Parcels in the Rain
Synopsis: Who is the mysterious stranger who carries parcels in the rain? Why does Joey want so badly to win the story competition? Has Archie Walker met his match in the Suited Man? And is Jasmine right in her belief that it’s possible to breathe under water? Elizabeth Ducie’s new collection contains short stories and flash fiction drafted over a seven-year period since she rediscovered creative writing in 2006.
However, the 31 pieces also include writing about two important parts of her life: her childhood and her travels as an adult. What was Christmas Eve like in the 1970s? How did the family celebrate Verdi at teatime? Why was it so difficult to leave Ukarine? And what do you do when someone is screaming “It’s alright, I’m with British Airways” in your ear while you are lying on a stretcher and are quite clearly NOT alright?
Parcels in the rain is the second story but before that is ‘One of these Days’ which, I thought, would set the tone for the rest of the book; real experiences that most readers will be able to relate to. It also explains the set-up of the items chosen; thirty-one pieces selected from writing spanning seven years: “a mixture of traditional short stories, flash fiction, travel writing and memoir.” I thought I would have to work out which was which and I’ll let you know how I got on. In theory, I won’t be able to tell because fact is often unbelievable, and fiction should be so convincing that we believe every word.
I’m a titles fan and I particularly looked forward to ‘Death in Business Class’, ‘Minnie the Jinx’, ‘The Story Competition’, ‘Your Bloody Boss’, ‘Stripping for the Company’, and ‘Dead Men’s Music’.
The first one had me imagining soggy packages, and the Saturday Mystery Man certainly intrigued me. There were some great turns of phrases e.g. ‘The light was fading quickly; as though it had something better to do than hang around a London suburb on a day like that.’ I was really surprised that this story wasn’t accepted (assuming Elizabeth had sent it off). It was delightful.
Next was ‘The Scent of Cherry Blossom’ which, although fiction (I assume only as it was third-person point of view) brought another ‘ahh’.
Those who know me and my writing know that I have a dead body in most of my stories so ‘Death in Business Class’ enticed me. The ‘Is there a doctor on board’ bit had me chuckling and even more so at the end.
With ‘The Tale of a Smile’, I had to read the first sentence three or four times before I realised its meaning. On reflection, I should have just read it once and kept reading because it made far more sense (and was a lovely hook) once I had read the whole story.
Set in Tunisia, I felt this would be one of the travel pieces. I don’t follow football but I can imagine that Ahmed was one of many who cried at David Beckham’s departure from Manchester United. The end of this story explains the beginning and it’s a truly magical story, in every sense of the word.
‘My Father’s Shed’ was a similar story to ‘The Scent of Cherry Blossom’. This character’s father’s shed sounds so similar to my father’s, except the little pots of screws in my father’s case – a former photographer – had loads of old film canisters. Another ‘ahh’ story.
Snapshots from Kazakhstan is another first-person point of view present tense story and while some much prefer third-person past tense, I like the intimacy of getting inside the character’s head now because it feels like you’re there with them. The great thing about stories set in foreign parts is the culture differences and this is a pleasure to read, doing what it says on the tin (title).
Sporting life takes us back to third person past tense and contemporary British names. Another gentle story, although less of an “ahh” than a quiet satisfied smile.
‘Liquid Plastic Smile’ was another title that had intrigued me so I flicked over my Kindle screen with pleasure. What is lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality of words, with an unusual cyclical start / ending.
I would be interested to know whether Elizabeth chose the order of the collection because we’re back overseas again with ‘Christmas in Jordan’. The title would imply that the reader can guess what sort of story they are going to get with this one and it’s not quite what I had expected, although I wasn’t disappointed. These interludes are familiar, regardless of point of view and tense, and feel like the writer is someone sending postcards home.
‘Minnie the Jinx’ was another story to look forward to and although I enjoyed the story, the ending felt a little flat to me, although it was a conclusion.
The shortest piece so far was up next, ‘Fire and Brimstone’. Short and definitely sharp.
Teatime Chorus is another gentle reminiscent piece written in familiar first-person reflection and I particularly loved ‘No one could do stern quite as well as my father’.
I love stories about writing so ‘The Story Competition’ was bound to appeal, and it didn’t disappoint. The same could be said for ‘The Day It Rained’, a really humbling piece.
The sign of good writing is when you can picture being somewhere with the character, and I really wanted to be with her in ‘My Indian Ocean Bath’.
‘Archie Walker and the Man in the Suit’ started with dialogue, which I always like, and what he (the man in the suit) says sets the tone for this wonderful character. The fact that he’s wearing a hat and the newspaper shop placard are excellent ways to date the piece, always useful. I did get a little confused as to which was which character as I initially assumed the man in the trilby was the man in the suit (having two ‘he’s can get complicated) but that was soon clarified. I did wonder where they were, keeping out of the rain. The story mentions a newspaper shop but the character’s looking into the street so it’s not clear whether they’re inside that shop or he’s looking at the shop, perhaps on the other side of the road, so just having which doorway the officious-looking little man pushed his way into would have helped. That said, this turned out to be my favourite story so far so with that little bit tweaked, it’s (in my opinion, and I’m a competition judge) a prize-winning story.
Next up was ‘Meryl’. With name titles we know it’s all about her and this was again an intimate piece. The only pick I’d have with this story is the use of ‘long moment’. While some writers (including some of my editing clients) like using it, I’ve never been a fan and again, it’s just my personal choice. I was a little confused of the mention of ‘the rocking chair she’d noticed on the veranda’ because she’s outside a drugstore and there’s been no mention of a veranda (or rocking chair) and to me, verandas and rocking chairs are normal home-based items. A lovely story nonetheless.
