Scratched Enamel Heart: review

A new short story collection from Amanda Huggins

In 2018 I reviewed Amanda Huggin’s very enjoyable first collection of short stories, Separated from the Sea, and here I am again only two years later reviewing her second. And what a great collection it is, even better than the first. Beautifully nuanced writing that will surprise and move you and includes her award-winning story, Red, third in the Costa Short Story Award, 2018. No word is wasted and it’s clear from the quality of the writing that Amanda is a fine poet too.

Many of these stories have themes of escape – appropriate for our present situation of social-isolation and lock-down. In Where the Sky Starts, life is closing in for Rowe; he’s coming to terms with a bleak choice: a job on a fishing boat like his dead father, or going down the pit like his brother. Like Billy Casper in Kes he seeks refuge in the natural world. This is a subtle, beautifully-written story that I found very moving each time I read it.

Red, Amanda’s Costa award-winning story, continues this theme of escape and longing for a better life, this time in America. Mollie has moved with her single mum to an isolated farm and is a target of her mother’s violent and abusive boyfriend. She tries to control a life that is very much out of her control by making a tally of recurring incidents, both good and bad. Again, seen from a child’s point of view, we feel the intensity of her fears and really want her story to have a happy ending, whatever it takes.

In the story that gives the collection its title there is a different kind of escape – a young woman, Maya, is a refugee dealing with terrible personal loss and displacement. The usually pleasing scent of roses in her new country takes her back to the last, terrible time she saw her mother. Maya is hardening her heart to her missing husband; he abandoned her but she still loves him. It is this delicate description of mixed emotions that make this and so many of these stories assured and convincing.

Longer stories in this collection are interspersed by flash stories, almost like a palette cleanser. Some are serious but there are also playful, ironic or even funny stories. What I really enjoyed are the settings – from the Yorkshire coast to Japan or America – we find ourselves in completely different locations in each new story. At this time of Covid 19 when many of us have more time than we’re used to but are too stressed to concentrate for long this is a lovely collection to dip into and escape to different worlds.

Scratched Enamel Heart is published by Retreat West 27 May 2020.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Blue Ticket – a review

Blue Ticket

Sophie Mackintosh’s  first novel, The Water Cure, announced an assured and confident voice in literary fiction and was deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Her second novel, Blue Ticket, revisits a similar dystopian world where all the usual facets of normal life are turned upside down. Calla, like all girls knows that when her first period comes she’ll take part in the Lottery: if she gets a white ticket she is suitable for motherhood; if her ticket is blue then she escapes this future and can make her own decisions. Only she can’t choose to be a mother. But what if she feels the overwhelming biological urge to have a child? This chilling novel follows Calla as she comes to terms with what her body is telling her, and follows her on a journey that takes her far away from safety and comfort.

Blue Ticket is not a lengthy novel but it packs a huge emotional punch and makes the reader question free will, a woman’s right to choose and the tyranny of patriarchy. Sophie Mackintosh uses a pared-down language that is utterly convincing and often very beautiful. This is a haunting novel with overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World but, as in The Water Cure, the reader is left with a sense of the strength of the human spirit. I recommend this novel without reservation.

It will be published at the end of August 2020.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss – a review

summerwater

Excellent, atmospheric novel set by a Scottish loch where unrelated families are trying to make the most of a rainy summer holiday. It’s both funny, realistic and also imbued with impending tragedy. The ending is so unexpected it takes your breath away. I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novella, Ghost Wall and although completely different there are similarities in tone and setting. Highly recommended.

Summerwater will be published in August 2020.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – a review

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a second collection from David Coldwell whose debut , Flowers by the Road, won the Templar Poetry Portfolio Prize in 2016.  In this new collection there are some very enjoyable and straightforward poems which will appeal to anyone who loves the wilds of Yorkshire. The main themes are change and time, growing up and mortality.

David Coldwell is also a visual artist and he observes the world with an often dispassionate artist’s eye. In fact the poems that work best are ones when the language is grounded in the landscape without straying into abstraction; when the word choices are monosyllabic, even harsh, producing their own bleak musicality. There are poems written in form, as in the technically accomplished title poem where the rhyming of cold… old, ground… sound or colours… flowers make the poem feel rooted in the landscape. Many of these poems are written in an informal, flowing free verse which, at its best, can be moving and is strongest when line breaks are really effectively used.

In Clocks Coldwell uses the familiar image of walking through a field and picking dandelion ‘clocks’, teaching a child how to blow off the seeds and count the hours; but what gives this poem its strength is the narrator’s acute awareness that time is passing and the young child will grow up and move away. The last stanza is particularly poignant:

Make a wish, you shout

with excited eyes of something only you know.

I take back your hand, swinging it as you skip

I already have, I say, before letting you free.

When a very specific image is described these poems really sing as in Bright Thing; here the poet captures memories of his father in ‘the roughness of his skin; the oil / and coolant ingrained that scratches against ink’. Again in The Conversation we see ‘the spider balled up in remnants’. This precision serves to ground the poem and can also bring out a generous sense of humour as in the poem In the end:

Ian downs a Pot Noodle cup

full of local ale;

Wendy paints the moon

and stars above a child’s eyes…

The vein of darkness and loss that runs through this whole collection is well articulated in Embers where the three intriguing final lines resonate long after the poem has ended.

And it troubled me,

watching that endless flow,

more than I can reason.

