Reviews

REVIEW!! on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach.

Between the past and present and potential reconciliations—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that short stories rarely feature in my reviews. This isn’t because I don’t read them, although I do read considerably fewer short stories than novels in the average year. But although I very much enjoy reading the stories featured in my copy of Mslexia magazine, or in The New Yorker, I find the process of reading, digesting, and then ‘ reviewing’ a short story to be quite tricky. Although short in format, the literary short story usually gives you a lot to digest.

This is certainly the case with Sam Reese’s second collection, on a distant ridgeline, which features twelve beautifully constructed stories that, though not lengthy in their word count (the whole collection is a slender 180 pages), certainly provide plenty for the reader to mull over and consider.

From a tale of two brothers finding their feet in a new environment to a sinister story of a young girl, her mother, and the compulsions that bind them, on a distant ridgeline is a wide-ranging collection and each of the stories can, at first, seem somewhat disparate from those around them. Read the whole collection however and you’ll begin to pick out strands of connection – tiny moments and fragments from each tale that resonate with wider ideas about human intimacy, tenderness, and the almost insignificant moments upon which momentous decisions can hang.

As with many literary short stories, much of the pleasure to be had from on a distant ridgeline is in the language, the imagery, and experience of reading. This is a collection best savoured slowly, allowing for each story to sink in before moving on to the next. Whilst there are certainly moments of tension, drama, and character-propelled action, what the stories often gave me was a sense of a snapshot – a fragmentary and fleeting glimpse into a moment, or a relationship, or a person.

If you’re not already a fan of the literary short story, I don’t think on a distant ridgeline is likely to convert you. The collection contains many of the hallmarks of the genre; from the understated yet measured observations of small details to the wider expansiveness of connecting themes and concepts, it’s a collection that does make the reader do some work to join the dots and tease out a sense of meaning. For those who enjoy stories that offer quiet power and elegant prose, however, on a distant ridgeline is cleverly constructed, lyrically rendered, and resonates after the final page has been turned.

About the Author

“Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. This is why I direct my own writing out towards the darkness and the shadows—why my characters obsess over, dream of, are haunted by feeling and memories that they do not completely understand.”

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. A widely respected literary and music critic, his study of The Short Story in Midcentury America won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize. Currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, Sam formerly taught at the University of Sydney, where his inspirational teaching was recognised with an Excellence award. More details can be found on Sam’s website: https://svhreese.com/stories and by following him on Twitter: @svhreese

on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese is published by Platypus Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to Isabelle Kenyon for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane

It’s 2019 in Sudleigh, a market town not far from the south coast.

It’s not a bad place to live, provided the new housing development doesn’t ruin it, but most residents are too caught up in their own disappointments, grudges, and sores to notice.

Former lounge musician Frank wants to pass his carpet business to his nephew Joe, killing the boy’s dream to become a chef. Sharp-elbowed phone-sex operator Heather will stop at nothing to become the manager of the golf club. Gap-year Tom is cleaning toilets but finding unexpected solace in his Chinese house-share. Miss Bennett keeps putting her house on the market when she doesn’t want to move.

Do they all know how their lives are linked? Meticulously observed, We Need to Talk offers a jigsaw puzzle of unwitting connections for the reader to assemble. The finished picture is a hyper-real, unflinchingly honest portrait of multi-jobbing, gig-economy Middle England on the eve of Covid, confirming some preconceptions while gently upsetting others.

I usually read books to escape from the often grim day to day realities of the news cycle – especially in the last couple of years. But every so often, a book catches my eye that promises an unique assessment of the ‘state of the nation’, and a glimpse into the hidden depths of our everyday existence – and We Need to Talk is definitely one such book.

Set in 2019, We Need to Talk provides a perfectly poised and intricately observed snapshot of a small English market town post-Brexit and pre-pandemic. Not far from the south coast, Sudleigh is an encapsulation of Middle England – and its residents have all the petty gripes and first-world problems that you’d expect (as well as some actual problems, which you possibly wouldn’t).

Martin has been reluctantly pressed into service to oppose the proposed housing development – much to the dissatisfaction of his wife, district councillor Bridget. Eighteen-year-old Tom has been forced to leave home by his mother’s malicious new boyfriend – and is making ends meet through cleaning jobs whilst he saves for university. Former lounge musician Frank wants to retire – and is disappointed that his nephew Josh seems less than keen to talk on the family carpet business. Newly widowed George is throwing himself into the garden that his beloved wife never got to create – much to the concern of his daughter Emma. Sheila is under pressure to put her house on the market – even though she doesn’t want to move. And Tony, creative writer and pressured academic, is finding it tough to get anyone to appreciate his latest avant-garde work, The Jazz Cats – least of all his girlfriend Lydia.

Chapter by chapter and person by person, We Need to Talk provides a meticulously observed and wickedly funny depiction of small town life in Middle England today. From the perils of the gig-economy, to the small nuances of neighbourhood life, and the deeper interpersonal connections that we make – or fail to make – with those around us. From nuisance neighbours and terrible parents, to worried daughters and spiteful colleagues, We Need to Talk has it all – and treats it all with the same wry and unflinching gaze.