‘From Everglades to Baseball’ title had a definite US feel and that was quickly introduced as our location and established as a foreign destination for our (first-person pov) character. When I was studying on a creative writing degree course, I remember the tutor saying that my story of that part of the session was the only one that contained a colour (a red car, from memory) and this story is particularly rich in that respect. Another short tale with a satisfying, albeit subdued, ending.
‘Your Bloody Boss’ was yet another whose title had enticed me and another great piece with another great ending as was ‘The Christmas Visitor’, both with great twists.
Following on the Christmas theme (now I wish I was reading this over the festive period rather than 4th December) was ‘Christmas Even, 1970s Style’ which made me very hungry… roll on the 25th! In the collection there are several references to (the now-only-available-online) Woolworth’s which brought back memories, and is a great device for giving the reader a sense of location as well as timing.
As a keen swimmer, I smiled when I reached ‘Breathing Under Water’. There are occasions where commas are needed between a greeting or word and a person’s name where the character is talking to them. For example ‘No Jasmine’ in this story could be taken as the character having run out of the plant. I live in the Midlands, UK and would love to know where this narrator was born, although he says ‘as far as the sea as you can get’, which I thought was around Coventry (I’m further down the M6/M1 in Northampton) but the BBC has it as Derbyshire. Like the Christmas cooking, this story wanted me there to sample the delights of the Devon coast (see earlier reference to keen swimmer). I did guess the twist in this tale but it wasn’t a disappointment because I loved the ending.
Another one-word title, ‘Cows’, had another great hook and a very strong, short piece, although my Roald-Dahl-brain suspected a more sinister reason for their liberty than the story gave us (perhaps for a longer version).
We’re back overseas for ‘Leaving Ukraine’ and while we only get the experience of the motorway (highway) and the airport, the characters are what make this story. I would have liked a stronger ending but only because of the twists that have preceded this one, and my love for them.
‘Stripping for the Company’ can be taken at least two ways, and my naughty mind, you can guess which way I was thinking. The start of this reminded me of the George Clooney film ‘Up In The Air’ which is a favourite of mine (top 25 anyway). You should always hope to learn something from reading fiction and I never knew that the USSR parliament building was called The White House. Thank you, Elizabeth. Readers should warm to their characters, and while there’s little time to do that in pieces as short as the ones in this collection, I especially liked Josie. She’s thoughtful and caring, yet determined. I won’t tell you whether my naughty mind was right but let’s just say, I enjoyed the story.
Dead Men’s Music surprised me because it was laid out like a poem. Poetry is often without punctuation and there were too many full-stops (periods) in this one for me – they cut the flow but this could have been deliberate. I write very little poetry and I did have to read this a couple of times but like the previous pieces, it was very atmospheric with clearly words chosen very carefully.
‘Dad’s Garden’ returns us to first-person reflection of a father (always poignant for me as I lost mine September 2001) and again, one who is not around anymore. Another moving piece.
‘Decluttering’ was another great ditty and very believable, a slice-of-life story.
‘Why Did I Do This?’ took us back to Russia and I had hoped for Josie but this was another first-person viewpoint and it was an interesting monologue.
‘Closing the Accounts’ is a great title to have as a final story. Having read it, I did feel it needed more as it left me questioning whether the title of the TV programme was a significance to her species (maybe that’s my quirky brain) but I liked the significance of the dates and how they’d met. Another short, sharp piece.
OK, so that’s my deconstruction (apologies perhaps for such a detailed report but hopefully no spoilers). A downside? I have to be really picky to find one. There were a couple of typos (in the first story and ‘Leaving Ukraine’) and some of the dialogue punctuation, in my opinion anyway, should have full stops (periods) instead of commas. There is also some missing hyphenations (including six-thirty see http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/grammarlogs3/grammarlogs496.htm) and some words hyphenated where I wouldn’t have done (e.g. drug-store, half-way, book-shop, finger-nail, eye-lashes, sweat-shirt and dish-washer), and no spacing between paragraphs to indicate passages in time. There are also ‘I am’s instead of ‘I’m’ and ‘he had’ instead of ‘he’d’ contractions, which would speed up the read and make it feel more natural, but again that’s just me with my (British English) editor’s head on rather than a reviewer’s.
The writing throughout is very strong and oozed with rich detail, whilst keeping tight in structure. The characters are vivid with simple yet grounded name. The foreign locations are convincing – I don’t know if Elizabeth has been to them all but it certainly feels like she has. A writer should (a) never show off (she doesn’t) and (b) get their facts right (as far as I know, she has) and it’s evident Elizabeth is a seasoned writer. She goes beyond the norm especially using excellent verbs instead of more obvious ones, e.g ‘the ferry hugs the coast’ and ‘I tacked a welcome on my face’. Adverbs are used sparingly (although I would have got rid of ‘sighed happily’ in ‘Decluttering’) and, on the whole, every word counts. I did notice a few characters sighing and while they are appropriate, it’s something I’ve been picked up on in my writing so perhaps something for Elizabeth to keep an eye on (and feel free to keep including them!).
It’s a lovely collection which pulls at every emotion and I hope to read more of Elizabeth’s short pieces, short fiction being my first love. ‘Parcels in the Rain’ and Elizabeth’s other books are available from outlets including Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thank you for asking me to review your collection, Elizabeth. As you can tell, despite my picks, I really enjoyed it.
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has seven others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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