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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Anthology review – No Good Deed

No Good DeedUnexpected gems abound in Retreat West’s 2019 Charity Anthology. You’ll unearth them like lost ancient treasures by  roadsides where characters dreamt up by an assortment of outstandingly original writers immerse themselves in stories of generous acts, for the most part committed for no better reason than to alleviate someone’s anxiety or improve a slim chance of a better life.

In the case of the latter, it’s not only humans on their way to hopefully improved circumstances. Johanna Robinson‘s exquisitely wistful Bufo Bufo juxtaposes an ailing father with a communal project to help toads cross a road. “A toad stirs next to my foot, and I crouch and reach. I’m careful to hold it and not-hold it. It’s a new sense, to grip but not squeeze. Not too hard; not too soft. (…) Body soft but bony and skin glowing like topaz. Dangling legs every now and again pumping the air, like an electrical fault.”

Climbing Wall by Rosie Garland offers an askance view of what happens when we only take care of others and forget to look after ourselves, while in Seedlings by W.T. Paterson, a child’s belief converts a father’s lie into a startling truth.

“‘The first language a child learns is story,’ Navi said. ‘The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if. Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.’”

A Longing For Clouds by Amanda Huggins is redolent with aromas that weave through the passages, evoking the rich, sensual squalor of heat, from “the pungent scent of overripe mangoes” to “sandalwood on warm skin”. Huggins’ story is a masterclass in engaging the senses, as she evokes scenes vivid with jewel colours, textures and flavours, overlaid with a yearning nostalgia.

“The only sound she could hear was the faint tinkle of the tiny bells on the women’s bracelets and ankle chains. The noise reminded Maggie of the dress she wore to Deepak’s wedding; cerulean blue with bells around the hem. It conjured the warmth of the soft Jaipur dusk; the air heavy with incense and sandalwood attar, the gate adorned with flowers. Bright saris, silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes. The bride, nervous and pale, beautifully gift-wrapped in red and gold.”

Thought-provoking lines shine throughout the anthology, often revealing a wealth of backstory in only a few, carefully chosen words. In Blue Swing by Matty Bannond, it’s the memory of a father “who was always there but usually facing the wrong way”, while in Dancing Crimson by Claire Hinchliffe, we encounter the zigzagging narrative of a woman, Miranda, who we begin to decipher through her simple yet poetic description of a common kitchen implement: “There’s a strange silver bowl covered in tiny holes, like rain and sprinkles and Blackpool.”

The breadth and variety of the stories is at times startling, with a focus that zooms into the minutiae of everyday lives before swooping outwards to carry us thousands of miles across our planet to concentrate on another life, another viewpoint and another example of empathy.

In many cases, the theme of ‘Help’ is the only connecting thread among these compact, heartfelt, and occasionally surreal stories. But what a strong thread that is, reminding us that regardless of our protagonists’ preoccupations and concerns, the underlying characteristic they share is humanity and the desire, however confused or grudging, to reach out and make a positive difference. An uplifting read for our times.

Sales from No Good Deed raise funds for the Indigo Volunteers charity. No Good Deed, edited by Amanda Saint and Sophie Duffy, is available to buy here.

Confession: My story What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls is included in this anthology.

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

Submit your writing to Zoetic Press

Arnos Vale sunken grave cr Judy DarleyGot a few moments to spare between Christmas and New Year? Zoetic Press invite submissions of fiction and non-fiction eulogising the fallen icons who have touched your lives. The chosen works will be published in an anthology titled Dear Beloved.

The deadline for submissions is 13th January 2017.

They say: “2016 has been a year of the significant loss of cultural icons, from music and recording artists to literary titans and sports heroes. Social media has made grief and loss a shared experience for the people influenced by these celebrities. And while the internet guarantees that there will never be agreement in the legacy left behind, it has also created a new norm in how we grieve, publicly and privately. Artists, musicians, writers, directors, sports heroes, politicians, and actors reveal us to ourselves through their work.”

Written a piece to help you mourn Prince, David Bowie or Victoria Wood? This could be your chance to publically mark their impact on your life. While Zoetic Press are particularly interested pieces which memorialise public figures who’ve died this year, all in memoriams submitted will be given equal attention. “However, please make sure the icon you’re writing about is actually dead – we suggest double-checking the Dead or Alive Info website just to be certain.”