This sense of foreboding, is also evident in Swan where, what at first seems to be a conventional poem describing the loneliness of a swan, turns into something altogether different with intimations of a troubled future, albeit with an interesting juxtaposition of humour. ‘where a man sits in a morning suit / practicing his wedding speech/to a single mute swan…’

In Scarecrow, a  bittersweet, almost nostalgic poem, the line: Everything seemed simple certainly strikes a chord in these uncertain Covid 19 times; it could sum up our lives with a continuous harking back to ‘before’. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is an accessible collection of poems that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the Yorkshire landscape. It will be published in autumn 2020 by Maytree Press.

 

Conjure Women – a review

This excellent narrative is centred on Rue, one of the ‘conjure’ women of the title, who works as midwife and herbalist for the other enslaved people on a plantation in 19th century America. When Bean, a pale-skinned child with strangely dark eyes is born, Rue is horrified: ‘She felt then that she knew him for what he was, a secret retribution for a long-ago crime, the punishment she had been dreading.’. It is from this moment that the story begins to unfold.

In this wonderful debut novel, Afia Atakora has created strong women characters who live and breathe. Rue, her mother, Miss May Belle and a white woman, Varina, daughter of the owner of the plantation, are complex and conflicted and all linked in ways that are gradually revealed through the telling of the story. These are characters who will stay with you.

‘Conjure Women’ is a skillfully realised and rewarding read, set against the background of the Civil War and emancipation; and moving back and forward from ‘Slavery time’ to ‘Exodus’ to ‘Wartime’ Perhaps a little overlong and slow at times, it’s a very ambitious novel, particularly for a debut; and brings to life the harsh realities of living under terrible oppression and violence.

Afia Atakora could well be describing her own writing when she says: ‘The words blossomed black out of his pen like fast, elegant little miracles.’ This is writing of a very high calibre and I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Unprotected: a review

Unprotected

Unprotected by Sophie Jonas-Hill is a novel dedicated to ‘all those who have suffered loss and miscarriage, and keep on fighting’. But it’s not a misery-fest. Far from it. Lydia is a tattooist and, when her long-term relationship breaks down after a series of miscarriages, she’s both hurt and supremely angry. After a drunk night out drowning her sorrows, she wakes up in bed with a much younger man and the story really takes off.

I’m naked, in bed, with the boy from the after-party. Shit, shit, shit! I am naked, in bed, with the boy from the after-party!

To make it worse The Archers omnibus is about to start on the bedside radio:

And boy, that really ain’t cool, now is it? Not when you’re trying to pretend like you’re not a middle class, forty-two-year-old, white woman.

The relationship with The Boy becomes more entangled, and Lydia begins to realise he’s also very vulnerable and she’s made a huge mistake.  When she becomes obsessed about rescuing a young girl she’s seen getting into a cab the plot thickens, with echoes of the organised abuse of underage girls. We see how the pain of Lydia’s own losses as well as an unsupportive mother and unreliable friend make her want to save everybody else, at her own expense.

There are some brilliant characters in this novel which make it a pleasure to read. The Boy is incredibly sexy and we see how Lydia would be attracted to him after so much rejection and a sense of failure, in spite of his potential instability. The character, apart from Lydia herself who really stands out is Big Al; he’s taught Lydia the art of tattooing and is a warm, protective father figure. Even when their roles are reversed and Big Al works for her, he’s the one she relies on to help when the going gets really tough and frightening.

If you enjoy a thoroughly contemporary novel that explores some big themes unflinchingly, I’d recommend Unprotected. In Lydia Sophie Jonas-Hill has created a memorable character, both unconventional and flawed, with something of Fleabag’s vulnerability. It’s great to see a woman who makes her own decisions in life, even if they may not be the best ones, and who is prepared to fight both for herself and for other vulnerable people.

Unprotected is available from Retreat West Books. Copy and paste the link to buy on your tablet etc

https://retreatwestbooks.com/ebooks-from-retreat-west-books

 

 

Writing update: One Scheme of Happiness

cover image AmazonOne week tomorrow my debut novel will be published. It’s been a long wait, but finally the day is nearly here – Thursday February 27th. I can’t believe how great an experience it has been with Retreat West Books who’ve supported me all the way from first meeting to discuss the book through the whole editing process to choosing the cover and promoting the novel via social media.

Some initial reviews have already come back and I’m happy to say they’re very positive.  It’s odd enough knowing friends and family are reading your work … What I hadn’t expected was how unnerving it is to let your novel loose into the world for strangers to read. But that makes enthusiastic comments even more welcome! Here are a couple…

Emma Rowson @rowsonemma1 :

Manipulation seeps from every pore of this novel, its domestic, small Northern town backdrop featuring the ever-present lighthouse, a veneer of normality against a complicated woman and her scheme to recapture the happiness she feels she is owed. An exceptionally beautifully written book – One Scheme of Happiness is without doubt an early contender for my Top Reads of 2020.

Amanda Huggins @troutiemcfish :

The novel explores what happens when someone will do almost anything to get the thing they think they want. What appears to be a straightforward love triangle turns out to be something much more complex and much less predictable – no one is who they first appear to be – and Helen’s life spins out of control as she begins to self-destruct.

One Scheme of Happiness draws you in from the start and doesn’t let you go. A confident and accomplished debut.

Thank you so much for such great reviews!