Although We Need to Talk is a novel, its a novel as jigsaw puzzle and, for me, each chapter felt like a little short story all on its own. Characters do flit between chapters – it’s quite fun seeing them flitting in and out of each others lives as the book progresses – and there are some characters that we return to more than once as the book progresses, but this is really a multi-layered portrait of a community and the people within it than a novel with a singular narrative drive or character.

As such, it won’t be for everyone – the pull comes from being interested in the community, and in musing over the various ways the characters drift together and apart and what this might say about modern life in the UK today. At times, I have to admit, I did find some elements of it quite distressing – and depressing – because Jonathan Crane has done such an excellent job of capturing the petty squabbles and gossipy grudges that so often distract from the real issues that many people face. What kept me reading was the meticulous observation, the focus on individuals as part of a wider picture – and the regular moments of wicked and wry humour which punctuates the book.

Gossipy, perceptive, and darkly funny, We Need to Talk is a picture of small town life in an increasingly divided nation. Readers of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England and John Lanchester’s Capital will surely enjoy the book, as will those seeking a short, sharp ‘state of the nation’ read.

We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane is published by Lightning Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Emma Welton from DampPebbles Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 14 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

Two Mini-Reviews!! Rachel to the Rescue AND The Woman of the Wolf & Other Stories

It’s been an absolutely bumper month for books, with oodles of fantastic new releases hitting the shelves as we begin the run up to Christmas. It’s also been a bumper month for my reading life, with @laurenthebooks’s Cosy Reading Weekend, a fantastic @The_WriteReads gang buddy read of The Doll Factory, AND some fantastic Blog Tours for Blind Pool, Shades of Deception, and The Peacock Room.

In fact there’s been so much going on that today I’m bring you not one but TWO mini-reviews of some books I’ve recently finished. I don’t usually do multiple review posts but with a packed November calendar, I honestly don’t know when I’ll fit these onto the blog otherwise and I wanted to shout about them and share the book love!

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

Rachel Klein is sacked from her job at the White House after she sends an email criticising Donald Trump. As she is escorted off the premises she is hit by a speeding car, driven by what the press will discreetly call ‘a personal friend of the President’.

Does that explain the flowers, the get-well wishes at a press briefing, the hush money offered by a lawyer at her hospital bedside?

Rachel’s recovery is soothed by comically doting parents, matchmaking room-mates, a new job as aide to a journalist whose books aim to defame the President, and unexpected love at the local wine store.

But secrets leak, and Rachel’s new-found happiness has to make room for more than a little chaos. Will she bring down the President? Or will he manage to do that all by himself?

Billed by Stacy Schiff as ‘the Trump book that could only be published abroad’, Rachel to the Rescue is a bitingly funny satire on US politics in the Age of Trump. Reading it whilst waiting on the outcome of the US election (still undecided at the time I write this review) was both very on-the-nose and somewhat cathartic as an experience, as Lipman uses her extensive comic experience to mine serious subjects (corruption, bribery, the abuse of Presidential power) for their comedic potential.

Protagonist Rachel is sharp, smart, and full of just the right amount of cynicism and snark, whilst her delightfully doting parents fit the bill of comic sidekicks perfectly. Add in some match-making roommates, a new job working for a journalist seeking to defame the President, and an unexpected love interest, and the stage is set for a contemporary comedy that has all the hallmarks of the modern Rom-Com tradition, with a healthy dose of satire thrown in.

Given the contemporary setting, this is definitely a book of the moment and I’d urge readers not to be put off by to the political setting or connection. Whilst Rachel to the Rescue definitely takes some well-aimed swipes at the recent dramas of US politics – and the Trump administration in particular – this is a witty and mischievous comic novel that, at its heart, deals with one ordinary woman’s attempts to negotiate an extraordinary situation and that contains numerous laugh out loud moments to help ease the tensions of the current election cycle.

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman is published by Lightning Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien, translated by Karla Jay & Yvonne M. Klein

A woman rides crocodiles like horses. A queen gives up her throne for her dignity. And Prince Charming is not who you might think . . .

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories, written in 1904, is perhaps the finest work by sapphic poet Renée Vivien. Blending myth, fairy story and biblical tale, Vivien creates powerful portraits of strong women who stand up for what they believe in – and of the aggrieved men who trail behind them.

Speaking of smart women, the second book I want to tell you about today is The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien. Born Pauline Mary Tarn, Renée was a British poet who wrote in French and spent most of her life in Paris where her circle included the likes of Colette and Natalie Clifford Barney. This collection, written in 1904, has been newly reprinted by Gallic Books as part of their Revolutionary Women series and, for all that these stories were written over a hundred years ago, they feel as fresh and relevant today as they di when they were first published.

As Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber, Renée Vivien deftly re-works familiar materials to reflect her concerns and ideals. The collection contains stories based on biblical tales, adventure stories, classical myth, and the poems of Sappho – one of Renée’s favourite writers. In her tales, Renée Vivien recasts the roles of men and women and plays with expectations and familiar tropes.