They add: “We regret that we cannot consider In Memoriam pieces for Dearly Beloved which are not about public figures. We cannot consider pieces about family members, pets, friends, or figures that are not public for Dearly Beloved – this anthology is a memorial for the artists and public personalities that shape each of us differently.”

For this anthology, Zoetic Press seek fiction and creative non-fiction of up to 5,000 words in length, and flash fiction up to 1,000 words in length.

Find full guidelines here zoetic-press.myshopify.com/pages/submissions

Flying Ant Day, Savages and Dawn Thread

Ant by Judy Darley

Disclaimer: This is not a flying ant.

Happy to say that my flash fiction tale Flying Ant Day has been published in A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed: 2016 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology. Wonderful!

A Box of Stars Beneath the BedEven better, my tale is one of just 50 chosen from 500 entries. Woohoo! There are so many excellent writers on the list of those included. Definitely looking forward to reading the contributions from Jude Higgins, Diane Simmons, Jonathan Pinnock, KM Elkes and Jane Roberts.

I’ll be reading my tale as part of the National Flash Fiction Day celebrations in Bristol on Saturday, at At The Well on Cheltenham Road.

To get your copy, go to the Amazon page or visit the NFFD website, where you can also discover all kinds of events happening this National Flash Fiction Day (June 25th, in case you were wondering!).

My short tale Savages has been published in issue three of Ink In Thirds magazine.

This beautiful publication describes itself as ‘a magazine of poised prose, precarious poetry, and photography that makes us want to pilot our own realms again.’

Inspired by the wilderness of childhood, including glimpses from my own, I’m glad my tale has found a home here.

Read issue three of Ink in Thirds magazine here.

The opening line of Savages is:

The field has been scalped; sharp spikes are all that remain of the wheat that whispered here, green stems that leaned with the wind and hissed tickling promises as we drifted by on our way to school.

Happy Summer Solstice! Today began when most of us were still sleeping (at 4.06am, rumour has it) and the air was green and fragrant. Gorgeous.

Nicholas Oakwell red feather dressMy poem Dawn Thread has been selected for a special Midsummer issue of Enchanted Conversations: A Fairy Tale Magazine. In case you don’t know, Enchanted Conversations is a beautiful online journal of original fairytales, which has regular calls for submissions.

My poem came in a flurry after seeing an exquisite dress embellished by students and tutors at the Royal School of Needlework for designer Nicholas Oakwell (pictured left). The gown was hand sewn all over with more than 200,000 feathers, dyed in 18 shades of red, and made me think of the kind of tasks traditionally given to maidens in fairytales. The profusion of red made me think of the transition from girl to woman, and the feathers drew to mind several fairytales about men turned into swans, and their sister sewing them shirts to return them to their human forms.

My poetic tale offers a rather different ending, culminating at dawn on the longest day.

Read it here.

Book review – Scraps anthology

Scraps book coverThe Scraps anthology was brought out to celebrate National Flash Fiction Day 2013, so is aptly named. Each oh-so-brief tale draws inspiration from art, film, TV, or other creative world, yet presents the pieces without note of these initial prompts, as, according to the editors, “they are no longer the point.”

What remains is an incredibly diverse and intriguing body of work, including pieces from renowned writers such as Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie and Sarah Hilary alongside fictions from emerging writers I hope to see more from in future.

For me, the best works of flash fiction contain the depths of a novel in a drop small enough to sit comfortably in the bowl of a teaspoon, and use skills shared by poets to evoke rather than say. It’s a writing discipline that demands the reader pay attention as much to the space between the lines as to the lines themselves. Each of the tales in this anthology achieve that, and some do it exceedingly well, including Feed A Fever by Freya Morris, which exhales a story of frailty and trust in such a way as to encapsulate large parts of the human experience. Continue reading

Stories of social media

FriendFollowText coverEarlier this year I had an idea for a story that was prompted by something I saw on Pinterest. Like most writers I know, I spend an inordinate amount of time dabbling on social media sites, giving my brain a rest while trying to untangle that next thorny sentence, plotline or conundrum.

What I saw was a photograph of an owl. Except it wasn’t an owl. It was a cup of milky coffee that someone had dropped two Hula Hoops into. The salt in the crisps and the crisp potato rings created the illusion of an owl’s face.

