“Dip Flash” Jonathan Pinnock (Cultured Llama) – book review

Dip Flash Jonathan PinnockIf you’re looking for quirky, humorous flash fiction to dip in and out of, “Dip Flash” fits the bill. Stories feature disappearing houses, a bull in a china shop, live meat in a butcher’s shop, a wife who morphs into a cat, a granny equity scheme… all told economically and credibly with more than a dash of wit. Each story is focused and holds its own logic and even the more surreal ones contain a kernel of truth to get the reader thinking. The opening story, “The Picture of Mrs Tandoğan”, has a house that disappears but the story’s heart is about how we create memories in relationships through a compare and contrast between a selfie-snapping millennial couple and an elderly man who only has one picture of his wife.

The weaker stories feel as if there are merely a scene to build to a punchline. In “Rare Meat”, a butcher who has a crush on his customer agrees to source a piece of rare meat for her without knowing why she wants this particular meat. Problem is, the reader doesn’t get let in on her motive either: is she trying to impress someone, is she setting a test for the butcher, how does she feel about the butcher? She is reduced to a cipher.

Most of the stories don’t reduce their characters to ciphers and their motivations create credibility. Jonathan Pinnock’s strength lies in taking an idea, which might be an image, a proverb, a common phrase, and exploring its limits, often with humour. The compact nature of flash fiction is a perfect vehicle for this approach. There is much to enjoy in “Dip Flash”.

“Dip Flash” is available from Cultured Llama

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“Always Another Twist” Sarah Leavesley (Mantle Lane Press) – book review

Always Another Twist Sarah LeavesleyJulie’s reaction to a betrayal at work is to plot revenge. Most would leave this as fantasy but Julie tests the robustness of her plan and puts it into action. It succeeds but she realises that working for a company more concerned with politics than talent isn’t for her and she moves on to a new job and new romance. So far, so good, but Julie’s life is complicated by her older sister Claire. Julie stepped up and helped care for her niece when Claire suffered undiagnosed post-natal depression which became a breakdown when her baby was lost to a cot death. Both sisters have also had to face the sudden death of their much-loved, widowed father. When Julie discovers she is pregnant, she has to face whether her new partner will support her, how her sister will react and deal with the resurfacing of past trauma. Initially chapters follow the nursery rhyme “Ten Green Bottles” with each chapter presenting a new break, a new problem for Julie to solve. Some are simple: you lose a job, find another. Others more complex, discovering her father’s diary, whether to face up to or walk away from a new experience, how to speak to Claire. The bottles start increasing when Julie discovers her pregnancy, implying what is broken can be rebuilt, but a rebuilt bottle carries its fault line.

Although the older sister, Claire was the baby of the family leaving Julie feeling she had to protect and carry. But she also knows that trying to shield Claire from the truth is not helpful, even if news of a new baby isn’t going to be welcome. Claire had discovered an old kaleidoscope from their childhood that she kept for her own baby. Julie remembers how every twist in the kaleidoscope changes the view of the objects within. At the heart of the story is how we allow the views of others to distort the view we have of ourselves. This can be positive when we question decisions and check we’re on the right path. However, it can be negative when we prioritise how our decisions affect others and change them based on unchecked information which may be false.

Julie is easy to sympathise with: the independent sister prepared to take responsibility and do the right thing, even at personal cost. It’s easy to see her reflected in her father who rose to the challenge of allowing two sisters to be themselves and adjust to the loss of their mother without burdening them with his grief. Claire’s husband seems adrift but steps up when it matters. Claire feels a bit of a mystery, a space in the novel where others project onto her. However, we got Claire’s story in “Kaleidoscope”.

“Always Another Twist” is a companion to the earlier “Kaleidoscope” which was told from Claire’s viewpoint. Claire was an unreliable narrator and Julie’s story doesn’t faithfully follow Claire’s. The stories are complementary, however, readers don’t need to read both books together. Each sister’s story stands on its own.

“Always Another Twist” is available from Mantle Lane Press

My review of “Kaleidoscope”

My review of S A Leavesley’s “How to Grow Matches” (poetry)

“Strange Fashion” Pam Thompson (Pindrop Press) – poetry review

Strange Fashion Pam ThompsonThe poems in “Strange Fashion” travel to Ireland, Scotland, Spain and America, moving back through history to a journalist trying to interview Virginia Woolf and Emilys Bronte and Dickinson browsing antiques in Church Stretton. The strangeness does not lie in the unfamiliar locations but in close observations of people’s behaviour when their guards are let down, when individuality shows. In “Gas Basin, 6pm” a woman kneels by the canal with a bag of fish food,

” She was just a woman with a few drinks inside her,
feeding fish, and if she felt like talking to them, waving even,
who were we to stop her, who were we to imagine
that our lives had bigger moments in them than hers?

