Novella review – A Tricky Dance by Diane Simmons

A Tricky Dance Cover. Shows figures dancing in a swirl of red and blueContained within just forty pages, Diane Simmons’ novella-in-flash portrays a 1970s childhood and adolescence that shines with possibilities. Exploring the ways we discover, confound or eschew our assumed paths through life, Diane introduces us to Elspeth, not the richest and maybe not the smartest, the most popular or the prettiest, but very much the star of her own story.

Diane seeds in the important details with a deft hand. In the second story, ‘Things in Common’, we learn that new girl Lorna “doesn’t mention her dad. Maybe she’s not got one. It’d be great not to be the only one in our class without a dad.”

The slim volume shimmies with what isn’t, who hasn’t and what can’t possibly be, with dreams held close to protect them from being quashed with mockery. This is a community where it doesn’t do to let others know you’re bolshy enough to crave the stars, as Rory, the one person who truly seems to see Elspeth for all wonder she contains, discovers when he’s reckless enough to admit to wanting to be an astronaut. “‘We don’t have rockets in Scotland, stupit!’ Jennifer sneered at him when he gave his answer. ‘We’re no America!’”

Elspeth wisely keeps her dreams to herself, for now.

This is a place and time where liking (or pretending to like) the right Bay City Roller sits alongside the practice of “guising” – going from house to house to earn some pennies with a dance or a song.

For Elspeth, ballet lessons seem as far out of reach as the moon, as she counts the coins in her piggy bank, “calculate what I’ll need for Guides, for the school trip to Edinburgh Castle, for my mum’s birthday next week. Maybe if I stopped Guides, sold my uniform, scrounged a few quid off Mum… And then I remember the hole in my school shoes, remember Mum’s face when I told her.”

There’s a huge amount of power in this matter-of-fact, uncomplaining tone. Elspeth is determined to find a way to dance, to get on and fit in, despite the challenges she faces, and that makes her hugely appealing as a protagonist.

In the early stories, the loneliness and treachery of playground rivalries and betrayals take centre stage, but before long Elspeth’s spirit and determination grow unmistakable.

The steadiness to the prose keeps you rooted in Elspeth’s world, where extra paper rounds and hand-me-down dancing shoes provide opportunities. Small triumphs come in the form of mastering Pythagoras, while letters written to the Jackie Magazine advice page manifest gifts as crucial and magical as any glass slippers.

Elspeth’s quiet confidence elevates these interlinked tales. As she heads to the football field and notice that one of the lads, Ewan, has the ball, she notes: “He always has the ball. And he’s always Jennifer’s dancing partner. But me and Ewan hang out some nights and play football – I bet he’d rather dance with me.”

The language pops throughout, painting Elspeth and her classmates in your mind’s eye as vividly as any description could. Filmic and absorbing, I felt I’d streamed a mini-series and binged it in one sitting, and was now desperate for Season 2 to drop.

A Tricky Dance by Diane Simmons is available to purchase here.

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 review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Book review – Each of Us a Petal by Amanda Huggins

Whatever season you choose to read, or give, these stories by Amanda Huggins, the gently tended sentences will reward you with a deep sense of connection with nature. Each is a portrait of a character treading carefully through their own personal emotional landscape, set against the sensorial wealth of Japan. Amanda candidly reveals her own fervour for this country in the collection’s foreword and closing essay. Once you start reading the stories, you’ll find the author’s enduring interest in and passion for this country and the people who live or visit it seeping under your skin.

Yearning is portrayed as the enduring human condition, with hints of loneliness and solace whispered in the most enticing settings where hints of Japanese folklore occasionally wriggle into the heart of contemporary tales.

These strands weave together exquisitely in An Unfamiliar Landscape, where we explore a mountainous wilderness with protagonist Sophia: “Dropped into the silence, every noise had a clear meaning, each sound demanded her attention. She was finally connected.”

The remedy for loneliness, it seems, is to be outside amid the beauty of nature.

This idea is reiterated in The Same Pretty Eyes, as protagonist Edie decides to step outside “to salvage something beautiful from the tail end of the day. That was all she wanted: a few moments in the mountain air, the smell of damp bark, the darkening night, the first faint stars.”