I loved it, and thought about who I should share it with.

Weirdly enough, a fictional, half-formed character I’d been carrying around for a while, came to mind as the person who would be most glad to see this.

And so the character consolidated, and the story began.

Shortly afterwards I saw a call for submissions from a anthology seeking tales inspired by social media. Editor and writer Shawn Syms was inviting submissions of stories inspired and about all kinds of social media channels for Friend. Follow. Text. #StoriesFromLivingOnline. It seemed too good a chance to miss.

I sent over my tale, called Coffee Owl, and it was selected for inclusion. Very exciting, but even more pleasing, it was being published by prestigious Canadian literary imprint Enfield & Wizenty. My story was only one of two by British writers published in the anthology, and only one of three by none Canadians.

Proud? Me? Just a little. #understatement!

So now Friend. Follow. Text. #StoriesFromLivingOnline is finally out, and is a thing of beauty. You can buy it on Amazon and find out more on the FriendFollowText website.

How to build an anthology

Unchained book and birdsGail Swann of Bristol Women Writers shares details of how the group decided to create an anthology of short stories and poems, from initial idea to launch.

Four novels and a poetry book either published or in the process of, within roughly two years. As a writers’ group, we were thrilled for those authors and proud that the role we all play within the group had helped them to succeed.

Whilst it came in a spate, such accomplishment had been a long time in the making, not without low points, self-doubt and disappointments along the way. We reflected, before we took our summer break in 2012, that our writing group had ‘earned its stripes’. Yet we had done it so quietly. Bristol Women Writers is over 25 years old, but who in Bristol knew about us?

Of course, with published work comes the hard graft of promotion. We watched our authors invest much time and creative energy into PR, marketing, web and social media. Bristol Women Writers itself had never done any of those things. We had no voice.

Find the theme for your anthology

So, fresh with new term enthusiasm, September 2012 saw us debating the idea of a collaborative project for the first time in the group’s history. There were ten of us in the mix, so generating content shouldn’t be a problem but we needed a ‘hook’ for the collection – both to inspire us and to make the book more widely appealing than a writing group anthology might expect to be.

‘Anniversaries in 2013’, someone suggested, ‘what are they?’ The one that stood out was the 400th anniversary of Bristol’s original chained library. Unanimously, we agreed on our theme and Unchained was born.

Use your contacts

Some of us had contacts within Bristol Central Library, so were quickly referred to the lovely Reading Manager, Andrew Cox, who invited us on a guided tour of the building in October ’12. The library building is imposing and atmospheric. Its architecture, history and tales of the people that have used it and worked in it over the years, provided plenty of fodder for our collective imaginations on that memorable evening.

Fodder of a different kind (soup and cake) at Jane’s followed, over which we avidly discussed our fledgling project. Suddenly it was real, it was going to happen, but how would we manage all of the bits outside of the writing? What useful skills did we each have? Quite a few, it transpired.

Delegate according to skill

With business experience, I was happy to project-manage and made a checklist of considerations. We held an all-day workshop that brought everyone together for discussion and to give some indication of what we planned to write. We didn’t want 10 short stories set in the library archives, for example. Not that we needed to worry; in typical BWW fashion, each person had very different ideas about how to interpret the theme.

We asked acclaimed local writer Tania Hershman if she would read and endorse the collection for us (assuming she liked it!). Tania had been a guest author at one of our meetings and is a great advocate of the short story. She was heartily supportive and her willingness to associate herself with Unchained was a great boost.

Although we had planned to self-publish the book, I started to wonder if we could interest a local publisher. Tania’s book, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, is published by Tangent Books, specialist in local history and popular culture, both fact and fiction. It was an obvious ‘home’ for Unchained. Happily, Richard Jones, Tangent’s chief, thought so too. We sorted out the business end and agreed critical dates. BWW and its authors’ credentials seemed to be enough for Tangent to trust our ability to deliver the book, edited and ready to publish. It was up to us now to do just that…

Find your cover artist

Attention turned then to cover design. A captivating cover makes a big difference to how a book is perceived and very likely to how many are bought. Tangent has some good book covers in its portfolio, so we got in touch with the designer responsible, Joe Burt of Wild Spark Design. I met Joe in a bar (one of those I’ll be wearing a white carnation moments) and talked him through the Unchained project.

