#BookReview: Bottles and Pots by Jacqueline Pye

Bottles&Pots_CoverBottles & Pots is a self-published collection of nineteen flash-fictions and short stories beautifully summed up by its subtitle: “dark tales of betrayal, mind games and murder”. Written by 1000words #flashcomp winner and eminently qualified psychologist Jacqueline Pye, these stories delve in to the deep, dark recesses of the human mind, shining an interrogative light on the reasons people do what they do. There’s a little girl faced with her worst fear: clowns; a woman whose frustrations with the minor irritations of life send her down the path to major calamity; and a woman scorned like which fury hell hath no – and that’s just in the first three stories!

All the stories hooked me with their punchy and provocative first lines, but my favourite pieces were the shorter stories: the flash-fictions. Here the language is tight and the exposition subtle. Plenty is left to the readers’ imaginations, which makes for an intriguing and satisfying read. For me, Graffito, Tonic, Ripples and Sandcastle worked particularly well. Of the longer stories, my favourites were: Cob Webs, The Stones The Stones, Retribution, Rocket and The Disappointing Tale of Sour Pete which was, I felt, the best story in the book. It has a listening-to-a-campfire-tale quality that I very much enjoyed. My only criticism with the longer stories is that there were moments where events were summarised and expository information, dumped instead of being more subtly delivered via characters playing out scenes.

On the whole, I liked this collection. Not only does Jacqueline do mind games very well, she does suspense, humour and pathos very well too. I’m very much looking forward to reading her next book.

3/5 – I liked it!

Bottles and Pots is available to buy as a paperback or ebook from Amazon. (I was given a free copy of this book to review.)

#BookReview: A Seeming Glass by The Random Writers

22740891A Seeming Glass: A Collection of Reflected Tales, to give it its full title, is an anthology of fourteen short stories written by a group of ‘like-minded’ individuals and ‘writing buddies’ called The Random Writers. The hook on which these writers have hung their stories is ‘a seeming glass’ – a mirror that, like a story, reveals something other than what they reflect. Each of the stories in this collection has its root in an older yarn. Some are retellings of fairytales and folklore, while others are simply inspired by them.

When I put out a call on twitter for short story collections to read and review, I was offered A Seeming Glass by Karen Ginnane (@kjginnane) who billed it as ‘dark, funny and diverse’. Well, I like dark, and I like funny, and I like diverse, so I jumped at the chance of a free e-copy, and I wasn’t disappointed. The collection is all those things. When it comes to dark, the characters are faced with trials and tribulations that would test the heartiest of souls. There’s deception and revenge, betrayal and violence*, and the writers don’t hold back in their description of events. When it comes to funny, there were a couple of stories that gave me a good belly-laugh. And when it comes to diverse … well, this book has everything: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, erotica, crime, mystery, myth and fairytale. Although I confess, not every story was to my taste (which is to be expected with an anthology) every story represented its genre well from the space opera ‘You Should Have Let Me Sleep’ to the fairytale ‘Mirror Skin’.

One of the pleasures of this anthology is that each story is based on an older story or myth, but while reading the first few stories I found myself frustrated by my brain’s nagging need to puzzle out which stories had inspired them, so I started cheating. Before beginning each story, I skipped to the back of the book and read what each writer had to say about the inspiration for their tales. This worked for me as I could then relax and enjoy the stories for what they were, which was especially important for those with whose inspiration I was unfamiliar.

I have a few favouite tales from this collection. They were well-told, entertaining and/or thought-provoking: Traveller, The Straw Man (which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods), A Transvestanian Encounter (which reminded me of both The Princess Bride and Monty Python and gave me a good laugh), No Loyal Knight and True, Thread, The Bronze Sword and Mirror Skin.

So, to whom would I recommend this collection? Well, if, like me, you like dark, funny and diverse, then you’ll probably like this, and if you like reworkings of fairytale, legend and myth, I’m sure you’ll find a tale or three to enjoy! Be warned though, if you’re looking for Happy Ever Afters, you should definitely keep on doing so …

3.5/5 – I liked it!

A Seeming Glass: A Collection of Reflected Tales is self-published by The Random Writers and is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

(*A note on the violence: a couple of stories depict fairly graphic scenes of violence and sexual violence against women.)

