Book review – Inside Fictional Minds by Dr Stephanie Carty

Inside-Fictional-Minds-book coverI don’t know about you, but I often find ‘how to’ books a little hard to digest. Rules can be particularly off-putting when it comes to creative acts such as writing fiction.

With Inside Fictional Minds, Dr Stephanie Carty overcomes those barriers with ease. A light, hearty tone delivers psychological insights that will help you to regard your protagonist, and, let’s face it, yourself, afresh.

The book falls into three sections: The Basics, The Specifics and Putting It All Together. As Carty writes in the introduction: “The first section will cover a wide range of topics about how characters (well, humans… but let’s keep saying characters) feel, think and interact.”

Through exploring the fundamental beliefs, relationships and perceptions that inform  behaviour, alongside exercises that place your characters in settings beyond the story world you’ve created for them, Carty equips us to view our created people with dazzling clarity and to unpick the complex myriad of experiences that have shaped them. Even if these moments happen off-page and aren’t mentioned within the story itself, through identifying these influences and their impacts, Carty furnishes us to build three-dimensional characters whose responses to the plot will be as richly nuanced as any real person’s.

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Book review – The Evolution of Birds by Sara Hills

The-Evolution-of-Birds. Shows book cover of girl with matchstick legs and a bird's head.As fans of Sara Hills’ flash fiction have learnt to expect, the author’s debut collection The Evolution of Birds is crammed with crisp, heart-glancing prose that will leave you at times reeling, and often desperate to give the narrator a hug.

The title story tells of a group of girls at Survival Camp learning to whittle and fire arrows, a skill many of the characters in the following stories could benefit from. In three compact pages, Hills captures the savagery of girls, where reluctance to kill (a pigeon, though more is hinted at) results in goading and scorn.

“With shaking hands, she held her bow taut and took aim. Her arrow was off by a foot. When the lucky bird rose up in flight, we weren’t far behind.”

Hills excels at duality in tales, slanting her word choices with care so they can be read in multiple ways depending on how you hold them up to the light.

Talking of words, Hills demonstrates a visual, visceral way with language that ensures you can feel her sentences on the tips of your fingers and in the back of your throat. Pre-teen protagonists have “breast buds like bottle caps”, a pink dress is “frilled-lizard ugly.”

In ‘Finders Keepers’, the ravages of parenthood are summed up in little over two pages: “When the baby coughs, you measure your youth in medicinal, syrupy spoonfuls. When it’s teary, you weave a blanket from the pink striated fibers of your heart.”

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Sky Light Rain reviews – the kindness of strangers

Sky Light Rain coverweb
Whether you are a reader or a writer and a reader, it can be easy to underestimate the power of a good review. For many of us, discovering that the words we write have the vitality to touch other people is deeply moving, and energising. On a fundamental level, we have attained our goal!

It’s one of the reasons I love to review literature and art – not only does it help me dig into the experience of that particular creation more deeply, but from my own personal experiences, I know how affirming the kindness of strangers can be in this context.

With this in mind I’ve opted to share snippets of some Sky Light Rain reviews that made an impact on me.

Author Amanda Huggins (https://troutiemcfishtales.blogspot.com/2020/05/my-review-of-sky-light-rain-by-judy.html) wrote: Judy Darley’s short story collection, Sky Light Rain (Valley Press), looks up to the sky while digging deep down into the heart of what it means to be human. Darley has a distinctive voice, and her characters inhabit a place which is out of step with the world, in tales steeped in folklore, anchored by a deep connection to the natural world, embroidered with misunderstandings and mistakes. The writing is haunting and multi-layered, the imagery deft and original. And although these are stories exploring the fragility and fallibility of the human condition, we witness transformations and glimpses of new beginnings, making this richly textured collection resonate with hope. 

Matt of Runalong The Shelves (https://www.runalongtheshelves.net/blog/2020/1/11/sky-light-rain-by-judy-darley) wrote:

I do love both story collections and anthologies and I think the ones that really work are those that can tell a cohesive narrative around the themes illustrating the variety of stories any subject can trigger. The short story is very hard to get right but when it does it offers so many possibilities to explore and they’re a delight to read. In Judy Darley’s fantastic collection of short stories tales, they evolve around themes of the natural world in sections relating to the Sky, Light or Rain I found it a wonderfully immersive and often surprising set of tales.

