Book review – Seventy Percent Water by Jeanette Sheppard

SeventyPercentWater coverJeanette Sheppard’s debut flash fiction collection brims with sensitively perceived, reflective stories that creep beneath our surfaces, reminding us how drops of water can change a landscape, physically, aesthetically and psychologically.

These compact stories embrace big topics. The shifting boundaries of awareness linked to ageing and dementia recur throughout, like ripples spreading outwards, inexorably.

‘Rattle and Spin’ is a beautiful story of a woman who is growing unrooted from her sense of self, yet retains her dignity. The tale flows with steady momentum from line to line, guiding ‘you’ to treat this woman with the respect she has earnt and discover how much more she is than what you take in at first glance.

“Go on, sit in her chair. She will pull up a seat, make you laugh until your mouth swells ready to burst.”

The last sentence is heartachingly tender.

‘How to Enter Another Galaxy’ is another instructional piece. This time, the subject in for exaltation are those annoyingly futile calls to corporations, while you, the caller, have one hand gripping the phone and the other juggling a cat. Naturally, the intergalactic being you need to speak to is never the one on the end of the line.

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Book review – Stillicide by Cynan Jones

Originally written as a commission for BBC Radio 4, this spare, vivid book conjures a time when drinking water has become a rare and precious commodity.

Cynan Jones describes Stillicide as a collection of interlinked short stories. Each provides additional viewpoints and textures to the overarching examination of a future in which water is commodified.

As with all of Cynan’s writing, individual sentences have been honed into missiles, designed to carry and deliver information and emotion in the most efficient way possible, with the spaces on the page designed to make their impact all the more resonant.

Far from being bleak, the chapters or stories are a comfort to climb into, as each is understood from inside a single character’s mind. There’s an unexpected but welcome sense of being sheltered by their grey matter, and of gazing outwards at the strange, thirsty world they inhabit. A meditative quality seeps from the pages, even as the themes themselves ripple with injustice and quiet rage.

The space Cynan has created is far enough removed to give him the freedom to invent at will, yet close enough to remain dauntingly recognisable.

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Book review – Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins

Scratched Enamel Heart cover_Amanda_HugginsThere’s a conciseness to Amanda Huggins’ writing that makes me think of a stitch being drawn taut – her words pull the core of you to the core of a story until you gasp for breath.

Her Costa Short Story Award shortlisted tale ‘Red’ uses crimson dust to create a vivid, slightly melancholy landscape where a lone stray dog provides the hope, and a memory of better times provide the drive to reach like a scrawny sapling for light. Like Rowe, the protagonist of the preceding story “Where The Sky Starts’, Mollie needs to leave the place she’s supposed to call home or risk being trapped in a life that could suck her beyond sight of all hope, drive and light.

Huggins has a vivid mastery of words that whips up a setting you can virtually walk into, and uses that mastery to construct scenery that weaves the story’s mood around you: “Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.”

It’s poetically precise and powerful.

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Poetry review – dare i be gentle by Susan Hitching

dare i be gentle cover_web1Susan Hitching’s debut poetry collection, dare i be gentle, alights on moments glimpsed and spins them into observations that feather outwards to encompass entire worlds.

A line of bras on a washing line offer up the soar, sway and surge of garments, and perhaps people, pegged out over boglands, while ‘The Shirt You Left Behind’ becomes a lover’s tender lament. Storytelling weaves its spell in ‘DIY Wizard’, deftly evoking the quirky magic of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, in lines such as “The screeching of owls is heard/ in his dreams as an orchestra of power tools…”

Like Thomas, Hitching has a knack of hooking the glory in the overlooked and the extraordinary grace in the apparently commonplace.

Details are harnessed and hoisted into prime position, such as the ‘Little Red Shoes’, laboriously and triumphantly buckled onto the wrong feet.

In fact, our well-intentioned mistakes are celebrated throughout. One of my favourites in the collection is ‘Stealing From The Arboretum’, a perfect micro story in 20 vivid lines. Hitching describes the ‘stolen forest’ with humour and affection – a gleeful, rueful anecdote aglow with wit and vivacity.