#BookReview: Looking Out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell

20775761One of the things I love about being the editor of 1000words is that it puts me in the path of writers whose work I might not otherwise come across, writers like Dan Powell. Back in 2012, in the early days of 1000words, I received a story called Song of the Graffiti Head which tells the tale of Leni, a woman who strikes up a friendship with Brian, the man graffitied onto the shutters of the shop below her flat. The story was so wonderfully written and so deliciously weird that it went straight onto the ‘Yes’ pile, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for more of Dan’s writing ever since.

In March this year, Salt published Dan Powell’s debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out of Broken Windows, which contains a mixture of previously-published, award-winning and brand new stories. This book delivered everything I could possibly have wanted from a short story collection: clear, concise writing, compelling characters and plots that range from the this-could-happen-to any-of-us to the outright weird. There are a number of stories that have lodged themselves in my mind, but my absolute favourite has to be The Bus Shelter. It opens with an excerpt from a newspaper article about a new strategy to stop patients with Alzheimer’s from wandering off, and it goes on to introduce us to Willard, a care home resident whose only desire it to go home. Just thinking about it makes my heart break all over again.

There wasn’t a single story that I didn’t enjoy, and as well as The Bus Shelter other memorable highlights include: Half-Mown Lawn, Demand Feeding, Silhouette of a Lady, Third Party Fire and Theft and Storm in a Teacup. They’re full of striking imagery and tackle the whole of life: birth, death and everything in between. For me, the overall theme of this collection is one of human connection: our need for it and the chasms that form between us when it is denied. The sense I’m left with is that Dan Powell is able to capture the thoughts that the rest of us let flit through our minds, and in pinning them down as stories he gives us all a chance to examine ourselves and the world around us. This is definitely a collection I’ll be reading again.

Looking Out of Broken Windows is published by Salt and is available from Amazon or directly from Salt. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize.

5/5 Amazing!

1000words: An Interview with Tim Stevenson

1000wordsToday, I welcome Tim Stevenson to my blog. Tim is a 1000words National Flash-Fiction Day Competition winner and the author of the flash-fiction collection The Book of Small Changes which I reviewed here on Monday. In case you didn’t read my review, let me summarise it for you: The Book of Small Changes is very, very good. I enjoyed the writing and the stories immensely, and so I have invited Tim here today to talk about both … as well as a few other things.

Hi, Tim. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I know it’s a long time ago now, but can you tell us what prompted you to enter the 2013 1000words NNFD competition?

Hi Natalie, thank you for having me.

I had found out about Flash-Fiction through a course at New Writing South run by Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman (many thanks to my wife for driving me down to Brighton for the day, we had a wonderful time and she has just learned she has been short-listed for the Bridport Flash-Fiction prize so they must be doing something right). Months later, after many false starts, I found I had been placed in the top 10 in the National Flash-Fiction Day 2012 100 Word competition. It was the first writing competition I had ever entered. The NFFD experience showed how vibrant the Flash Fiction scene is and soon I found plenty of websites and blogs that were dedicated to – or at least very interested in – the form. The 1000Words site in particular caught my eye as it used photographs as prompts rather than calling out for general submissions. This was an interesting starting point as the photos opened up the scope of what was possible rather than narrowing it by using a theme or a title as a prompt for entry.

Congratulations on the publication, earlier this year, of your flash-fiction collection, The Book of Small Changes. I enjoyed it very much and was delighted to discover that two of the stories had been originally published at 1000words. Can you give us an insight into how you get from an image prompt to a final flash-fiction?

Thank you. I can’t tell you how marvellous it was to have an entire collection published by Gumbo. (Cheers to Calum Kerr!)

The collection came less from image prompts than it did from the text of the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divinatory method that’s like a cross between rune throwing and astrology that reads like badly translated stereo instructions such as “Please to be pressing the clock of setting three time for the start” and so on). However, I had written some of the flashes previously and simply found they were a good fit. Maybe it’s cheating, maybe it’s not, but it worked and I didn’t waste any words.

For the two flashes that appeared in both 1000Words and The Book Of Small Changes; the picture prompts were simple ones – an old man feeding the pigeons and a red flower in the snow.

