Thursday, 28 April 2011

'Sweet Home'

Once Upon a Time illustration by Angie Thompson

My fairy tale, 'Sweet Home' came second in the national, Once Upon a Time ~ Modern Fairy Tale Competition.

I read it last night at a prize-giving event and, after some discussion on facebook, even managed to pronounce ganache correctly!

Here's a small extract of the story:

Sweet Home

... The old woman built her house around the stove. She dug out foundations with a shovel and filled the trenches with slow-baked slabs of salt dough and buckets of oozy sugar paste. She cooked thick gingerbread bricks and glazed them with glacé icing which set hard during the cool, wood-shaded evenings. Paper-thin slices of gelatine were latticed into windows, crisscrossed by steady chords of ganache. She constructed a roof out of Linzertorte squares and piped meringue along every join. The midday sun hardened the egg-white mortar into stiff, crispy peaks. When she had finished, she sat on her gingerbread porch modelling tiny flowers out of fondant. She dyed them using wild onion skins, beetroot and hollyhock petals and placed them in gingerbread window boxes.
It was only when the postman had to deliver a package addressed to The Gingerbread House using a postcode which indicated the wood at the margin of the village that people heard about what the old woman had done. People chatted about it in the Post Office, discussed it in the pub and then sauntered down the B road on the pretext of getting some fresh air.
            The gingerbread house was set back from the road by several hundred feet, but was just about visible from the path through the criss-cross of foliage and branches. A crowd gathered at the edge of the wood, their exclamations rising in a whip-swirl of disquiet...

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Back to writing.

I've spent hours reading and reviewing short story collections in recent weeks. I've also started to think about my PhD proposal; I've got eighteen novels to read as part of my preparation - I think I'm singlehandedly keeping my local library's reservation service going at the moment. There hasn't been much time for fiction writing and the enormous spring break/Easter holiday/month off for kids hasn't helped much either. However, I've managed to finish a short story and I've had good news about some older stories:

Once Upon a Time...
I've been placed in the 'Once Upon a Time' short story competition. There will be an award ceremony on 27th April at the Chapel Gallery in Ormskirk. The story can be read here until 30th April, after which I'll just post it on the blog.

I was shortlisted for the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook short story competition. The shortlist can be seen here and the winning story by Samuel Wright can be read here.

The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2013 (Writers' and Artists')
Additionally, I've got a short story and a piece of flash fiction scheduled for publication soon.

Now back to writing...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

'In-Flight Entertainment', Helen Simpson

In-Flight Entertainment, Helen Simpson
Simpson's fifth collection begins with 'Up at a Villa' in which four teenagers observe a couple struggling to come to terms with parenthood. As ever, Simpson's sumptuous language surprises and delights: 'they gasped and gaped in fascination as she uncovered huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert', 'they came up fighting in a chlorinated spume of diamonds', 'the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavory orts'.
The theme of climate change runs through this collection, from casual references, such as Lara's comment in 'Squirrel': 'My children will fry thanks to your mini-breaks' to the more serious dystopian nightmare portrayed in 'Diary of an Interesting Year'. However, Simpson isn't preachy and her references are never contrived. My favourite stories are 'Homework', a touching and funny exchange between a mother and son, and the entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, 'The Festival of the Immortals'.
Read reviews of 'In-Flight Entertainment' here and here.
Read an interview with Simpson here.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

'True North', Andre Mangeot

True North (Salt Modern Fiction)'True North' Andre Mangeot
Chris Beckett has described the stories in this collection as 'pacy, eventful, sometimes violent, their settings unusually varied and colourful.' The seven stories are set in Thailand, France, Indonesia, Canada, Romania, Miami and the Sahara. The opening story, 'Rain' is set in Romania and follows Lucas' progress as he tries to 'set the seal on his father's approval.' A chance encounter with stranger Katya ultimately reveals that perhaps Lucas doesn't have what it takes to 'steward himself, never mind the company, a wife.' My favourite story of the collection is the title story 'True North', the story of a friendship that spans seven decades. It's a contemplative, sad story, about the way in which friends both reveal and conceal themselves; it's beautifully written, full of nostalgia and regret. Mangeot reveals information judiciously leading the reader to a conclusion in which the narrator, Paul is asked of his friend Glenn, 'Did you...did you know him?' and Paul surprises himself by replying 'I can't say I did, not really.'
Read an excerpt from 'True North' here

