Short Story Winners

Review of the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2014

Ken Elkes

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I suppose that once a long list of good stories becomes a short list of the best, the final ranking is always personal rather than definitive. However, choosing from this short list must have been pure pleasure. From the winner to the brave and successful one-page story writer, there are no duds in the anthology. I review seven.

The artist for the excellent and imaginative cover of this anthology, Elinor Nash, also gained first prize with The Ghost Boy. A young accident victim retains an understanding of emotions and a strange insightful sensitivity although few other functions, Nash uses the 3rd person narrative voice to display Jake’s thoughts. He hears surrounding domestic sounds in colour (synaesthesia) “lemon yellow whooshes” and “the indigo velvet spiral of the drill”. He is painfully aware of the effect of his changed life upon his family. The imagination involved in perceiving this tragedy from the victim’s point of view probably nailed this story as the winner.

I really enjoyed Roisin O’Donnell’s, Under the Jasmine Tree, commended, because of the several levels of meaning. This story presented the reader with an original topic although the theme of reunion between mother and adult child, long separated is not entirely new. Requited but fated love is signalled by the description of the loved-one’s voice “clear as water and rocked with the rhythms of the sea” that contrasts later with it “rough as sea-spray” because he’s choked by what he’s done, what he’s caused and by his vocation. The sad acceptance of her situation is portrayed with due weight, her final decision symbolised by the permeating perfume of Jasmine.

Another commended story was ‘It’s a Girl’ by Lisa Harding. This was an even heavier theme, the trapped immigrant finding that begging is more successful with a puppy than a baby. This woman without adequate means of communication has a life of misery doled out by her keeper. Well written but a doleful tale.

Two stories used the well-worn theme of the holocaust. Cleverly written, but again very depressing, was Anne Corlett, the local prize winner’s story, The Language of Birds. The main character, beleaguered by her past, maintains her heavy lie and turns her painful thoughts to the sound of bird song. Each song represents another aspect of the story and leads to a conclusion that seems only fit.

The Crust, by Mona Porte, has a Jewish painter irritated at his father for allowing the Nazis to steal his paintings. The family meet the awful fate of Jews and the painter is reduced to starvation in a camp. For me, this was the weakest story because too much was told through dialogue as if readers had not come across this topic before. However, the use of the crust as an irritant, on several levels, was clever as was the twist at the end.

The third prize winner, Alex Hammond, had a more direct approach with No Man’s Land. A boy in Spain is making his own replica of the bunkers and dugouts, but needs help in making mud given the dryness in Spain. He appears to be more in tune with the dreadfulness of the battlefield until the end of the story makes the situation clear. I thought this fresh, competent writing with no wasting of words.

Lastly, the second prize winner,

with A Beautiful Thing, Kit de Waal, Unknown

gained my admiration for writing something uplifting. It’s my belief that this is harder than writing tragedy. The story twists the reader’s expectation in a new direction. I loved the detail of the expensive spats leading to a brave foray into new territory, with unexpected and heart-warming results. The style of writing reminded me of Marquez. I’d read this author’s work again.

Flash Fiction

kaleidoscopeNo flashy words:
Review of Eating My Words: 2014

THE NATIONAL FLASH FICTION DAY ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Callum Kerr
Angela Readman
Amy McKelden

One of the beauties of an anthology of flash fiction is that it gives exposure to such a large number of different authors. It was good to see this, rather than many entries by a few authors. Furthermore, the anthology included a section of micro-fiction entries, a form requiring even more skill if a reader’s involvement is to be engaged.

I reviewed last year’s anthology, Scraps, ScrapsBkand approached the present one with happy anticipation. I didn’t have the advantage of seeing the foreword – I only had the e-book.

This year’s title is appealing and apt. It refers to the theme set the writers – The Senses. There was a wide variety in how this was interpreted, and a degree of variety in the quality of writing.

The opening story was totally enchanting in its reversal of perceptions of the rat. With a good arc and subtle references, Becky Tipper’s story set a promising tone for the book.

At the end of the book the winners of the micro-fiction competition displayed the economy of words against the ingenuity of concept.

In the remainder, the following stories pleased me particularly. Different readers will have different preferences, but those stories that feel complete in the read surely master the genre. It doesn’t have to be a surprise ending, but it does need to make sense of the beginning and/or display a clear concept. This blog emphasises the importance of character in writing.  In flash fiction, a character must make an immediate impact.

The imagery in Tasty – a story about pornography – works well, and the conclusion is both believable and restorative. The concept of ‘unfinished stories’ in Dress Sense ensured that the issue of loss and stasis would resonate after the read. This was a sensitive piece as was the much longer story by Sarah Hilary. She paired two unlikely characters and set them forth for an imagined future.

There were several sad reads, and a wry one, Show Don’t Tell, which made me smile. Nik Perring’s story was even more wry. A girl with an addiction to giving up and her boyfriend’s understandable responses suggested two interesting characters who would hold their own in a longer story, but nevertheless the piece had a satisfying conclusion. A wider smile still for What We Do In Our Sleep. It really pays to consider the ridiculous sometimes, for it can illustrate a point – in this case, hypochondria – more clearly than a set of descriptions. Tino Prinzi uses dialogue well and wittily here.

