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 – 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 – 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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Book review – With One Eye On The Cows

with-one-eye-on-the-cowsGathering together 137 stellar micro fictions, With One Eye On The Cow: Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four is an anthology full of stamping, harrumphingly insistent words.

I have a particular fondness for slow-burn flashes, by which I mean the ones that burrow in and quietly stop then restart your heart. Not the well-worn trope of a twist in the tail, but the stories that seed in subtle clues that burst into bloom with startling vivacity. Those authors in my opinion have mastered the tricky craft of the short short.

A Kind God by Jesse Sensibar is a particularly fine example, beginning with the sublime and finishing with the prosaic, with a sliver of shock in between.

Elsewhere we rub shoulders with displaced families, and a vastly varied assortment of starting points of PTSD. We encounter the bravura of sexual, awakenings and dawning realisations, and seethe with the knowledge of thoughtless wrongs impossible to undo.

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Your indie Christmas list

Christmas gifts by Judy DarleyI’ve been reading and rereading books from numerous independent presses recently. Here’s my pick of the titles I believe warrant a place on your festive wishlist.

Nia coverNia by Robert Minhinnick

Published by Seren

Written in a style that verges on stream of consciousness, this dream book follows protagonist Nia around her home down fringed by sand dunes, underground and through her memories. With no speech marks in place, it’s occasionally uncertain what is spoken and what’s thought, while some conversations drop all attempts at signposting who speaking. It’s akin to eavesdropping in a place where voices are murmurs blanketed by a sea breeze – curiously soothing. Minhinnick is probably best known for his poetry, and his innate lyricism glows throughout. “Dad down on his knees pulling away the ivy. The ivy leaving scars, that’s how close it clung. I can still see the nettle blisters on the backs of his hands. All these white bumps. Like the ivy scars on the stone.” There is threat here, at times, but the painterly scenes make this a far gentler read than the hint of plot supposes. Ideal for early mornings in bed while the central heating clanks into life.THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN cover

The Colour of Things Unseen by Annee Lawrence

Published by Aurora Metro Books

An unerring respect for the spaces required for cultural differences underlines Annee Lawrence’s novel. From Java to Sydney, she paints a young artist’s blossoming understanding of the world as he travels from his rural village to art college in Australia. Yet, the real journey is far more internal, as Adi grasps at his own expectations, particularly with regards to women, and learns that there’s more than one route to follow for a relationship to thrive.

Adi is a character who is difficult to know, as Lawrence keeps him at arms’ length. His emotions always take on an abstract sense that not only reflects his own artwork, but illustrates how he feels as he navigates Australian values, so at odds with the ones he has grown up with.

Lawrence’s descriptions of Adi’s painting process, as well as of the locations in Java and Australia, make this an evocative novel that will inspire the urge to travel and discover the richness of cultural diversity for yourself.

Read Annee Lawrence’s guest post for SkyLightRain on how writing connects us across cultures and borders.

The False River coverThe False River by Nick Holdstock

Published by Unthank Books

“It had ben a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat,” writes Nick Holdstock in his story ‘New Traffic Patterns May Emerge’. “His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in face by a stranger. His perfect girlfriend Rachel had tried to stab him, then broken up with him by text.”

Don’t you want to read on?

This story trembles with the narratives that ripple beyond its confines, sometimes overtly with lines such as “Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the huge lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.” Holdstock has harnessed the omniscient viewpoint with an enviable aplomb, walking a tightrope between characters that keeps your focus taut. It’s a skill evident throughout his debut collection.

She Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear coverShe Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear by Louisa Bermingham

Published by Valley Press

For something entirely different, Valley Press’ most experimental title to date should tick a few boxes. Not quite poetry, and not quite prose, the story of a fuzzy, passionate bear succeeds in covering issues around depression, self-doubt and the power of embracing our inner bear. Every page features author and artist Louisa Bermingham’s quirky mixed media artwork, with line drawings and paintings brought to life with bundles of her own hair trimmings, not to mention elastic bands and other household scraps.