We walked past on the other side, kept our eyes straight ahead,
carried on chatting until there was a safe enough distance
between that first sighting and the looking back.”

Despite the subject’s inhibitions being loosened enough to enable her to talk to the fish she’s feeding, the observers feel they can’t openly observe but look back from a safe distance. Partly this is down to the surprise of watching someone do something strange, but also the observers’ senses of decorum; they don’t want to be seen to be looking. There’s no judgment – the woman is not described as drunk and seems to be sufficiently in control to speak to and feed fish without the observers worrying she might fall in the water and the observers concede they have no right to intervene.

Thoughts are recorded “For Those Who Walk Pavements”,

“who walk, as if on air, or weighed down
by something shocking left over

from their dreams. Spare a thought for the wanderer,
meanderer, the blinkered, the lost.
Spare another thought, light a candle,

for those who travel without compass
or map, who leave the house with vague intentions,
an idea of destination, yet happily drift off course.”

For most pedestrians, the walkers mentioned are those who cause annoyance and are barely worth a second glance, much less a thought, as those with destinations and one eye on a clock hurry past. The poem is an invitation to slow down and observe. There are moments of tenderness too, in “Prisms”

“The frayed ends of what the rain left.
Red seeping into blue.

It doesn’t matter in what order the colours come,
as long as they do.

*

It takes me back to that other darkened room –
us, tethered by lust.

The way we sucked the breath
out of each other,
the colours streaming through us in any old order.”

A search for light and colour is echoed in “The Sun (her Ex) on the Shortest Day”

“A satellite tracking your temperature, weight and height,
wondered where you’d gone. Dirty stop-out, you crouched in a stairwell,
wasted from dog days. Even so, the sky danced itself into unseasonal blue.

You crouched. I watched scraps of cloud; people in flats hanging out washing,
moving through rooms; then later, car headlights, pretending to be you,
tiny white bulbs in the tree outside Matalan.

Faking it, window by window: the glint of your stalker attentions.
Black canal. Swans stamped with leaf shadows. Your kiss
on the back of my neck in the middle of my forgetting.”

“Strange Fashion” is an invitation to observe without prejudice or judgment. It offers compassionate attentiveness that comes from a poet willing to slow down and watch and record. The poems are crafted, giving readers enough details to complete their stories based on acute glimpses into others’ lives.

“Strange Fashion” is available from Pindrop Press.

“How to Grow Matches” S A Leavesley (Against the Grain) – poetry review

How to Grow MatchesThis collection looks at everywoman through myths, legends, art and the everyday such as shopping lists. It looks at timeless, classical women and those who post selfies on social media. It refuses to define a woman by her status as a mother or singledom. The title poem is timely for the #MeToo era, starting with an instruction to take a match,

Snap one – like a sharp blow
sideways behind a man’s knees.
Then another and another
for each jibe or slight.

Note how easily the wood splits
after years of hidden anger.
A felled forest at your feet,
and still the pile grows!

Lay the toppled pieces
against each other’s thinness,
rested on crumpled paper.
Now you have a bonfire.

It ends referencing those “hip-sways and lip expressions/ condoned for your office/ as a woman.” A reminder of the way a woman’s outward appearance is policed, not just by men, for the male gaze. The short vowels quicken the rhythm, just as words spoken in anger quicken. The compression could also be a reflection of the way woman are permitted to use public space, constrained into a thin ideal shape, not unlike a matchstick.

“American dream” is an abcedary shopping list, although not the one a reader might conventionally take to Walmart,

“an apple, & ambition;
baby milk & a burnt-ochre bra;
cocoa & cotton / fresh with sisters’ sweat;”

it continues,

“questions;
respectable reductions / but no responses or responsibility;
somewheres to live / some of these known as homes;
time at twice-light-speed;
ugli fruit side-lined behind the white lychees;
vaginas of future children: / shaven, vajazzled & perfectly man-shapen / an
unfillable void / visas in place of green card;
wool-brains & would-you-evers!;
xx large pants, Xtra Value Soap & X-rated news;
yeses in part-exchange for timid noes;”

Note, she buys questions but not answers, is lumbered with “respectable reductions” but not “responses”. The uncertainty in “yeses in part-exchange for timid noes;” shows someone not in control but being guided towards a response which is not originated by her. The varied list keeps the mood light but underlines a more serious point.

In “That Christmas” an ice maiden appears on a lake

“Mystery glistened. Crowds gathered.

Days passed. She didn’t melt,
but her glass clarity scuffed

from white to tarmac dirty
with the impact of every touch.