In the single-page story Sparrow Footprints, Amanda captures the sweet melancholy lingering in the words unspoken and demonstrates the power of white space on the page. It’s an example the author’s powers of constraint, with every sentence carved and stacked to build into a story’s perfect range. She is the master of crafting and presenting a moment’s interaction between two people, imbuing the most seemingly straightforward setting with drops of emotion that ripple our far beyond the edges of the scene.

In several of the tales, Amanda gifts us artfully understated moments with the bitter-sweet aftertaste of  Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

From the love embodied in a jar of sweet bean jam to the precision of raked gravel the stories chime with our expectations of Japan while delicately breathing life into the scenes and characters. These stories dive far deeper than the surface clichés and show us the respect of the author through the aspects she chooses to illustrate her themes. You’ll emerge with all your senses tingling from the pleasures of relishing minor details, from a simple cup of tea to a fleeting interaction with someone, or somewhere, with the potential to be the love of your life.

Following the closure of Victorina Press, you can buy signed copies of ‘Each of Us a Petal’ directly from the author.

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 review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Book review – The Naming of Moths by Tracy Fells

The Naming of Moths book coverWith such an evocative title and cover, you know you’re in for a world of wonder with this collection of short fiction. The tagline ‘Short stories of myths, monsters and mothers’ adds a flicker of curiosity before you enter the pages’ worlds.

The gorgeous title story won author Tracy Fells the Canada and Europe regional award for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This tender tale of loss and solace weaves in the displacement of war with ancient mythologies about the longing for a child. In it, we’re invited to consider ideas of responsibility and ritual, in which the naming of moths has both an emotional and empowering purpose.

Fells has the skill to pepper potentially sad scenes with quirky, images that make you smile: “The woman with the moustache is refreshing her lipstick in the only mirror left uncovered.” In other tales, “computers squatted like fat hens” while in another a cake falls “in jammy clumps” onto a pair of “ballet pumps.”

‘Twisted’ is an exquisitely told, achingly dark tale of birthdays and family, balanced by luscious lines like the ones above.

Fells’ lyrical mastery over word choices gives every passage a special sort of glow, illuminated. A theme of metamorphosis runs throughout, as characters take back some element of control, changing lives for the better or simply shaking off the past in favour of a hopeful future. Vulnerable characters find their strength, often aided by more bolshy, beloved allies, such as Auntie Ruth in ‘Twisted’, who “said exactly what she was thinking, even if it was a bit rude.”

Other stories run along more overtly surreal tracks. ‘The Weight They Left Behind’ is a haunting piece full of colour with a hint of Black Mirror satire.

In ‘Household Gods’, Fells reminds us how little we know of other peoples’ struggles, and of the wells of compassion that run deep. Drawn into a hospital’s Special Care Unit for premature babies, we meet a couple who barely know each other, and are challenged to judge or withhold judgement from Mo, the protagonist, and his fumbling attempts to look after his ageing mother, his new wife and baby Nadira. Even here, the possibilities include the uncanny.

Fly on the Wall Press is a publishing house with a passion for great storytelling that does far more than entertain. The four-times British Book Awards’ Small Press of the Year finalists describe themselves as publishing “unparalleled political fiction, evocative poetry, and genre-defying anthologies addressing urgent global concerns.” These preoccupations are seeded subtly through their carefully selected and beautifully produced books, lodging in your consciousness and prompting you to re-examine a world where nothing should be taken for granted.

The realism in Fells’ collection forms firm foundations elevated by imaginative flights that serve to highlight aspects of human nature. These stories made me marvel at our capacity for love in all its forms, and to forge our own paths despite obstacles. Each story nudges you to remember how much happens unseen in the lives of every stranger we encounter. Sometimes it takes the surreal to help us truly glimpse the realities we live among.

The Naming of Moths by Tracy Fells is published by Fly on the Wall Press and available to buy here.

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 review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Book review – Angel by Wendy Beasley

Angel cover
What happens when you hit rock bottom? And what could then prevent you walking into the waves and ending it all?

In Wendy Beasley’s unflinching novel Angel, a night-time moment of impulsive selflessness gives protagonist Lydia the drive not only to stay alive, but to rediscover the things that make life worth embracing.

Having grown up in care, Lydia has already surpassed her own expectations by getting a place at Brighton University and making plans to become a teacher, but when she meets enigmatic Leo and is swept into a love built on possessiveness, her early years of trying to achieve invisibility in foster homes making her less easily able to stand up to his increasingly controlling behaviour.