Don’t let the hair put you off! Our Hairy Scary Bear is a fierce, vulnerable and entirely lovable heroine who will remind you that it’s healthy to have the occasional emotional outburst, but that you might do better to fight fire with water in tricky situations. Plus it’s beautifully printed, so there’s no risk at all of bear hair ending up in your tea.

the everumblethe everrumble by Michelle Elvy

Published by Ad Hoc Fiction

Without a doubt, this is my favourite book of 2019, if not the decade. Just thinking about it, my head fills with its colours and textures.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

Author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity.

Read my full review of the everrumble by Michelle Elvy.

A flash fiction – Going Coastal

Seahorse by Judy DarleyIn June I spent a glorious weekend helping out at the Flash Festival at Trinity College near Bristol. I attended as many of the workshops as I could and found myself utterly inspired! Vanessa Gebbie’s workshop ‘The Wierd and Wonderful World of Flash Fiction’ generated zillions of ideas, one of which began with a seahorse and bloomed into my 250-word micro tale Going Coastal.

Here are the opening lines:

Bernadette looked at the seahorse bobbing in its jar of saltwater. It blinked at her through the thick bevelled glass. She thought it seemed depressed.”

I’m delighted to see it published in the Flash Fiction Festival Three anthology, where it jostles happily alongside 81 other micros, including works by some of the flash fiction universe’s luminaries, not least Vanessa herself, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Carrie Etter, Karen Jones, Santino Prinzi and Peter Wortsman, plus a whole exceptional horde of others!

Can’t wait for next year’s Flash Fiction Festival – tickets are available here. The anthology is published by Ad Hoc Fiction and available to buy here.

In the meantime, this is what I’ll be reading:

Flash Fiction Festival Three

Book review – All That is Between Us by K. M. Elkes

All That Is Between UsWarning: the intimacy in this book sneaks up on you, so that you’re living between the lines before you’ve had a chance to consider the implications – that if you do this, you’re going to empathise. You’re going to feel.

It’s a trait of K.M. Elkes’ writing that’s impossible to avoid. He draws you in with humour, and with exquisitely visual writing, until suddenly you realise you’ve become the character pressing their ear “against a window to feel the vibrations of trains and the deep, deep breath of the city”.

That’s a rare talent, most visible in this collection, perhaps, in You Wonder How They Sleep, in which the lines above appear.

Somehow, Elkes transports you, body and soul, less to another place than to another state of mind, into another’s state of mind.

In this collection, his debut (remarkably, it feels he should already have a shelf-ful of own-works), Elkes not so much invites you into other lives, as commandeers you: for the time it takes to read one of these brief flashes, or one and the next, and the next – as they’re addictive – you are immersed. You breathe the air his characters breathe, and ache exactly where they ache.

Elkes’ elegance with language is vivid throughout, frequently offering fresh terms on which to understand the world – “the buttery tang of trodden grass”, an old book with “the edges of its pages the colour of beer”, taxi cabs “yellow as a smoker’s finger.”

Picking a favourite story seems cruel, like choosing between a class-full of children, but inevitably one charmed me with its wit, its pathos and the ecological truth underpinning its fantasy. The King of Throwaway Islandis a love story in which the tale itself is being written by the protagonist repeatedly and released in plastic bottles from the island of refuse he’s been shipwrecked upon. “My island gets a little smaller ever time I send you a letter. But I stay confident – that’s part of the new me.”

In Swimming Lessons, an overbearing dad battles the ingrained hurt inflicted by his own father. Fathers crop up in many of the stories, often cruel, usually misguided, occasionally striving to do their best, and, at times, succeeding.

In Three Kids, Two Balloons, Elkes takes a passing moment and harnesses it in a way that somehow manages to be funny and moving and powerful. Hints of flippancy here, as in many of the stories, are deceptive, as beneath each is a bolt of such tenderness that you’ll be stopped in your tracks.

It’s intriguing that by fixing our focus firmly on the people at the heart of each tale, the stories themselves swell outwards, so that the details chosen to depict place and time become transferable across countries and, to an extent, eras. Loss is perhaps the most universally recognised emotion, and Elkes has the ability to make every situation he turns to infinitely relatable.

In that sense, the collection’s title rings with particular resonance – chiming with the awareness that in fact all that is between us are the things that make us human, which means that time, location and circumstance matter far less than our responses to the situations we find ourselves within.

 All That Is Between Us by K. M. Elkes is published by Ad Hoc Fiction and is available to buy here.

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.