Review of A Tricky Dance, By Diane Simmons

Diane Simmons was an initial reader for Bath Short Story Award for several years. She is now more involved with National Flash Fiction Day, which she co-directs, writing flash fiction and judging flash fiction contests. A Tricky Dance, published in January 2024 by Alien Bhudda Press, is the third novella-in-flash she has published since 2019. You can find out more about the others, Finding a Way, and An Inheritance on Diane’s website

For those unfamiliar with the form, a novella-in-flash has short flash fiction stories as chapters, which are often, but not always self-contained and together form a narrative arc. A Tricky Dance is the story of Elspeth, a Scottish school girl from a single parent family in the 1980s, who is trying to fit in with her school mates but hampered by a lack of money.

Very short fictions are instructive for those writing longer stories. Although short stories 1000 words and longer are always helped by avoiding preambles and tightening sentences and structures, this is even more the case with stories 500 words or under. Diane succeeds very well on all counts with her very short fictions in A Tricky Dance. So much is deftly conveyed in these stories about the life and thoughts of Elspeth. Authentic dialogue and interesting situations make you want to read on and discover if Elspeth can fulfill her dreams. She has several obstacles to overcome.

The stories are often funny as well as moving. Many of them have been published in magazines as successful stand- alone pieces. ‘Cabbage Pie’ is a story about Elspeth becoming vegetarian and her mother’s attempt to cook for her. It won second place in Reflex Fiction’s flash fiction Award in 2022. Elspeth’s richer vegetarian friend has far more interesting vegetarian food than cabbage pie. This story is an excellent vehicle for showing class differences via food choices. And although set in the 1970s is very relevant today. ‘Dance of the Cuckoos’ was published in the Irish flash fiction magazine Splonk It shows with exact humourous details, how Elspeth manages on her own when her partner deserts her for a boy when they go ‘guising’ for hallowe’een. It is satisfying that in all these stories Elspeth never gives up. I am always interested how stories can work well for both adult and YA readers. I am sure this is the case with ‘A Tricky Dance’ with its feisty, determined protaganist and the timeless theme of trying to belong.

Other stories in the book demonstrate the outsider theme in different ways. ‘Dancing’ shows how a girl can suffer embarrassment as a result of relative poverty.It’s a touching story where a boy, who wants Elspeth as a dancing partner, offers her his sister’s ‘unused’ dancing pumps, although Elspeth suspects they may be new and he is trying to save her feelings. ‘Support is another story which shows how Elspeth’s mother, through help of a teacher, manages to get a job which will pay for a new bra for Elspeth, thus helping her avoid bodily embarrassment.

The voice of our protaganist, Elspeth, is very strong. It is easy to feel you are in the world of a 1970s teenager with the stituations and diction all matching up. Diane has also recorded some videos of some of the stories, so you have the added bonus of hearing her exellent readings, linked here

A highly recommended read. You can buy directly from Diane for a signed copy and from Amazon.

It is only six weeks away until the close of the 2024 Bath Short Story Award on April 15th. The maximum word length is 2200 words. But there isn’t a lower limit and several shortlisted stories aare much shorter than the maximum word count. So don’t feel you have to write within a few words of the limit. Many of our initial readers write flash fiction themselves and are familiar with reading very short fictions. Reading Diane’s novella might give you the incentive to go short.