The collection includes well over thirty tales some just a few pages; while some a little longer but they’re all well-judged and varied. I liked that I never knew what type of tale would follow next and quite a few tales had a little surprise in store while I read them and had my expectations inverted. They’re not always part of fantasy and sometimes just purely human nature or the impact of the natural world on us but they’re all always with their own sense of magic to them. Darley has a beautiful sense of lyrical description and tailors the tale’s language to suit the characters; all very well-constructed and help bring the reader in.

Writer and writing coach Sarah Tinsley published a mini review and in-depth interview here: https://www.sarahtinsley.com/post/sky-light-rain-with-judy-darley

Judy Darley‘s Sky Light Rain is special. The character in ‘Fin’ really stayed with me – I was haunted by the splashing of water while I lay in bed at night. I also loved the way so many of the stories felt as though they were right on the edge of our reality. Caught up in it, but touching their fingers at something outside of what we can see.

As you can tell from the title, the collection is separated into three sections that are linked thematically. Within that, the stories are truly varied. Different ages, worlds and perspectives are explored, all with a deft touch and with language that is beautifully unique.

Each review, email and tweet about Sky Light Rain lifted my heart and spurred me on to the next creative work. If you have a happy thought or response to anything you read, do the author a kindness and let them know. You might be surprised by the difference it makes!

Discover the inspirations behind the stories in Sky Light Rain.

If you’d like to request a review copy of Sky Light Rain or interview me about my writing, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud (dot) com.

Book review – the other side of better by Michelle Elvy

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy book coverFans of Michelle Elvy’s novella-in-flash the everrumble (and yes, I very much count myself among them) are in for a treat with the author’s newest offering. the other side of better, is another literary marvel the defies categorisation, skirting genres and forms alike, with flash fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and general musings all layering together like a bowl of salt, sweet and umami-flavoured popcorn.

I was left with a palpable impression of the author’s deep affection for both her invented and remembered characters and the spaces they inhabit.

In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Shore’, Elvy offers up a painterly scene while drawing on all our senses: “A sandbar juts out and canvas claps as we tack away”, “Squishing feel, wet marsh”, and, most beautifully of all, in writing of a heron: “My wants are a blue-grey ghost, gliding.”

Something about those word choices suggest the cool of the barely discernible sky, the smell of the water and the quiet of the author’s heart, at that time, in that place.

Elvy’s specificity illuminates images in your mind’s eye. Consider ‘And in the museum: triptych’, in which fledging yearnings are offset against whaling memorabilia. “Beth is always at Marianne’s side. They have matching sweaters. John is wedged in, trapped behind the girls. (…) Beth takes Marianne’s hand: a barricade of laced fingers.” Those tightly written sentences capture a moment wholly particular and yet entirely universal.

Interspersed between some of the stories, and in a 27-page wedge in the collection’s centre, you’ll find notes from “the Fuddy-Duddy Editor” who “was once a Fuddy-Duddy Writer.” These intrusions, the literary equivalent of a theatrical aside, add humour and insight, as well as making you, in some cases, feel a surge of defensiveness towards the tale you just enjoyed and which she is now picking holes in. It’s a neat trick.

“Lost and found in Berlin” is a self-contained tale that re-emerges in this central part as a powerfully constrained abbreviation. By shifting from first to third person, the second version shines up our impression of the protagonist and of her tenderness towards an old man with a trainset in his basement at the end of an East Berlin trainline. “The girl recalled  the tiny free world, and the bigger walled world.”

It’s an imperfect echo that ripples through many of Elvy’s works – the themes explored, exquisitely polished, and then tipped on their heads; the memories subverted into fictions that read truer than any inventory of facts; and of sounds swelling with unuttered secrets just beyond the pages’ confines. It all succeeds in challenging us to engage in dialogue with Elvy’s hybrid forms.

Adventures small and large brim within these pages, where you’ll only need to hold your breath for exhilaration’s sake.

In the final section, ‘in a dream in a dream in a dream’, Elvy splices together fragments of climate fiction in the voices of an elephant, a sloth, a giraffe, and a deeply self-satisfied hippo, among others. The author sweeps us across oceans to shores where “waves roll in like timpani” and libraries serve up poetry with tea, draws us into childhood dreams of sails and pectoral fins, and enshrouds us in loss and discoveries. Through it all, Elvy reminds us of the joy to be found in this extraordinary world of ours, and that it’s up to us to choose to “give it a try.”

