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Jessie Greengrass – An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It

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A long title well worth typing out.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 179
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-61085-9
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 18th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

A sailor/explorer tells the story of a species’ extinction; a child wants to go back in time, further than the years spent in a neglectful home; a visit to the zoo reiterates just how little a girl’s father cares.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is an incredible collection of short stories that share basic themes – some, human intervention, others, choice. Spanning from the medieval period to some decades into the future (2050, to be exact), Greengrass’s book is one of beautiful writing and subtle shocks.

The overall reading experience of this book is one of ‘clicks’, or ‘ah ha!’ moments as we often call them. Light bulbs over heads. Greengrass’s general process, the ‘subtle shocks’ referred to, means that after a few stories have been completed you get into the habit of looking closely at the narrative to see what the nub of it all is; even the few unassuming tales in this book have at least a small moment behind them. Sometimes you get answers, a more or less bluntly-spoken meaning. Other times you have to piece it together yourself. The storytelling means that there is always something there to keep you reading; even at those times it seems the story is lengthy (in relative terms) you know that there’s a reason.

And these shocks, these points, that Greengrass includes… they could never be called brilliant, exactly, because they tend to be harrowing, but they do lean towards the exceptional in their telling. A few stories tell of cold climates and the harm done to them so you get those tales of extinction in all their violence; the author spares nothing.

To collect the feathers, there were different ways. We could not take the bodies all the way back across the Atlantic because they would spoil. At first we killed the birds and plucked them, and we tossed the corpses off the cliff and they fell into the sea. The birds looked so much smaller without their feathers on. Then we told ourselves this method took too much of our time.

The title story does this best, containing precisely the sort of information you would think it does. A report of how the Great Auks fell into extinction, which echoes the stories of the sailors of 1840; Greengrass writes from the explorer viewpoint but her thoughts of protection, environmentalism, seep out from the text. The story is full of human destruction, how in exploring and charting we are inevitably, for all our good intensions, bringing harm to places humans had never previously been and, it could be argued, should still stay away from. Echoes of the future abound – will this happen more in time? Greengrass gets to the point, and yet the story is purposefully vague. And full of excuses of the sort seen constantly – it’s not the humans’/this particular group of people’s fault this happened!

Another standout is On Time Travel, in which a child speaks of her longing for the distant past whilst recounting episodes in her dysfunctional family’s life. Rose-tinted glasses abound as the girl explains the benefits of that past time; the reader sees the flaws but then it doesn’t seem to matter when it’s just a dream. It would spoil the effect to discuss anything further, but it’s enough to say that Greengrass’s ending is surprising and incredibly poignant.

Although I am not able to deviate from the set scripts, I do sometimes alter my voice when I speak to the people who call premium phone lines in the thin hope that I will be able to help them. I do this on the occasions when I am for some reason unable to dissociate my mind from my body to the extent that time can pass over my unhindered. On these occasions, my awareness of my existence within the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves; it throbs in my temples and fills my mouth with the taste of sour milk…

Something that may or may not work in the book’s favour depending on what you think of it is Greengrass’s use of the same basic voice and writing style throughout. It’s an incredibly literary style that harks back to Victorian monologues, first-person narratives – her words are not historic, rather it’s a gentle, flowing style, full of beauty. The potential issue then is not in the style itself but in the constancy of it. Some may enjoy the stability of it as well as the way it can suit a person looking back on their life, using adult language to explain their childhood. Others may not find the maturity of the vocabulary matches the ages or personality of the narrators and that that is problematic. It’s very subjective – Greengrass has a lovely style, but does it fit the book as a whole? In regards to the first-person, on occasion the author defers to third. It appears a choice made in order to tell the story in the most expressive way each time and the switching points of view do not seem out of place.

This book warrants your attention but never demands it. It has a lot to say but it can be wistful, both an escape and a work-out for the mind. If you like the sound of the narration you will most likely find it a wonderful reading experience that is difficult to sum up – the way it can leave you speechless has a real-world impact.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is a very fine collection by a very talented and thoughtful writer. One to savour… and potentially scribble all over.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Ashley Stokes (ed.) – The End

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They didn’t all live happily ever after.

Publisher: Unthank Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-06127-5
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th August 2016
Rating: 4/5

The End is a collection of short stories inspired by scratch-work paintings. Nicholas Ruston created the paintings in the style of old film ‘end’ cards – all black and white – and the writers went off and wrote what they would. The titles of the stories have become the titles of the paintings. It’s an intriguing concept that promises variety – there’s the simple link between them of the paintings but beyond that they are very different meaning there is wide appeal.

To my mind the absolute stand-outs in this book are the stories that have taken endings literally – they’ve written the literal end of what could well have been a longer story. Suffice to say there’s a lot of extra thinking you can do after finishing them, whole novels to imagine. The Slyest Of Foxes by Angela Readman details the end of a gunman’s visit, a woman who sees what’s going on in her neighbour’s house, choosing to go round with a bowl of soap that continues a hint of razor. Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth details the aftermath of a relationship, a very sombre note. Ashley Stokes’ own, Decompression Chamber, looks at the non-ending of the world. Crow by Aiden O’Reilly, a political-sounding ending.

