Review: Tales of the River Vine: “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”

Jean LeeSome titles are irresistible.  As soon as I saw that Jean Lee’s new short story was called, The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket (TBWCAFIHP), I knew I would have to read it.

The story opens with Mrs Schmidt inviting herself and her son over to her neighbour’s house, on a hot Sunday afternoon, because she believes beer is the devil’s juice, and her husband and his friend are indulging, in her home.

I liked ‘the devil’s juice’, but better yet, I liked that Mrs Schmidt believes organised sport is more wicked than alcohol. This could have been played for comedy: instead there is a hint of sinister, and gothic touches.  When the boys are sent off on a picnic, the main item in the list of warnings for what to beware of is, ‘The Wall’.  If I said any more, I’d give the plot away, and really, you should have a look for yourself.  It’s short, tantalising, and can be downloaded from Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.

TBWCAFIHP is the first story in a sequence that leads to the November release of Jean’s fantasy novel for Young Adults, Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.  We’re promised a series of on-line story releases over the coming months, as tasters.

I confess now, in case you hadn’t guessed it, that it’s a long time since I was a Young Adult.  However, the way I see it, if I could read adult novels when I was not so old, why shouldn’t I enjoy reading writing not aimed at my age group now I’m an adult?

Labels, who needs them?  Well, sometimes.  Not though, when it comes to genre.  I’ve a broad taste in literature, and if the writing hooks me, I don’t mind how it’s marketed.

If you want to know more about the background to the stories then I recommend a look at Jean Lee’s blog. She’s got some interesting insights into her writing processes, too.

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The Proof of the Pudding

Bonus post this week: An interesting sequence from Dave Kinsbury.

a nomad in cyberspace

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” – Banksy

“Don’t know whether to say Mmmm … or Ouch! ” – Me

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Picture Credits, in order:

Quora
Wikipedia
W Magazine
StyleCaster
Mirror
Highsnobiety
Maxim
Urban Gateways
StreetArtNews
PopUp Painting

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Thoughts on some Agatha Christie short stories.

Ag christie regatta_mysteryMy copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment.  How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades?  I can think of only a handful.

Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market.  Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade.  That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?

Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system.  I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired.  I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought.  Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.

So, what’s the trick?  I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting.  In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands.  The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict.  We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.

Romance might be the key.  Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable.  Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.

Oh dear, how cynical I sound.  But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat.  They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.

In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction.  As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels.  Had I given the short-stories a fair read?  I flicked a couple of pages over.  Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.

I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you.  The stories are nicely written.  Setting and situation are delivered economically.  There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions.  So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’

In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t.  The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home.  There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.

The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before.  Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’  He tried.  Miss Marple tried too.  I couldn’t adjust.  I tried to think myself into the period.  These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.

Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.

Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.

‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest.  The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.

Am I sorry I read them?  No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like.   I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories.  Apparently she wrote over 100.  I’ve a long way to go.

Whose soap-box is this, anyway? #writephoto

‘I do have opinions,’ said the man in the blue suit,  ‘but I try to keep them to myself.  It’s so easy to upset a client.’ He sipped at his coffee and eyed the plate of chocolate biscuits on the table.

‘Do have another one,’ said the client.  She nudged the plate towards the man in the blue suit, who had begun to tidy the heap of papers nearest to him. ‘It’s the same with writing stories,’ she said. ‘That’s what Hemingway believed.’

The man in the blue suit, with a crisp white shirt, concentrated on the biscuits. ‘Hemingway?’

The client nodded. ‘Yes.  He said it’s not our job to judge, just to understand.’

‘And do you? Understand, I mean?’ said the man in the blue suit, snapping a biscuit up in two bites before bumping his sheaf of papers and sliding them into a glossy folder.

The client smiled. ‘Not even close, I’m afraid. The poor man would be turning in his tomb, if that actually happened.’

sue vincent photo challengeThe man in the blue suit passed the folder across the table.  ‘You need to keep that,’ he said.  He took another biscuit.  ‘Are you saying you don’t really need to understand?’ He began to straighten his own papers into a neat stack.

‘You say that as if it’s something black and white – as if there’s only one answer to any situation.’

‘Well of course, I didn’t mean it that way.’  The man in the blue suit opened his briefcase and slotted the papers into a pocket.  He paused and looked at the client.  ‘Ah, I see.  If you don’t provide answers…’

‘…the reader can. Exactly.  The stories I like best are subtle, the bones of the story are fleshed out with metaphors, symbolism, allusion and ambiguity so that I can go back and read them over and over again.  That’s how I want to write.’

The man in the blue suit leant forward and considered the last biscuit. ‘Sounds tricky.’

The client eyed the shower of crumbs cascading down the blue suit and the dazzling white shirt front. ‘It’s a bit like laying clues,’ she said.  ‘They don’t always work.  Sometimes they’re too obvious, sometimes too subtle.  That’s where remembering Hemingway comes in – or Chekov, Mansfield, Pritchett, Taylor, Marquez… pretty much all the writers, past and present, I’ve read and admired have said much the same thing.’

The man in the blue suit flicked his lapels clean. ‘I see, same way songs work.’ He closed his brief-case and stood up, dusting the last traces of food from his shirt and legs.  ‘Well, I think that’s all I can do today.  I’ll work the figures, and get back to you with some ideas on Monday.’

‘Thanks for calling in,’ said the client, shaking his hand.  ‘I should have looked into this years ago, but you know how it is, there’s always something else to do.’

The man in the blue suit nodded, lead the way to the door, then turned back to the client. ‘I’ve got a few thoughts already, but I want to crunch the numbers, so I can give you a full picture,’ he said.

The client shook his hand, and waited until he was through the gate.  It was only as she started to shut the door that she glanced down and saw the slightly tattered bluey-black feather on her doorstep.

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*Photos from Sue Vincent’s Thursday writing prompt challenge:#writephoto.

Story prompt #writephoto

I dropped by Sue Vincent’s blog on Thursday and she’d just posted a photo as a writing prompt challenge.  Hmm, I thought, why not?

Below is my take, with the picture.  Click on the link above to see what the other participants did – you’ll find poetry and prose – or to check out the rules and join in. It’s a weekly event.

Title: Conflagration.

scvincent promptThe third album Jan pulled out was called, The Night We Will Never Forget.   ‘What’s this, Aunty?’ she said, placing the heavy book in the old woman’s lap.

Mindy’s gnarled fingers stroked the varnished surface.  ‘Lovely,’ she said.  ‘You don’t get sunsets like that any more.’ She smiled, tracing the glowing clouds that hovered on a dark horizon, and drifted back into silence.

Jan said, ‘Is it somewhere special?’ She raised her voice, ‘Where is this?’

‘What’s that, dear?’

‘Do you remember where you took this?’

‘Took what?’

Jan lifted the album closer to the old woman’s eyes. ‘The photo.’

Mindy shook her head.  ‘Haven’t a clue, dear.  Looks like a lovely book.  What’s it about?’