Tattie Zkowen’s Perfect Days by Angus Shoor Caan

tattiezThis trilogy of short stories is written in deepest darkest Ayrshire dialect, which sadly means that its audience will be necessarily small. Of course if you are prepared to ‘learn the lingo’ (which can be no more arduous than understanding such factors as ‘rat’ means ‘that’ and ‘ri’ to mean ‘the’. Think of it like you’re working out a secret code and you’ll get into the swing of it much easier. Of course the lucky few will be able to read the stories out loud and then they’ll get the real benefit of that written dialect. You will ‘hear’ Tattie’s voice loud and clear then, believe me.

In Tattie Zkowen’s Perfect Day we find Tattie (who is a much nicer version of a Rab C.Nesbitt character) having the boon of a ‘free’ day. He’s taken the day off work for the dentist and the dentist has cancelled.  Unlike Ferris Bueller in a similar situation, Tattie can think of nothing better to do than to cook the dinner early and get off down the pub.  Where his ‘adventures’ begin. Don’t get me wrong, Tattie’s ‘adventures’ are purely domestic and the best of them is when he finds a stray dog. After a series of misadventures the dog ends up back at Tattie’s house and we are left on the cliffhanger of whether the kids will get to keep him.

The second story is Tatty Boaxes Clivur (that’s Boxes clever to the uninitiated) which starts off  ‘As fights go, it wisnae much tae write hame aboot.’  This story is wound round Jinky the dog (football fans will get the appropriateness of the name) and his rightful owner.  I don’t want to spoil the story so I’ll just say that drink and drugs are involved and there’s jeopardy aplenty, but it all turns out right in the end.

The third part of the trilogy is titled Tattie Bye and it does indeed bring the whole story to a resolution, dare I suggest, perfectly. It’s proof that even in the downbeat world of the urban underclass, good things can happen and lives can be lived to the full.

I enjoyed my time with Tattie and his wife Tina, but for me Jinky is definitely the star of the show, with Tattie’s two children running him a close second.  I love their ‘kickball’ experiences and the optimism with which the stories end is joyous.  Who said you can’t make happy endings that work?  If you’ve ever enjoyed Rab C.Nesbitt, or indeed the Broons and Oor Wullie, this trilogy will charm and entertain you. It’s not big but it’s very clever! And it is, in the real sense of the word, authentic writing from Angus Shoor Caan. I thoroughly recommend it as a pick me up!

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Angus Shoor Caan

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A Man’s Hands by Andrew McCallum Crawford

manshandsA Man’s Hands, Crawford’s third volume of fiction, follows on from his novel Drive! and The Next Stop is Croy and other stories. Several of the stories appearing here have been published in literary mags and e-zines, like Northwords Now and Spilling Ink Review, and that gives a clue straight away to their quality.

These are stories of obsession. They’re written about different men and women, but they’re thematically linked. I found some of this obsession with the theme perplexing, but I like Andrew McCallum Crawford’s sparse style and the way his writing presents humanity stripped back to the essential, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m glad I did. A Man’s Hands is a concept album of a short story collection. In writing thematically linked stories around different lead characters, he’s saying something about the universality of his subject – this all-consuming yearning for something lost in the past.

Most of the stories feature men cut off in some way. Jack, in ‘Edinburgh Arrivals’, is cut off in mist at the top of Arthur’s Seat. John in ‘Sofitel Gatwick’ is cut off in his hotel room, with real life playing out through the window. Andy in ‘When Iron Turns to Rust’ is isolated in his basic rented room with its cockroach infested drain in the floor and its fraying curtain screening off the toilet, and then again in the café, where everyone around him is happy.

On the face of it, the obsession throughout all the stories is for a woman from the past – some personification of female beauty, delicate and unsullied, yet promiscuous and sexy at the same time. A creature of myth, surely? ‘She’ is never presented as three dimensional. She is a figment of the men in A Man’s Hands’ imagination. She’s the psychedelic drug that gives Andy hallucinations in the snow in ‘Chicken Soup’, when his hands have frozen to the metal railings in a metaphorical representation of his psychological state. ‘She’ is a memory. ‘She’ is unattainable.