But perhaps the winner is All The TVs In Town by Dan Powell. It focuses on the very end of whatever apocalyptic situation (or is it The Truman Show?) it’s talking about. Various genres within a whole, the mainstay is science fiction/dystopia with a liberal spritz of literary fiction.

The paintings themselves are rendered small but the composition and overall creation is such that that’s all that’s needed. It is indeed true to form – the aspect ration fitting cinema, the frames sporting an almost Hitchcockesque atmosphere. There’s a deliciousness in the blend of old and new – a car in one of them, for example, is mid-twentieth century, but then there’s a psychedelic design in another, with other paintings being decidedly more modern – old base, new ideas. One suspects that for the paintings… it’s hardly the perfect analogy, mass-produced as they were, but consider those foil and copper art packs your parents bought you when you were a child – the finished works were quite something.

So in this book there’s a lot to enjoy, and that there’s a base theme but no other means it’s a lovely break if you like short stories but have had enough of all the connections. The introduction to the book, which includes the background to the pictures and the commissions, is a short story in itself. The book could have done with another proof-read but overall this is a great choice for an evening’s read or perhaps even better if spread over the course of a few days.

Dark in many definitions of the word, The End offers a special experience and an introduction to a plethora of authors you may not have heard of.

I received this book for review from the editor.

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Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes – breach

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The hole in the fence. The gap in the conversation.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 146
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67032-8
First Published: 1st August 2016
Date Reviewed: 18th July 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

breach – lower-case first letter intentional – is a collection of short stories about the current refugee camp in Calais. It is a specially commissioned project – Meike Ziervogel, publisher, sent the two authors to Calais to interview refugees so that they could write a collection inspired directly by the situation. Set almost exclusively in the camp and featuring stories about both refugees and volunteers, the book is a timely creation amidst the current political climate.

The stories deal with a variety of nationalities. The writing has been divided, each author contributing four stories. The stories can be slightly vague: those from the point of view of the refugees don’t always show you exactly what’s happening; but because the stories from the point of view of volunteers are a lot easier to understand on a literal level, it could be said there’s an intentional use of language barriers – the authors showing how the refugees haven’t mastered English. There’s also the language/situation barrier wherein the refugees don’t know exactly what will happen. And you could point to the authors’ commission as to a reason for the vagueness, the difficulty of it.

The vagueness makes for something of an emphatic vein – it might be frustrating not to know exactly what’s going on in some of the stories but it enables you to learn more about the uncertain situation from the important point of view of the people actually living it. Because this book is providing the first person point of view and every so often reminds us of worried residents of the longed-for countries, without bias, this book is more of a report but not selective – Popoola and Holmes have made a book that revolves around the discussion we need to have but aren’t having, the questions and answers that get set aside when big politics is at hand. The title itself invokes the breach in the UK’s security, that allows illegal immigration – stories of smuggling and the deaths we know are associated with it, alongside the reasons people feel the need to try it nonetheless – as well as many other definitions: breach of empathy; crossing the breach; healing it.

Then there are the stories of the volunteers. These are quite meta because the authors are, in effect, commentating not only on the work of the relatively privileged but also on their own visit. They may not have written a story about writing a story, the ultimate meta situation – though some dialogue comes close – but they comment from the refugees’ points of view of the people who come to help them. In the questions posed by volunteers, Popoola and Holmes are talking about themselves – what use are some of these people, what use are we other than in writing this book which is for the benefit of people back home? And refugees are wondering ‘who are these volunteers?’ when interaction is all on the surface. In this way, the authors comment on a ‘problem’ posed – the way, for example, the volunteers put on a smile but it can seem patronising and at the end of the day they are free to go back home. They can leave whenever they want. There’s also some fictional appropriation going on.

Stand outs include Popoola’s Extending A Hand, in which two refugees grapple with the expectations of a volunteer, Holmes’ aforementioned Paradise wherein a refugee and young volunteer connect with each other on a romantic level whilst the volunteer’s aunt looks forward to finishing up her time at the camp and getting away from it – a story of attraction in an awkward situation – and Holmes’ Ghosts, which shows the other side of the smuggling story, where payment is a necessity for the danger the various third parties are put in, where refugees are repeatedly sent back to the camp when caught but keep trying, again and again, because they see no other hope, and Popoola’s Lineage, a story that features the appropriation I’ve alluded to above, a Frenchman choosing to live in the camp.

