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.

How to set up a writing school

Rain on window by Judy DarleyThis week’s guest post comes from author, editor and creative writing tutor Ashley Stokes. He explains how he came to launch the Unthank School of Writing, and the challenges of establishing a writing school.

The first ever Unthank School of Writing workshop took place in January 2011 at the York Tavern in Norwich, with five writers and me in the upstairs room on a rainy night. Some I’d taught before in my various guises. Some were new to me. One, Marc Jones, has a story in Unveiled: The First Unthank School Anthology.

That the little school has now produced a book feels like a milestone. We have something solid to present to the world, something that showcases the talent of the writers we have supported. It’s great to have something solid, great for the contributors to have a book to hold in their hands, and great for us as a school because the school was born not out of solidity but uncertainty.

The Unthank School was founded both as an accompaniment to Unthank Books, and as a direct response to the cutting of community creative writing after the 2008 crash.

Several of us had been working as associate lecturers in creative writing for many years. As austerity swept its scythe through the system, the university departments that had provided us with employment disbanded around us (without any warning in some cases). Creative writing in the community was becoming a thing of the past. Believing that writing is for everyone, we didn’t want to let this happen.

Kaunas, Lithuania, River. By Judy Darley

A sense of community

We wanted there to be an affordable option outside of time-consuming MAs and prohibitively expensive courses run by big literary agencies and publishers. Furthermore, we also liked the idea of providing a rolling workshop that would always be there for you if you needed it (unlike an academic course). This came to be. We do have students who return to us after going off to work alone on a draft, who now need some feedback, just as we have students who stick with us all the time to be their continual first audience.

Another thing we wanted to nurture was a sense of community between writers, of all being in something together. Our workshops, whether online or face-to-face tend to be fun, relaxed, intimate, spontaneous. Unveiled is testimony that an international Unthank community of writers now exists, and that’s the most rewarding thing of all.

It’s frequently fed back to us that no one teaches creative writing like Unthank. Although we had all benefited from teaching creative writing for universities and art schools – and many of us still do – we were able, outside of the institutional setting, to ditch elements of university teaching that we felt inhibited writers, namely grading, tick-box assessments, self-reflective appraisals, and too much emphasis on close-reading and line-editing.

Kaunas, Lithuania, River1. By Judy Darley

Finding the focus

Close-reading and editing are important, obviously, but with new writers or writers working on a first draft, excessive comma patrol and quibbling about usage can suck the life out of a promising story that’s not yet found its flow.

Instead, in workshops at least, we focus on storytelling and listening to the writer discuss what he or she intends for the story and helping to shape an unfolding narrative. We will help you write what you want to write, whatever that is, whatever the genre. Unthank’s cure is very much a talking cure and uses the example of the writer’s own work from which to teach. We pride ourselves on being eclectic and responsive. We prompt and pre-empt. We try to make things work for the writers, so their stories realise themselves on their own terms.

UnveiledWe have become proud of the work that the school produces, impressed by the wit, doggedness and inventiveness of our students. It is this that inspired us to put out a call for submissions for Unveiled.  Unthank Books has carved out a little niche for itself in the short fiction world, most prominently in the form of Unthology, yearly, eclectic, wide-ranging short story anthologies in which the submitted writing finds the theme. That the school should have its own equivalent anthology was the natural next step. We received writing from over fifty former and current students.

The fifteen stories in Unveiled are the ones Stephen Carver and I felt are the most realised, the stories with the most authoritative voices, that demanded that we include them. They all tell you something about what we are about and what we cultivate.

Ashley StokesAbout the author

Ashley Stokes is Head of the Unthank School of Writing and publisher at Unthank Books. His stories have appeared in The Warwick Review, Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review, London Magazine, Staple, and Fleeting, among others. His first novel,Touching the Starfish, was published in 2010 by Unthank Books. Ashley’s short story collection The Syllabus of Errors came out in 2013. He is also co-editor of the Unthology short fiction series and Unveiled, and edited The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, also from Unthank Books. Find him at www.ashleystokes.net.

Read my review of Unveiled.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review – Unveiled

UnveiledThe first anthology of novel excerpts from the Unthank School of Writing was never going to be a straightforward affair. Created seven years into the School’s existence, editors Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver describe the contents as brimming “with storytelling verve, imagination and talent.”

That’s all true, but what strikes me most powerfully  is the immense variety within these tales, crossing time and geographic landscapes while presenting us with a multitude of realities, shared in a diverse array of authorial styles.

The anthology opens with Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men by Nicola Perry. Reading the author biographies, it’s clear Perry is one of the more practised Unthank School alumni, and that experience shines through in this prologue and first chapter.

She opens with words that anchor under your skin: “My mother is dead inside. There’s nothing I can do for her. I am instructed in this from a young age.” Questions bubble up immediately: who is our narrator? How young are they exactly? What’s wrong with the mum? Is she the one instructing her son in this peculiar fact? If so, why? Perry has clearly mastered the art of intrigue, and we’re only 21 words in. Impressive.

