Book Review – SURVIVAL SKILLS by Jean Ryan

Survival Skills Synopsis

Survival Skills by Jean Ryan

Jean Ryan’s debut collection tells stories of nature and of human nature.

The characters who inhabit Jean Ryan’s graceful, imaginative collection of stories are survivors of accidents and acts of nature, of injuries both physical and emotional. Ryan writes of beauty and aging, of love won and lost-with characters enveloped in the mysteries of the natural world and the animal kingdom.

In “Greyhound,” a woman brings home a rescued dog for her troubled partner in hopes that they might heal one another-while the dog in “What Gretel Knows” is the keeper of her owner’s deepest secrets. In “Migration,” a recently divorced woman retreats to a lake front cabin where she is befriended by a mysterious Canada goose just as autumn begins to turn to winter. As a tornado ravages three towns in “The Spider in the Sink,” a storm chaser’s wife spares the life of a spider as she anxiously waits for her husband to return. And in “A Sea Change,” a relationship falls victim to a woman’s obsession with the world below the waves.

The world is at once a beautiful and perilous place, Jean Ryan’s stories tell us, and our lives are defined by the shelters we build. (Ashland Creek Press)


Survival Skills by Jean Ryan is one of the more unique offerings I have come across in my recent quest to read more short story collections. The collection consists of 13 standalone stories ranging from 6 to 21 pages in length. There is a real clarity and strong sense of purpose about each story, but common to all is Jean Ryan’s refreshing voice and open-minded and unadorned perspective.

For me, a successful short story is one that sticks in your mind long after reading, one that encourages you to either contemplate the deeper meaning of things, or see things through a different lens.

In Survival Skills Ryan explores our inextricable links with nature, both fauna and flora; the impact we humans have on our environment but more importantly the impact our environment has on us. Recurring themes were the transience and fragility of life, the value and importance of change and renewal, and an individuals’ power to positively influence the lives of others and their own.

The several stories that featured animals were the real standouts for me in this collection. Take this depth of understanding and the narrators respect for a ‘rescued dog’ in the story ‘Greyhound’,

There is something uncanny about this dog, some kind of age-old wisdom behind those luminous eyes. I get the feeling she is smarter than me and obeys out of politeness. Not that I need to issue many commands; Fawn comports herself so flawlessly I am embarrassed to put her on a leash.

and this from ‘What Gretel Knows’,

A dog’s mind is too wide and pure for judgement. Gretel’s foremost concern is my happiness, which she endlessly encourages me to pursue. Still, there are times when I walk in the house after being with Sam, and she gives me a long, questioning look. Do you know what you’re doing? she telegraphs. Are you sure this won’t wreck our lives?

And it’s not just dogs that are featured in Survival Skills – there are insects, bird life and sea creatures too!

A narrator’s knowing and wise perspective which in some instances verged on empathetic sarcasm, really appealed to me also.

I’m tired of bracing myself for the worst. Which is one reason I left Vermont and its spiteful winters and moved to Palm Springs. You don’t need pluck to live here; there aren’t any hurdles. My neighbours, lulled by gratification, are kindly and placid. If a calamity occurred, they’d be as helpless as fenced cattle.

But in the end, it is poignant passages such as this one, that I think sums up the character of this collection well.

I want to come back as a plant. A life above and a life below. No thinking, just finding. Water, food, light.

Maybe not a redwood; that’s a long, long life. A sunflower might be fun. One sturdy stalk zooming skyward, pushing fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, and then the grand finale: a giant yellow flower brimming with seeds. The ending an offering, a promise kept. Half a year on earth and not a single wasted moment.

Survival Skills by Jean Ryan is a life-affirming short story collection that role models understanding, acceptance and celebration of differences in life, in all its forms.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

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BOOK DETAILS: Survival Skills by Jean Ryan ( Amazon | Booktopia | Kobobooks | Apple iBookstore )

Genre: Short Stories, Literature, Drama

Author Information: Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. A horticultural enthusiast and chef of many years, Jean’s writing has always been her favorite pursuit. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Blue Lake Review, Damselfly, and Earthspeak. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister.

– Find out more about Jean Ryan at her website including a Q&A about her collection Survival Skills

Other reviews of Survival Skills: Luxury Reading; Publishers Weekly; Book Chatter; Savvy Verse & Wit

* Receiving this title free from Ashland Creek Press did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions in the review above.