Word are harvested and arranged with a delicacy that imbues more than is written, creating expanding ripples of understanding. In ‘Feral Shadows’, it’s the vulnerability of the infant lying “peeled/ between feathered and cottony sleep’, while the act of pincering “the dissolving/sherbet lemon/ from between my fizzing teeth” in ‘Kissing At Barking Station’, crows of the delights of a rebellious attitude, regardless of age.

Dreamier, briefer poems appear in clutches like hedge-snagged sheep’s wool, with larger font and plenty of clean white space to flutter against on the page. Evoking the County Kerry scenery that Hitching lives amidst, these poems are deft sketches of time and place. ‘lone tree’ is an ode to a solitary stalwart:

lone tree

you survive

a symbol
drawn in the land

catching the moons
on shannon’s hill

where

reed and wire
play for you

all        year    long

In ‘Tonight I Feel Uneasy’, Hitching harnesses whispers of folklore, mentioning the shadowy “long tailed furries” “while rats and hares in guises/ rustle the gorse and grasses, and “a monstrous cow” that “coughs an echo”.” Eerie and beautiful.

Hitching’s poems invite us to stray from signposted footpaths and explore the sun-dappled, mud-fringed shadows. In the quiet pleasures of her words I glimpse hints of Sheenagh Pugh’s  http://www.skylightrain.com/poetry-review-afternoons-go-nowhere-by-sheenagh-pugh/ playful poetic prowess, while Hitching’s talent for the more painterly arts gleams through in colourful strands.

Susan Hitching

Susan Hitching

These are poems of that strive to, and succeed in, capturing the wild beauty of the south-western toes of Ireland, while shining up the wonder to be found in the mundanity of everyday life and all its glorious oddities and follies. Hitching is a writer, and a human, with a passion for her surroundings, in all its forms, and through her gaze we can learn to delight anew.

dare i be gentle by Susan Hitching is available to buy from: https://www.facebook.com/dare-i-be-gentle-102586724779527/

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 – Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold

SOUL ETCHINGS, SANDRA ARNOLDIn a book of trees, dragonflies and birds, stories flit and alight on wings crafted from printed paper. Each page contains a world of sunlight and shade, many trailing heartbreak, maltreatment or the bruises of being misunderstood,

Author Sandra Arnold’s heroes are strong-willed, sensitive souls who are often spirited away by the end of the page and a half that comprises their world.

As I read, I could visualise each setting vividly, and my head filled with branches of sun-dappled leaves. It reminded me of my own childhood in trees, and of living more inside imaginary worlds than the so-called real world.  Flash fiction is a form that requires immense discipline, and Arnold paints carefully selected words into exquisite scenes: “spider webs shivered like torn lace” and “the sea was polished glass,” and dawn’s many beauties, aglow in Blood of the Stone, include “the first pale notes of birds.’

In The Girl Who Wanted to Fly, our heroine is “breath in the newborn calf.”

Yet running beneath the poetic imagery is a great deal of anger and grief for damaged childhoods. This is a book of lost children, and the people who abuse, bully and drive them away, or who simply lack the power to save them. A yearning to flee flutters throughout, alongside a deep passion for the natural world over the urban.

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Poetry review – Bloodlines by Sarah Wimbush

Bloodlines by Sarah WimbushSarah Wimbush won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2019 with this slim yet seductively insidious collection. Wimbush’s verses creep in under collar and cuff, sending shivers across your scalp.

Weaving in the salt and pepper of Traveller idioms, Wimbush draws us into a journey through her own heritage, where we meet heroes and queens of lanes and fields.

You’ll learn some gorgeous terms along the way: “nose warmer” for pipe, “hedge mumper’ for tramp, and “drum” for road, as well as less familiar words, such as “yog” for fire and “chokka” for shoes. Some felt familiar without me knowing why – “mush” for man, for instance, and “shushti” for rabbit. It all adds to the richness of the telling.

