Poetry review – Fontanelle by Helen Sheppard

Fontanelle cover by Helen SheppardFontanelle by Helen Sheppard opens aptly with ‘Opening’, a poem that deposits us directly in the most intimate of situations – a birth. We’re at the business end with Sheppard, guiding a person into the world with all the gunge and wonder it entails.

And herein lies the power of Sheppard’s poetry. As a former midwife, her awe at this daily miracle is evident, even garlanded in the gravy of bodily excretions. Far from shying away from squeamish sights, Sheppard celebrates them for their essential role in our most earthbound and miraculous acts.

“A gestation reaches its timely conclusion./ Her muscled hammock softens, slackens./ I am with her wet slit, hands quiet, ready.”

In Safe Harbour we meet a person yet to breathe: “You flex and stretch/ and wallow in water,/ all bump and tail./ You tether, then float,/ wriggle to sea sounds”.

The writing is visceral, yet tender, each layered emotion wound in with exquisite tension.

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Poetry review – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

100 Poems to Save the Earth coverHow could a single poem, or 1000, hope to save our world? That’s the question laid out by Seren in their latest anthology, 100 Poems to Save the Earth. In 127 pages they answer time and again – through revealing the ecstatic beauty of nature, and its perilous fragility, as expressed here by poets ranging from Simon Armitage to Sheenagh Pugh to Alice Oswald.

The anthology’s editors, Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, state in the Introduction that “we live in a time of unprecedented crisis”, but that poetry “calls us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, (…) to see all things as our kin.”

In Chorus, David Morley reminds us how “The swallow unmakes the Spring and names the Summer” while “The bullfinches feather-fight the birdbath into a bloodbath”. It’s a vivid reminder both of the majesty of nature, and the characteristics we’re prone to share.

Some of the poems ache with such exquisiteness that I felt a lump in my throat as I read. Carrie Etter’s Karner Blue is one such work, with its echoing refrain of “Because” drawing you in: “Because its wingspan is an inch./ Because it requires blue lupine./ Because to become blue it has to ingest the leaves of a blue plant.” And once we’ve marvel at the wonders that comprise this butterfly, the damning line is served: “Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.”

Yearning lines abound throughout, urging us into wild spaces: “I go and lie down where the wood drake/ rests in his beauty on the water” (The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry); “Stride out with your boots on, or, better still/ barefoot, and be inside the wind a while” (Water of AE, Em Strang).

Meanwhile, Isabel Galleymore’s Limpet & Drill-Tongued Whelk devotes 14 lines to seaside molluscs, describing a limpet as: “moon textured, the shape of light/ pointing through frosted glass.”

Elsewhere there are conversations with and between trees, and “redwoods veined with centuries of light” (Earth, John Burnside), while Kei Miller brings us the world’s palette in To Know Green from Green. In Sean Hewitt’s Meadow, loss of a loved one tangles in with “the beehive’s sultry/ murmur” as the poet watches “each floret and petal/ inscribe life in its colour.”

Nature in this context offers both consolation and affirmation.

The anthology contains countless lines of awe regarding our wild neighbours, from fungus to octopus, woven in with notes of foreboding. One of the most chilling for me vaults from Sina Queyras’ From ‘Endless Inter-states’: 1, in which the narrator offers “coffee, hot while there is still/ coffee this far north, while there is still news/ to wake up to, and seasons”.

There’s humour too, as in Rhian EdwardsThe Gulls are Mugging and Samuel Tongue’s Fish Counter, which offers “Wise lumps of raw tuna”, “Fish fingers mashed from fragments of once-fish”, and “Hake three-ways”, before delivering the warning: “Choose before the ice melts.”

Near the end, in Dom Bury’s Threshold, we uncover the urgency beneath these poems – these declarations of love, of alarm, of sadness amid beauty, as the poet shares the realisation “That we have to be taken to the edge of death/ to choose, as one, how we live.”

A thought-provoking, at times disconcerting, occasionally heartbreaking, but more often veneration-inspiring hoard of nature-observations, this anthology speaks the message we all need to hear: we must do more than just notice nature to save it and ourselves, but noticing is a good first step.

100 Poems to Save the Earth, edited by Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, is published by Seven Books and available to buy here.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com.

Book review – Inside Fictional Minds by Dr Stephanie Carty

Inside-Fictional-Minds-book coverI don’t know about you, but I often find ‘how to’ books a little hard to digest. Rules can be particularly off-putting when it comes to creative acts such as writing fiction.