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Book review – Some of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania Hershman

Some of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania HershmanThis luminescent collection of short stories and flash fictions offers up Tania Hershman’s unmistakable blend of the poetic, the uncanny and the deeply human. Drawing from a background in physics and a fascination with other sciences, Hershman explores our predilections and imperfections with effortless eloquence.  Through her writing you’ll feel yourself at one with nuns, researchers and divers alike, not to mention gas molecules and eerie little immortal girls.

I often see colours when reading fiction, and Tania’s tales in this collection are shot through with shimmering shades – pools of silver, midnight blue, aquamarine and ultramarine are gorgeously offset by threads of vermilion and gold.

Each of the tales examines, in its own way, what it means to be human, and the potential kindnesses and cruelties lying in wait both around and within us. While many lead us into laboratories, other sneak us into more unexpected places of moral and quizzical reflection, sometimes under cover of darkness.

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Book review – The End

The End coverWe’re often told to begin at the beginning, but in art, as in literature or film, sometimes it’s far more interesting to begin at the end, or, at least, the beginning of the end.

So it is with this upcoming anthology, The End, from the adroit Unthank Books, commissioned by Ashley Stokes, for which authors were invited to respond to the artwork of Nicholas Ruston. Each painting itself uses the words The End, imprinted on shadowy backgrounds that offer the sense of a narrative drawing the close.

With a subhead of Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, you know you’re not in for the sunniest of rides, but with contributors ranging from Tania Hershman to David Rose and u.v.ray, you’ll want to hold on tight, right till the actual end.

The variety is wonderful. Each story examines a different image, veering off in dazzlingly unexpected directions. Yes, there are deaths, but also near misses, recoveries and quiet moments of realisation.

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The Sculptor – a short story

Unthology 8 coverI’ve been impressed by Unthank Books and their beautifully discerning and disconcerting Unthologies for many years. The tales they select and the books they produce inevitably stop me in my tracks. Right from the start, I yearned to see one of my pieces included among their number, and it’s taken a few attempts, some careful edits and just the right mix of narrative and imagery, but it seems I finally cracked it.

Quite simply, I’m thrilled that my short story The Sculptor is among the offerings of Unthology 8, due out on 28th January 2016. What a great start to the year! The Sculptor tells the tale of an ice sculptor coming to terms with her father’s semantic dementia.

I’ve already received my contributor copy  – an elegant black-sheathed volume crammed with fiction by Victoria Briggs, Kit Caless, Armel Dagorn, Sarah Dobbs, Clare Fisher, David Frankel, Rodge Glass, FC Malby, Amanda Mason, and other amazing authors.

Unlike many anthols, with Unthanks offerings it really is best to read the stories in the order in which they’re presented as editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones take care to curate the selection in a way that builds up and enhances the reading experience in the most exquisite manner. The book is now ready to pre-order from Book Depository, so if you want to treat yourself, just hop over to www.bookdepository.com.

If you sign up to the Unthank Mailing List (from Unthank’s website or Facebook page) you can get discounted copies and a discount on all other Unthank titles.

Here’s the write up from the publishers:

Live on a grand scale. Make deathless art. Scream paint. Sculpt ice. Let it melt and become a dynasty. Tarry with prophets and dreamers. Find joy in danger zones. Quit the stage of history. Tread the boards instead. Take a safari. Take a boat ride to the south of France. Work in the music biz, a chicken shack or cliff-top café. Fall in love, then out of love. Complete the jigsaw puzzle in a tiny room. Find yourself in a pris- on cell. Become a machine, loveable and servile. Realise that all the time, wherever you have been, whoever you’ve inhabited, you have been in a relationship with everyone there ever was or is yet to come and you can’t do one damn thing about it. Find fellow travellers here. Make friends with Unthology 8.”

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be a part of this.

Unthology 8, published by Unthank Books, is available from wordery.com and bookdepository.com.

Book review – Between Here and Knitwear by Chrissie Gittins

Between Here and Knitwear coverUnrolling from childhood and deep into adulthood, Chrissie Gittins’ autobiographical short story collection strikes at the heart of a family getting on with the business of living.

From the wonder of a nest full of curlew eggs to the difficulties of finding stockings long enough for her adolescent legs to the quiet sorrows of aiding ailing parents, author Gittins captures the preoccupations of each age and individual with such unflinching clarity that you’ll feel a jolt of recognition, even if you’ve yet to reach the part of life she writes of.

The 22 interlinked stories weave together beautifully to form a heartfelt family portrait, in particular the tales focused on the relationship between Gittins and her parents. At the same time, every story stands alone as a self-contained missive rich with layers of observation. We’re treated to the embarrassment of learning lurid lines of Shakespeare, experience the raw confusion of Gittins’ teenage self attempting to get to the bottom of “why my mum is how she is”, listen in on tender conversations with her father when, as he says himself, he is losing his reason, accompany Gittins through a debate on the disparate weightiness of two apparently identical lemon chiffon cakes.

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