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction. Buy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

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, please get in touch.

Book review – Am I in the Right Place? by Ben Pester

Am I In The Right Place book coverIf your preferred reading place and time is in bed before sleep, you may need to develop new habits for Ben Pester’s debut collection Am I in the Right Place? Seemingly ordinary settings (a café; an office) twitch with unreliable edges that threaten to upend into the unknown. Cupboards open into other worlds, and roads lead to versions of memories that encroach on the present in unexpected ways.

We open with a character waiting to meet his ageing father, and then spooling into a journey where anxiety lingers with such a palpable presence it almost takes on human form.

Later in the collection, in ‘Low Energy Meeting’ a line manager introduces us to the embodiment of his love, a sorrowful figure in a dingy dressing gown.

Emotions here have powers to shift our surroundings, making every step uncertain. What was floor moments ago could now be a hole with an insatiable appetite.

Some pages, dyed black from corner to corner, abandon us to our rattled thoughts only quieted by the rustle of us scrabbling to get to the next printed words.

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Book review – The Naming of Bones by Jan Kaneen

The Naming of Bones cover showing a drawing of a woman in front of a green ocean at night.The beauty of this book is dazzling. From the first page, I felt myself being drawn into a work of art where light catches on grains of sand and waves hush continually. There’s a quietness to the prose that’s deeply beguiling. It makes you want to listen harder, to breathe in every word and nuance.

Dreamscapes, memories and make-believe all play their role, climbing into each other’s arms and laps until you can’t be sure where real ends and made up begins.

We commence in the middle of the night with a sound of singing, “soft and faraway.”

Jan Kaneen‘s narrator is in bed, just woken and “straining to hear.” In the following pages, it seems that straining to hear could sum up all her efforts – to identify, to gain clarity of a surrounding resonance that hums always somewhere just beyond reach of full comprehension.

Our location is a shoreline where a beachcomber is seen each day, whatever the weather. It’s a wonderful, wind-swept setting, and one that feels shaped by the narrator’s sense of grief. Kaneen sums up the mood and our narrator’s mood in two lines: “I favour wilder weather and stormier skies, and I only go outside on rainy days. I prefer to watch people rather than be with them, and the rain keeps them away.”

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Book review – Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter

Gaps in the LightThere’s a rare exhilaration that comes from beginning to read a book crammed with written works that you can’t hope to pigeonhole, and to choose instead to dive nose-first and headlong into, trusting the words to catch and anchor you where they will.

Poetry, memoir, flash fiction, sociological and psychological and anthropological study, myth, dream… In Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter, it all builds together into a tidal wave of impressions, sensations and emotions that you’d do well to surrender to and allow it to sweep you away.

Scattering in the Te reo Māori language, where water (wai) and song (waiata) are separated by three letters, and the word for ground is the same as the word for placenta (whenua), Winter ensures that divisions between who and where we are blend as well. The relationship between our bodies and nature are intertwined.

Likewise, the gap between fact and fiction are muddied in the most natural way, for fiction often provides the means to share our most honest emotional truths. If this thing didn’t happen to the author, that doesn’t mean it happened to no one, and the strata of feelings are undoubtedly authentic, regardless of what seeded them.

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Book review – The Yet Unknowing World by Fiona J Mackintosh

The Yet Unknowing WorldLayered like skeins of vivid ribbons, the stories in Fiona J. Mackintosh’s flash fiction collection The Yet Unknowing World strew colours through their readers’ minds.

Each tethers a moment in time, offering a sense of eavesdropping on stranger’s secrets. Many are portraits of love, others a sidewise glance at grief or betrayal. Woven by Mackintosh’s deft fingers, even the deepest losses are shared as exquisite parcels to be marvelled over. In ‘Hindsight’, the author opens with an image of cartwheels and trailing silk, before revealing that it’s these slippery fabrics that led to our narrator waking with his “heart fractured.”

There’s poetry whirled into these tales, and imagery rich enough to leave your senses tingling. Though most of the stories are only a paragraph or so long, they’re packed with details that evoke more than the sum of their words, and yet lie lightly on the page.

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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 – 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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