Beyond Eclectic by Jonathan Hill

I enjoyed reading this collection of short stories by Jonathan Hill. I’m familiar with his writing having read and reviewed his earlier collection of short stories (Eclectic: Ten Very Different Tales) and his two “Maureen” novellas. (Maureen goes to Venice and A Letter for Maureen.)

The author has already demonstrated that he has a talent for writing short stories: he has a remarkable ability to focus on small details which come together to create a disproportionately larger picture; his writing is economical and every word meticulously weighed for the contribution it will make to the whole; his acute observations of human nature and behaviour make his writing vivid and real; a dry sense of humour is revealed with subtlety; difficult issues are dealt with sensitively. The writing style in Beyond Eclectic lives up to the high standards already demonstrated by Mr Hill and confirms my opinion that he is a really good writer of short stories.

This new collection moves into new territory and explores some of the darker sides of life and I think that most of the stories work really well.

First of all The Robin; I thought this was one of the best stories. We’ve already met George in the earlier collection but now time has moved on and he is a widower living alone with only his memories and his garden for company. The story is poignant but not remotely sentimental and the writer has demonstrated wonderful empathy for his character. I thought this story was beautifully written with simplicity, clarity and attention to small details that evoked the past and prepared the reader for George’s future.

Mr Owen is one of those teachers we’ve probably all encountered: really nice, strong in subject knowledge, useless as a teacher. His life in the classroom is a misery and you can see which way One Unread Message is going quite early on; and then at the end the surprise intervention of a character from the earlier collection causes Mr Owen to re-assess the situation and the reader to re-think their views of Mr Owen.

The Night Visitor starts the collection and a macabre plot evolves which leads to a very satisfying conclusion. On first reading I didn’t really like this story; I didn’t think it worked. As I began writing these comments I couldn’t think why I had that memory so I read it again. Second time round I was much more impressed; I particularly liked the way the author hinted at the reality of the relationship between Claire and Ian and drip fed the involvement of Trevor. If I say any more it will spoil the story so…….

There are three very dark stories featuring children in this collection. The Lollipop Man is a rather sinister take on the “imaginary friend” idea with elements of a horror story which leaves you feeling uneasy about where reality ends and the other world begins. The Box in the Wardrobe also features an “imaginary friend” and although a rather sad tale it also has an unsettling blurring of the real world and the other world. In Mary’s Paintings, Mary is the daughter in a macabre tale of jealousy and resentment. When her mother gets involved in a new relationship, Mary is none too pleased but what happens next is not what you expect.

An Eye for an Eye was the only story in the collection that I didn’t really enjoy. There are two parallel stories that come together in a spectacular manner which works well enough but I didn’t engage with the characters so wasn’t really very bothered about what happened to them in the end.

Unlike Joyce and Dennis who I thought were a-maz-ing. They live very humdrum lives Behind Closed Doors and the twist in the tale at the end is unexpected and very, very funny. The descriptions of how they live together are exaggerated for comic effect but work so well; a really excellent short story.

“Barry was just your average window cleaner,” is how The Secrets of Primrose Avenue begins. Oh really? I’ve noticed there seems to be more and more people offering window cleaning services but had just put it down to the recession. Now I know different and shall be very wary when Gary my window cleaner calls round next month; a very funny short story.

If you’ve never encountered the ubiquitous Maureen you’re very lucky. In this story she is at a book signing for her favourite author and she is at her brilliant worst.  Another great Maureen story with a most unexpected ending.

I follow Maureen on Twitter and I’d better make my meaning clear: if you haven’t encountered Maureen you’re very lucky because you’ve not only got this story and her visit to the Art Exhibition in the previous collection to look forward to but also the two novellas about her as well. O.K. Maureen? No offense meant!

Sometimes amusing even laugh aloud funny, sometimes macabre and sinister, sometimes poignant and sad: another great collection of short stories from Jonathan Hill which you can download at the Amazon Kindle Store and get more details on his Amazon author page.

Make a Joyful Noise by Jenny Worstall

I enjoyed reading a couple of short stories by Jenny Worstall a few weeks ago so I downloaded her romantic novel Make a Joyful Noise.

This is an ideal holiday book and I read most of it sitting in the garden in the sunshine enjoying the sound of the bees in the honeysuckle and a glass or two of chilled white wine.

Lucy is a newly qualified secondary school music teacher who is struggling with her classes; she is also struggling to establish her social life in a new town. She has been introduced to the local choral society and has fallen for ageing Lothario, Tristan, the choir conductor. Meanwhile fellow choir member and history teacher, Steve, has fallen for her. A typical love story triangle which is developed to a fairly predictable ending.