In some poems Wimbush conjures the litany of a life in just a handful of lines, such as with Our Jud, who “rarely missed a fisticuffing up the Old Blue Bell./ And that time calmed the lady’s filly bolting up the road.” Each sentence has the fireside flavour of a blustering anecdote, yet summons facets of courage, heart and honour beside the bravado. Any of us could be proud to be seen as clearly as Wimbush describes Jud.

And yes, there is romance in much of the lustrous imagery, but unfrilled and honest. There’s a nod to the rebellious, the eternally loyal and the larking, with hints of hardship and hard work among revelries.

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Oceans, harbours and ecological art

Jellyfish. Part of a collaborative project to illustrate a coffee-table book on plankton with a focus on phytoplankton. By Scott Luis Masson.I was walking along Bristol’s harbourside when I spied Scott Luís Masson’s glorious oceanic artwork for the first time. Schools of fish spooling towards sunlight, small rowers battling gigantic waves and other-worldly, gelatinous orbs netted my attention. Diving a little deeper, I discovered an intriguing ecological slant to the artwork, with a focus on oceans and responsible plastic use. Scott tells me this was very much a conscious choice.

“I’ve lived by the sea for parts of my life and always found it an inspirational environment,” he says. “Soon after my career change into illustration I began illustrating ocean and sea life pieces for various personal and then collaborative book projects, and ended up with a lot of images as a result that became stand-alone prints.”

Diatoms Study. Part of a collaborative project to illustrate a coffeetable book on plankton with a focus on phytoplankton.

Diatoms Study. Part of a collaborative project to illustrate a coffee table book on plankton with a focus on phytoplankton.

Prior to this, Scott was a teacher of secondary and A-level Design Technology and ks3 Art. “I always knew I had to pursue my own creative aspirations at some point, and was actually doing woodwork part time whilst teaching as the potential start of a career change, but I realised when I began making guitars that it was just an expensive hobby!” he recalls. “Illustration seemed a more viable option and I always wanted to get back into drawing and artwork in general and knew that later in life I’d regret not doing this. It was actually when my dad passed away unexpectedly that I was prompted to question what I was waiting for and to finally take the decision.”

Scott’s marine-inspired images led to further projects and opportunities including exhibiting at conferences and fairs alongside ocean conservation organisations.

“Regarding plastics, this topic obviously goes hand in hand with the ocean,” Scott comments.

Plastic Attack by Scott Luís Masson

Plastic Attack by Scott Luís Masson

As he was becoming known for his ocean-themed artwork, Shambala Festival 2018 approached Scott to illustrate the plastics problem as a large-scale painting. “The painting acted as a stage backdrop for the Raw Foundation ‘Raw Talks’ that took place at Shambala Festival 2018.

Shambala Painting by Scott Luis Masson

Shambala Painting by Scott Luís Masson

“As someone who wants to live responsibly where I can – which is definitely a work in progress – I relish the chances to use art to promote awareness of the issue,” Scott says. “I started packaging my prints in biodegradable waxed paper last year instead of plastic sleeves.”

Narrative is a natural component of Scott’s artwork, and he particularly enjoys storytelling as an element of creating illustrations.

“It’s an opportunity to fully use your imagination!” he exclaims. “Illustration is a midway point between art and design, creating art work to what is essentially a design brief, even if that brief is a personal one, and it can be asking for your creative response to many possible things. This interpretation is what I enjoy, trying to depict something visually, often someone else’s concept, as you imagine it, and then seeing the author’s response to this.”

http://www.skylightrain.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Ardid-and-the-Seagull-ollaborative-project-to-illustrate-a-childrens-storybook.-By-Scott-Luis-Masson.jpg

A scene from Ardid and the Seagull, a oollaborative project to illustrate a children’s storybook.

The opportunity to work with creatives in other disciplines is another part of the appeal.  “Often illustration can be a fairly solitary activity so it can be great to work with a ‘colleague’ for a while.”

