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Dot, Dash (Salt Modern Fiction)
Dot, Dash (Salt Modern Fiction)
Price: 1.71

4.0 out of 5 stars Little Stories, Big Ideas, 8 April 2013
After ploughing through a string of four over-long and largely disappointing novels, Dot Dash turned out to be just what I needed. It's quite a slim book, weighing in at a shade under 200 pages, but it contains 58 stories. As implied by the title, these are arranged in sequence, with "dots" (very short stories, many of them small enough to fit the 140-character limit of a tweet) alternating with "dashes" (more traditionally sized short stories). The "dashes" tend not to extend over more than four or five pages, so - if you so desired - you could gulp down the entire selection in a relatively short space of time.

I've enjoyed many of Jonathan's stories online in recent years, and so it wasn't a surprise to find myself enjoying this book too. There were some old favourites - such as rZr and Napoleon, The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife, and Advice re Elephants - but the majority of the stories were new to me. I have to say I got more from the dashes than from the dots, on the whole - microfiction is interesting (and I've tried it myself with varying results), but even when it's done particularly well it often seems more like a demonstration of the writer's skill and/or imagination than a genuine story with real depth. That said, there are some impressive examples throughout the book, and having them interspersed with the longer pieces produced an interesting effect - whenever I got to the end of a story, it proved almost impossible not to read the microstory that followed it, and more often than not I would then find myself reading the next story as well.

Reading this collection, I found myself thinking of Adam Marek's 'Instruction Manual for Swallowing', as there is the same sense here that you can never predict where the author is going from one story to another, and the only answer is to give in and follow wherever he leads. Neither author pays any attention to the invisible boundaries between genres, and the resulting collection is much richer, more varied, and interesting than the 'variations on a theme' you get with some anthologies. However, where I found Marek's stories had a frustrating tendency to peter out towards the end, Pinnock keeps a tighter hand on the reins and ensures the endings do justice to the leaps of imagination that get the story off the ground in the first place. There is plenty of humour, in both dots and dashes, but Jonathan's prose is equally sure-footed when tackling poignancy (see Return to Cairo or The Guitarist's Inheritance) or horror (the unsettling Nature's Banquet, for instance). Many of the stories occupy a curious middle-ground, funny-but-disturbing, sad-but-hopeful, stubbornly resistant to classification.

When you get to the end (and particularly if you're a writer), it's worth reading the Acknowledgements section, where the publishing and/or prizewinning history of the stories is revealed. Almost all have earned their stripes in competitions, anthologies, magazines, and online publications, and it's easy to imagine Dot Dash becoming a set text for any writer looking to address the tricky question of exactly how you go about getting a judge or editor to notice your story among everybody else's. Jonathan Pinnock's answer appears to be simple: Write - write whatever and however you like, about anything that interests you. Don't worry about being one type of writer or another, don't let genre be a constraint, and - most importantly - don't forget to leave the reader grinning like a lunatic.

Not So Perfect: Stories
Not So Perfect: Stories
by Nik Perring
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.04

4.0 out of 5 stars Tiny, quirky, heartwarming stories, 4 Mar 2013
Nik Perring's collection of short stories has popped up on my blog ( a couple of times, but after a recent conversation with a friend I realised I'd never actually reviewed it. So, I re-read it a couple of days ago and here's what I think:

Not So Perfect is a collection of 22 short stories. They're very short - the shortest stories don't cover a page and the longest is maybe four or five sides long (and the book's only about the size of a CD case, so the pages aren't all that big). Most of them therefore fit very comfortably into the 'flash' bracket.

Nik's writing style is very clear and concise, perhaps even minimalist. He distils the events he describes to the bare essentials; there's no lingering, no flowery prose. If you're used to reading classics, or just more "traditional" writing, it can feel a little sparse at times, although there's a real warmth to it, too. In several of the stories, the characters aren't named, and only a few of them take place in a definite location. Flash fiction does put significant demands on the reader; there are a lot of blanks to fill in.

Nearly all the stories deal with relationships - whether they're just starting, stalling, or coming to an end. Some of the stories have strongly surreal or at least slightly skewed elements. There's a lot of sweetness, too - although sometimes it's concealed under a darker veneer.

