book review

Review: ‘last year, when we were young’ by Andrew J McKiernan

Why yes, it is review time again. Today’s review is brought to you by me, with reading material supplied by Andrew J McKiernan. And I thank him for it. Now before I go on to explain how wonderful these stories are, it’s disclaimer time:

I’ve known Andrew for a good few years, and is part of the awesome Sydney SHADOWS – a mad crowd of Sydney writers who get together for lunch and drinks and shenanigans and drinks (Fat Yak! Ahem. As you were…)

Right then, with the disclaimer out of the way, it’s spoiler alert time…

READ ON AT YOUR OWN SPOILERY RISK. MANAGEMENT IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR SPOILERS IF YOU READ PAST THIS POINT. SERIOUSLY, IF YOU READ PAST THIS POINT THEN BITCH ABOUT A SPOILER, I’LL WHACK YOU WITH THE BOOK.

I love short stories. I love writing them and I love reading them. Collections and anthologies are always a kind of crap shoot – you don’t know quite what you’re going to get, you just hope there’s at least a couple of gems inside. There’s an undeniable skill in being able to tell a complete story within a limited amount of words, and not everyone can do it. Andrew McKiernan is one of those writers who damn well can.

‘last year, when we were young’ is the first short story collection I’ve read this year, and it’s also McKiernan’s first short story collection. Put out through the Australian small press, Satalyte Publishing, this is a collection of extraordinary moments set mostly against the ordinary, where the everyday lives of everyday people, are thrust into the twisted and bizarre.

LastYearSample

The collection contains sixteen short stories, five of which I’d previously read (and proudly published one as co-editor of Midnight Echo, Issue 8 – ‘They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know’ – it’s a cracker of a tale, full of tortuous moments and killer mysticism). There are also two original stories in the collection, and they’re two of my favourites, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start by talking about the writing.

There’s a beauty in the way McKiernan uses words, how he weaves patterns with those words to tell a story, and it’s apparent from the first tale. The Memory of Water is a story of loss, fear, regret and longing, and McKiernan grabs you as much with his wordsmithing as he does with the story itself: ‘The ocean as some intelligent mother from whom we had all crawled – finned and gilled, gasping for air – and for whom we still owed reverence.’   

It would take forever for me to go into each and every story within the collection, so I’m going to go with those that most struck a chord with me. Though it’s difficult to pick a favourite, when I sit back and think on the stories, it’s always ‘Last Year, When We Were Young’, to which my mind keeps returning. It’s one of the original stories, and also the last in the collection; it’s also what the cover art is based on (which is another of McKiernan’s artistic pieces).

This story messes with your mind, in a totally good way. It makes you think, and there’s not much better than a story that makes you sit back and reflect. I so want to divulge the wonder of this story, but this is one best enjoyed without any spoilers. It really is a beautifully sorrowful tale of love, friendship, hope and hopelessness.

Keeping with the religious piety, A Prayer For Lazarus will have you rethinking humanity, religion and what some will do for those they love – not all of which is good, mind. But hey, madness is its own religion, no? Told from a child’s perspective, and in a child’s voice, there’s innocence in the horror, and that juxtaposition is one of the things that sets this story apart.

bloody-cross

The Desert Song is another that resonated with me, and as with a number of McKiernan’s stories, there’s a base of organised religion pitted against the ‘pagan’ and ‘insurgent’ belief systems. Set after an indeterminate apocalypse, a town struggles against an uprising of the creepy that sends most to madness. Definitely one of my top five of the collection.

While I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, The Wanderer in the Darkness, sits firmly within the genre, and dragged me in from the beginning and ignited that wariness, that fear of what lays beyond the stars. And according to McKiernan, it’s some scary, scary shit. There are some very spooky Cthulhu overtones in the monsters he’s created, and that can only be a good thing, right? Right?

The last story I’m going to mention here is White Lines, White Crosses. We’ve all seen those memorials at the side of the road, marking the final spot a final breath was taken – dead or dying flowers and white crosses. McKiernan delves into the story, the legend behind the white crosses that dog a small Australian town. It’s a tough, no-pulled punches tale about the believed invincibility of youth and the truth of reality… two very different realities. It hits hard.

Not all of the stories grabbed me, mind. Calliope: A Steam Romance, left me feeling a little flat, which is odd, as I love steampunk, but… *shrugs*, it just wasn’t for me. But that’s just one story out of sixteen, and if that isn’t the mark of a great collection, I don’t know what is.

On a Goodreads scale, I give ‘last year, when we were young’, five stars.

five stars

3 thoughts on “Review: ‘last year, when we were young’ by Andrew J McKiernan”

    1. I absolutely loved the title story; the juxtaposition of innocence and…how do I say this without spoiling…let’s go with ‘timeworn’, worked brilliantly. I felt for them all. It really was my favourite of the collection.

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