I have drawn these two short stories together, as companion pieces, released under their own covers (on Kindle only) and because I found them intriguing. Author, Alan Scott, has created ‘The Storm’ series, which currently comprises a trilogy of novels and three books of short stories and ‘Tea’ was taken from “Stories of a Storm Filled Night”(2014). The stories are set twenty five and twenty six years respectively, after the events detailed in ‘Scions of the Storm’ (Book 2 of the trilogy) and signpost the reader towards “Echoes of a Storm” (Book 1), where it all begins. It’s an interesting promotional strategy, which offers the prospect of a much more developed dark fantasy, but hinges on whetting the readers’ appetite through two short abstracts.
The signs were good, when having immersed myself in ‘Tea’, I was very quickly loading the follow-up onto my tray for the conclusion to the initial story and therein lies a clue. The two stories are of their nature – short and centre on the curious relationship between two very different characters, who come together annually on the longest night, “when the shadows were at their deepest and darkest”. This single night, established as the briefest of respite from their respective experiences of isolation, stands testament to the value of companionship and the healing potential of hot tea and warm attention. In these brief pages, the seemingly mundane traverses life, death, loss, duty and identity and gives the reader the sense of epic events distilled into a cup of tea shared between people, with whom a special affinity exists.
It is very much a case of less is more, yet the quality of the writing leaves the reader wanting to understand the broader context for the short stories and learn more about the enigmatic ‘Shadow Killer’ (William) and the diffident tailor (Samuel). Certainly, for fans of dark fantasy, these morsels will surely have readers seeking the main course and spurred by these tasters, I have added The Storm trilogy to my tbr list.
I’m prepared to accept that this book by Paulo Coelho was intended perhaps as a parable, deep and insightful, from which the reader could glean an important lesson for life. Unfortunately, for me, its depth was rather undermined by a torpid, meandering tale, which fostered little empathy with the main character and minimal interest in whether her stale marriage would survive a bout of premeditated adultery.
Linda is a journalist and lives in Geneva. She is married to a wealthy husband and together they have an only son, enjoying a clearly privileged life, in one of the safest and most stable countries in the world. And, the author suggests, therein lies the problem. For safe and unchanging, read predictable even boring and a metaphor for Linda’s sense of unhappiness. Throughout the book, Linda’s partner is never named, but referred to as ‘husband’ and like their country regarded by Linda as ‘perfect’, yet uninspiring and anonymous, safe and functional, but lacking in emotion or passion for life. By contrast, her lover-to-be, politician Jacob Konig incites in Linda spontaneity, fear and risk, but also a feeling of being alive, of shaking things up.
For all her rather hollow exploration of what is perceived as impending depression, Linda disregards the implications for her child, or husband, of gambling with their marriage. Rather, the initial guilt erodes and the apparent antidote to her gnawing loneliness and unhappiness is even rationalised as “the present that I deserve after behaving for so many years”. The key character is an intelligent, beautiful woman and yet her response, which she describes as sordid, selfish, even sinister, is apparently beyond her control. Even though she anticipates her illicit affair is destined to be time-limited and is anxious about being discovered, Linda is addicted to the window into herself that Jacob has opened. Yet, her artificial creation of the ideal family and the perfect lover reek of weakness and a tragic, but pathetic attempt to distract from an unsatisfying life.
Fundamentally there is nothing new here. The grass is not always greener, beware what you wish for, treat others as you would wish to be treated, etc. Ironically perhaps, what may be viewed as self-indulgence, may also invite others to shape the immediate future. A test for even the taken for granted, ‘perfect’ husband.
The passing of the one hundredth Remembrance Day since the end of the Great War 1914-18, last November, gave good reason (if it was needed) to revisit some of the written records of that gloomy period of European history. Often poignant, the poetry, letters and tragic lists of the fallen offer reminders, lest we forget, of the sacrifice of a generation. However, given the colossal loss of life, what sometimes appears absent from contemporary accounts is a view from the non-commissioned ranks, a ‘Tommy’s’ experience from the trenches of the front lines. As such, this memoir by Cpl Sam Sutcliffe, collated/edited by his son Phillip, offers a telling insight into the chaos of conflict visited on so many and the mind-set of those so often cast as ‘cannon-fodder’. Even allowing for the retrospective writing of this lengthy book, the vivid descriptions created by the author and the accompanying endnotes, cross-referencing a wide range of confirmatory material, make this a sobering but compelling read. The title of the book gives an immediate flavour of the self-effacing humility of the author and yet he goes on to describe joining up aged just sixteen, with his older brother (Ted) and friends (in fact, Sam lied about his age, as the youngest recruit allowed was 19). The swell of public patriotic fervour in 1912 and the casual acceptance of the need to do ‘one’s duty’, in hindsight, seems naive. Moreover, the apparent absence of apprehension suggests a misunderstanding of the carnage of war. The phlegmatic acceptance of Sutcliffe’s parents to their young son’s decision also perhaps an echo of the national willingness to tolerate sacrifice. Though later, conscription became necessary and through his journey the author develops a certain cynicism about those who avoided service altogether and those who sought to distance themselves from the trenches at the front line, tempered only by the psychological breakdowns he witnessed there.
Subsequently Sutcliffe’s tender age did confer a temporary reprieve. Still not eighteen, the author had already fought in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and the first battle of the Somme, rising to the rank of acting Sergeant, when he was plucked briefly to safety until 1917 (when he became nineteen) and could be returned to the western front, in time for the anticipated Spring offensive. Captured during that monumental effort by Germany to end the war, Sutcliffe relates his subsequent experience as a prisoner-of-war and an equally challenging personal struggle to just stay alive and survive the attendant risk of disease and privation.
This book is an extraordinary account of a teenager’s experience of a brutal conflict that culminated in a vast body count. After Gallipoli (wherein having been evacuated his unit was returned to cover the withdrawal of the foremost positions), the author laments the decimation of his original battalion of volunteers from London, culled from a thousand men to around just two hundred. Indeed the scale of this loss appears to haunt Sutcliffe throughout his account and his perspective clearly changes regarding the veneer of national pride, which he sees laid bare amid such abject failure.
At times the book reads like a novel. For example, the author is separated from his brother early on, but their paths cross several times in the course of the war. Yet, there is no disguising the sense of relief when the siblings both survive, albeit Ted’s exposure to gas in the trenches had a lasting effect. No commentary on the strategic mistakes pored over by historians in subsequent decades, nor criticism of the class system which conferred leadership roles on some ill-equipped to inspire others, though Sutcliffe does single out a couple of officers revered for their compassionate and resilient example, who did indeed lead from the front. Nonetheless, the reader is left with the distinct impression that notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, Sam Sutcliffe’s contribution was indeed heroic and it is the collective efforts of many such ‘nobodies’ and a preparedness to do their ‘bit’ that ultimately made the crucial difference. We shall remember them…
A thoroughly interesting read this was my first dip into the work of Paul Dolan and though it was consistent with what I might have anticipated from a professor at one of our leading academic institutions (assiduously researched and referenced), it was also written in an engaging style that kept the readers attention. Offering some fascinating insights into the components of ‘happiness’, this book enables an individual audit of one’s own happiness and a means to attend more effectively to what matters. At the very least, Dolan encourages reflection on one’s ‘happiness production process’ and suggests that we have the potential to self-promote a greater sense of happiness. A substantial claim, but worth the investment of the time to read and make up one’s own mind.