With Inside Fictional Minds, Dr Stephanie Carty overcomes those barriers with ease. A light, hearty tone delivers psychological insights that will help you to regard your protagonist, and, let’s face it, yourself, afresh.

The book falls into three sections: The Basics, The Specifics and Putting It All Together. As Carty writes in the introduction: “The first section will cover a wide range of topics about how characters (well, humans… but let’s keep saying characters) feel, think and interact.”

Through exploring the fundamental beliefs, relationships and perceptions that inform  behaviour, alongside exercises that place your characters in settings beyond the story world you’ve created for them, Carty equips us to view our created people with dazzling clarity and to unpick the complex myriad of experiences that have shaped them. Even if these moments happen off-page and aren’t mentioned within the story itself, through identifying these influences and their impacts, Carty furnishes us to build three-dimensional characters whose responses to the plot will be as richly nuanced as any real person’s.

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Book review – The Evolution of Birds by Sara Hills

The-Evolution-of-Birds. Shows book cover of girl with matchstick legs and a bird's head.As fans of Sara Hills’ flash fiction have learnt to expect, the author’s debut collection The Evolution of Birds is crammed with crisp, heart-glancing prose that will leave you at times reeling, and often desperate to give the narrator a hug.

The title story tells of a group of girls at Survival Camp learning to whittle and fire arrows, a skill many of the characters in the following stories could benefit from. In three compact pages, Hills captures the savagery of girls, where reluctance to kill (a pigeon, though more is hinted at) results in goading and scorn.

“With shaking hands, she held her bow taut and took aim. Her arrow was off by a foot. When the lucky bird rose up in flight, we weren’t far behind.”

Hills excels at duality in tales, slanting her word choices with care so they can be read in multiple ways depending on how you hold them up to the light.

Talking of words, Hills demonstrates a visual, visceral way with language that ensures you can feel her sentences on the tips of your fingers and in the back of your throat. Pre-teen protagonists have “breast buds like bottle caps”, a pink dress is “frilled-lizard ugly.”

In ‘Finders Keepers’, the ravages of parenthood are summed up in little over two pages: “When the baby coughs, you measure your youth in medicinal, syrupy spoonfuls. When it’s teary, you weave a blanket from the pink striated fibers of your heart.”

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Novelette review – The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood

Homemade Weather book coverThe final novelette of Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash from Retreat West Books is an emotionally-charged story of a girl picking her way through a childhood where parents may present the biggest dangers. The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood was awarded third place in Retreat West’s novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan.

Greenwood paints scenes that layer the unreal over the real, so that we almost need to hold them up to the light to recognise the truths bleeding through. Opening with ‘In the Night They Will Come For Me’, our protagonist talks of the hyenas that gobbled her mother’s eyes, and of how “On Mum’s good days, we watched her fly above the earth”, while on bad days “she would lie at the bottom of the ocean (…) she let us drown a thousand times.”

In ‘Lost Jesus’, we learn that “Dad wants her to be normal” and that “Dad drinks a lot”, a fact that the protagonist blames initially on herself and her sisters. Humour jolts through this story, but panic whispers at the edges of the family’s laughter.

Comedy lifts passages of fear: that the wardrobe the girls take refuge in is known as the War Dog, “because Nessy couldn’t say wardrobe when we first discovered the sanctity of its walls.”

A playfulness with form also delivers otherwise potentially bleak tales with a weft of whimsy. ‘How to Make a Cup of Tea at 3am In The Morning’ is a stunning example of this, with Ingredients including “Sugar, the last hardened clumps at the bottom of the bag are best” and Method including “2. Wake in the midst of a dream (nightmares are best)”, “4. Check all siblings are still sleeping”, “12. Ring your grandma. Tell her your mother has run away.”

I urge you to read the whole hermit crab flash for the full impact of this particular compact masterpiece.

Greenwood has a magic touch when it comes to these topics, lacing sorrows with beauty and darkness with innocence that elevates her novelette to a poignant and entrancing read. In the world she crafts, mental illness is elemental, with the suffocating sting of salt-water and the “mad glare of the moon.” A drunk father may be a bear, even as “its great paws scoop” you out of bed to go and watch fireworks. A mother’s eyes are “two dark holes” and the line between love and hate is perilously sheer.

