Having been a fan of V.H. Leslie’s since reading ‘Senbazuru’ in Shadows And Tall Trees, I was very excited to pick this collection up. It’s a truly beautiful volume, elegant as befitting the fluid, flowing prose Leslie writes. Thematically, it’s quite wonderful – precious little gore and violence but an abundance of horrors all the same, from the indirect psychological warfare of Ulterior Design to the short, chilling and so very clever Bleak Midwinter. Namesake begins with intrigue and paranoia, slowly weaving towards a genuinely horrific denouement; The Cloud Cartographer is sprawling and breathlessly imaginative, while the melancholy of Wordsmith is interspersed with moments of pure sweetness. There isn’t a dud story in the bunch, and Leslie’s themes are beautifully subtle but powerful – showcasing the strength of her female characters without sacrificing personality, showing that vulnerability and agency are not mutually exclusive traits.
Swiftly followed by the emotional gutpunch that is Albion Fay by Mark Morris. The narrative switches neatly between Frank’s troubled childhood, in which outdoor adventures with his sister provide a welcome relief from the simmering resentment embodied by his father, and the present day. The gradual decline of his parents’ marriage, culminating in acts of violence, provides a backdrop to a parallel decline – that of Frank’s sister Angie, who sees something in the warrenlike expanse of caverns behind their holiday home and is changed in a very permanent way. The waxing and waning of her mental state is acutely painful to read, particularly for anyone with experience of mental illness, and when Angie finally finds a life resembling normality there’s a creeping certainty that this can’t possibly last. And the final pressing of the self destruct button is eminently more agonising than I’d anticipated. A stunning read.
And now for something completely different. Brilliantly allegorical, as the best animal tales often are, this is the story of a young kitten who longs to explore the world beyond the back door. I was a massive fan of these kinds of stories as a kid, devouring The Animals Of Farthing Wood, Watership Down and so on. While Tails Of A Country Garden by Phil Janes lacks the bleakness of those stories, it does have an excellent sense of humour. The cats are written with that dry, affectionate humour with which cat lovers so often sketch out their pets – the acknowledgement that our beloved pets are frequently little sods, and for no better reason than that they can be. Underneath a fairly standard rites-of-passage type tale of discovery is a story about understanding, and tolerance, and developing one’s own opinion about the wider world – not just taking other people’s word for gospel. In these times, I feel like this is a message a lot of people could stand to hear, even if it is through the medium of a talking kitten.