Book review – Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien

Straw Gods coverSet in a coastal village and on the surrounding seas, Tom O’Brien’s intensely told novella-in-flash examines the insularity and isolation of grief.

Our narrator is Rosa, living on the shore of the sea that swallowed her husband Matteo ten years ago. With the sound of waves endlessly within earshot, she can’t move on from the hope that Matteo will re-emerge with the next tide.

It opens with a powerful declaration: ‘“I know that you’re dead,” I said to my husband. He didn’t respond.’

Rituals bring scant comfort – the making of tea for a wraith who can never drink it, the poring over of treasures he gave her as tokens of their love – each repeated as if Rosa can lull nature into letting what it has taken slip back to where it, or rather he, belongs.

Rosa confides: ‘There was no storm when he drowned. A freak wave hit the boat, they told me, caused by something far away.’ The details of this sentence are intriguing – the idea of something so seemingly inconsequentially distant could cause such devastation in the centre of a woman’s life ripples through every story that makes up the novella.

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Book review – if there is no shelter by Tracey Slaughter

if there is no shelter book cover showing seats in a bus shelter.Piecing together the gritty aftermath of an earthquake in extraordinarily vivid and poetic language, Tracey Slaughter’s novella-in-flash has the strength to shake you to your core.

Written entirely in the second person, she places ‘you’ directly inside the drama that unfolds as people count their loved ones, their possessions and their blessings. With each header a line from instructions on what to do in a disaster, she both deepens and lessens the horror through the relationships shivering around her narrator: her severely injured husband, her missing, presumably dead, lover, her guilt-stricken father and his determinedly buoyant friend Jack, who provides much of the comfort while seeking relief from his own fears through gathering and hoarding fragments of other people’s shattered lives.

In “use common sense, keep calm, and follow any instructions given’, Slaughter depicts the discombobulation following a cataclysm on this scale, wryly observing the sightseers venting in the narrator’s dad’s taxi. “They feel compassion, but also ripped off. It’s like booking a luxury break in a carpark.” Even in the bleakness, Slaughter serves up humour amid lines of startling beauty: “The gouge through the Cathedral roof is like a hole straight through to God.”

Slaughter describes unfathomable terrors in sentences so perfectly crafted that we’re standing right there beside the narrator. Her husband, being carried through a fractured hospital, is “all the emergency I could breathe.” Glass is a threat: “we know it careens at you in jerks, until your freckles are lit up, red studded.”

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Theatre review – The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter cr Jack Offord2

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter photo by Jack Offord

We may not be able to make it out to theatres this festive season, but Bristol Old Vic has come up with an ingenious way for you to get your cultural Christmas fix from home, and support them in their efforts to keep their noses above the snow.

The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter is a visual and musical feast that I originally reviewed in December 2015. To tempt you to take a look, I’m re-publishing this review here.

While aimed primarily at tiny tots aged 2-6, like all the best children’s fiction, it includes plenty of humour for grown folks too, thanks to the talents of the three multi-tasking performers, Clare Beresford on the double base, Miriam Gould on the violin, and Dominic Conway playing guitar, banjo and ukulele.

Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway in The Night Autumn Turned To Winter Photo by Jack Offord

Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway. Pic cr Jack Offord

The show is a collaboration between the celebrated Little Bulb Theatre, Farnham Maltings and Bristol Old Vic, and is crammed with moments to treasure, regardless of age. Keen on opera-singing rabbits? They’ve got those. A moral conundrum between a fly, a frog and a spider? It’s in there. A Scottish owl quoting poetry by Robert Burns? Absolutely (and this one is a particular pleasure). There’s also a smattering of audience participation as we aid the woodland wardens (who happen to be fairies, though not of your usual fey and Disney-fied variety) in helping the animals prepare for the long winter ahead, but just enough to keep the smaller audience members entranced.

The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter photo by Jack Offord

Miriam Gould and Clare Beresford as opera-singing rabbits. Photo by Jack Offord

As clever lighting shifts the timescale from day to night, one final treat may be in store – a glimpse of the winter unicorn. Give yourself up to the magic of the spectacle and you’ll feel a shiver run down your spine as it finally trots into view…

To invite the wonder into your home, you can buy the Bristol Old Vic At Home Season Pass and watch The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter along with four other stellar Bristol Old Vic productions (including their extraordinary A Christmas Carol), for just £12.99. Alternatively, you can rent The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter on its own for 48-hours for just £4.50.

Find full details here.

Book review – When It’s Not Called Making Love by Karen Jones

when-its-not-called-making-love coverFewer friendships are more complicated than the same-sex ones we have as we near and break into our teens. In ‘When It’s Not Called Making Love,’ Karen Jones draws us into the intimacy that straddles bullying and lust, as innocence sloughs off cell by cell.

Jones makes powerful use of the novel-in-flash form, with each of her 16 flash fictions building on the last as her characters hurtle towards adulthood.

While each story could be siphoned off to stand alone and shimmering in solitary perfection, each plays such a crucial role to the overarching tale that should any be removed, the whole structure could shatter. This contributes to the tension of the underlying story, with a sense of characters clinging on by their fingertips.

The novella opens with ‘Recommended Stopping Distance’, a flash that rings out for almost a full page in one long torrential sentence, before finally a full stop allows us to take a breath. There’s so much crammed into this first sentence that it’s worth reading twice – once for the sheer exhilaration of it, and again, to catch the details that may become important later.

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Book review – Don’t Tell The Bees by Mary-Jane Holmes

Don’t Tell The Bees by Mary-Jane HolmesIn this powerfully layered and tightly stitched novella-in-flash, author Mary-Jane Holmes weaves a world where nature waits in corners and on the edge of hearing, barely out of sight.