This book isn’t out to cause a sudden change of mind in those who are worried about immigration, indeed it’s unlikely to do so – the authors haven’t written heroes or particular sob stories, the refugees are just average people who’ve found trouble. The authors have included stories of illegal activity, as discussed above. But it will likely sow a seed and make you think about that third side of the equation and that is in its favour more than anything sudden could be. The success isn’t in what is actually said but in the subtext, in what you take away.

breach gives a voice to those we so rarely hear from. It may well start a more comprehensive discussion.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Elizabeth Baines – Used To Be

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You may be ‘seeing things’ but that’s not always a bad thing.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 121
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63036-2
First Published: 15th September 2015
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Used To Be is an anthology of short stories Baines has had published over the years. The general theme is choices – the impact of important decisions and the maybes that abound in what ifs.

Baines has a distinctive way of writing. The writing itself is mostly literary; the author has no qualms over colloquial language. It’s a nice mash-up of tradition and the present day, making the book very accessible. Various tenses and persons are involved; it’s a stylistically diverse experience. The stories themselves are subtle in their meaning. These are average, everyday situations, tales that anyone can draw comparisons to in their own lives. On the surface nothing is remarkable – it could be said that the collection is just okay and nothing more. But this is key to the point – the stories are often about things that we might like to discuss further but worry about mentioning because we’re taught it should be no big deal or we think it’s nothing or we think we worry too much about it – and Baines shows how we should be thinking twice in these situations, questioning this concept of keeping the seemingly silly hidden away.

This is the case, to some extent, in Falling, in which a woman falls and hurts herself, quite badly, and once healed goes about her life in much the same way but with a different mindset. When she falls again she questions whether she should have changed her mindset, whether she was wrong. The underlying issue is never questioned. Only, then, is it really happening or is she dreaming? And/or is the person who asks her if she’s alright also dreaming? – how, exactly is the woman falling, in which way is she ‘falling’?

One of the stand-outs is Possibility in which Baines looks at choices not from one person’s perspective but from three. It’s people who are the ‘choices’ here. A lecturer, a businessman, and a newly-arrived immigrant travel on a train chosen for a suicide. You see three reactions to the incident, the different effects a cause can have, and whilst you may ‘prefer’ one to another, reading between the lines shows the validity, if you will, of each reaction. It shows the continuing effects.

Other stand-outs include the titular story, in which a woman listens to her friend’s continual tale of how happy she is whilst the reader sees something else and That Turbulent Stillness wherein a girl gives up her middle-class life to live with a factory worker, seeing her future through rose-tinted, passion-tinted, glasses.

Sometimes the stories can feel repetitive – this is where it’s worth remembering they were written separately for various outlets. There are a couple of occasions you could speculate a more pressing relationship between the stories than the overarching theme, for example the two stories that look at the Brontë sisters.

Inevitably, as a book about choices and what ifs, you’ll end up questioning your own life. Baines doesn’t offer answers so much as a study, making you realise how important even trivial-looking decisions can be. (And in study comes ambiguity and hints rather than detailed endings.)

Used To Be shows the ordinary for what it is. It reminds you that everyone is in the same boat if not on the same deck, and it’s written with a meticulous eye to detail. It’ll blow you away when you least expect it.

I received this book for review from the author.

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Maile Meloy – Half In Love

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For better or for worse.

Publisher: John Murray
Pages: 164
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-719-56771-1
First Published: 25th June 2002
Date Reviewed: 19th October 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

This is Meloy’s first collection of short stories, each confined to a scene or two and centred on emotion and the individual.

Half In Love is a short book that contains some magnificent stories and some average stories which, whilst not being in the same league as the author’s later work, do house that specialness that is unique to her.

Meloy is an expert at characterisation, pulling you into the character’s lives from the first moment; this is exactly what happens in these stories. A handful of pages long, and with Meloy’s writing style remaining as sparse as ever, you don’t expect the sheer amount of ‘pull’ there is to these stories. It’s as though an entire novel has passed before you, the stories being at once so in depth you feel you know everything there is to know about the characters whilst at the same time not being long enough. The characters practically leap off the page and it’s almost as though the lack of details as to who they are – hair colour, build, and so forth – lends the reader a freedom to truly know them. It doesn’t matter who these people are beyond the one specific subject Meloy is concentrating on. You know them.

There are a few stand outs. Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976 presents the awful moment a man discovers his wife has been unfaithful with his now dead best friend. The way it is revealed to him is both subtle and obvious. It’s an excellent piece. Native Sandstone is pretty average by itself but the meaning in it, of wanting to keep to traditional, the status quo, for no real reason, is something to think on. Ranch Girl shows what happens when you let a bad situation control your life, as does, in a different way, Garrison Junction which is interesting in part because the author goes back to the characters in another tale. And then there’s Aqua Boulevard – quite chilling, really – and The Last Of The White Slaves – which doesn’t focus on exactly what you might think.

There are some stories that seem not to be so thought out, with less meaning to them, and so you do find yourself coming down from the literary high on occasion. That said, doubtless which stories work will differ per reader.

Sporting less tight a theme than the later collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, you could be forgiven for thinking that Half In Love will not be as good. But if anything it is likely to appeal to more people and could well be said to be better in general.

And given that Half In Love was Meloy’s début, that’s not bad at all.

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