I really enjoyed this collection, and having read it again, I found plenty of new aspects I'd missed the first time around. In a lot of flash fiction, I sometimes reach the end of a story and wonder if perhaps the author brought things to a close a little too soon, or left a bit too much out for me to be really sure I'd 'got' the point he was making. But perhaps that's just the way my brain works - I don't like feeling I've missed something. Part of the appeal of Nik's work though is not so much that he tells you anything in particular, but that he just offers a new way of looking at something, a different take on a familiar situation, and leaves you to make your own decisions.

I can't honestly say I liked every single one of the stories - a couple of them feel too slight, too much like a good idea with nowhere particular to go (besides, I can only think of a couple of collections where I've genuinely loved all the stories) - but overall I thought they were very good. I admire Nik's writing style, and it's interesting to see how he describes things so well with such a limited word count. My particular favourites are "The Seconds are Ticking By" (a story about a schoolboy who finds himself holding a grenade in one hand and the pin in the other), "Say My Name" (in which a lonely man fears he is fading away), and "The Mechanical Woman" (who believes she is unlovable, until a chance encounter with an engineer on a train).

Whether you enjoy this book will depend, mostly, on how you feel about flash fiction. If you love to spend time with a character and really get under their skin, you may find the brief glimpses offered by Not So Perfect a little frustrating. If, on the other hand, you're happy to be dropped in just in time to share a tiny but vital moment in the history of a relationship, and don't mind being left to imagine how things turn out afterwards, you'll probably get a lot out of this book. Interested? Seek out some of Nik's stories online and see what you think.

The Understanding of Women
The Understanding of Women
Price: 0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The literary equivalent of a fondant fancy, 17 Dec 2012
The Understanding of Women straddles the boundary where a long short story starts to become a short novella. I'm not sure of the word count, but it took me an hour or so to read. For me, that's about my limit for reading from my mobile's screen (I don't have an e-reader of any type, so the Kindle app is as close as I get). But it turns out that a little screen actually suits the story pretty well. It's not an epic tale, just a neat, small story with a lot of heart.

James wakes up at the start of the story, hungover and lying on the floor of a library. As he is taking in and trying to make sense of his surroundings, he realises he is not alone - Maybe-Meg, a girl who might be entirely imaginary has arrived to help him track down his ex-girlfriend, Isobel. As well as a tendency to have conversations with imaginary people, James has the gift of being able to understand exactly what people want, regardless of what they say. This has enabled him to have a string of successful but ultimately unfulfilling relationships with girls - until he met Isobel, who remained a complete mystery to him. Now Isobel is gone, and James wants her back.

His quest takes him on a journey around London, tracking down mutual friends and visiting everywhere Isobel might be. Along the way, he learns more about himself, and in doing so he is forced to start thinking more clearly about what he's actually looking for.

Janina Matthewson writes clearly and she does a good line in understated humour. Her unfussy prose never threatens to get in the way of the story, and as a result the book zips along nicely. I read it in one sitting, but you could equally well break it up into shorter sessions, as it's divided into several sections or mini-chapters. It's a straightforward read, with a linear storyline interspersed with flashbacks to James's formative relationships, and a lot of it is dialogue. I note from her website Janina also writes plays, and you can see that influence here - the characters reveal themselves through what they say, rather than with thick slabs of description. The story ends a little abruptly and the quirky set-up won't appeal to everyone, but I suspect it will win over more people than it turns away.

Overall, The Understanding of Women is a well crafted, charming story, and well worth checking out.

Rush of Blood
Rush of Blood
by Mark Billingham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.59

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Death and Dinner Parties, 3 Aug 2012
This review is from: Rush of Blood (Hardcover)
Rush of Blood is Mark's second standalone novel (he's written nine in the popular and terribly good series featuring DI Tom Thorne). For this one, he's spread his wings a bit, moving away (initially, at least) from the London setting of his other books to kick things off in the USA.

The plot centres around three British couples who meet on holiday in sun-drenched Florida. As UK holiday makers tend to do, they hang out together and swap contact details, fully expecting never to hear from each other ever again. However, the last day of their holiday is marred by the disappearance from their resort of a young girl with learning disabilities. The local police interview the couples and decide to let them return home.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the disturbing end to their stay in paradise, the couples exchange emails and end up arranging to meet for the first in a series of increasingly strained and unpleasant dinner parties. As time progresses, and the situation in Florida develops into a murder investigation, the stress of having to confront events that they'd all rather forget about causes tensions to rise and a supporting cast of skeletons to come tumbling out of various closets.