He says that juggling myriad demands is the biggest challenge of any collaboration.

“Time is hard enough to manage individually and we’re all busy with countless aspects to our lives,” he says. “When collaborating with writers the source of the content is the text, but projects can often get stalled for a variety of professional and personal reasons. It’s great when one gets going again, though. Perhaps that break allows for reflection and the outcome will be better for it.”

A passion for music drives other projects and commissions. “I love anything related to music,” Scott comments. “As someone who grew up with albums, I’ve always appreciated amazing artwork on covers and within sleeves. Responding to something audial with visuals always excites me. I’ve created the art and sleeve design for one album so far and hope to work on more in the future if opportunities come my way.”

Fish by Scott Luis Masson

A new work of art or series of artworks begins with a design process of “first thoughts, research and sketches,” Scott explains, “by which point I can normally see if a good composition is going to be possible. I tend to move onto ink as quickly as possible as my style is very linear and it’s the loose inky lines that hopefully bring the image to life, after which I scan and usually add colour digitally.”

Scott describes his frame of mind when starting a new artwork as being “a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I’m my own ‘best’ critic and always feel I can produce better work, so the beginning is often an overwhelming feeling of wanting to do so.”

Ocean Drifter's book_illustration by Scott Luis Masson

Fortunately, he finds he’s usually happy with the outcome. “That brings a sense of achievement as well as relief, after which I’ll start that process of reflection about how the next piece can be better.”

Scott hopes to inspire viewers with “a level of intrigue about an image, maybe a sense of depth, which I try to bring to anything I draw. Hopefully they might feel like it’s something that stands out a little, which has been said to me a few times at illustration and craft fairs and is always really pleasing to hear!”

To see more of Scott’s artwork, visit slmillustration.com, where you’ll also find links to his social media feeds.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judydarley(at)iCloud.com. I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review – One Scheme of Happiness by Ali Thurm

One-Scheme-of-HappinessA deliciously discomforting read that will creep under your skin.

Set against a vividly realised setting of a small Northern town in the shadow of a defunct lighthouse, author Ali Thurm paints a journey into obsession and manipulation with steadily building menace. The title is drawn from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Helen, Thurm’s narrator, regards Fanny Price as her role model. They are both quiet and easily overlooked. Helen hopes to share in Fanny’s happy ending, and is prepared to do whatever she can to achieve that.

Helen has been living with and caring for her ailing mother for twenty years, and has become a little set in her ways. When her mum passes away, it feels like the start of something, but at first it isn’t clear what. A friend of her mum’s suggests a trip abroad, “now that you’ve got some money”, but Helen isn’t ready for the unknown. “Why would I give up the comforts of home to wait around in airports and be ruled by timetables? (…) I don’t want anything to change. This is where I want to be.”

It takes the return of two old school friends to help her realise that this is only partly true. Through the fog of grief and coping strategies, Helen’s former bestie Vicky emerges, with her husband Sam, who Helen adored at school, coming home for reasons unspecified until the novel’s end.

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Novella-in-flash review – An Inheritance by Diane Simmons

An Inheritance Diane Simmons coverLifetimes pass in a twinkling in this novella-in-flash from Diane Simmons. Eighteen tightly woven short stories sew together moving glimpses into the love, betrayals and reconciliations of four generations over a span of seventy years from 1932 to 2002.

We enter their world via a door into a pawnbrokers’, where kind-hearted Thomas is moved to help those who enter his dad’s shop in their darkest hours. By the end of the novella, we’re rediscovering the unclaimed items from that shop, alongside Thomas’ grandchildren, and understanding the desperation and hope those shops and their glinting miasma of contents represented.

The book’s earliest flashes stream by at disconcerting speed – it took me a few disconcerted chapters to adjust to their pace. Deaths and funerals rattled by with unnerving rapidity, and I found myself craving deeper delves into the lives Simmons’ wafted past my eyes. One blink, and I felt I might miss a crucial triumph or catastrophe.

