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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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 – Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins

Scratched Enamel Heart cover_Amanda_HugginsThere’s a conciseness to Amanda Huggins’ writing that makes me think of a stitch being drawn taut – her words pull the core of you to the core of a story until you gasp for breath.

Her Costa Short Story Award shortlisted tale ‘Red’ uses crimson dust to create a vivid, slightly melancholy landscape where a lone stray dog provides the hope, and a memory of better times provide the drive to reach like a scrawny sapling for light. Like Rowe, the protagonist of the preceding story “Where The Sky Starts’, Mollie needs to leave the place she’s supposed to call home or risk being trapped in a life that could suck her beyond sight of all hope, drive and light.

Huggins has a vivid mastery of words that whips up a setting you can virtually walk into, and uses that mastery to construct scenery that weaves the story’s mood around you: “Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.”

It’s poetically precise and powerful.

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Book review – Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold

SOUL ETCHINGS, SANDRA ARNOLDIn a book of trees, dragonflies and birds, stories flit and alight on wings crafted from printed paper. Each page contains a world of sunlight and shade, many trailing heartbreak, maltreatment or the bruises of being misunderstood,

Author Sandra Arnold’s heroes are strong-willed, sensitive souls who are often spirited away by the end of the page and a half that comprises their world.

As I read, I could visualise each setting vividly, and my head filled with branches of sun-dappled leaves. It reminded me of my own childhood in trees, and of living more inside imaginary worlds than the so-called real world.  Flash fiction is a form that requires immense discipline, and Arnold paints carefully selected words into exquisite scenes: “spider webs shivered like torn lace” and “the sea was polished glass,” and dawn’s many beauties, aglow in Blood of the Stone, include “the first pale notes of birds.’

In The Girl Who Wanted to Fly, our heroine is “breath in the newborn calf.”

Yet running beneath the poetic imagery is a great deal of anger and grief for damaged childhoods. This is a book of lost children, and the people who abuse, bully and drive them away, or who simply lack the power to save them. A yearning to flee flutters throughout, alongside a deep passion for the natural world over the urban.

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Book review – One Scheme of Happiness by Ali Thurm

One-Scheme-of-HappinessA deliciously discomforting read that will creep under your skin.

Set against a vividly realised setting of a small Northern town in the shadow of a defunct lighthouse, author Ali Thurm paints a journey into obsession and manipulation with steadily building menace. The title is drawn from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Helen, Thurm’s narrator, regards Fanny Price as her role model. They are both quiet and easily overlooked. Helen hopes to share in Fanny’s happy ending, and is prepared to do whatever she can to achieve that.

Helen has been living with and caring for her ailing mother for twenty years, and has become a little set in her ways. When her mum passes away, it feels like the start of something, but at first it isn’t clear what. A friend of her mum’s suggests a trip abroad, “now that you’ve got some money”, but Helen isn’t ready for the unknown. “Why would I give up the comforts of home to wait around in airports and be ruled by timetables? (…) I don’t want anything to change. This is where I want to be.”

It takes the return of two old school friends to help her realise that this is only partly true. Through the fog of grief and coping strategies, Helen’s former bestie Vicky emerges, with her husband Sam, who Helen adored at school, coming home for reasons unspecified until the novel’s end.

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A short story – What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls

Egg by Judy DarleyI’m so pleased to have my story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls‘ published in Retreat West‘s Charity Anthology 2019, titled No Good Deed. It’s raising funds to support Indigo Volunteers. This brilliant charity matches willing volunteers with humanitarian projects across the globe.

The photo above is a clue to a pivotal incident in the tale. And no, that’s not the moon.

No Good DeedMy story was inspired by the way discussions can skirt around the real issues within a family, so that the crucial point can be ignored in favour of chewing over less relevant or, frankly, more surreal topics.

It began in my mind as an image very like the one above, being gawped at by two sisters. As I allowed the characters to chat, I realised how little we know of what happens in other people’s relationships, even those where we’re closely related to one of the parties.

In this case the key subject is not really owls at all, although one particular species does feature, as you’ll see in the taster lines below.

“That’s a tawny owl egg,” Sammy declares, holding up the egg identification chart I gave her at Easter. “Did you know tawny owls are ferociously defensive of their young? If it’s just been laid it’ll hatch in 30 days.
Can I have it?”

“No!” My sister’s voice is so loud that my niece and I both jump. “Sammy, go and play, will you? I need to speak to your aunt.”

Buy your copy of the No Good Deed anthology here.

Book review – This Is (Not About) David Bowie by FJ Morris

This Is (Not About) David Bowie by F. J. Morris coverFJ Morris has a unique way of viewing the world that feeds into every piece of fiction she writes. Loosely using the theme of David Bowie as a connecting point, the stories in her debut flash fiction collection examine the magic of our human contradictions in glittering, meteor showers of prose.

Morris’ vivid turns of phrase bring scenes into focus – puddles ‘pop’ with rain, bodies can become rubble, and confessions are preceded by “the deepest of breaths, for the deepest of dives.”

There’s a sense of unearthing ancient fables through her tales, as even the most unexpected imagery is presented with such innate confidence in us readers to digest it that it seems at once commonplace and utterly peculiar. That’s a skill many writers fail to master in a lifetime – akin to achieving the ability to harness a trick of the light.

Morris’ sideways glance at the world equips her to embrace huge themes in a way that helps you see them anew. She tackles grief via the motion of a freshly vacated swing, and explores on questions about gender, sexuality and more in a way that invites strange flavours onto your tongue and unfamiliar textures under your bare feet.

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