Our protagonist, known as ‘No-more’ after the refrain her mother was rumoured to have repeated after her birth “over and over again”, is as spirited as the wild creatures who share the landscape she roams. The opening story deposits her in our lap as her mother leaves her “howling in twitch grass by the river” so that she survives only  because her father finds her stumbles back to the loom, leaving her father Maurice to tie her to his back so that her waking moments are spent “in quarry and field” with his blood pulsing against her own.

Although rooted in “the marshlands from Damvix to Gruelle” in France, there’s a sensuous texture to the novella that evokes folk tales from all parts of the world where people are in rhythm with the land.

Holmes draw us ever deeper into a place where we can feel the cool mud under our feet, and when No-more’s beloved father is hooked by a tip of a weather-vane he is repairing, we fly with him, caught on the same breeze, so visceral is the writing.

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Book review – The House on the Corner by Alison Woodhouse

The House on the Corner coverBookended by the purchase and sale of a home, Alison Woodhouse’s debut novella in flash explores the bricks and mortar that form a family. Woodhouse mines the emotions grinding below the activities of everyday life – the small resentments, disappointments and unspoken dreams we pick up on without identifying, knowing only that we feel uneasy.

The unnamed estate agent has ambitions for the home she needs to sell – “She hoped she’d found the right family to bring the house back to life.”

In less than four pages, Woodhouse introduces us to the individuals that make up the 1980s family tasked with this job: Martin, “who turned up in a smart suit, carrying a briefcase”, Helen, “flustered and fifteen minutes late”, plus the children, later named as Joe and Natalie, who “had climbed into the pink bath. They sat opposite each other, foreheads touching as they whispered.”

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Book review – Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff

Stray Our Pieces cover photoLeo Tolstoy opens his novel Anna Karenina with the legendary lines: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In Stray Our Pieces you’ll discover one of the most authentic representations of the latter – an ordinary family scraping by, with little to bind them together other than inertia.

At the centre of this apathy you’ll find the family matriarch, Gloria, a woman who drifted into marriage and would love to drift back out, if only she could dredge up the energy that would require. Author Jason Graff has created an anti-heroine whose howling discontent reminds us never to grow complacent. Whether you warm to her or (more likely) not, there’s no doubting that she’ll get under your skin.

Gloria grew up with a strong idea about who she would be as an adult. When that plan got derailed in her early twenties, she honed the full force of her ambition into a seething exasperation with the life she’s found herself mired in. This includes her son David, at times gloriously full of promise, and at others, in Gloria’s eyes, achingly disappointing. He, too, has failed to meet her expectations.

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Book review – Going Short by Nancy Stohlman

going-short-coverThis book is the perfect cheerleader to see you on your first steps of the flash fiction journey. If you’ve been playing in the flash arena for a while, Going Short may well be the coach to take your flash skills to the next level.

With a subtitle of “An Invitation  To Flash Fiction”, Nancy Stohlman’s guide is a warm welcome, with chapters arrayed in bite-sized segments where every word earns its place. She leads by example, explaining the definition of flash fiction as you might to a non-writer friend in a pub (or, more likely these days, over Zoom), laying out word count (under 1,000) and purpose “to tell a story even if much of that story is implied.”

Immediately, I’m bubbling with questions. How do we know how much to tell and how much to imply? How can we trust the reader to be on our wave length and understand the unwritten?

In Part One: Writing Flash Fiction, I reach a paragraph titled ‘The Blank Page’ and am immediately gripped. Stohlman’s concise sentences brook no arguments as they command you’ to let go: of clever tricks, of descriptions, of our need to explain – all things I struggle with in my own writing. “Let silences be potent,” she urges, “don’t rush to fill them.”

It’s advice that sounds almost languid until you reach the next page, titled ‘Urgency.’

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Book review – Families and Other Natural Disasters by Anita Goveas

Families and Other Natural Disasters by Anita Goveas coverAt first glance, the five sections of Anita Goveas’ collection appear elemental. A closer look rewards with the dawning understanding that the categories are types of natural disaster, with the final two a little more tongue in cheek. Fire, Water, Wind, Love and Families each warn of the emotions contained within, or, more, likely, poised to spill over.

The opening sentence of a collection is crucial in setting the tone for what’s to come. Goveas does this fearlessly, dropping into our laps the unflinching line: “There’s an ancient prophesy that you’ll die by volcano.” What Really Gets You Is the Rising Heat is a story that speaks of the expectations we fight against to forge our own path, even if that does turn out to be directly to the same volcano’s mouth our parents marked for us.

The titles form a poetry of their own, with the second tale warning us from the off that A Pilgrimage Can Be One Way, before enfolding us in ‘packing’ and ‘to do’ lists that contain humour, love and heartache within deftly rendered brevity. It’s the kind of hermit crab flash that hints at tireless hours of crafting.

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Book review – This Alone Could Save Us by Santino Prinzi

This Alone Could Save Us coverDespite the saying that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, inevitably, we all do it to some extent. In the case of This Alone Could Save Us, though no doubt completed long before we were up to our necks in global calamities, the cover image by artist Stuart Buck paired with that title feels prescient, and, reader, it delivers.

Story after story, some barely half a page long (one only a sentence), feed our darting minds, offer distraction and comfort.

And, yes, there are flashes of sorrow and regret, but there are also stories here of quiet, quivering joy. One of my favourites is Costume: “I taste salt and camaraderie on my tongue. The wind whips past our skin and the sand flicks behind us as we run towards the waves.”

Exhilaration and triumph rise outwards with those flicks of sand.

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