As with all short story collections, I preferred some of the tales in this collection more than others. Renée writes a number of stories from the perspective of male narrators and, whilst these make for some of the most disturbing tales in the collection (Vivien’s men are invariably patronising and, often, murderous in their intentions towards women), they were also, for me, some of the most intricate and rewarding to read.

Fans of Angela Carter are sure to find similarities between her work and that of Renée Vivien and will enjoy to fantastical symbolism of these stories, whilst readers seeking to rediscover an important female voice will be richly rewarded with this collection.

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien is published by Gallic Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Before I sign off for this post, I just wanted to drop in and say that, whilst I’ve put in links to some brilliant independent online retailers above, if you are able to please support a local indie bookshop and/or publisher by ordering from them either in person or online!

Lockdown 2.0 has come at just the wrong time for booksellers so it’s more important than ever to show our indies some love. Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books. If you’re unable to order direct, consider using Bookshop.org or Hive, both of whom give a proportion of sales made on their websites to independent booksellers.

This is also a great time to be supporting small and independent publishers. The two books featured today come from independent presses, both of whom have direct ordering on their websites at Eye & Lightning Books and Gallic Books. Some of my other favourite independent and small press publishers include Honno, Salt, and Louise Walters Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Help the Witch by Tom Cox

40799510As night draws through country lanes, and darkness sweeps across the hills and hedgerows, shadows appear where figures are not; things do not remain in their places; a new home is punctured by abandoned objects; a watering hole conceals depths greater than its swimmers can fathom.

Inspired by our native landscapes and traversing boundaries of the past and the future, this collection is Tom Cox’s first foray into fiction.

I’m not a huge reader of short stories as a general rule but I do make an exception for ghost stories. There’s something sublime in reading a snippet of the strange and uncanny, like getting a little shot of the shivers straight into your spine. So I was thrilled when I discovered that Tom Cox was planning his first foray into fiction with Help the Witch, a collection of ghost stories, inspired in part by a very cold, dark winter spent living in a possibly haunted house in a remote part of the Peak District.

I’ve been a fan of Cox’s writing for a while, having been introduced to it through the medium of Twitter and the account of the much-missed @mysadcat, otherwise known as The Bear. Cox has written four humorous, wry and observant books about The Bear, his other feline companions Shipley, Roscoe, and Ralph, and the indefinable way that cats have of upending your life whilst still managing to make themselves one of the most adorable things in it. Those books, in turn, led me to Cox’s website/blog, with its fantastic posts about everything from walks in the countryside to conversations with his (VERY LOUD AND EXCITABLE) Dad, via cat anecdotes, 1970s folk music, love letters to the beach and, of course, the occasional ghost story.

Cox’s writing has a fantastic richness of language, something he showcased to great effect in his non-fiction nature/memoir/essay collection, 21st Century Yokel, and which is on display in Help The Witch. In just a few words, he conjures spirits out of hill fogs, and talismans from tree branches. The collection is filled with the shadows that lurk behind doors and live forever at the corners of your vision. It’s fabulously atmospheric writing, couched in a real sense of landscape and place.

As with all short story collections, I had my favourites. The title story, Help the Witch, is the probably the most traditional ‘ghost story’ in the collection, featuring an isolated house, a long, dark winter, and more than a few bumps in the night. I particularly enjoyed the subtle observations within the story, told in diary form, of everyday encounters, twisted here into loaded encounters imbued with possibly sinister meanings. As with many of the best ghost stories, Help the Witch finds madness lurking just beneath the realm of the everyday.

As a former estate agent, the story Listings provided some amusement, being made up of a number of advertisements for a property with a very unique selling point. And Just Good Friends provided a fantastic slice of sinister, showing how the supernatural can creep into our everyday existence through memory, wish-fulfilment and longing.

This is a collection influenced by folk tales, with their strange, twisting narratives and sharp, sinister finality. This is most evident in Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century, a brilliant collection of shorts that encompasses a fabulously dark Rumplestiltskin re-telling and a cautionary tale about a banjo player and the perils of fame. However, it’s also imbued with Cox’s warmth and his wryly observant humour. Seance, for example, features a medium channelling an embittered cyclist who doesn’t realise he’s dead, a life coach called Adrianne (“Adrianne is actually quite boring”), and a fox, much to the disappointment of a client expecting a rather more personalised encounter with the spirit realm.

By turns spookily sinister and wryly amusing, this is an eclectic and quirky collection written with a light but controlled touch. Beautifully evocative of the eerieness inherent in nature, Cox has an eye for the unusual and a real skill for conveying this. Gorgeously produced, with artwork by Tom’s talented artist mum Jo throughout, and a stunning front cover by Joe McLaren, Help the Witch would make a fantastic gift for yourself or a loved one this festive season – it’s the perfect collection for curling up by the fire with on a dark winter’s night!

Help the Witch by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Waterstones, and Amazon