A Man’s Hands looks at the writing of fiction itself. “The fact that it was autobiographical he would deny until he was blue in the face”. This is the attitude of Andy, the writer character in ‘Gentlemen, we have a winner’. Having invited the woman he yearns for to the award ceremony where he’s to read his winning story, he finds the event flat without her. Then, when he does see her in the audience and persuades her to forget her husband and go back to his hotel room with her, it’s too easy. It’s not sex he yearns for; it’s much more elusive than that. He prefers to make coffee so they can talk about the stories – his stories and what inspires them. She’s his muse.

By the end, the generic male lead has come through various stages of obsession, from self-destructive alcohol abuse, living hand to mouth, to something close to distaste once he actually comes within reach of what he desires.

Clarity comes gradually. “If it’s about anything,” the writer character in ‘Gentlemen’ says of his winning story, “it’s about how people should leave the past alone.”

Reviewed by Carol McKay

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Andrew McCallum Crawford

 

Other People… by Bill Kirton

otherpeople

I picked up this book to read expecting a short book of short stories. Well, all I can say is that this was a mammoth book of short stories, I counted twenty-one in all, although there were so many I wouldn’t be surprised if the number exceeded that. So, at the selling price of £2.05 for the Kindle version, this must be the bargain of the year.

So how do I do justice to this number of short stories in a review, there are far too many to comment on individually so I’m afraid I’m going to be generalistic here.

There was an eclectic mix of stories, a fair amount of crime, which you would expect from a crime writer of Kirton’s stature. But there were also humorous stories, and for those of you who have not read Kirton’s humour, it can be quite satiric and at times ridiculous. But there were also a few love stories, which surprised me, and some which just dealt with human nature.

In the crime category, I really liked Death Ship. This was a historic piece set on a sailing ship which is making a voyage between Norway and Aberdeen, and in the course of the voyage there are several particularly gruesome deaths. However I liked the atmosphere of this one as well as the writing and the content. I almost believed I was on board the vessel, being tossed about by the stormy seas, and in fear for my life.

There was a bit of fantasy in some of the stories as well, and I liked Eliminating Heat, where a man telepaths into birds and finally into a fly. He nurses murderous thoughts against his wife and uses these powers to facilitate her demise. I won’t tell you any more but just let’s say this is a sory of comeuppance.

Then there is the love and lust in The Lovers of Wensleydale, and Doris from the cheese counter in the supermarket, becomes the glamorous and sensuous Letitia.

Apart from the ingenuity of the stories there was also some beautiful writing in these short stories, and I particularly liked An Orkney Parisienne, which I thought was a lovely piece of writing with atmospheric descriptions. This one was more philosophical than plot driven.

I could go on and on but I think I will wrap this review up here and just say that I enjoyed the majority of these stories, and if you like short stories you could do a lot worse than dip into this book.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir 

Other People is available in Kindle format

Find out more about Bill Kirton 

The HitchHiker by Brendan Gisby

This is a ‘long’ short story, quite a slender read, but with an unusual depth and in discussing it I want to give you a couple of terms of reference. These are ‘personal’ connections I made within the context of the book. They are F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides.  Bear with me, the connections will become clear in the fullness of time.

The Hitchhiker ostensibly tells you the story of a young working class Scottish man in the early 1970’s who goes on his own small ‘tour’ – one small step for man, one big adventure for our ‘hero.’ But there’s much more to it than this.  The opening preamble ‘About the story’ gives a hint when it says ‘Have you ever looked back and wondered if you had achieved anything worthwhile in your life, anything worth remembering?’ Because that is the real journey in this story.  While the ‘journey’ to the Highlands is described in close and beautifully astute detail, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who travelled those parts of Scotland in that era (but especially if they were of the same class and so stayed in the same sort of places, travelled on public transport etc) it is the story behind the story that is of just as much interest.