The old man made me think of a veteran, and the pigeons, therefore, became carrier pigeons relaying messages to the front. My great-grandfather Tom was gassed in the trenches in the First World War and lived with the after effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life, so I began to think about him and about chemical warfare and how a pigeon could be used to bring a subtle and infectious end to the enemy’s generals. Once I had filled the carrier pigeon’s canister with fleas (so to speak) the rest of the story came easily.
The story that sprang from the flower in the snow was quite different, and I’m less sure of its origin and the reasons for my choices. I saw a splash of blood against the white, but no footprints around it, the beginning of a good murder mystery, and then a man fleeing. The man was running before the battle to get help, he hasn’t seen the blood (because it hasn’t happened yet) and he wants to avoid any being shed. Who would a man flee to that he would value above his own men? That was the question that led me across the valley through a snow storm and up the mountain to the witches and their wise mercies.
In general I use a lot of free-association, a lot of asking myself “What If?” and “Why?”. An image is only, after all, a collection of objects in a setting. I remove the setting and concentrate on each of the objects in turn and think about their uses, their context, other places they might appear, colour, texture, sound etc. and usually I will see a connection two or three steps down the line that might make something interesting once I get started.
Or, sometimes, it just happens, and there is no why.

Other than images, what inspires your writing?

Other people’s writing. It is so important to be a good reader – and by that I mean a reader that explores many genres and many authors. A good writer has a little of the magpie about them (so says Phillip Pullman), a phrase here, a descriptive turn there, to twist and redraft and make your own. I read everything – non-fiction works on consciousness, decades old manuals for foreign diplomats, dictionaries of pickpocket slang (the excellent and quite hilarious “The Vulgar Tongue”) to any novel or short story collection I can get my hands on. You never know where a good prompt will come from. Try and get outside your comfort zone into genres you wouldn’t normally read (some examples in my case were Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, Mary Robison’s “Why Did I Ever” and Andrew Kaufman’s “The Tiny Wife”). These have been my biggest surprises and best inspirations.

Which writers (or other creatives) have inspired you?

Now, that is a long list.

For writers I’ll start with M R James and H P Lovecraft, Conan-Doyle and Dickens. Then go via Italo Calvino, Hunter S. Thompson, Alice Munro and Elizabeth Taylor, Roald Dahl, T H White, Douglas Adams, Richard Matheson and Philip K Dick – all the way to William Gibson, Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Yoko Ogawa and Neil Gaiman. Every single one of them gave me three things: a love of language, a indefatigable desire to be a writer and and ear for a great story.

Also, I like to listen to music when I write, usually something to match the mood of the piece and instrumental for preference. Movie soundtracks, Tangerine Dream, a bit of classical, a bit of electronica and repeats of Radio 3s “Late Junction” on iPlayer.

Lastly, to give art a mention, Edward Hopper’s 1942 “Nighthawks” – I am convinced that you could write an entire novel about the single moment in that painting. Pablo Picasso’s 1905 “Girl In a Chemise” – for exactly the same reason. Lastly Mark Rothko’s 1958 “The Seagram Murals” because they scare me if I think about them for too long.

What is it that you like about reading and/or writing flash-fiction?

I’m amazed at how much can be done with so little. Flash gets straight to the point and tells the pure story. Less is indeed more. That last sentence was intentional.

What tips would you give to aspiring flash-fiction writers?

Read. You never know where a good prompt will come from. Try and get into books you wouldn’t normally read. Expose yourself to as many writing styles as possible and see how the writer has taken the language and made it entirely their own and learn what ever you can from them. Even if you only learn one thing from reading a story or a novel it will have been worth the effort.

Write. I find good flash comes from Writing Long and then Editing Short. Adding words, I find, is always harder than removing them.

Listen. Get feedback from people who also write and be open to that feedback. Join a writing circle, take part in forums, go to festivals and open mic nights and any readings you can. Take part. The best feedback comes from getting involved. Take all good advice into account. And my wife has just reminded me that “you all can’t please all the people all the time” as you will end up writing by committee and losing your own voice.

Don’t explain. If your work needs an explanation as to why the reader has misunderstood it – rewrite it until no further explanation is required. (I know some work is ambiguous, but this must be a choice rather than a bi-product of poor writing).

Re-write. Resubmit. Get new feedback. Decide when enough is enough and any further tinkering will detract from the writing rather than improve it.