In “Things I Can’t Pack Into My Suitcase” we’re treated to another hermit crab flash, in which love and fear is spelled out through a litany of “sleepy giggles”, “belly laughs” and “unnameable bangs and slaps.” It’s a list that builds to a heart-fracturing crescendo that explains the presence of the suitcase and the desire to leave, stronger than the need to stay.

In the title flash, ‘The Impossibility Of Wings’, the experience of a farewell is only brought into focus in retrospect, when love finally unfolds and shows us its wings. It’s a whisper to the child hiding in the wardrobe and making tea at 3am that through all the darkness, tenderness curls, seeking the strength and courage to emerge.

An intense and deeply moving portrayal of a child growing up mired in both parents’ mental frailties.

Read my review of Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien and my review of What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien, the first and second award-winning novelettes in Retreat West’s anthology.

Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash is published by Retreat West and is available to buy from www.retreatwest.co.uk/homemade-weather.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com.

Novelette review – What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien

Homemade Weather book coverThe second novelette of Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash from Retreat West Books draws you into the life of a man who has gone awry. What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien was awarded second place in Retreat West’s novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan.

It begins with a scene of such contemplative observation that it would be easy to miss the significance of the word craving: “Another craving has brought him to the window and he is standing there with a cigarette when he sees it.”

The ‘it’ is a fox passing by with something in its jaws. This vivid visual serves as a metaphor for the entire novelette, where our protagonist drifts from being the fox to, more naturally it seems, being the helpless creature between the predator’s teeth.

None of the characters are named in this exquisitely melancholic novelette, hinting that in one unthinking moment we could find ourselves in such an existence. Snow, blood on snow, and leafless trees, are recurring images, emphasising the perilous wilderness at the edges of our everyday lives. At times, reading this, I felt physically cold.

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Novelette review – Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien

Homemade Weather book coverThe title novelette of this anthology from Retreat West Books, Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien was the winning entry in the publisher’s new novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan, and deserves its star position whole-heartedly.

The author immerses us in his protagonist’s world, keeping the focus tight and intimate. Celia Finn lives within view of a mountain that frames her childhood. Rather than bickering like other families in the area, her parents have periods of tense unspoken exchanges that Celia imagines as she sits on the stairs within earshot of what’s unsaid.

Celia is a faithful believer in rituals, and the novelette opens with her writing her name three times, an act that serves both to introduce her to us and to offer a sense of protection as her dog Ollie whistles his last breaths “to the mountain across the valley, with its band of shadowed woods.”

There’s a striking control to O’Brien’s writing – each word chosen with care and each statement neatly balanced to underplay emotions in a way that ensures they seep under our skin. Each sensation felt by Celia is delivered to us with considered care. At the doctor’s, “I felt his peppermint breath turn from me when he sent a look to my mother”, while her parents fail to argue out loud, she wants ‘to go back to my room, to close the door and hear only clean quiet.”

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Book review – the other side of better by Michelle Elvy

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy book coverFans of Michelle Elvy’s novella-in-flash the everrumble (and yes, I very much count myself among them) are in for a treat with the author’s newest offering. the other side of better, is another literary marvel the defies categorisation, skirting genres and forms alike, with flash fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and general musings all layering together like a bowl of salt, sweet and umami-flavoured popcorn.

I was left with a palpable impression of the author’s deep affection for both her invented and remembered characters and the spaces they inhabit.

In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Shore’, Elvy offers up a painterly scene while drawing on all our senses: “A sandbar juts out and canvas claps as we tack away”, “Squishing feel, wet marsh”, and, most beautifully of all, in writing of a heron: “My wants are a blue-grey ghost, gliding.”

Something about those word choices suggest the cool of the barely discernible sky, the smell of the water and the quiet of the author’s heart, at that time, in that place.

Elvy’s specificity illuminates images in your mind’s eye. Consider ‘And in the museum: triptych’, in which fledging yearnings are offset against whaling memorabilia. “Beth is always at Marianne’s side. They have matching sweaters. John is wedged in, trapped behind the girls. (…) Beth takes Marianne’s hand: a barricade of laced fingers.” Those tightly written sentences capture a moment wholly particular and yet entirely universal.

Interspersed between some of the stories, and in a 27-page wedge in the collection’s centre, you’ll find notes from “the Fuddy-Duddy Editor” who “was once a Fuddy-Duddy Writer.” These intrusions, the literary equivalent of a theatrical aside, add humour and insight, as well as making you, in some cases, feel a surge of defensiveness towards the tale you just enjoyed and which she is now picking holes in. It’s a neat trick.