This takes us into the land of narrative voices. The distancing of the author. And the reason for this. Because in The Hitchhiker, there is ‘the story’ and the ‘reason’ for the story. There is a ‘man’ who is reliving the past by telling the story of his younger self and there is an external ‘narrator’ who tells us about the man (and boy). Some might think this extra narrator is  unnecessary to the whole thing. But he’s not. He is there to distance the author (in my opinion) from his own lack of self confidence.  It thus sort of completes the circle. And when you realise this is makes you angry (or should). You see that the man, the boy, the narrator (and the author?) are all unified in their lack of confidence in their skill/s as writer. It is this lack of confidence which may make people misunderstand the honesty of the story.  But for me it’s what ‘makes’ the story, because it shows the truth of the author, the fictional hoops he’s putting himself through to ‘protect’ himself – he ‘needs’ to do this for himself, and yet he shouldn’t (and doesn’t) need to do this for the reader. The fact that he feels this need becomes an integral part of the importance of the story (in my opinion.) And yet it is the very narrative complexity which may well confuse (and put off) the reader. And so I’d like to concentrate on the why’s and wherefore’s of this narrative stance. This is where I bring in those ‘other works’ to try to explain what I mean.

When I first read The Great Gatsby I didn’t like it. What did I care for a bunch of ‘careless people’ in 1920’s America? Then I learned more about literature and how (and why) things are written and I realised that it was as much the story of the ‘narrator’ Nick (who was an outsider, observing the actions of these people) as it was about Gatsby et al. And of course, Gatsby himself was a ‘fictional’ creation (even within the novel) creating his identity in order to win the woman he loved. It is in part a novel of class struggle, or class consciousness. And once I understood that I came to love the novel, short as it is, as something very deep and profound; with language that just danced and that ‘something’ that wasn’t there just in the marks on paper. Not subtext, not hypertext, if you like the sort of ‘soul’ of writing. It’s there if you look for it. If you are willing to learn and not just dismiss. If you can match your expectations to the authorial intention.

And this is where I draw my parallel with The Hitchhiker. Gisby’s work exudes the lack of self confidence of a working class young man who doesn’t quite believe that he has a ‘right’ to be an author. I don’t mean that the writing is poor, I mean that the narrative stance shows us the lack of confidence (misplaced) in his identity as an author. And this holds true for the character and the author. That’s interesting. And quite ‘different.’ And when you understand and embrace this you get not just one long short story, but more than one story, layered, every bit as layered as the ‘story’ in Gatsby. It’s an emotional journey for the narrator, the man, the author and, if he picks up on it, the reader.

Then there’s the actual physical journey. Which is great but over too soon. That’s memory for you. Unlike Boswell, Gisby didn’t think his experiences worth recording at the time. This got me thinking about Boswell and Johnson. I read Tour of the Hebrides long ago and so I re-read it after finishing The Hitchhiker to see what comparison I could draw. I’ve never been a fan of what I think of as ‘overblown’ writing of the 18th century, and frankly a lot of it I find both boring and patronising, (though of course interesting from the perspective of social history). I just wish that Gisby had kept as much of a journal as Boswell did because I could have read that all day. Gisby’s ‘real’ journey sent me in search of Boswell again, wanting more. But it was more of Gisby I wanted! However my re-reading of the Tour of the Hebrides opened my eyes to a number of things, one of the most crucial being the difference in confidence between the middle class and the working class even back then. Boswell (and Johnson) would never feel the need to put a narrative distance to their work.