From just this one conversation, Joe sent over a stunning design concept a few days later and all ten Unchained contributors loved it from the outset. The uplifting image of the paper birds flying from the open book, with the Bristol Central Library building in the background has become iconic, both to the Unchained book and to the ‘writers unchained’ public image that BWW now has.

Unchained cover multiple books

Whilst the graphic was an instant hit, we put poor Joe through the mill as we ummed and ahhhed about our own wording on the cover, which went through a series of iterations. Joe also designed the inner layout of the book including the ‘in-between the stories’ pages where we have a tonal image of the library, fascinating historical facts about it, and a Haiku poem.

Consider your funding

There was, of course, some financial consideration in birthing this book-baby of ours. Gone are the days when small publishers can fund everything up-front and of course, good design costs money. The members of BWW were serious about creating a quality product and so we each contributed a calculated sum to fund it. Our motivation is to be read, recognised and respected, both as individual writers and as the BWW group, not to make money, so although we hope to recoup our contributions once book sales break even, anything over and above will go to a charity.

We chose the National Literacy Trust, whose aim is to increase literacy levels in the UK – ‘transforming lives through literacy’. All of us in BWW are fortunate enough that books and libraries were a part of the fabric of childhood, so we can’t applaud this charity enough for the work it does for children (and adults) for whom this is not the case.

Get writing!

By early spring we had all written at least one story. We held another workshop day and embarked on the most stringent and intense critiquing session BWW has ever facilitated! We also decided that appointing a team of three expert editors was the best way to approach the enormous editing task that lay ahead.

Gamely, Jane, Sally and Shirley sacrificed themselves (and a lot of time over the following months) to the cause. Their proficiency and attention to detail was outstanding. I was quite bewildered at the extent I was constructively coerced to tweak and hone my short story, but as a result I am happy with every single word, and that’s a good feeling.

So, finally, we hit ‘send’ and off went the manuscript, via Joe, to a printer in Scandinavia.

Spread the word

So, what next? A website, of course, and Facebook, Twitter, spreading the word, organising the launch event… there was still a whole lot left to do!

Ali did a brilliant job of building us a WordPress site. We launched writersunchained.wordpress.com and the associated social media, in summer ’13, with just a few months to publicise the book before its official launch. The online side of things is time consuming, and has been a steep learning curve for some of us. We’ve taken turns to write blogs for the site, and continue to try and keep lots of fresh content feeding in.

Hold a launch

The final ‘biggie’ in our collective journey was the launch event at Bristol Central Library on October 23rd 2013. We were thrilled that Bristol Festival of Literature had included our launch as an event in the festival programme and promoted it widely. We drew on Jenni’s PR experience to write our own press release and circulate it as widely as possible. The event took place in the grand Reading Room at the library and, as it was open to the public, we had no idea how many people would attend. Jane had worked out the order of proceedings: who would talk when, how long readings would take, etc. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we were all quaking with nervous anticipation!

Following lively warm-up contributions from Andrew, Richard and Tania, we spoke about the background to Unchained and the library connection, and read from the book to an audience of circa one hundred people. It was a magical evening and a fitting end to a year of planning and hard work. We were even invited to do a couple of radio interviews soon afterwards. We are very proud of our achievement and the positive feedback we have so far received on Unchained. It’s gratifying to see our book being bought by libraries, on sale in various Bristol book stories, and available to buy online.

So now BWW has put itself firmly on the Bristol writing map, has an online presence, and in a way, its own unique brand, ‘writers unchained’. So what next? Well, we do have some emerging ideas about that, but for now we all need a good run at our own writing projects (got a bit of catching up to do!). So keep an eye on us, and in the meantime we hope that many of you will get to read and enjoy our book.

Read a review of Bristol Women Writers’ Unchained anthology. 

Unchained books spine

 

Gail SwannAbout the author 

Gail Swann is an owner/director of a Bath based graphic design company and mum to two teenage girls. She completed a novel, One Of The Few, landing herself an agent and some flattering rejections before conceding to the demands of babies and business for a few years. This ‘midnight oil’ period produced an assortment of shorter work but she lacked the time to try and do anything with it! Gail is now full steam ahead on a brand new novel and is also co-ordinating the Unchained project and the BWW group’s emergence (and hopefully her own!) into a more public light.