#BookReview: Change the Ending (curated) by Dawn Reeves

Change the EndingWhat would the world look like if care home workers were paid a decent wage? What would the world look like if teachers refused to play the work-till-you-drop game? What would the world look like if every cog in the public services machine was given a place that fit and enough oil to keep it spinning? These are some of the questions to which Change the Ending offers answers.

In The Guardian, on this year’s National Flash-Fiction Day, writer and former local authority director Dawn Reeves launched a creative writing project. The aim of said project was to produce a flash-fiction collection about the future of local government written by the people who care about it, and at the start of October, the collection was launched and Dawn kindly sent me a free copy to review.

Many of the stories in this book resonated deeply with me. Instead of the usual narratives that tell us what’s wrong with the education system, local councils and communities, this book is full of dreams of a future in which workers aren’t bound by red tape, in which the vulnerable are given the help they need, and in which small acts of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice have a positive impact on the lives of others. While not every story was to my taste in terms of style, the collection as a whole has left me hopeful and more respectful. If these dreamers are the people working in and running the public sector, the country might not be going to hell in a handcart after all.

The stories in this book seem to fall into two categories: those that give us a glimpse into the lives of individuals, and those that give us an overview of the system. For me, it was the former group that worked best. Most of these tales are snap-shots of the positive impact that a well-run and people-focused public sector can have on lives, and the effects of communities actually being communities. While there were some uplifting and encouraging stories in the second group, my ignorance of the inner-workings of public services was a bit of a barrier to my understanding the significance of what I was being told.

Of the 42 flash-fictions in the collection, my three favourites were Enough (the story of a secondary school teacher whose decision to look after herself has knock on effects for her students), Instagram Sam (the story of someone who decides to reap the benefits that paying taxes can bring) and The Interview (an ending far happier than it might otherwise have been).

I found this an engaging and inspiring collection. Congratulations to all who were involved in its creation! I hope these dreams spark conversations that really will lead to the ending being changed.

Change the Ending: flash fiction about the future of public life is published by Shared Press and available in paperback and as an e-book.

#SaturdaySoup: Vegetable (Morrisons Soup Mix)

IMG_9166Yes, it’s Saturday Soup, but on a Tuesday.

As I was trotting around Morrisons on Friday, I spotted this bag of Vegetable Soup Mix and thought I’d give it a go because … well, there would be no peeling, no chopping, and it was an absolute bargain! (I bet I’d have been hard-pushed to buy the individual constituents – potato, swede, carrot and leek – for less than 69p.) All I had to do was take it home, open the bag, “sweat” the veg in a bit of butter and oil for five minutes, add 600ml of vegetable stock, leave it to simmer for 20 minutes and then give it a whiz with the hand blender. Easy peasy.

IMG_9173It was a little bit leeky and could have done with a few herbs, but served with some buttery slices of tiger bread it was tasty enough and made about six portions.

The kids deemed it “nice” which is pretty high praise coming from them!

Any suggestions for this week’s Saturday Soup?

#BookReview: War, Conflict and Resolution

WarIn February this year, Ryan Thacker and Alex Gallagher, Creative Writing students at Edge Hill University, put out a call for stories of between 150 and 500 words inspired by the themes of war, conflict and resolution, and this is the result – a collection of 17 flash-fictions and two poems that commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One and honour its fallen.

I bought this collection because it features two 1000words authors: Tim Stevenson and Stella Turner. Tim’s story, Mudflowers, is simply beautiful, a subtly-told moment between grandfather and grandchild, a memory and the making of a memory. Stella’s story, May Day, is a heart-wrenching instant in which we are shown the gap between generations, the innocence of childhood and the long-reaching effects of war. Bravo.

As you might imagine, the other pieces in this book range from stories about the effects of war on those left behind to stories about the effects of war on those who fought on the front lines. There are also tales of bravery and sacrifice, of suffering and regret, of longing and loss, of justice and injustice.

Yesterday, as I stood in our village square listening to the reading out of the names of local WWI servicemen who gave their lives for our freedom, it occurred to me that it’s stories like these that need to be told, so that those of us who are too young to remember these conflicts don’t forget the sacrifices that have been made for us.

The only thing that lets this collection down is the apparent lack of proofreading it’s been through. I don’t know what the paperback version is like, but in the ebook there are lots of distracting typos and errors that could have easily been rectified before publication. I think a collection like this deserves better.

War, Conflict and Resolution is self-published and is available from Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. Any profits made from this project will be donated to The Royal British Legion.