So we have several stories in this short work. All of them interesting and all of them important. I have read several of Brendan Gisby’s works now. First I read the novel The Preservation of the Olive Branch’ and it perplexed me. Like The Hitchhiker it had the same multiple layered narrative and since I took this to be a ‘standard’ device (or authors trick?) I had expectations of how the novel would ‘resolve’ which were then thwarted. I couldn’t quite bring myself to dismiss this as ‘author error’ or ‘a poor book’ but I couldn’t work out why I was unhappy with it.  I then read The Bookie’s Runner and it broke my heart. I loved it. The simplicity, the honesty and the poignancy just took my breath away.  It shows Gisby at his most confident best, slipping off the self doubt because as writer he exists in the shadow of the ‘hero’, his dad. I have since embarked upon a Gisby reading fest which I’m still in the middle of. But recently, when I came to The Hitchhiker, which uses much the same narrative ‘devices’ as Preservation, I had my epiphany. I finally understood the depth in both works and realised that the author’s journey is part of the narrative of both works.

So, my message is, sometimes the reader needs to wake up and realise that the author is not writing specifically to their personal expectations. Sometimes you’ll see something new and different and if you look closer you will find a gem which you might have dismissed as coal.  And this is the joy of indie epublishing. That authors with moving stories can find the confidence of their ‘voice’ and get their work out there for others to read. Without gatekeepers. Of course, if you like the cut of Boswell’s gib and think that Nick in The Great Gatsby is an ignorant prole, then I don’t recommend you read this book. If you want to understand both something about Scotland in the 1970’s and the displaced self confidence and identity issues of a man brought up in that time and place then DO read it. I’m off to re-read The Preservation of the Olive Branch with my new found understanding.  If you read The Hitchhiker and don’t ‘get it’ then please, read The Bookie’s Runner and if you are still unconvinced that Brendan Gisby is a great author, I doubt you have an empathetic bone in your body. I am confident in my belief in him, because I understand that lack of confidence all too well.  That Gisby brings this to the author’s toolbox is a brave and important thing. 

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

 Available for Kindle  and in paperback.

Find out more about Brendan Gisby

The Price of Fame by Kirsty Eccles

 We don’t usually review a single short story (even if it’s a long short)but in this case, I hope you’ll appreciate the exception to the rule. I wanted to use the work and the review to spark a more extensive look into Child Abuse in Fiction.  Because I think it’s important! (editor)

I was warned that this story would not be a comfortable read; it’s about child abuse, after all. I can now confirm that it did cause me discomfort. But that’s not because the story is graphic or lurid or salacious in any way. It’s the exact opposite, in fact: a gentle, matter-of-fact and sometimes embarrassed account of the narrator’s journey into and out of a world of abuse. What’s discomforting about her account is its searing honesty, its authenticity, the reality of it. You just know that these things actually happened to the author or someone close to the author; perhaps not in the precise way they are chronicled here, but they happened nonetheless.

And that’s what’s so compelling and electrifying about the story. The truth behind the fiction makes you want to give your fullest attention to the narrator. You empathise completely with the innocent thirteen-year-old as she is drawn inexorably into a web of abuse that will trap her for many years to come and scar her for life. You condemn without compunction the spinner of the web, the loathsome predator who stalks his victim with spider-like patience, who smiles and charms publicly, but who is utterly, utterly callous in private. And you conclude that these twin portraits of the abused and the abuser simply could not have been imagined.

My guess is that Kirsty Eccles has waited a long time to tell this story, having probably found the courage to do so because of the many women who have come forward recently to expose the evil of Jimmy Savile and his cronies. I’m glad she has managed to bare her soul at last. I’m glad I’ve read her story. And I would urge the whole population to read it – fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters. Truth or fiction, it’ll help you understand, it’ll help you spot the signs, it’ll help you act.