It's an unusual book, in some ways. For a thriller, there's not a huge amount of action - no car chases, no desperate races against time, no fight scenes. Tension is maintained through a gradual drip-feed of detail and the suspense comes from the slow unravelling of the lead characters as they find themselves under the unblinking scrutiny of the law.

The characters are the driving force of the novel and at first they seem thinly drawn (the bolshy builder with a chip on his shoulder, the creepy computer geek, the bubbly housewife, the bohemian actress-wannabe, the Jack-the-Lad salesman, and his timid wife - who may or may not have a penchant for a bit of 'rough play' in the bedroom). However, what Mark does so well is peel back layer after layer of their personalities to reveal some surprising facets, and a plentiful supply of red herrings. None of them turn out to be particularly endearing characters, but they all have enough quirks, failings, and redeeming qualities to lift them above the stereotypes they might initially appear. Other readers may guess whodunnit before the end, but the twists and turns kept me guessing.

I don't read a huge amount of crime fiction, so I don't know if my only real gripe with the book is a common tactic or not. There are sections when the narrative pulls back from its close focus on the individual characters to give a much broader overview of the scene. This doesn't happen often, but it distracted me from the story the way seeing the wires on a magic trick would. There's a scene near the end where the enthusiastic rookie cop working on the UK aspect of the case arrives after the climactic event that ensures the couples won't be arranging any further dinner parties. The scene's written from her point of view, but the characters are referred to as "the suspect" or "the witnesses" - by this point the cop has interviewed all these people and delved into their murky pasts, so she knows them all by name. To me this just seemed like Mark wagging his finger and saying, "Uh-uh, I'm not going to tell you yet; you have to keep reading," and it felt a little unnecessary.

This was a minor concern, though, and on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Mark evokes the punishing heat and humidity of Florida very well, and the scenes with the missing girl's mother are realistic and heartbreakingly poignant. The London-based dinner parties are a hoot, with plenty of bitching, personality clashes, and some very dark humour. Mark's direct, clear prose hustles you along, and 400 pages zip by in no time at all. There's even a cameo from a certain Tom Thorne - although you might not recognise him at first...

Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 5
Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 5
by Stephen Moran
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Classy Collection of Contemporary Fiction, 3 Nov 2011
Starting from the outside in, I'll just mention the book's cover. Sure, it's not the most exciting image you'll ever see, but there's an element of it I thought was particularly apt. It shows an extreme close-up of a road or pavement, with the bright lights of town off in the blurry distance. The focus is on a few tiny stones, promoted to monoliths by the photographer's zoom lens. This, in essence, is the basis of a successful short story - the writer must home in on some small aspect of a life, a relationship, whatever they are presenting to the reader, and make it a thing of consequence. These little black stones are part of the city, the way the look across the breakfast table is part of the marriage, or the fleeting lapse of concentration is part of the disaster.

I read the stories without knowing which had won the prize. It was an interesting game to try to predict which one the judge had chosen, and I was pleased to find out later that one of my `top three' had indeed bagged the prize.

It's clear that the Willesden Herald takes itself, and its goal of delivering quality fiction, seriously. The writing throughout the book is consistently good, and the themes tackled are weighty, literary ones. Loss, old age, and regret all feature prominently. Death is never far away. It has to be said it can make the process of reading through this collection quite heavy-going at times. I'm not a reader who demands fluffy kittens and butterflies at every turn, but the cumulative effect of hearing about all these dying or dead loved ones did tend to mean I looked more favourably on the stories where the writer used a light touch, and managed to work in a (usually subdued, but credible) note of optimism towards the end. Perhaps the best example of this is the winning entry - Mary O'Shea's story, "Out of Season", in which a man with an undefined but terminal illness and his wife take a seaside holiday. Neither of them quite know how to cope, the illness has become a barrier between them, and both the weather and resort are pretty dismal. The story switches viewpoint between the two of them as they start to adjust to their new roles, and in facing up to the future they remember the past that brought them together in the first place. The close of the story is a long way from a Hollywood ending, but Mary leaves her protagonists with a note of hope - an optimistic lift, perfectly delivered.

I also enjoyed (although that's possibly not quite the right word) Nemone Thomas's "Dancing with the Flag Man", an unflinching coming-of-age tale in which a teenage girl learns the dangers of judging people by their appearance. That makes it sound like a fable - which I suppose it is, in a roundabout way - but it comes across as a gritty and absorbing story of broken dreams and lost innocence. I'm in danger of cramming yet more clichés into this review, so I'll just say it was one of those rare short stories where the characters are so vivid I found myself worrying what was going to happen to them.