A #FridayFlash #FlashFiction: For King and Country

Train
Original image by Reinhold Behringer. Some Rights Reserved. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(This story was inspired by this week’s prompt over at Flash!Friday.)

For King and Country

“Don’t cry, Gracie,” Jimmy whispered in her ear as they clung to each other outside the waiting room. He tightened his arms around her. Her fingers grasped the back of his greatcoat. “Don’t cry. Or you’ll make me cry, and how would that look in front of the lads, eh?”

“Don’t go,” she said.

“I have to,” he replied. “For king and country and all that.”

“Well, at least don’t die then.”

He laughed and said, “I shall endeavour not to,” and then he kissed her.

Outside, steam billows from beneath the train, engulfing the platform and everyone on it.

“This is it, boys!” shouts a man at the far end of the carriage. “We’re off!”

A cheer erupts.

Jimmy’s breath snags in his throat.

As the steam clears, his eyes find her again. Catching sight of him, she lifts her head, squares her jaw and glares at him. “Don’t. Die,” she mouths. Her eyes glisten.

The train jolts forward. Jimmy tries to smile.

#SaturdaySoup: Thick and Creamy Parsnip Soup

photoNow that Autumn is well and truly underway, it’s time to dust off the bread machine and break out the hand whizzer. That’s right … It’s Soup Season!

Yesterday, I whipped up one of my favourites: Thick and Creamy Parsnip. The whole family loves this one, even the 12yo who won’t normally give parsnips the time of day. It’s quick, easy and tasty which is pretty much all I want from a soup. It’s probably quite high in fat as it contains butter and cream, but if you wanted to reduce the calories, you could use low fat alternatives. (But I’m betting it wouldn’t taste as good!)

 

Ingredients:

  • 30g salted butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 decent-sized parsnips, cut into small pieces
  • 1 heaped tsp garam masala
  • 750ml hot vegetable stock
  • 100ml double cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  • Melt the butter in a non-stick pan and then add the onions. Cook the onions until soft but not brown – about 5 minutes.
  • Add the parsnips, garlic and garam masala and cook for about 2 minutes.
  • Pour in the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until the parsnips are soft.
  • Remove from the heat and puree using some kind of blender. Be careful as the soup will be HOT!
  • Stir in the double cream and season to taste.

If you give it whirl, let me know how it turns out.

#BookReview: Rapture and What Comes After by Virginia Moffatt

RaptureRapture and What Comes After by Virginia Moffatt is a collection of 30 paired flash-fictions. The first half of the book is comprised of 15 flashes chronicling the ever-hopeful beginnings of love: the rapture. The second half of the book is comprised of the other 15 flashes, the stories of what comes after. These tales are not lovey-dovey romances though; they are an honest look at love and its pitfalls, at the light and dark that can exist in even the most caring relationships.

I’m not sure if I approached this book in the intended way. Instead of reading Part One and then Part Two, I decided to read the flash-fictions in pairs. In other words, after reading Flash-Fiction One in Part One, I flicked forward to read Flash-Fiction One in Part Two. This worked for me as the first story in each pair was still fresh in my mind as I read the second. Some of the pairings are linked in an obvious and straightforward manner – they tell the tale of the same couple, although sometimes from a different person’s point of view. Others are less obviously linked, and you have to read between the lines to see the connection. Regardless of how the pairs are connected though, they all work very well together. I enjoyed each story in itself, but I also enjoyed each pair, and the before-and-after conceit added to satisfaction I felt on finishing the book.

Of all the pairings, the most memorable for me was Red Shoes – The Moves You Make. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say that after reading The Moves You Make, my understanding of Red Shoes was completely flipped on its head.

On the whole, this is a well-written and well-conceived collection, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Virginia Moffat’s work.

4/5 – I really liked it!

Rapture and What Comes After is published by Gumbo Press and is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook format.

(I received a free e-copy of this book to review.)

#BookReview: Time by Calum Kerr

TimeI’m no expert on the concept of time travel (I gave up physics after GCSE, and I only got a grade C in A-Level Maths.), but I admire anyone who can get their head around it the way Calum Kerr does in this flash-fiction collection.

In Time, we are treated to 31 very short stories all connected by the aforementioned concept. Some stand alone, while some follow on from others. Either way, we get to meet a wide variety of characters, some of whom invent (and un-invent) time travel and some of whom, for all sorts of reasons, simply make use of the facility – although ‘simply’ is probably completely the wrong word!