Reviewed by Brendan Gisby

Another story by Kirsty,  Girls and Boys Come out to Play is available FREE at McStorytellers

The Price of Fame is FREE on 7th and 8th November 

Amazon UK  and Amazon US 

Confronted with stories such as Girls and Boys come out to Play and The Price of Fame, (both published in the wake of the Jimmy Savile ‘scandal’ by Kirsty Eccles) I imagine people in their droves responding: I don’t want to read about child abuse. Wouldn’t it just be rubbernecking? Wouldn’t it suggest I have an unnatural interest in the subject?

I’m sure there are a hundred reasons why people don’t want to read stories about child abuse. I myself find the concept of ‘misery memoir’ quite distasteful BUT equally, when ‘scandals’ such as the Jimmy Savile one come out I begin to think that there is so much sex abuse going on all over the place that we need to bring it out of the closet and TALK about it. And one way of doing this is to WRITE about it and one way of writing about it is to write it as FICTION.

Why choose fiction? Perhaps  the story is too painful for the writer to admit? It may be a ‘survivor’ story.  A person trying to make sense out of their personal experience but without the courage to stand up and bare all.  This in itself may have a therapeutic value for the writer who has not  been ‘believed’ in ‘real’ life.  But fiction has to do something for the reader too doesn’t it?

So let’s remember, writers have skills and can use these skills in a number of ways.  For me, one strength of fiction is that it can  take the personal and universalise it. It can show themes and patterns and structures and in doing so create a narrative which is ‘fiction’ but in fact represents more than ‘one experience’ and in doing so asks questions or shows aspects of a society as a whole. Because those ‘personal’ stories can get lost as ONE PERSON’S experience. Fiction can provide a way for us to appreciate that a character may represent a whole bunch of people. That’s what the Price of Fame is about – showing people that there are many, many victims of child sex abuse, not just by one celebrity, not just by many celebrities, but by a whole range of people who are ‘in power’ however that ‘power’ is defined. It doesn’t have to be defined by conventional ‘celebrity’ it is insidious and pervasive within the ordinary domestic experience of many many people.  And that’s something that is unpleasant to think about. Unpleasant to read.  But isn’t it time we all grew up a bit and took a close look at some of the unpleasant things we usually try to avoid.

Of course you wouldn’t read child abuse fiction for escapism. This doesn’t mean you are reading it for titillation. But I suggest the reason to read either fiction or fact about child sex abuse is either that you need to learn about it because you HAVEN’T been abused and so don’t really understand the complexity of the emotions which are involved and the life changing damaging consequences of such abuse, or because you HAVE been abused and you want some validation or a feeling that you are not alone and most importantly not to BLAME for the abuse you suffered.

You don’t have to dig very far to find fiction which deals with child sex abuse. We do need to read about it. We need to think about it. We need to talk about it and we need to work out how to DO something about it!

I asked a number of writers who have reviewed work on IEBR to give some insight into why Child Abuse featured in their work. Here are the responses and links to their reviews (click picture or blue highlight)


Catherine Czerkawska writes:
‘Issues of cruelty and abuse are absolutely central to Bird of Passage. They are less central, but certainly vital to understanding a particular character, Joe Napier, in my new novel, Ice Dancing. When I was writing these novels, I don’t think I had ideas of ‘child abuse’ in my mind so much as an attempt to examine and write about the ‘truth’ of cruelty and the exertion of power over an individual, and what that does to the individual in question.

While I was writing Bird of Passage, over quite a long period of time, I had become horribly aware of the physical – as well as sexual – cruelty inflicted on so many children within the industrial school system and just how recent these events were. It also seemed that our media had largely ignored the extremes of physical abuse as though these things were acceptable ‘back then’. They weren’t. It kept occurring to me that at a time when I had been very happily working in Ireland during university vacations these schools had still been in existence. I found that thought distressing. I didn’t ‘impose’ this on the character of Finn, in the novel, didn’t ‘make’ this happen to him. But I always saw him as deeply damaged and as I interrogated the character within the process of writing, this is what emerged. At the beginning, I genuinely didn’t know what it was that Finn couldn’t remember. I wrote to find out.

I suppose something similar happened with Joe in Ice Dancing, except that I had already written a stage play called The Locker Room, on exactly this theme. It didn’t seem enough, though. The character seemed to insist on saying more and the novel was – eventually – the result. Joe needs to tell his story to somebody and a very dark tale it is, but it’s also a story about healing and redemption. And not just through the power of love either. In some sense, the source of Joe’s problem is also a major factor in his healing. (Don’t want to give too much of the game away!)

I have some experience of writing what is generally termed ‘issue based drama’ and realise that it can be a minefield – unless the ‘issues’ spring from the experience of the characters themselves. I always begin with the characters.’

Ice Dancing is reviewed on this site on 20th November 

Rosalie Warren writes: I didn’t set out to write an novel about an abusive relationship. Charity’s Child was one of those novels that develops as it’s written – plot, characters, everything. The main protagonists, Charity and Joanne, were not even present in the first draft, which dealt mainly with the relationship between a married couple. But somewhere in the second draft, Charity appeared, and she clearly had a secret. I didn’t know what it was until I wrote her story or, rather, until I let Joanne write her story. I was horrified when the truth was revealed. As an author, I believe in my characters and care for them – well, most of them. To discover what had happened to this 15-year-old was not pleasant, and I cried for her.

Where do an author’s ideas come from, ever? A mix of all we have experienced, heard and imagined, I suppose. Charity’s Child was not based on any one person I knew, or indeed on any one church, though of course I had heard many true stories of abuse, sometimes set in the most unlikely places.

If my books helps anyone, young or old, to recognise, acknowledge and report abuse of any kind, I will be very pleased.

Kathleen Jones writes:  In ‘The Sun’s Companion’, one of the main characters – Anna – suffers a violent rape as a young teenager which affects her attitude to men for the rest of her life. She is only able to overcome her fear of sex when she meets a man she loves passionately.  I wanted to show how early, bad experiences of sex can damage a child’s developing sexuality.  As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself, I have often worked with abuse survivors, using narrative therapy, to find a way through the trauma by writing about it. I suppose it was inevitable that it would find its way into way own work, particularly when writing about the war, where rape is used as a brutal tool against both women and men.

D.J.Bennett writes: After working in law enforcement, I’d spent several years looking at the top end of drugs – from importation downwards, and I wanted to see what happened at street level and below. On the streets, heroin is often “paid for” with sexual services, and sometimes sex is a small price to pay for a roof over your head and a better life than you ever had at home. Hamelin’s Child explores the relationship between sex, drugs and identity, and shows how spiking a drink in a nightclub changes a teenage boy’s life forever.

Kirsty Eccles writes: The Price of Fame shows the complex and challenging emotions which exist in an abusive relationship.  We tend to think of these things as ‘seedy’ but as Hamlet points out, one can ‘smile and smile and be a villain’.  It is an uncomfortable story and it’s a wake up call to society. Personally I’ve found that when you tell an ‘abuse’ story  a lot of people are disgusted (as they rightly should be) but one becomes subject to a ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ mentality where they shy away from you the teller as if somehow you either caused or deserved the unpleasantness you are telling them about. I’m sure that’s why many people don’t tell their stories. It’s not that they won’t be believed, it’s that they become stigmatised. They are seen as part of the ‘problem’, as ‘damaged and dirty’. I’m afraid it’s still rather too prevalent that ‘nice’ people want to turn the other cheek. They don’t want to get close to someone who has been ‘touched’ by abuse because it is too unpleasant. Well, guess what, it’s unpleasant for the person who suffered the abuse through no fault of their own, and still suffers because they are an unwilling part of an unpleasant aspect of society that ‘nice’ people prefer to pretend doesn’t exist because it’s too ugly! The view seems to be:  If you are writing about it, or if you experienced it,  you are part of it and you are part of something nasty so I don’t want to engage with you. That’s been my experience anyway. ‘Nice’ ‘normal’ people can’t handle it, so they avoid you, shun you and thus reinforce the personal feelings of shame and guilt which exist within all who have been abused.