I did balk at some hefty wordiness (“feculent metastatic lesions”) in Seven Breaths, but the psychology of the piece was well understood. Another insightful piece, more about coming to fruition than coming of age, was Launch Pad. It launches the reader into a vivid classroom scene and slyly comments on adult expectations. Handle with Care was itself beautifully handled, displaying sensitivity and poignancy in a piece that explores a child’s revulsion against cruelty.

Michael Marshall Smith totally encapsulated the theme of The Senses in his story, Half-Life, with a very clever plotline. I admired this, as I did the well-written Chekhov’s Gun, for imaginative use of the theme.

Eating      EATING MY WORDS 

It is hard to pick out some stories for mention when there are many that make the purchase of this anthology worthwhile. Death, love, lust, thwarted ambition – all are aspects of the human condition that these writers consider. All the more surprising, then, to read about swallowed kittens, chemically induced sensation removal and the beauty of being an oyster.

Long live the flash fiction genre.

Children’s new books that last

Today’s post is a REVIEW of a children’s book. There are myriads of square paperback picture stories that children can thumb through themselves. If these get torn or worn out, it is not much of a problem to replace them with others.

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Bedtime is a different matter, however. We want children to snuggle up and go to sleep comfortably, feeling safe and loved. Having that one-to-one time with a parent is a special nightly experience, particularly important if the child is away from home during the day while parents work.

I would argue for a special bedtime book, one that is not alongside the toys to be picked up at will. This should be a book only brought out by the Mum, Dad, grandparent or loved carer. When they lift it down from its own place on a shelf it can act as a signal for the story that leads up to settling down for the night. For this, the book has to have a lasting format, hardback with a distinctive cover, quality paper and imaginative, artistic illustrations, ones that will remain in the child’s mind after the story and enrich his or her understanding and imagination.

I’ve just read The Book of Bedtime Stories    Ten prize-winning stories from Mumsnet and Gransnet chosen by Michael Rosen.  This is an immediately attractive hardback book with a dust cover. The indigo sky with golden stars and moons contrasts with the clear white surround of the title and the front illustration of a peacefully sleeping child. The book will stand out on the bookshelf.

I enjoyed opening this book, the feel of the good quality paper, the variety of illustrations. I imagine the child wanting to be the one to turn the next page, but carefully.

These ten stories were those chosen by Michael Rosen from the twenty on the short-list in a competition that had more than four hundred entries. Each one is written by an unpublished author; each one is illustrated by a new young artist. Therefore, the book represents twenty talents fresh to the children’s book market.

Toddlers approaching two years and youngsters not too far from independent reading are all catered for in this volume.

imageAppropriately, the opening story  tells of a child reluctant to go to bed. It is suitable for tinies and may become a calming favourite as they become pre-schoolers. The cuddly baby illustrations are similar to those of Shirley Hughes.

The next story features a cow who sneakily finds a way to jump over the moon. Although the solution is not original, the skillful telling is just right for the four-year-old, while the distinctive style of the illustrations will attract all ages. I’m sure this illustrator, Tamsin Gilbert, will go far.

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Many a child who has lost or mislaid a favourite toy will want ‘the jaguar story’ over and again.  The loved soft jaguar goes missing at the swimming pool and then writes postcards from his travels. Eventually, he returns. As the child gets older s/he may wonder if Mum has a slightly guilty secret over jaguar’s loss.  A touch of humour is always welcome, but this writer knows how to deal imaginatively with a major disaster, which such a loss is to the child.

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By contrast, a story aimed at the older child is lyrical and dreamy. I really loved the writing about Celeste and her care of stars, as well as the painterly illustrations. This story will appeal to the child with creative leanings.

The final story is also lyrical and original. The night thief who changes the skies has that thought-provoking, mysterious quality that will bring a small listener back again.

There will be many relatives and friends of parents who will be delighted to find a Christmas present that is of high quality and of lasting value. I am sure the lucky children who receive this will thoroughly enjoy their bedtime stories over a period of years. It is the sort of book which, when adult, the grown child will want to safeguard ready to read to their own small ones.

It’s heart-warming to have something that lasts in a world of quick reads and fast turn-over. The Book of Bedtime Stories is available now from Amazon if you live overseas or in the hinterland. Otherwise, why not buy it from your local independent bookstore? This is the best place to browse for gems you might not otherwise know about.

Chinese short stories

Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China- edited by +Liu Ding, +Yinghua Lu and +Ra Page

It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I had never expected that those would characterize the national psyche. I have never visited China so had little knowledge. What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.

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This collection gives a rare flavour of China. However, the Introduction is just as important. The story of the circumstances in which the collection came about is fascinating and itself gives some insight into Chinese life. As the Introduction explained, each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.

To do the book justice, each story really deserves to be reviewed individually, but I have compromised with my favourites.

Wittily, +Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. It is a very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ in which we learn something of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. +Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.

He does an equally good job on +Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.

+Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?

The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by +Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes, although hilarious, gives a flavour of everyday life and difficulties in +Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of +Jonathan Swift.

In +Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of +Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.

Altogether, it was the irony and irrepressible humour that gave me such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.

Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.

The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, from your local independent bookseller. I bought it from +Mr B’s Emporium in Bath:

  • Publisher: +Comma Press (30 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190558346X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583461