What makes the book different and interesting is its background in the choir. They are working on a special piece for the Christmas concert: Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. The author has cleverly used lines from the text of the piece (mainly The Book of Daniel and Psalm 137 put together by Osbert Sitwell) to head up the chapters of the book. I hadn’t listened to Belshazzar’s Feast for years and downloaded it from iTunes; I’d forgotten what splendid music it is. It was very fashionable back in the seventies to use some of it for “inspiration” in school drama classes and with justification. In places it is loud, rumbustious and raucous but thoroughly enjoyable. It has a complicated score and poor Miss Greymitt, the choir’s rehearsal accompanist, understandably struggles with it.

I read on her Author page that Jenny Worstall is a teacher and this shows in her understanding of poor Lucy’s struggles in the classroom. However I’m not sure that these days there would be so much understanding of her difficulties by senior management; Lucy’s department head is kind, considerate and supportive and constantly making allowances for her poor performance. But this “niceness” epitomises the book and makes it a charming read. If you’re fed up with the current trend to place young women into sexually submissive, sado-masochistic, fetish fantasy scenarios you’ll really enjoy Make a Joyful Noise. Lucy is actually shocked when Tristan says “damn” and gives her a full frontal peck on the cheek and the worst insult she comes up with is to call her rival for Tristan’s affection, Miss Custard Cream.

As well as Miss Greymitt there’s a full cast of supporting characters ranging from Lucy’s absentee mother, her bossy older sister and cute ballet dancing nieces to slightly acerbic flatmate and staffroom soulmate Julia.

I enjoyed reading Make a Joyful Noise; it’s pleasant and easy to read and if it happens to be more typical British summer weather and you want something to take your mind off cold, wet and miserable then this book would be just fine.

Check out Jenny Worrstall's author page for details of all her books.

I Woke Up This Morning by Stuart Ayris

I'd already read the first two books in the FRUGALITY trilogy, although in the wrong order, and was really looking forward to reading this final part.

You can read I Woke Up This Morning as a stand-alone novel but I think it would be better to read the other two books first and finish with this one because the author brings in characters from the previous two novels to bring the trilogy to its conclusion; you’ll probably get more out of the novel by knowing the background and the back-story.

I loved both the earlier books; (you can read my reviews of Tollesbury Time Forever and The Bird That Nobody Sees earlier on the blog if you’re interested.) I Woke Up This Morning doesn't disappoint: in fact, I think if anything it is even better than the other two.

I Woke Up This Morning is beautifully written with an imaginative and creative use of language. Mr Ayris’ style is often poetical and lyrical. The vocabulary at times is stunning with the use of obscure and arcane words and words that have been invented by the author; at times you don’t know which and need to check the dictionary.

The novel has a clever structure and the author takes the bold step of writing himself into it. The placing of the author himself right at the centre of the novel at first seemed somewhat self-indulgent but it worked really well in the end. Previously he has got into the heads of others and now he’s inside his own; or is he? What is so interesting is the way the novel becomes autobiographical and yet it is a fiction. Using his own name, seemingly personal details and sharing some deep personal angst is at times very uncomfortable and you have to remind yourself you’re reading a novel; you shy away from the “Stuart” character in the way that you tend to shy away from anyone who exhibits mental health issues. The novel goes through an episode where it becomes rambling and almost incoherent as it explores the anguish and torment of a mental breakdown although you could construe it as an exploration of an alternative way of seeing and being.

The author has used this device of personalisation to take the reader into such dark, depressed and lonely places; the intimate details of the collapsing of a life and relationships in the context of an addictive personality is painful to share and is incredibly sad to read. It made me want to cry in places and the only book I've read recently that had that effect was “Jude The Obscure” when the children died.

The essence of FRUGALITY permeates the book with an emphasis on forgiveness; forgiveness of self here more than anything else. The FRUGALITY concept is the unifying theme throughout the trilogy although it is developed differently in each novel. It’s a sort of easy to remember “Desiderata” and encapsulates a sense of optimism about life as much as pointing the way to the good life. Maybe readers who've appreciated this aspect of the books should wear an “F” badge in the way that Christians sport a fish emblem.

Although it is a thought-provoking, challenging and disturbing novel, I Woke Up This Morning is beautiful and inspirational. I don’t know if the author planned the whole trilogy in advance or if it evolved from one book to the next; it doesn't matter really either way: the novel and the trilogy are superb and the writer has an amazing talent. He makes reference in passing to self-published writers and the frustrations of trying to place a literary novel with agents and publishers; I wouldn't bother: conventional types would rip the guts out of this book and tidy up the extraordinary language. I hope that if the book ever does go mainstream the author will insist that not one word is changed.

Go to Stuart Ayris' author page on Amazon UK or Amazon USA for details of all his books.