The velocity eases as the novella progresses, however, and I realise now how accurately Simmons has captured a sense of the past through the her use of acceleration in those early chapters. Ask anyone about an ancestor, and the likelihood is that in return you’ll receive a blurred array of snapshots – births, marriages and deaths, an anecdote of a feud or act of selflessness and little more.

As we near the current century, we have a chance to catch our breath, and fully focus on the people before us.

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Theatre review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson1

George and Martha invite Nick and Honey to join them for a nightcapIt’s way too late in the evening, but what do they have to lose?

So reads the description on the Tobacco Factory Theatres’ website, and the answer is really quite a lot. Dignity, trust and self-respect are just a few of the traits that will be ripped to shreds by the end of the three act, three-hour and 15-minute performance.

Martha (Pooky Quesnel) and George (Mark Meadows) are already deeply embedded in the academic community that Nick (Joseph Tweedale) and Honey (Francesca Henry) have just joined, so perhaps it’s natural that the younger couple accept an invitation for a post-party party at Martha and George’s. But even the hosts aren’t prepared for the toxic darkness of the games that unfold between the four players.

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as nick and Honey in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The drama is almost entirely semantic (despite some exuberantly comic dancing from Henry). In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  language is weaponised, and aimed to cause maximum damage. Director David Mercatali says “When I first read it, I couldn’t believe words could be so exciting.” His four-strong (extremely strong) cast make the most of Edward Albee’s scorching lines, veering from joyful to tearful and vindictive to protective on the head of a pin. At the heart of it is a couple disappointed by circumstance, and displacing that onto each other despite a deep burning love. Without the affection and evident flickers of adoration, the cruelty might be impossible to bear.

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

Quesnel eases us in with a double-feat of performing Martha doing an impression of Bette Davis, with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor thrown in. George already has his slippers on before she announces they’re expecting guests, delivering her first kick to George as he berates her for “springing things on me all the time.”

Meadows delivers George’s commentary with razor-sharp humour.

“In my mind you are bedded in cement up to the neck,” says George to Martha in an acerbic moment. “No, up to the nose, it’s quieter.”

The laughter, anecdotes and snarky remarks grow increasingly frantic as the booze flows and each individual makes admissions that they’ll most likely regret. A gun presents a joke and flowers become missiles while a broken bottle crushes to dust under their feet.

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round space presents the ideal arena for the challenges, with Anisha Fields’ minimal set providing only the essentials – two chairs, a long low backed (thankfully – for those sitting behind it) sofa with books strewn beneath it, a side table with a record player, and a well-stocked bar. It paints the era without fuss, and keeps our focus on the couples.

Quesnel is startling and unnerving, veering from welcoming hostess to seductress to weeping child desperate for love. Meadows is equally adept, revealing George’s underlying rage in small parcels between entreaties and insults. Over the course of the play he refers to Martha as his “yumyum”, and a “cyclops” without missing a beat. And when Honey coyly asks to use the bathroom, George says to Martha: “Show her where we keep the euphemism?”

Tweedale’s Nick holds his own against George, defending both his own wife and Martha against the barbs that come their way, even as the alcohol reduces him to a jocular jock, leaning into the toxic tomfoolery. Henry’s Honey is keen to like and be liked by all, slipping in observations that strip away the veneer momentarily. Her comic timing lifts some bleaker moments into laughter, keeping us on the right side of this emotional juggernaut of a play.

It is long, and could perhaps benefit from having a few lines shaved off here and there, especially in act two. But it’s hugely enjoyable too. Even as you squirm in your seat for those on stage, feeling your own adrenalin heighten, you can’t help being aware of the glory of seeing sharp minds battle it out and wonder who if anyone will make it out alive.

A searing indictment of thwarted ambition, with deep sadness and enduring love at its heart.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, until 21st March 2020.

Images: Mark Dawson Photography.

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, get in touch.