The opening chapters of the novel are aren’t an easy read, as Leo takes control of every aspect of Lydia’s existence, trapping her in a nightmare marriage.

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Book review – The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

The Shadows We Cast book cover_Sarah TinsleyWith chapters headed by names and starting with two time-frames (Now, After), the moment you open The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley, it’s clear we’re in psychological thriller territory. The first chapter, from Nina’s point of view, crackles with alarm, while the second, from Eric’s viewpoint, is no less gripping.

Tinsley layers in sharp, pithy descriptions that match the tone: “His pulse is a train-click”, “The stretched darkness of winter has always grated on him.” We’re fed settings and circumstances line by atmospheric line, so we’re fumbling with the characters to understand what’s happened and who is in the wrong.

There’s humour too, as Nina navigates the perils of getting a coffee at work while avoiding chat, speeding past “the HR lot, wallowing around the kitchen like it’s a watering hole” and passing Brian in Sales, who, thankfully “seems safely amused by something on his phone, either that or he’s checking up his nostrils.”

Later, a group of ‘office drones are described through Eric’s eyes as having “gel swooping their hair, like a wind has caught each one in a different direction.”

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Anthology review – Monsieur, three Novelettes-in-Flash

Monsieur_Front Cover. Shows a jetty reaching into water in sepia tones.The latest anthology of winning novelettes-in-flash from Retreat West offers up three intriguingly layered tales.

The first is the title novelette, Monsieur by David Rhymes. It opens with an impressively crafted line that succeeds in telling you reams about setting, time and character: “I tell Monsieur that if I were a man, I’d be a libertine, immune to the chains of propriety.”

That Jeannie, our heroine, is examining her master’s nipples “with the aid of an enlarging glass” within that page neatly informs us that this is a woman determined to explore life from every available viewpoint, unhindered both by class and gender.

A yearning for freedom and passion for the natural world hum throughout this densely and visually rich tale, as, encouraged by Monsieur, Jeannie disguises herself as the less fair sex and discovers a fresh side to her own nature: “with my chest pressed flat, my chin made sooty with a lick of dust, I felt more confident – I strode out in plain sight.”

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Book review – Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash by Michael Loveday

Unlocking-the-Novella-in-Flash-webWith the sub-title “from blank page to finished manuscript”, this is very much the printed equivalent of taking a focused MA on the topic of the novella. It’s laid out beautifully clearly into modules, with delicious, restorative snacks in the form of exemplary flash fiction nuggets to nibble on along the way.

Author, editor and creative coach Michael Loveday explains that his book is an assortment of suggestions to help you find out what works for you in the area of novella-in-flash. In this way, it seems intended to be used less as a map than a tourist guide of hotspots you can choose to visit and enjoy.

Even if you would usually bypass the Prologue, you ought not to this once, as in Loveday’s hands it becomes almost like a ‘meet and greet’ at the start of a tour. “This craft guide isn’t seeking to set out fixed rules for how every novella-in-flash should be written,” he writes. “So much remarkable writing deliberately breaks the boundaries of common practice. Instead, (it) is intended as a springboard, a source of ideas and options.”

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Novella review – The Listening Project by Ali McGrane

The Listening Project book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to sink into a symphony of sensations.

The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.

This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”

McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”

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Poetry review – The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru

The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to have your empathy heightened and awareness deepened.

In her debut poetry pamphlet The Country With No Playgrounds, award-winning British-Romanian poet Elena Croitoru has captured a place and period in time so precisely and skilfully that you’ll find yourself transported.

Stark scenes are highlighted with words that seem fondly chosen for their beauty: “We grew up in our spare time,/ beyond a tower block island/ where pearly cement dust lay…”

Relayed with disarming matter-of-factness, many of the poems are almost cinematic, such as in The Last Wedding: “She looked out of the window/ at the militiamen who watched our balcony/ from below, the way one would watch/ the funeral of someone still moving.”

It’s heart-stoppingly alarming, yet clearly for the inhabitants utterly normal, to live with such a palpable threat. As worrying as the situation must have been for the adults she mentions, for the children Croitoru counted herself among, this was nothing more than ordinary. This gives her the tools to describe moments with a lightness of touch that draws us in rather than pushing us away, so that we read each stanza with wide open eyes.

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Poetry review – We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, Songs for the Arctic, illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in We Flicker too briefly, you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In Birdsong for a Breakdown, we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

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