BOOK REVIEW: Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman

Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman is an exceptional and masterful collection of short stories. It contains the short story ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes‘ which won her the 2013 Costa Short Story Award – plus another twelve mouth-watering offerings which in there own rights could be award winners too.

The collection kept me enraptured from start to finish, such is the originality on show. Each story is unique and memorable and then there is the writing, which is masterful. I have to admit that I’d not read any of Readman’s work previously, she seemed to have evaded my attention, but now I have her in my crosshairs, I’ll be reading everything else she ever writes.

The collection starts off with the title story Don’t Try This at Home – this story is why I love weird fiction, Readman’s writing is strikingly beautiful, and her story hits you like a meat cleaver, leaving its mark long after the story has finished. It’s the type of story that can define a short story writers career. It’s bold and direct and for me, it summed up all the different hats we put on to please a partner or spouse, all the parts of our personality we either lose or box away when we find that person we want to be with. Readman shows that however hard we try to compartmentalise these traits, feelings and thoughts – sometimes they can’t help but surface and when they do they can have drastic effects. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. It is a masterclass in writing and the central themes were handled with guile and a deft touch which sets you up nicely for what is an beguiling collection.

Conceptual – is artistically brilliant, the writing is whimsical, and this combined with the key themes that run through the story like a thread in a beautiful tapestry ensure they are hard hitting and in some way personal to the reader. It’s about artistic freedom, about being who you are no matter the cost – but we soon find out that the cost is too much to bear, that in searching for this freedom, you might just lose it all. I found the story quite sad and depressing (in a good way), watching a family dynamic be stripped away, being forced to change, bend and submit to external factors – heartbreakingly awesome.

‘Then things changed. Mum gave dad a Valentine’s of skin she had shed in the past year. He flew a photo of her up to the sky and let go of the strings. There was nothing conceptual about the woman he left us for. She owned a paper shop. It was nowhere near as exciting as it sounds. It wasn’t a shop build of paper which the wind moved to where it was needed. It just sold stationary and magazines.’

Surviving Sainthood – Is a tragic tale about a childhood accident involving a brother and sister (who has been disabled ever since the incident), but a tale which is masterfully told. I really enjoyed the echo pattern that Readman uses here to highlight and move the reader forward through the ongoing ripples that have happened since that ground zero event. The story is laced with bitterness and tenderness, but there is a great big dollop of hope in the middle, but mottled with the desperation of a parent to see their child healed.

‘Every night, Mom slipped photographs of sick kids under your pillow and read you letters from strangers like bedtime stories, ‘God bless you both. I know what you’re going through… my son has ADD… my daughter has diabetes… my husband’s battling with… You’re in our prayers, Jessica. Please pray for us.”

There’s a Woman Works Down The Chip Shop – a meandering, transformative tale which was very fun to read and interesting to observe. It has some wondrous moments where we see what this woman wants to be, what her carnal instincts are, but she is battered and bruised, suffocated by a previous life and outdated belief systems. So, she is forced to live the life she wants in secret (behind her chip shop counter). When this life starts to seep out into the community she faces a backlash. It’s a great LGBTQ story and goes someway to showcase the bigotry that is in the world and what some people have to endure when all they want to be is the person they were born to be. But like a power animal the main protagonist of our story channels the spirit and physicality of Elvis. Strange I know, but it works, it works so so well. Also let me tell you Elvis came, he conquered and then left the building!

‘My mother was like a Custard Cream, nothing special, an ordinary sort of nice enough. She was just there, like gravity.’

Birds Without Wings – is a great observational piece of writing and a story which has such a hidden depth to it. It is in essence a story about a mother and daughter who go vacationing in Mexico. They try to have a good time, but there are constant undertones and sarcastic comments from her mother and we get a small glimpse into the childhood she has had to endure. It’s a story about children not living up to their parents expectations, always being a disappointment, always having to bite your tongue and watch your manners, dress a certain way or whatever the fuck you need to do to please them. It’s a very touching story, expertly told and riddled with meaning.

A traveller without observation is a bird without wings.’

Shine On – is a fabulously rich and weird tale, set around a mother who is fighting to get custody of her baby, but she hides a secret, she is able to see peoples shine. She’s able to see them through a vision (which is the shine), not just imagining what they are doing, but actually see them. It’s a skill that comes in handy, she can shine in on her son and see him where he is. But with great power comes great responsibility. She shines on her friends without their knowledge, hearing what her friends actually think about her, as they talk behind her back, discussing her current problems, her idiotic boyfriend and that she won’t be getting her child back. It’s a sad story, it’s heartbreaking in places and builds subtly to a very powerful and poignant conclusion. It’s a story that I am glad Readman brought to the collection – it breaks my heart each time I think about it, that is the mark of a great story.

‘Shania sucks a frozen lolly like a Sex Ed teacher gone rogue. It’s October, but that doesn’t stop her. Once, I saw her buy ice cream in the snow like she was daring herself to feel all of the cold.’