“Lost and found in Berlin” is a self-contained tale that re-emerges in this central part as a powerfully constrained abbreviation. By shifting from first to third person, the second version shines up our impression of the protagonist and of her tenderness towards an old man with a trainset in his basement at the end of an East Berlin trainline. “The girl recalled  the tiny free world, and the bigger walled world.”

It’s an imperfect echo that ripples through many of Elvy’s works – the themes explored, exquisitely polished, and then tipped on their heads; the memories subverted into fictions that read truer than any inventory of facts; and of sounds swelling with unuttered secrets just beyond the pages’ confines. It all succeeds in challenging us to engage in dialogue with Elvy’s hybrid forms.

Adventures small and large brim within these pages, where you’ll only need to hold your breath for exhilaration’s sake.

In the final section, ‘in a dream in a dream in a dream’, Elvy splices together fragments of climate fiction in the voices of an elephant, a sloth, a giraffe, and a deeply self-satisfied hippo, among others. The author sweeps us across oceans to shores where “waves roll in like timpani” and libraries serve up poetry with tea, draws us into childhood dreams of sails and pectoral fins, and enshrouds us in loss and discoveries. Through it all, Elvy reminds us of the joy to be found in this extraordinary world of ours, and that it’s up to us to choose to “give it a try.”

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction. Buy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Book review – Deep Water by Lu Hersey

I originally wrote and published my review of Deep Water by Lu Hersey in September 2015. I really loved this book and have been awaiting the sequel avidly! The book has just been released in a fresh edition by Tangent Books, so I decided to re-publish the review in support of Lu’s beautiful writing.

Deep Water by Lu HerseyLu Hersey’s debut may have been written with a teen readership in mind, but it transcends the YA category with a tender, eerie tale of marine myths and magic. Lu won the 2013 Mslexia Children’s Novel Writing Award for Deep Water, and the gentle, almost stealthy start belies the thrill and beauty of this book.

Danni is your average 15-year-old with an average family life, or so she thinks until the day she comes home to find her mother missing and a mysterious pool of salt water on the kitchen floor.

Along with cheery sidekick Levi, Danni is packed off to stay with her dad in Cornwall and soon becomes immersed in a world where curses take the form of ‘poppets’, the weather can be charmed with knotted fabric and a select few can take the form of seals when the fancy takes them.

In Cornwall, Danni gets to meet a family member she thought was long deceased, and discovers an inherited trait that will change her life forever – she’s a sea person, and needs to transform into a seal on a regular basis to retain her health and sanity.

Drawing on Cornish Celtic legends, Lu has created a version of the metamorphous stories that’s far removed from the fey prettiness of most mermaid tales – changing is physically excruciating for Danni and a mackerel she consumes while in seal form is painfully thrown up when returned to human physiology. Details like this keep the fantasy elements firmly rooted in reality, and make you invest wholeheartedly in the flawed yet potent core characters.

The underwater scenes are powerfully written – atmospheric and charged with dazzling energy. “Out in the open water, we circle a swarm of ghostly jellyfish with cauliflower-like tentacles that have somehow survived the winter, drifting along on some invisible current. I swim through the darkening water, somersaulting round and round in sheer joy at the sensation and the freedom.”

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Book review – Am I in the Right Place? by Ben Pester

Am I In The Right Place book coverIf your preferred reading place and time is in bed before sleep, you may need to develop new habits for Ben Pester’s debut collection Am I in the Right Place? Seemingly ordinary settings (a café; an office) twitch with unreliable edges that threaten to upend into the unknown. Cupboards open into other worlds, and roads lead to versions of memories that encroach on the present in unexpected ways.

We open with a character waiting to meet his ageing father, and then spooling into a journey where anxiety lingers with such a palpable presence it almost takes on human form.

Later in the collection, in ‘Low Energy Meeting’ a line manager introduces us to the embodiment of his love, a sorrowful figure in a dingy dressing gown.

Emotions here have powers to shift our surroundings, making every step uncertain. What was floor moments ago could now be a hole with an insatiable appetite.

Some pages, dyed black from corner to corner, abandon us to our rattled thoughts only quieted by the rustle of us scrabbling to get to the next printed words.

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