Remember  The Price of Fame is FREE on 7th and 8th November 

Amazon UK  and Amazon US 

I won’t say I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post but I will say I hope you’ve found it thought provoking and will share it abroad as widely as you can.  It’s an issue that touches many lives and as writers for whom having a ‘voice’ is very important, I think it’s important that we highlight voices which are NOT being heard and need to be.

Cally Phillips (Editor)

There is an ongoing discussion on this subject HERE where your opinion is more than welcomed.

Portmanteau by Thom Ffynch

Portmanteau is a collection of four short stories – labelled ‘four short tales of retribution.’  By Thom  Ffynch.  Out of the Foggyley Book Company.  The cover is enough to show you this is not ‘ordinary’ ebook fare!

The four stories are:

LYNDON GRACE 

Lyndon Grace immediately appealed to me because it is a story of ‘solitary people who choose trees and sky and stars and birds for company’ and has a woodshed. At this time of year that’s important to me as I spend some time in mine.  The immediacy of the first person narration put me in mind of Thoreau and Lyndon was like a character out of a Mark Twain story.  But it’s not as simple as it seems. The story looks at the world from a different perspective and warms you up nicely for what’s to follow.  Retribution.  In a variety of unexpected ways.

THE BORDER SHEPHERD 

The Border Shepherd is just that little bit stranger.  It’s about the connection of lives and about how borderlands are the areas between existences.  The Tibetan shepherd is no more out of place than the rich man in his castle. They shouldn’t ever meet. They shouldn’t be in the same story together. But it works. Because it shows you how fundamentally different the mind set of the spiritual and  the material man are. I also liked the way I had no idea right through the story how it was going to end, or where indeed it was going to. Often this can annoy me, but if the writing is captivating enough, it carries me along and this did. The Tibetan Shepherd (who I can clearly see with his Border Collie at his side, incongruous yet ‘in’ a landscape I know well) explains to the man ‘your soul is the only thing you own.’ At which point I cheered!

 DESDEMONA’S REVENGE

Desdemona’s Revenge  shifted to a more urban environment.  Another dog – this time one who finds the dead body of a  heroin courier.  We move into a strange world populated by transvestites juxtaposed against little old ladies with their lapdogs.  All of which seeks to highlight that in life as in reading,  perspective is very important.  The author points out that there is so much in life that we don’t notice and suggests that we make up the stories out of the bits we notice, but that this is only ever a part of the picture.  He considers the defining moments of a life and the suggestion that some people are not so much successful as clever at avoiding failure.  Underlying this was the suggestion that ‘if people were as interested in the drama on  their doorsteps as they were in the daytime soaps’ we might all both see more and share more of ‘real’ life.  Again a nice surprise retributive ending that I didn’t see coming.

 THE CIRCLE

And the final story The Circle was, for me, back to the familiar natural landscape of the fisherman.  Of course, like all stories of fishing and fishermen, it’s about much more than the fish or the fishing.  The nature of a circle is considered ‘outside the circles there are possibilities, inside the circles are only certainties.’ It’s a tale of lost love of guilt and intention and motivation.  Of a man who is ‘too stupid to seize his one and only true moment.’ The author suggests throughout that life is storied and his comment on this is telling ‘above all it should be a beautiful story, containing one elegant idea… like a fond memory of a lost love’ and I feel this is what is achieved in each one of these little gems of stories.

