Well we are living in strange times, aren’t we booklings? In the spirit of staying positive during this rather surreal period in our lives, I’ve been filling my time with the following:
- Reading more (duh)
- Working on career things
- Learning to make pasta
- Planting herbs (a spectacular failure thus far)
As you’ve probably already guessed, the reading and writing portion of that little list has a lot to do with today’s post. A couple of months ago, the lovely people at Comma Press got in touch and asked if I’d review their latest collection of short stories: The Book of Newcastle. Naturally, I said yes, because I love the Toon for becoming my home and really respect the awesome work Comma does as a not-for-profit indie publisher. Onward to the review!
The Book of Newcastle, ed. by Angela Readman & Zoe Turner
Genre: Urban/Short story
Length: 121 pages
Publisher: Comma Press
Other bits: features short fiction by Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook, J. A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone, Margaret Wilkinson.
The Book of Newcastle forms part of a wider series aptly named ‘Reading the City’, and offers readers a curated snapshot of the city through ten distinctive literary voices. Each story features characters looking to carve out a space for themselves; somewhere where they can get reacquainted with some part of themselves or their past, and in doing so find some sense of comfort or peace in the present.
This fine collection of stories doesn’t just handle tragic tales; they capture, in vivid snapshots, that great northern spirit of resilience. Every protagonist we meet, however briefly, in this collection seems to be going through something – coming to terms with something beyond their control. This leitmotif seems to reflect the way this industrial powerhouse of a city has faced challenge after challenge, transformation after transformation, always ultimately making it through to the other side often stronger than before.
Some stories will grip you more tightly than others – but this is, of course, down to your particular tastes as a reader. That’s part of what I like about short stories; reading collections like this is an opportunity to discover genres, styles, and authors you wouldn’t typically approach as full-on novels. If I had to choose three favourites from this collection, they’d be: Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove by J. A. Mensah, Duck Race by Crista Ermiya, and Ekow on Town Moor by Degna Stone.
First up is J. A. Mensah’s vivid narrative inspired by a two-hour storm on 28th June 2012 – but not just any storm. This one devastated to 23,000 homes across Newcastle and cost roughly £8 million in damage to residences, roads, and businesses all over the city.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about that day in June. It was another almost-summer’s day in Newcastle. Then it happened: rainwater fell and made rivers of the streets. Pulsing through the veins of the place, it entered drains and sewers. Flowing through pipes that led to toilet bowls and kitchen sinks, it revealed unseen connections as it entered people’s homes in a deluge of dirty water. The storm came, seemed like it might last forever and then vanished.Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove, J. A. Mensah
The descriptions in this story are wonderfully vivid, and the author seems to use the narrative structure to mirror the physical structure of the Tyneside flats which actually emerge as protagonists in their own right as the narrative progresses. I love how the characters’ lives weave together, becoming one messy but wonderful tapestry by the end of it all.
Crista Ermiya’s piece, Duck Race, grabs us and puts us face to face with possibly one of the most awkward social situations you could think of: a weekend with your ex and his pregnant girlfriend. What?! Yes. Just imagine.
While they wait at the finishing line, Elle asks Chuck something that has been nagging at the back of her mind all weekend. She says, slowly, ‘Chuck, when you called to ask if you and Merel could stay this weekend, did you know then that Merel was pregnant?’Duck Race, Crista Ermiya
But things are a hell of a lot more complicated than that. You really feel for these characters, starting from Elle, who has accidentally said ‘yes’ to hosting her ex and his girlfriend for the weekend, to the pregnant new girlfriend who likely feels that there’s an inside joke she’ll never get in on when it comes to the two lovers-turned-friends. You really feel for these characters. Elle and Chuck clearly still have residual feelings and perhaps hold on to hard conversations they never had, and as a reader you feel surprised that Elle isn’t angrier for what feels like Chuck’s lack of consideration for her feelings. ‘Hi, can my pregnant girlfriend and I come to stay for a weekend?’ Girl. No. Don’t do it. Why’d you do it? We want to reach into the story, hang out with Elle and drink gin with her until we talk her down from it all.
The last story in the collection was probably my favourite in terms of emotional intensity. Ekow on Town Moor focuses on three relationships – that between mother and son, man and self, man and world. For years, Ekow has used running as a way to centre himself and handle whatever life throws at him – but can he, should he, run away from the pain of losing a loved one?
The mist should have cleared by now but instead had turned into thick fog, and the city had almost disappeared from view. It was time to head home. He ran down the hill barely keeping his balance. He pushed harder until his heart started thumping against his ribs and it felt like it would burst. He wanted to keep running, didn’t want to return to his flat, didn’t want to go back to the hospice because he didn’t know what would face him when he did.Ekow on Town Moor, Degna Stone
I enjoyed reading through such a diverse range of voices united in their passion for Newcastle, and would recommend this to anyone who’s lived here for any amount of time, be that a week, a month, or their whole lives. Getting to know the place you call home is essential, in my view, and reading about it is just one great part of that. The Book of Newcastle is in a word charming, and definitely worth your time.