Even though, these stories are pure science fiction, they are still rooted in human experience; they still brim with those universal human desires and capacities: love, hate, loss, friendship, life, death etc. And while the stalwart plots of time travel fiction – such a killing Hitler – are definitely present, Calum puts his own spin on them so that they read as fresh as if they were completely new ideas.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from this collection, but the story that has stuck most firmly in my mind is Why Do Fools? which is the tale of a man who goes to extremely precise lengths to ensure his past happens the way it needs to to ensure he gets the future he desires. After reading it, I was left thinking about how our lives are so susceptible to the fluttering of butterfly wings.

One of the things I love about all of Calum’s writing is the confidence with which his different narrative voices speak. It doesn’t matter whether the story is being told by a traditional third-person, completely in dialogue or as an excerpt from an auction catalogue, it only takes the length of an opening sentence to make you realise you’re in capable and convincing hands.

So, if you’re a fan of time travel fiction, I’m sure you’ll be a fan of this book, and if you’re not a fan of time travel fiction, after reading this book, you probably will be. Whichever you are though, once you’ve read Time, you might, like me, be left hoping that no one ever, ever, ever invents a time machine …

5/5 Amazing!

Time is published by Gumbo Press and is available from Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.

A #FridayFlash #FlashFiction: The Gardener and the Squirrel

No changes have been made to this image.
Orange Pumpkins by Catherine. Some Rights Reserved. (CC BY 4.0)

Early one spring, a gardener sowed some pumpkin seeds in her freshly-hoed vegetable patch, and while she was dreaming of the pies she would cook with that autumn’s harvest, she heard a small voice speaking to her from above.

‘Hello,’ said a squirrel from his perch on the roof of her shed. ‘It’s been a long, cold winter, and I’m ever so hungry. Please would you spare me one of your seeds?’

The gardener frowned. ‘Why should I spare you one of my seeds?’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s not my fault you didn’t collect enough last year. Let this be a lesson to you, and perhaps this winter you’ll be better prepared.’ She flapped her arms at him until he ran away.

Every day, throughout spring and summer, the gardener went into her garden to check on her vegetable patch. After a few weeks, she saw tiny, pale shoots poking through the soil. After another few weeks, she saw broad, flat leaves unfurling in the sun. After another few weeks, she saw bright, yellow flowers shrivelling into small, green pods. And, finally, as the days began to grow shorter and the air began to grow cooler, she saw that the small, green pods had swollen into fat, orange pumpkins.

Laughing aloud, the gardener picked the fattest pumpkin in her crop and weighed it in her hands. ‘That’s odd,’ she said, her laughter fading. ‘This pumpkin feels rather light.’ With a frown, she turned it over and saw, in the other side, a hole as wide as her fist, and peering into the hole, she saw, to her horror, that the pumpkin was hollow – not a single seed or ounce of flesh remained. Dropping the pumpkin, she grabbed another and another and another, but it was no use; each and every pumpkin had a hole in it and each and every pumpkin was completely and utterly empty.

(This story was written in response to last week’s Angry Hourglass prompt.)

#BookReview: Threshold by David Hartley

forblogbuy1All right, I confess: I knew I was going to love this flash-fiction collection before I even bought it. David Hartley is another one of those fantastic writers I’ve come across in my capacity as editor and publisher of 1000words – we’ve twice selected his stories as winners in our flash-fiction flashcomps. We Three Things, was chosen in July 2012, and Marigolds won in February 2013. If you’ve got ten minutes to read them, both stories will give you a hint of the brilliance that abounds between the covers of Threshold.

Some of the stories in Threshold might be classified as science fiction, some as speculative fiction, some as magic realism, and some as being just a little off kilter with the world as we know it. However you choose to classify them, though, they do that thing that all good stories do: they bring the ‘real world’ into sharper relief by forcing us to examine our reactions to what we’ve read, and while the events written about in Threshold may not be familiar to us, the responses of its inhabitants certainly are. Of the thirteen flash-fictions in this collection, my favourites are Hinterland, The Golden Silence and Invader Guilt: three very different stories of attack and capitulation in which extraordinary things happen to quite ordinary people.

Often, when I read, I find myself enjoying the stories more than the writing, or the writing more than the stories, but this was not the case with Threshold. I loved the message and the medium. The stories are as affecting as the writing is beautiful and both make the writer in me just a little bit jealous.

If I was forced to find something to criticise about this book, the only thing I would say is that it is too short, but the again, it’s always good to be left wanting more …

5/5 – Amazing!

Threshold is published by Gumbo Press and is available in paperback directly from Gumbo and as an ebook from Amazon. You can find David Hartley at his website and on Twitter.