When We Were Witches – Reminded me of the Slavic folklore of Baba Yaga. It’s a wonderfully dark and mesmeric tale (had me thinking about Zoe Gilbert’s work), it is so different from the other stories in the collection. It’s creepy and dark and unravels gradually as you tuck into the beautifully crafted prose, unravelling inch by inch like a ball of twine with each turn of the page. A deftly crafted tale that feel remarkably like a folktale but told in a fresh and unique way. It has a twist in the tale which brings the whole story to a dramatic conclusion, which was enjoyable to witness all the pieces littered throughout the story fall into place. There was so much I enjoyed in this story – but I won’t quote any of it to you, I’ll leave you with an image I saw online recently which I feel sums up the tale beautifully (I have no idea who drew it, but I thought of this story as soon as I saw it).

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Everywhere You Don’t Want To Be – Our main protagonist stumbles over a homeless woman who looks like her, its not a big deal, but then she keeps seeing her everywhere she goes. If she changes her mind and goes to another coffee shop…she’ll still be there sitting outside waiting to berate her with intimate details about her life. It’s a cracking story which I loved, it’s haunting and disturbing and darn right brilliant. This vision, this homeless woman is her, its an echo of her through time, showing up and guiding her through wrong decisions and staying hidden and aloof when right choices are presented and taken – its a warning, a blessing and quite possibly a curse. Weird fiction may have just found its queen with Readman.

‘I recognised it, I recognised her. The bag lady. It was horrible. She looked just like me. She was me, in how many years’ time?’

Dog Years: Life As A Dog-Faced Girl – This is more of a flash fiction piece, a witty tale with a smashing closing line. It follows the life of a little girl that is sold into a circus freak show, and who inevitably is put to work and made is made from her unfortunate circumstance, with many people taking advantage of her. It’s short, sweet and ends with a great throwaway line, which whenever I think about it, it makes me laugh to this day.

The Keeper of the Jackalopes – a taxidermist father and his daughter entertain a man offering to buy the land that their mobile home sits on, so his company can build a new shopping mall, but this land is precious and they won’t give it up without a fight. It’s where the Jackalopes roam. This is the Costa Short Story Prize winning story – any bloody hell is it good. The story is so deep, it’s got so many layers, Shrek would say it was like an onion. We have the ongoing issues of a company trying to buy the land, in order to build a new shopping complex. Then we have the subtly laced information that father and daughter don’t have a pot to piss in, so they have the inevitable struggle of the mind, the money would make their lives easier, but would rob them of their home and that of the Jackalopes. We witness them dumpster diving in the evenings to get food for the week – but through all of this we see they are content, they are happy with their lot…there are some things money can’t buy. It’s a story about pride, about not giving up no matter the odds. There are various tools that Readman weaves into this story which I loved, the repetitiveness of coming back to the stuffed animals and various taxidermy items, the fathers various words that he uses to shield his little ‘pumpkin‘ from his cussing – each tool works wonderfully well and add further depth and brilliance to this astounding piece of fiction. This is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

‘The hunting store in town used to buy the animals, the museum too. Since the store closed and the museum got computers, business isn’t what it was. Clary feels the animals are breading, crowding in. Yet still her father can’t pass anything on a roadside without stopping and wondering if he can make it work.’

Catwoman Had Something – is a fabulous tale that centres on an aunty who could have been Catwoman and her sister who was and is anything but. The story hit a cord with me, we can all relate to having that aunty or uncle who is the black sheep of the family, the one as children we couldn’t help but lap up (for me it was my archaeologist uncle – he was just and is so damn cool), it causes serious hero worship, but to the consternation of the parents as they try to dissuade you from being anything like that bum. As the aunty gets older we witness her still clinging to her flirtatious harlot ways that have been a mainstay in her life since she was young, men seem to swoon around her like wasps around jam sandwiches – she can’t seem to give up that life, although her looks have depreciated over time. But she has a secret – and Lana her niece is soon to be the recipient of an inheritance that will reveal the hidden secret of the woman who could have been Catwoman and the tropes of men that fling themselves at her daily.

‘She was part of our family like a cat who comes and goes, but mostly goes. We left a hole in the door all the same.’

Boys Like Dolls – This is an interesting story about a boy called Nathan who has an imaginary friend in the form of his GI Joe figure. It’s a bittersweet story as we learn that the boys father is in the army, off fighting a war somewhere. Joe is Nathan’s only real friend, and we learn that his family is at breaking point, both emotionally (a warn down mother trying to cope, raising two children and living in constant fear of her husbands life being taken away from her) and financially. Nathan’s mother is struggling to put food on the table for her young family. It all comes to a head one day when Nathan shoplifts some new clothes fo his GI Joe at the shops. Readman again excels in giving us a heart-wrenching tale to end such a masterful collection.

Don’t Try This at Home is an arrestingly beautiful collection. Readman’s words seem to linger in your mouth like a very expensive whisky, making them a delight to consume, like honey on your lips, I wanted to savour every morsel that was on offer. Readman showcases her brilliance in the short story form time and time again, and on the back of this collection and I would say that she has raised the bar considerably, for other short story writers to follow.

Readman with her unique style and masterfully crafted collection, will become a defining voice in propelling the short story genre forward to new heights. If you are learning your trade in the short story form, this book needs to be on your core reading list…such is the brilliance on offer!

Don’t Try This at Home is published by And Other Stories and is available here.

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Angela Readman

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Angela Readman is a twice-shortlisted winner of the Costa Short Story Award. Her debut story collection Don’t Try This at Home was published by And Other Stories in 2015. It won The Rubery Book Prize and was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She also writes poetry, and her collection The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches in 2016. Something Like Breathing is her first novel.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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