Keep a notebook. Carry it everywhere. Never leave writing an idea down until later, it will be too late. I learned this the hard way.

Read your work out loud. This will help you get a sense of the rhythm of the words, the lengths of lines, the breaks, the dialogue. Reading aloud also helps catch mistakes that you might have missed on the page.

Enter competitions. There are plenty to choose from. Read the entry criteria carefully and read previous entries / winners to get a sense of what the judges are after. Try not to bite your nails too much while waiting for the results.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Remember to thank your wife.

Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed. Before we let you go though, is there anything else you’d like us to know, any new writing projects you’re working on?

20819470I have finished a collection of thirteen longer short stories called “On Cleanliness and Other Things”, one of which “Watching” has just won runner-up in the Synaesthesia 2014 Short Story Competition and two others are already published elsewhere. The collection has been submitted to several publishers and other stories from it are currently in competition.

I am also halfway through a rather large novel called “All The Secret Names” – that should be finished next year.

My collection “The Book Of Small Changes” is available here and you can follow me on Twitter here.

#BookReview: The Book of Small Changes by Tim Stevenson

20819470I first came across the writing of Tim Stevenson when his very short story, Alterations, was Highly Commended in the 2012 National Flash-Fiction Day Micro-Fiction Competition. In just 100 words, Tim managed to conjure a beautifully painful (and painfully beautiful) vision of life ‘after the accident’.

The next time I came across Tim’s work was while I was judging the 2013 1000words National Flash-Fiction Day Competition. After reading all the anonymous stories, my fellow judge and I selected two of his flash-fictions, Birds of Play and Hope in the Snow, for publication on the website. Both of these pieces were put unequivocally on the ‘Yes’ pile because they were everything that good flash-fiction should, in my opinion, be: small, subtle, perfectly-formed stories that stay with the reader long after they’ve finished reading them.

I was delighted when I heard Gumbo Press had published a collection of Tim’s fiction, and I was even more delighted to find all three of the above-mentioned stories inside it. Tim also won the 2013 National Flash-Fiction Day Competition with another of his stories, A Handful, which appears in this collection too, and it was this competition win, I’m informed, that led to the publication of this collection.

The Book Of Small Changes “takes its inspiration from the wisdom of the Chinese I Ching, replacing those ancient fortunes with new stories: where the sea mourns for those it has lost, where encyclopedia salesmen weave their accidental magic, and where the only true gift for a king is the silence of snow.”

I confess I hadn’t heard of the I Ching before picking up this book, so, as the book itself doesn’t contain an explanation, I had to Google it to get a feel for the theme. And that is my only criticism of The Book of Small Changes: I would have liked a brief introduction to the I Ching because once I did know what it was all about, I felt the stories acquired an additional layer of meaning and hung together in a way that they might not have done had I not done the research.

There are sixty-five flash-fictions in The Book of Small Changes, and each one is a gem on the I Ching necklace. Some sparkled brighter than others, but they were all beautifully cut in their own way. Tim has mastered the art of making every word count and writing with a subtly that leaves just enough to the reader’s imagination. When it comes to genre, this book has a good mix that definitely catered to my tastes: fantasy, magic realism, slice of life and literary fiction. There are stories that are funny, and stories that are touching and stories that are thought-provoking, and there even stories with that most elusive of qualities … the well-written twist ending.

4/5 – I really, really liked it.

The Book of Small Changes is published by Gumbo Press and is available from Amazon in paperback and as an ebook. The first eight stories are available to read via the ‘Look Inside’ feature.

What I’ll Be Reading This Autumn

IMG_8850webPart of the aim of my Summer Reading Challenge was to clear my To Be Read pile, which I did. This left me, of course, with nothing to read, so last week I set off in search of my next book. During said search, I happened across a group on Goodreads called ‘Fall for the Indie Book Challenge’ where members pledge to read 15 books by independent authors and write a review of each by the end of December 2014.

Aha! I thought. That sounds like a great idea. I like reading independently-published books, and this would be a great way of finding some more.

So I signed up thinking I’d focus my efforts on short story and flash-fiction collections, but, alas, when I checked it out with the challenge organiser I was told that to qualify, the books had to be over 50,000 words long, which most short story and flash-fiction collections aren’t. Disappointed but undaunted, I decided to carry on anyway. Even though I can’t officially participate in the challenge, I’m still going to focus on reading independently-published short story and flash-fiction collections which I will then review on Goodreads and here at my blog. Thus far, I’ve got about ten lined up, some of which I’ve purchased and some of which have been sent to me specifically for review.

I don’t write long reviews, mainly because I don’t have the patience to read long reviews. When I read a review, I want to discover a little of what the book is about, what the reviewer enjoyed about the book and what, if anything, they didn’t. I like a little bit of context, but I don’t want to know what the reviewer had for breakfast. When I write reviews, I go with my gut and keep it simple. I say what I liked, what I didn’t like and what the stories meant to me. I also use the Goodreads rating system, which is not about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a book is; it’s about how enjoyable I found it:

  • 1/5: I didn’t like it.
  • 2/5: It was okay.
  • 3/5: I liked it.
  • 4/5: I really liked it.
  • 5/5: It was amazing.

My hope is that by letting other people know what I thought of a book it will help them decide whether they want to spend their hard-earned cash on it or not. I also hope to promote some great books and their writers. So, if you’re interested in reading self-published and small-press-published short stories and flash-fictions, you might like to stay tuned …

Summer Reading Challenge 2014: Complete

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 14.01.22Back in July, which seems ages ago now, I set myself the challenge of reading six books over the six weeks of the school summer holiday. Distracted by a week in Dorset with my extended family, I got off to a bit of a slow start, but by August the 12th I’d read three of the books on the list. This, obviously, left me with three to go:

  1. Runaway by Alice Munro
  2. Looking Out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell and
  3. The Book of Small Changes by Tim Stevenson

I started with the one I’d bought first, Looking Out of Broken Windows, moved on to The Book of Small Changes and then completely changed my mind about the rather thick Runaway, and swapped it for Raymond Carver’s much thinner What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I’d forgotten I’d bought until I found it lurking at the bottom of my magazine rack.

I’m not going to write reviews of the first two here, as I want to give both of them a post of their own, but I will say I enjoyed them immensely. So, onto What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is deserving of its own post too:

7130670This collection of short stories by Raymond Carver contains I Could See the Smallest Things, THE short story that sparked my desire to become a short story writer. It was required reading on The Open University’s Creative Writing course which I took a few years ago, and when I read it, I was struck by the slow, gentle progression of the story, the no-nonsense writing and its subtle observation of human nature. Since then, I’ve read lots more Carver, and it was a delight to revisit some of those stories, as well as to discover new ones. They have a simple elegance that inspires me as a writer – I want to be able to write like this – and although the characters in this book are all desperately broken, they remind me that I am not alone. 5/5.

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

What I Did On My Holidays

I learned several years ago that there is no point in me trying to write stories when the kids are home for the holidays. The constant threat of interruption that comes with having two little people hurtling around the house is enough to prevent me from entering The Zone, that single-minded state of consciousness I need to be in to write fiction. So, what did I do as the kids broke up from school? That’s right … I decided to write a load of summer-themed flash-fictions. Needless to say, I quickly relegated that idea to the proverbial back-burner and embraced the summer chaos instead. So, although I only wrote 2582 words, I also …

IMG_8810 V2webate in the region of 40 ice creams, fifteen picnics, five National Trust scones, four portions of fish ‘n’ chips and three barbecues,

supervised the construction of 97 sandcastles,

participated in the catching of 32 crabs,

IMG_8195refereed one game of pooh-sticks,

rode a bike,

flew a kite,

meandered around half-a-dozen different parks,

IMG_8289deadheaded approximately 10,000 flowers,

stroked eight cats,

donned my swimming costume for the first time in 3 years,

played ten games of ‘Count the Number of Airplanes Taking Off from Heathrow While We’re Stationary On the M25’,

IMG_8417endured watched a gazillion Minecraft demonstrations,

enjoyed innumerable cuddles and snuggles with the kids,

and even read SIX WHOLE BOOKS.

It’s been a wonderful summer of resting, relaxing and spending time with family and friends, but now the kids are back at school I’m back at my keyboard. I’ve written my ‘Things to Do’ list and it’s HUGE, but I’m ready and raring to go. Just one more coffee before I begin though …