The two stories that close the book are particular highlights, too. Angela Sherlock's "Set Dance" - a story of two brothers vying for the attentions of a pretty girl - and Emma Martin's "Victor" - in which an anti-abortion protester tries to help a teenager - are both great examples of writers taking their stories in unexpected and rewarding directions. It was also good to see Teresa Stenson's "Blue Raincoat" again (I'm a member of the same online writing site as Teresa and had a sneak preview a while ago). The shortest story in the book, it's a poignant study of grief, filled with beautiful poetic language and keen insights into human behaviour.

It's not a perfect collection. I wasn't keen on David Frankel's "The Place" (although I liked the underlying premise), and I'm still undecided about the oddly supernatural "Overnight Miracles" by A. J. Ashworth. A couple of the other stories could easily have been improved by being made a little shorter, a little tighter.

On the whole, though, this is an impressive anthology of writing and a fantastic illustration of the storyteller's art. The Willesden Herald competition has established itself as a bastion of contemporary literary fiction, and judging by "New Short Stories 5" there's no reason to think that'll be changing any time soon.

A Documentary About Sharks
A Documentary About Sharks
by Gavin Broom
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.26

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short Fiction with Bite!, 16 Sep 2010
I've been enthusiastically following Gavin Broom's online output for several years, and this collection is a round-up of his stories (and a few poems) that were accepted for publication during 2009. The fact that all the works included here have already been given the green light by editors who know what they're doing (many from well-established magazines like Jersey Devil Press and Menda City Review) should calm the nerves of anybody imagining this to be an indulgent vanity project.

A Documentary About Sharks, then, is a polished collection of works that serves as a demonstration of Broom's impressive range. Fifteen stories and three poems fill 90-odd pages, covering such diverse themes as love, loss, and rampaging reanimated corpses. I don't really feel qualified to comment on the poems, so I'll just say I enjoyed them, and thought they were worth including. Approximately one-third of the stories were new to me, and re-reading the ones I already knew was like getting a visit from an old friend.

There is common ground in many of the stories - Broom's characters often inhabit a world tilted beyond their control by events or circumstances. They are isolated, disconnected, struggling to fit the role life has carved out for them. Although this sounds like a recipe for a tediously introspective gloomfest, Broom's touch is light - he strikes a careful balance between hope and despair, often adding a rich vein of dark humour, so although the stories have their share of poignant moments, they're never depressing.

I hadn't read the title story before, in which two disaffected teenagers walk through a shopping mall, planning a Columbine-style massacre. This is a typical example of Broom's skill - initially seeming like nothing more than two drop-outs hanging around, comparing people in the mall to different kinds of shark, the focus tightens to reveal their sinister motives, before pulling away again on a curiously redemptive note. The effect is unsettling, and it leaves you with plenty to think about.

One reason the writing is so effective is the characterisation. From the jaded commuter in The Boy Who Threw Rocks at Trains (a new one for me, and particularly good), to the unnamed and unnoticed high school girl quietly setting an emotional depth charge for a fellow student in On Your Birthday, Broom has created living, breathing people to populate his stories. The end of a good short story is always a beginning, of sorts, and the reader is left in no doubt that these characters will carry on well beyond the final full stop.

Although the majority of the stories are constructed in a straightforward and traditional way, Broom plays with structure with some of the shorter pieces. The stream-of-consciousness of Between the Lines results in one of the weaker stories, in my opinion, but the style suits the content perfectly. More effective is Everything Binary, a story of a tourist witnessing a murder on the Paris Metro. It's told in fourteen bite-size "chapters" of fifty words each. The choppy, edgy mood this introduces again complements the story itself brilliantly, and adds an extra level of authenticity that would be hard to achieve with a more conventional narrative.

The standout story, for me, is The Spirit of Shackleton, a master class in short-story writing that makes me jealous every time I read it. Other gems include the gloriously unhinged Poe-infused The Reading of Mr Edgar's Will, and the book's closer, a short sting of a piece called Emma's Verruca.

Whether you buy this collection or simply make the effort to track down a few of Broom's stories online, your reward will be fiction of a consistently high standard, in the form of unpredictable and intelligent stories that offer insights into the various tangles, pits, and peaks that life can throw at us. Highly recommended.

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