More pilgrims flocked; birds flew
off track. Time clothed her in myths.

Someone recalled how a shower
of falling stars hit the Earth’s cold dark,

like sparks tumbling from a lit taper.
At her feet, a scattering of spent matches.”

The match theme is picked up again. The ice maiden is missing a voice so cannot answer questions or tell her story. However, this doesn’t stop gawking on-lookers inventing one for her. Voiceless, she is talked over and talked about.

“How to Grow Matches” is a timely pamphlet that explores the roles and expectations foisted on women along the with reams of unsolicited advice which also restricts and places limitations on women. The pamphlet also looks at women in story-telling and myths. The poems highlight without complaining and touch on potential role models, enabling women to move from victimhood to survivors who can take control.

“How to Grow Matches” is available from Against the Grain

“Spools of Thread” Angi Holden (Mother’s Milk Books) – poetry review

ah_spools_of_thread“Spools of Thread” was the winner of Mother’s Milk inaugural pamphlet prize. The title comes from the opening poem “I Measure My Mother’s Love” which starts “In spools of thread:/ royal blue Sylko and scarlet Gütermann./In sixpenny cards of buttons” and ends

“in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric
to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.
In smocking and twice-sewn French seams,
in the electric hum of the black and gold Singer,
in turned hems, let down as we grew.”

The evocative details create an image of a thrifty mother making clothes for children: the smocking can expand for growing bodies and French seams are used to prevent fraying so the clothes are designed to last.

The threads of family relationships is a theme throughout. “Other Mothers’ Sons and the Publican’s Wife” features sons who had to find a substitute mother figure. A publican’s wife encouraged US soldiers stationed in the UK to talk of home and taught them British pub games. Letters were found stuffed in a desk long after the war, letters from “Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho.”

“And when her son came home – whole despite a body pocked
with shrapnel – she wondered how those other boys had fared,
how many made it back. And then the precious letters came
from grateful mothers, who hearing of her kindness
thanked for her being there, when they could not; thanked her
for cherishing those Stateside boys, those other mothers’ sons.”

A mothering instinct is not restricted to blood relations. I suspect the publican’s wife felt motherly towards most her of the pub’s clientele, creating a protective sense of community. The preservation of the letters confirms this need to nurture and protect. This instinctive motherliness contrasts with a nosy professional who queries why an adult son hugs his mother in “Son”

“‘I’m a professional,’ she says. ‘Special needs.’
As if to explain the directness of the question.
His kiss burns my cheek like a touch of sun
as I grope for an appropriate answer
somewhere along the autistic spectrum.”

The shock of a mother’s instinct being challenged stops the narrating mother telling the nosy woman to butt out. A professional woman who is used to having her questions answered, doesn’t see how inappropriate her question is in a social setting where issues of confidentiality and stigma haven’t been considered.

The pamphlet isn’t just about mothering. “Weekend Solstice” looks at the tenderness in a long-term partnership after a family gathering.

“Later there’s woodsmoke, the scent of barbecue and chiminea,
the tang of zested lager, cider, Pimms in glasses topped
with mint and strawberries, ice and chunks of cucumber.
There will be ice-cream and Eton Mess.

And finally between those linen sheets we’ll touch and kiss
and spoon away the shortest night.”

The evocative, lyrical details build the scene. The short listing of drinks gives away to more details in the food. There’s comfort in “chunks of cucumber”, rather than wafer-thin slices designed to be spread as far as possible, and the promise of ice-cream. The children of “I Measure My Mother’s Love” wouldn’t have known of barbecues and patio heaters but have learnt to nurture and share.

“Spools of Thread” is a cohesive, contained pamphlet of poems with sensory details that accumulate to build to resonate beyond their evocative scenes. These poems are stitched as carefully as those French seams, giving a smooth outline so readers focus on the pattern and shape of words and images.

“Spools of Thread” is available from Mother’s Milk Books.


Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“Birds without Sky” Malka al-Haddad (Harriman House Ltd)

Malka al-Haddad left war-torn Iraq to seek asylum in the UK. The poems in “Birds without Sky” loosely follow that journey. This isn’t a review. I was part of the team of co-editors who selected some of Malka’s poems for both “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) so a review would justifiably been seen as biased.

In “Children of War” she explores why civilians leave, the poem’s speaker address a father who gifted the speaker a gun,

“You told me my gun would be my best friend.
It has been with me each day and night. And still

Every child in my land suffers torrents of war.

Every child in my land suckles milk mixed with fear.”

The poet settled in “Leicester”,

“How I longed for such a home
like summer waits for rain.
People see me as a refugee.
But I am a free bird nestling in your grass.
I have nothing, only love and rain, but I’m richest
under your warm heart, drawing me to your depths.”

