift Beth from her melancholy and infuse her with their unbridled joy. They are also uncanny creatures, who, Beth notes, “know my thoughts and dreams, even though I have never told them of these fancies. They knew my mind as if it were theirs.”

The stories turn you like waves with dreamlike passages soaked through with stark realism as the sisters claim they need no man, and pragmatic Beth disagrees, stating in ‘There Goes The Bride’: “They are naïve. No one would trade with us. No one trades with women, except to take advantage.”

The last line in the same brief tale offers an excellent example of the author’s capacity for wielding wit to devastate unwary readers: “Alone in my marital bed, I counted my blessings; it did not take long.”

The ekphrastic writing is so vivid, it’s easy to envision the paintings they sprang from, but it’s well worth a quick Google – like having a rumour satisfyingly confirmed.

The penultimate story is also the title tale and contains the full novella pinned to just enough words to fill a page. It’s a gorgeously compact work of prose poetry. The rhythm offers echoing refrains and vivid scenes to revel in, from “an ungrateful cat” who spits out milk to the desire to “knead your skin and bruise it like the berries for tomorrow’s pie, because there must always be pie.” These are sentences so artfully crafted they engage all the senses and seem richly scented and as seething with heat as a crowded kitchen.

The entire novella is a feast of impressions, where grief tangles in the wind with delusions and uncertain wishes. By the end of the book however, the yearnings have settled into something satisfyingly sure and possible. An enrapturing read full of heady passages that weave together to draw you inescapably in.

Burn It All Down by Karen Jones is published by Arroyo Seco Press and available to buy here.

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

What are you reading? 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)

Novella review – The Exhibition by Cara Viola

The Exhibition - Cover by Cara ViolaSet in the earliest days of the 1900s, this exquisitely immersive novella by Cara Viola invites you to stride into the archives of Glasgow’s glorious Kelvingrove museum when it has been built but is yet to be filled with treasures.

Our guide is 19-year-old Madeleine, a young woodworker with a talent for recreating priceless artefacts, who arrives rain-drenched on pages soaked in Carla Viola’s lyrical writing.

We soon learn three things about Madeleine: she is from Great Yarmouth, the only thing she will miss is ‘her’ marsh, and she keeps secrets, a fact told sideways as she meets Mrs Deepdene, the wife of Madeleine’s employer (and a formidable character in her own right). Madeleine “tried to see the other woman’s face, to gauge whether she, too, would be someone who kept secrets.”

The Kelvingrove museum feels equally ripe for secrets, breathed into life by the author’s vivid writing: “From the shadows of the Gothic tradition, the structure rose into the sky, where, at a tremendous height, solid walls divided into many-armed turrets (…) The door had not been locked since the last workman left, yet nobody wanted to venture inside. Kelvingrove was a building lying in wait.”

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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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