Book review – Light by C. M. Taylor

Light front cover showing an illustration of a man in a white suit looking at fields, a house and barns.For a story bookended by deaths, Light by CM Taylor is for the most part a refreshingly cheerful affair.

Set in the 1990s against a backdrop of rural England a train ride from London, e-millionaires and enfant terribles of British art, Light  could have easily been titled Chiaroscuro, because it brims with as much darkness as light.

The core thread running through the novella is the friendship between narrator Ben and Will, formed in childhood, set aside for ten years and rediscovered when Will hires Ben as a gardener and odd-job man. A variety of stage-worthy characters jostle beneath Ben’s gaze, most notably Will’s ruthless wife Jessica and son Archie (named for a dead stranger), Sue, who has made a fortune from e-commerce, artist Maggie, and her boyfriend, the mostly silent Pavel.

Ben himself is rarely named – a choice that serves to emphasise how adrift he is as the novella unfolds. He’s a habitual witness impelled by people around him to take an active role.

“I was a grown up,” he observes early on. “I thought I was going to make it.”

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Book review – All Our Squandered Beauty by Amanda Huggins

All Our Squandered Beauty by Amanda HugginsIn her debut novella, Amanda Huggins casts her lyrical storytelling over the ruggedness of wild oceans, churning grief and raw adolescence with dizzying potency.

Set in 1978, the salt and tides of the North Sea flavour Huggins’ words as she introduces us to Kara, named after a sea in the Siberian Arctic and a guardian sprite who carried shipwrecked sailors “into the clouds in fishing nets” spun from her hair. Kara simultaneously thirsts for adventures beyond her field of vision while yearning to dive back into the safety of her past. Huggins captures this inner conflict beautifully, highlighting Kara’s confused emotions against a backdrop of motorbikes, unsuitable suitors, nature and art.

When Kara’s art teacher Leo informs her that she’s eligible for “a funded place for a gifted student” on a three-week art placement on a Greek island, Kara is swept away under a swell of first impressions that absorb every sense. Yet misgivings murmur beneath the surface, even as Huggins’ ribbons of words saturate us.

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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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