I very much enjoyed these because they were clever without trying to be so. Profound without being belligerently so.  Complexity and simplicity married together.  They worked for me because I’m in accordance with many of the ‘elegant ideas’ contained therein and have a love of nature.  They might be far too quiet for someone wanting gritty urban realism. Though Desdemona’s Revenge might give even that kind of reader a run for their money.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips 

Portmanteau is available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Thom Ffynch 

The Shoreline and the Sea by John Porter

I come to this novel from a position of ignorance. I picked it because I LOVED the cover. And the first page had me intrigued. More than that I was all at sea. I feel I should explain that at the outset. I have always wanted to like Hemingway. I know I should like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ but I just don’t ‘get’ it, however many times I try to read it.  The Shoreline and the Sea is everything I have always hoped Hemingway would be. And more.  There is a strong element of magic realism in this story – again I have always wanted to ‘like’ Marquez but I’ve never quite got my head round him or magic realism in general. Maybe Porter isn’t even trying to do the same things as either Hemingway or Marquez, but personally, I felt this novel was a more accessible version of these two authors and their ‘styles.’ Those with greater insight and experience may disagree. I  can only write from my position.

In wondering how Porter reaches the places in me that Hemingway and Marquez failed to do, I came to the conclusion that it’s the familiarity of his realistic description.  The novel is set in a village by the sea, (and even though I’ve never been to an Italian coastal village , it’s very reminiscent of Greek island living which I have a fair experience of).  The detailed description of food and nature and plants and textures and sounds and sights is achingly beautiful and minutely perfectly observed.

The interesting thing is that the close observation only reinforces the isolation and loneliness of Walker, the central protagonist, who is a photographer ‘stuck’ in this village following the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Rachel.  He encounters an old man Nonno who, it seems, holds strange powers over everyone.  Nonno identifies Walker early on as: ‘Crazy photo man. You look at the world, you don’t be in it.’ And this is certainly proven to be true.  The writer cleverly manages to ‘connect’ character with reader because as a reader, throughout, as a result of the ‘strangeness’ of the happenings and the style of the narrative, you are also a distanced observer trying to make sense of the world of the story. It is captivating in its strangeness and beauty. Always mysterious, always challenging but never frustrating. Instead it has a captivating charm which lures you into the story and pulls you around in it like the tides of the lake on which the village is set. Sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, always beautiful and with a hint of danger.

We are told of Walker that ‘He had to take pictures, it was the only thing that made real sense of his life.’  Throughout, Walker struggles with nature around him and with his own nature. Even though he recognises that ‘what tied you was a kind of freedom’ he is always one step removed from both his surroundings and his own inner self.

In Walker’s physical and psychological inability to ‘leave’ the village I found myself referencing the Sergio Leone classic movies which form ‘The Man with No Name’ trilogy. Maybe this is all I needed to make ‘sense’ of the situation where Hemingway and Marquez failed to connect. It certainly attests to the symbiosis of relationship between reader and writer which needs to exist before one can understand something outside one’s general experience.

As Walker is pulled into the tragedies and loves of the village and the power of Nonno, he seems to become more integrated, but really he only changes perspective and gains something more of an insight into his own identity.  ‘Sometimes the lake felt more like a state of mind than a geographical location.’  And the same happens with the reader.

One isn’t supposed to judge books by their cover but I was drawn initially exactly by the simplicity of the cover and it works beautifully to counter the depth of the narrative; both charm and captivate and challenge one’s preconceptions and expectations.  Letting yourself go into the story is like diving into that Italian lake. The imagery and symbolism and beauty of the words washes over you and infuses into your being.

Suffice it to say that nothing is what it seems in life as in the story, and Nonno’s refrain that there are ‘no accidents’ in life gives a deep focus through the mysterious happenings of this wonderful narrative.  Looking for a resolution in such a story is as pointless as wishing for a ‘happy’ ending. This is a great example of a story where the destination is in the journey and I for one felt privileged to have travelled in the world of Walker and the mind and writing of Porter for a short time.  I find it remarkable that this is a debut novel. This is a rare and unique writing talent.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in  Kindle Format   and for this week only you can download it for A SPECIAL SALES PRICE of £1.99 (vaguaries of Amazon pricing permitting!) It’s a bargain at this price, believe me.  

Find out more about John Porter