During her launch, Malka explained that she tends to write poems straight into English, even though it’s her second language. Arabic has far more rhyming words and she grew frustrated at the impossibility of translating poems from Arabic into English because the rhyming sounds and patterns couldn’t be replicated. Some of her poems have been inspired by experiences of the asylum process, the paperwork, the endless questions.

“To Bush and Blair”

“Your war killed our peace.
You stole all our hope.
The name of God and peace kills everyday.
And still you want more.

We run towards fate unknown.
Then you face us, judge us, plunder us,
as you did when you came to our country.
Such a sheep-gathering on the deck.
Where do I begin? Where does it end?
All I have in exile is pen and paper.”

It was in struggling to answer the questions that Malka turned to poetry. “Drug” (complete poem),

“Learn poetry
There is no more healing drug than swimming with words.”

Poetry allowed and enabled her to express tumbling emotions and thoughts by giving a structure to work with and framing her emotions. In “Birds without Sky”, Malka shares her struggles with empathy and energy.

“Birds without Sky” is sold to raise funds for Leicester City of Sanctuary, North Lincolnshire Area of Sanctuary and the Boabab Women’s Project.


Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“Ice and Autumn Glass” Mark Fuller Dillon (Leaky Boot Press) – poetry review

Ice and Autumn Glass Mark Fuller Dillon bookcoverIt’s natural that a self-confessed fan of Jacobean poetry would also be a fan of traditional poetic forms and it also felt natural for the first section of the book to be about a lost love. The test was whether the rhymes intruded or supported the poems or whether natural word orders were distorted to accommodate rhymes. Although not all the poems rely on end of line rhymes. From the poem that gives the collection its title, “This Heritage of Ice and Autumn Glass”, the landscape is Canadian,

“I could show you moonlight in the wind
When cold star crystals leap above the snow.
And even as the autumn leaves reflect
The lava flows of sunset, new leaves burn
Red as marsh lights, for a single noon
Before the green appears. The moon, you see,
That egg within a shattered nest of mist?
The heron striding on its own reflection?
The raisin-scented torches of the sumac
That draw the chickadees in hornet crowds?

This heritage of ice and autumn glass
Is all I have to offer…”

It’s the detail that stops this becoming a cliched list of nature’s bounty. It was good to see a proper abcedary in “Xylotomous Xenogenesis” that didn’t skip over ‘x’. It ends:

“Unless unfeeling logic take the wheel,
Veer vehemently ’round and quit the course,
Would we see an end to my surreal
Xylotomous xenogenesis
— Yes, yell it! — carving efforts to create,
Zig zag fashion, works that captivate?”

There may be a nod to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”in the fourth line of the quote, but I think too, a recognition that a story’s parent – the author – has little control of how readers see the offspring once the story’s out in public. The reference to “carving” in the fifth line supports the use of “xylotomous” in the preceding line, giving it a coherence suggesting it was more than just an interesting word plucked from the dictionary to fit the demands of an abecdary form.

The mood lightens after the opening section and writing about a writer’s life is looked at with humour. In “Dreamed in a Colder Bed”

“‘Your story does not suit our present needs.’
And I agree, it cannot suit the times;
For it was crystallized in colder climes,
Dreamed in a colder bed that supersedes
The warmth and welcome that your office heeds
As bait for any buyer. Let the chimes
Ring out for those who match the paradigms
Which I cannot encompass. (He concedes.)

For I would be the first one to declare:
I have no fond connection to this age.”

Performance nerves, anyone? In “Could Someone Else Read This For Me?”

“That weak and ragged instrument, my voice,
Detuned by all my decades and the dust
Puffed away from paperbacks, now thrust
Into the public ear by desperate choice,
Would make the least articulate rejoice:

For I could never wave or smile, and trust
My spoken word to charm, or waken lust:
My talking never rolls, and has no royce.”

And a dash of wonder at “Those Who Persist”

“Those who persist under punches of rejection,
Who can take every slap as a cue for resurrection
In writing or in love, in craftsmanship or dreams,
I always wonder
How

You can rise from the mire of your own incomprehension
And go back to your chair despite all of the dissension
That denies what you whisper in your modulated screams.
I need your guidance
Now.”

Perhaps it’s natural that other writer would warm to the final sections in the collection, but Mark Fuller Dillon’s poems pass the test in that the use of traditional forms feels natural and, where rhyming schemes are used, they don’t intrude on the poems. The collection shows a love of words and a range of tones, craft and a dash of self-deprecating humour.

“Ice and Autumn Glass” is forthcoming from Leaky Boot Press.


Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase