Alone and alive

Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022)


‘Sweetgum County is a place where death lingers on the doorstep of the soul’ declares the author before we have even reached the Acknowledgements. A faint-hearted reader might turn no further.

Death is certainly ubiquitous in Leah Holbrook Sackett’s literary landscape. But her short stories (many of which first appeared in one of an impressive array of literary journals) are often more surreptitious than sinister.

The collection uses its distinctively bland setting to paint a vivid picture of small-town midwest USA. Marriage, religion, school… characters’ concerns are mostly everyday in this place of ‘suburban sprawl with limited options’, as one character, newly arrived from Kansas City, puts it.

Nostalgia and anonymity run through most of the stories. Yet Holbrook Sackett’s prose is easygoing and intimate. Her observant descriptions are full of wit and piercing little asides that masquerade under a cloak of neutrality.

Solitude is also a common theme in the collection. Although Sweetgum County appears a tight community, many of its residents are desperately lonely. In ‘Spooning’, Nancy, alone after her husband of 35 years has absconded with a younger woman, replaces physical intimacy with ice cream. ‘Let Your Uglies Take Root’ uses Kafka, Boo Radley and Nirvana to highlight the isolating effects of bullying. In ‘Most Marriages Performed’, solitude is more ambiguous: ‘Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night… blissfully alone in their union’.

In Sweetgum County, disappointment goes hand in hand with loneliness. ‘A Spot Not Blue’, first published in Issue 1 of Briefly Zine, stages the awkward meeting of a swimming pool and a boy, ‘as he realized the water was just clear, water without color’. Meanwhile, in ‘The Rome Club’, six acquaintances partake in an old tradition, whereby ‘the last man of Sweetgum County standing wins’. Even this ultimatum does not lead to foul play. And the winner sobs rather than celebrates upon discovering his lonely victory.

On occasion, the author forays into cultural clashes. An illiberal weddings policy is ‘a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture’, according to the narrator of ‘Most Marriages Performed’. Yet backwards traditions sometimes clash with more forward-looking mores, notably in ‘The Ron Jeremy of Klingons’ where a Trekkie must leave Sweetgum County to achieve her sexual liberation. It is telling that, in the end, she isn’t tempted to stay in her new fantasy world, concluding her adventure with matter-of-fact resolution: ‘It was time I headed back home to Sweetgum County’.

Sweetgum County is both a magnet and a vacuum. Things are happening; things that should be paid more attention. As the narrator muses in ‘Going to the Chapel’, ‘It’s one of those moments that doesn’t get captured, but it should. It is the apex of video posts on Facebook, very likely to go viral. But there was no one to capture the event.’ Catawampus in Sweetgum County captures an array of events, both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader too will be pulled back for more.


Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022). Available here: https://adelaidebooks.org/products/catawampus-in-sweetgum-county-short-stories

Myth and micro fiction

Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021)


Kipris is an individual’s journey from Cyprus to Liverpool mapped onto a nation’s path from foreign occupation to independence. The result is a moving and engaging novella, which brings to life the political and personal impacts of transformative historical events.

The plot focuses on Alexandros, an entrepreneurial Cypriot boy born into the British Crown Colony, who yearns to fight against the injustices of his colonial rulers. Alexandros grows up through a series of micro stories, vivid snapshots that chronicle the struggles and oppression of British Cyprus. As the injustices accumulate and his childhood innocence unravels, Alexandros’s understanding of his country’s fate is consolidated and his political views harden.

Christophorou’s prose is lyrical and energetic, compelling the reader to hurry through the pages. Her descriptions of Cyprus are sumptuous and place the reader directly into the orange groves and musky earth she describes. Yet the micro form also invites slow reading and re-reading to fill the gaps between words. Like the sea, her stories roll in and out reliably – but there is always a sense that a big wave is coming to catch you unaware.

As the woman stands and imagines the pull of the currents claiming her, a figure rises from the foamy surf.

‘Bedtime Story’

‘Bedtime Story’ is a highlight, richly mythical and highly evocative. It is the story of a woman’s self-sacrifice for her child, a divine interaction that infuses Alexandros’s tale with mythical status. This encounter with Kipris at Aphrodite’s Rock is aptly illustrated by Janice Leagra’s stunning cover design.

Alexandros is not, however, ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’ in the same way as Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Indeed, Christophorou brilliantly subverts the reader’s expectations, denying Alexandros the heroic denouement his name anticipates. His eventual exile in ‘Goodbye Is Not Farewell’ is a tenderly human conclusion to a novella that expertly intertwines myth and history.

The human touch is also at the forefront of ‘An Old Friend’, one of the novella’s more poignant moments. The story’s deceptively reassuring narration slowly gathers momentum as it builds up to the sucker punch at the end. This thoughtful, rhythmic control is where Christophorou excels.

“It’s funny” I say. “Now that I do have tales to tell there’s no one in the village to share them with.”

‘An Old Friend’

Throughout the novella, the narrative voice flip flops from third-person omniscient to the first-person narration of Alexandros. This patchwork of perspectives contributes to Christophorou’s blend of personal and public, while enriching the overall reading experience.

Gaps between (and within) stories allow the reader to indulge their imagination, while imploring them to discover more about the historical reality of Cyprus. As the action accelerates and the absences widen, it is hard not to crave more details. That is the beauty of the micro form: a whole picture is not presented all at once but as a jigsaw puzzle that must be carefully reconstructed. Kipris is a hugely enjoyable novella that the reader will piece together again and again.


Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021). Available here.

Reading Challenge 2022

This year’s Reading Challenge is our biggest and best yet!

Photo by Kaboompics.com

We have two challenges this year; a total of 24 categories.

The first challenge is for BACK BURNERS, books you’ve had on your TBR pile (or a physical pile on your bookshelf / desk / wardrobe / garden shed) for years and never got round to starting (or finishing).

The second list is for FRONT RUNNERS, new discoveries to extend and expand your reading in directions you wouldn’t normally go.

Complete the challenges as you wish: read one book from each category, in order, reverse order, or no order at all; or try to read as many books as possible from a category that really takes your fancy.

If you follow both challenges, this could help you structure a routine of two books per month.

However you use the lists, good luck and happy reading in 2022!


BACK BURNERS

  1. A book you’ve started but not finished for whatever reason, it didn’t float your boat the first time… but this is the year of second chances!
  2. A lesser-known book by a well-known author
  3. A poetry collection – modern or traditional… or somewhere in between
  4. A story about reflection interpret in whatever way you want
  5. A book set in a country you want to learn more about
  6. A book about finding something or someone
  7. A book that looks good on your bedside table a cover so beautiful it looks better closed!
  8. A first-person narrator of a different gender to you read a different experience to your own
  9. A lit mag (or many!) so many online and print mags to choose from!
  10. A book about technology – fiction or non-fiction, this might make you think differently about the future (and present)
  11. An “underdog” story – on the side of the little guy
  12. A book about an alternative reality – a parallel universe or a different experience to your own

FRONT RUNNERS

  1. A book with a yellow spine – start 2022 with a splash of colour
  2. A book with an emotion in the title – are you feeling angry, happy, scared or bemused?
  3. Whichever you see first: WIN or LOSE – search a second-hand bookshop or library for a book with WIN or LOSE in the title; buy the first you find (within your budget)
  4. The smallest book you can find – track down the tiniest book
  5. A genre you don’t normally read – push outside your comfort zone
  6. Whichever you see first: STAY or GO – same as above… should you stay or should you go?
  7. An “ugly duckling” – the sort of book design that doesn’t normally entice you; the cover might be unappealing, but it’s what inside that counts!
  8. A book with a cardinal point in the title – will you choose to head north, east, south or west?
  9. A “random pick” – enter a second-hand bookshop, take three steps forward and pick the first book you see (try not to walk into any shelves or shoppers if you can help it!)
  10. A book with a river on the cover – where will it take you?
  11. An author with the same initials as you – the same… but different
  12. A book with an alliterative title – and an alliterative author for bonus points!

We hope you enjoy and benefit from this year’s challenges. Get in touch via contact@brieflywrite.com or on Twitter (@BrieflyWrite) to let us know what you think!

Ships, salt and a social conscience

Seaborne Magazine, Issue 1 (May 2021), eds. Adriana Ciontea & Kevin Woodley


The inaugural issue of Seaborne Magazine is a treasure trove of writing and artwork inspired by the sea. Beautifully crafted, the magazine celebrates the maritime in all its glory: the editors’ and contributors’ love of the sea makes every page sparkle. This passion is punctuated only by pressing messages surrounding the threats facing Earth’s oceans and seas. The co-existence of awe and warning is apparent in the magazine’s spotlighting of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, to which 15% of Issue 1 profits are being donated.

The sea is a timeless theme for literature. In Carolyn Stockdale’s powerful story, ‘High Tide’, the reader notes its power to unite disparate time periods. The spatial contradiction of the sea, which both connects and separates land masses, is reflected in the temporal bridges it builds and disrupts. The pregnant narrator provides the connection between three generations and represents the cyclicality of sea and stories. Likewise, Nicole Kelly’s poignant micro, ‘The Last Keeper’, emphasises this bond between humans and the sea, and portrays the devastating impact of its rupture.

Today only one word is written in the ledger: Decommissioned. He puts his pen down. His swim in the waves today will be his last.

‘The Last Keeper’

This changeability is approached through a cerebral lens by Roberta James. Her poem, ‘After the Memo’, embodies the shifting patterns of the waves: words are washed in and out again in a different order. Paired with Amy Corcoran’s stunning artwork, the poem reminds us of the sea’s unpredictability. Such a message can be frightening: ‘It seems all has turned fish, but she is gill-less’.

Faith Paulsen offers a wry yet worrying glimpse at the extent of plastic pollution in the sea. Her poem takes the reader to the depths of one of Earth’s most remote locations, which has nevertheless been unable to resist the scourge of human contamination.

They call it a record-setting dive,
a great exploration. Still, it turns out,
like Leif Erikson, a stray Dorito bag
got there first.

‘Letter to Mariana Trench’

This warning connects the wonderful poetry and prose to the issue’s social engagement. In an important interview, Jana Sirova (General Manager of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary) educates the reader on these incredible animals and the dangers they face. The threats are commonly wrapped up with their charm: ‘Netting entanglement is also sadly a very common injury with seals… Seals are naturally very curious animals and will investigate and play with anything they find floating around’. Opening the issue from a conservationist perspective guides the reader to link their love for the sea with the harm they might inadvertently be causing it.

The difficulties of representing the sea are brought to life in Natalie Hart’s ‘Writing the Ocean’. ‘I do not know how to write about the ocean’ she writes, before beautifully capturing the complexity and beauty of these vast expanses. Similarly, Linda Hibbin’s delightful descriptions in ‘The Living Canvas’ depict the beauty of the sea, whilst also expressing frustration at our failure to do it justice: ‘How long before these pebbles are grains of sand? How many grains of sand are in the world? More, or less, than the stars in the sky?’

These two pieces embody the battle of the intellectual and emotional. Born in the sea is a deep connection, something that bypasses words and sentences and paragraphs. Ultimately, for Hart, everything can be reduced to the touch of the water.

Close your eyes, push your hand
into the waves,
touch this water with me,
and tell me it is not worth protecting.

‘Writing the Ocean’

Seaborne Magazine intersects and blurs lines. Folklore sits side by side with tangible present-day threats; scientific perspectives infuse the literary, and literary flair explains the scientific; messages in bottles float for centuries unread, and we read impossible messages from the depths of the Earth. As Gill McEvoy writes, many pieces seek ‘that spot/ where the haze of sea and sky are one’ (‘Sea Captain’). Such unity seems achievable by the sea. Indeed, the editors’ greatest achievement might be combining disparate strands of maritime literature into one memorable and distinct reading experience.


Seaborne Magazine, Issue 1 (May 2021). Available here.

Reading Challenge 2021

Photo by Polina Zimmerman

A new year beckons and bookworms around the world will be eagerly planning their 2021 reading, scribbling new additions to sprawling lists, and stacking piles onto piles onto piles…

We’ve got an additional offering to help structure your New Year reading: the annual Briefly Reading Challenge. There are 12 categories which we hope will extend and enrich your 2021 page-turning. The aim is to open you up to new opportunities, genres, styles and themes; these aren’t the sorts of prompts that will restrict and limit you to specific or arbitrary selections.

Use this list as you wish: read one book from each category, in order, reverse order, or no order at all; read two, three, four or more books from one category that really takes your fancy; or skip straight to the bonus prompts if you’re feeling rebellious!

Whatever you choose to do, good luck and happy reading in 2021!


The Briefly Reading Challenge 2021

  1. A book made into a film (if you’ve seen the film and not read the book!)
  2. A book to heal the generational divide
  3. An epistolary novel
  4. A book about mental health
  5. A book you can read in one day
  6. A book about cooperation
  7. A book you’ve owned a long time and (still) never read
  8. A book written in or about prison
  9. A book that was banned
  10. A book that teaches lessons from history
  11. An author from your hometown
  12. A book set somewhere you want to travel

BONUS:

  1. A book about a dystopian future
  2. A book that offers hope

Don’t forget, you can follow @BrieflyWrite on Twitter to stay up to date with all things Briefly!

Kickstart Your Reading with this Four-Week Challenge

With so many “must-reads” out there, which should you pick first?

Most of us have more time on our hands at the moment. And reading is one of the best ways to make the most of it.

If you’ve fallen out of love with books, it’s time to get the reading bug back!

Get the stats working for you

Like many bookworms, my reading has often been sporadic. I will read any book in any form: fiction or non-fiction, horror or romance, paperback or e-book, classic or contemporary. It’s rare I don’t have at least four on the go at any one time.

I would guess that I finished more than 50 books in 2019. But since I didn’t record them, I have no idea what percentage were written by women, or how many different cultures I explored.

Similarly, I would struggle to say whether I read more first- or third-person narrators, and whether I spent more time in the past or future.

Of course, you may wonder why you should be interested in this data. After all, you read in order to enjoy a good book not so that you can create pie charts.

This is the argument I repeated to myself for years to justify not tracking my stats.

To be clear, I firmly believe reading is about feelings not maths. It boils my blood when I see an article like “Ten tricks to hack any book”, invariably written by some “self-made entrepreneur” who would sell his grandmother’s kidneys if the price was right.

Reading is a pleasure not a commodity. But having a greater awareness of your preferences allows you to enjoy reading more.

Keeping track of your books isn’t just statistical. Here are four major benefits of recording your reading:

  • It helps you read more widely and therefore experience more cultures, genres and styles
  • It opens your eyes to subconscious prejudices that may be creeping into your choices
  • It makes it easier to remember everything you’ve read
  • It motivates you to keep reading!

Picking the right books

Reading opens the door to new cultures, new experiences and new ways of thinking. And the best way to do this is by making an effort to include writers, themes and viewpoints you might (unintentionally) be neglecting.

There are an overwhelming number of challenges available online though, bizarrely, many seem to restrict rather than extend your reading.

This should not be the case. Categories like ‘A book with the letter X in the title’ or ‘A book about the medical profession’ are far too arbitrary and won’t help you become a better reader.

These sorts of challenges dictate to you, rather than help you make more informed choices.

The following four-week challenge was born out of this frustration. Its six categories are open ended enough not to constrain you, whilst still offering a framework to guide your selections.

The Challenge

How many categories can you tick off in four weeks?

  • A “classic” you’ve not read before
  • A book with a child narrator
  • A book recommended by a friend or relative
  • A book that’s been sitting on your shelf unread for a long time
  • A book set in a location significant to you
  • A prize-winning book

Here’s what I’ll be reading:

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (recommended by my sister)
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (has been sitting on my shelf for at least ten years)
  • Yuki chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson (set in Haworth, West Yorkshire)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017)

What books have you picked? Leave a comment below!