Monday, 18 April 2011

'The Secret's in the Folding', Fiona Thackeray

'The Secret's in the Folding' Fiona Thackeray
All but one of the nineteen stories in this collection are set in Brazil. The title story, 'The Secret's in the Folding' describes the arrival of newcomer Dona Celestina to town, wearing ill-fitting shoes and carrying a perpetually folded parasol. Curiosity leads to the opening of the parasol by the town shop-keeper's daughter and what has been a symbol of Dona Celestina's freedom, suddenly becomes something else, exposing her to potential ridicule. However, Thackeray resists a premature ending and the story concludes tenderly after Dona Celestina's hurt has been somewhat assuaged. 'The Darling of Brazil' is the story of journalist Kramer's relationship with Brazilian celebrity Leila Camargo. Kramer is writing a biography of Leila when she has to leave Brazil 'for the crime of loving the wrong person.' My favourite story was 'The Celestine Recipe', a story about culinary alchemy that is linked to the opening story, but told from an entirely different perspective and from the other side of town. It is a satisfying story of rivalry, jealousy and ultimately friendship.
Read about Thackeray's latest visit to Brazil here.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

'Storm Warning: Echoes of conflict', Vanessa Gebbie

Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie (cover)'Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict', Vanessa Gebbie
This collection of twenty one short stories and flash fictions is an impressive exploration of human conflict, revealing the effects of war on ordinary people. Many of the stories are moving; some are uncomfortable and shocking. The opening story 'The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregar' sees Edwin returning from the First World War to a hero's welcome in St. Just, Cornwall. Things are not as they seem however and Edwin is soon confronted by miner Jarvis, who claims, 'Edwin Tregar, he's a murderer.' Gebbie tells the story with economy and deftness - it's an excellent opening to the collection. 'The Salt Box' is a snapshot of a life lived on constant alert and 'Lay-By' sees Frank wheeling himself down an unfinished ramp to write 'a message to the world on the back of a dirty lorry.' My favourite stories are 'Road Kill', the story of animal rescuing old soldier George 'Sparks' Faraday, and 'Letters from Kilburn', a funny, touching and ultimately desperate series of letters exchanged between illegal immigrant Karim Hussien and the Queen's Deputy Secretary Sarah Williams.
Read reviews of 'Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict' here and here.
Read interviews with Gebbie here and here.  

Saturday, 16 April 2011

'Touch', Graham Mort

Touch'Touch' Graham Mort
Mort's lush collection of short stories is replete with poetic language and beautiful imagery. The collection sweeps from Iraq, Africa and France, to snowy northern England. Mort writes with dark humour in 'The Caretaker' and 'Ducklings', poetically in 'A Walk in the Snow', humorously in 'Smokehouse' and 'Friday Night' and with expert lightness of touch in Bridport Prize Winning 'The Prince'. The range of this collection is impressive.
In 'Mud Bastard', boys mindlessly torture a frog, while in 'Daniel' a hill farmer thinks about the meaning of life: 'Everything came together in the end. Everything meant something though you couldn't say what or why.' My favourite story was probably 'The Prince' which Tracey Chevalier described as a 'word perfect' description of how 'something out of the ordinary both does and doesn't affect daily life' - the same can be said for many of the stories in this collection.
Read a review of 'Touch' here.  

Friday, 15 April 2011

'Skylight and other stories', Peter Bromley

Sky Light'Skylight and other stories' Peter Bromley
Biscuit Prize winning 'Skylight and other stories' is an understated, carefully observed collection of eleven stories. Bromley has a talent for capturing the ordinary, the mundane, and holding it up for closer inspection, exposing the layers beneath. This can be seen in 'Orion, The Hunter', a story about Richard's invitation to his ambitious colleague Ray's house for dinner. The awkward dialogue exposes Ray's lack of likeability and as the story ends Richard feels as if 'each step of their day folded in on itself; the remaining possibilities of the evening imploding like a spent star.'
The concluding story of the collection 'A Pure Note' sees Davey, who has a job stacking pallets, reluctantly involved in industrial action while trying to take care of the elderly Mrs Rae. He finds unlikely solace in the house of a violin maker. My favourite story was 'Exile' which opens with the line, 'George West hit his daughter' and concludes as George recognizes 'again the deep loneliness to be found in families.'
Read about the Biscuit Prize here.  

Thursday, 14 April 2011

'The Half-Life of Songs', David Gaffney

The Half-Life of Songs (Salt Modern Fiction)The Half-Life of Songs, David Gaffney
'The Half-Life of Songs' is a collection of flash fiction and/or micro stories. The opening story, 'A Certain Type of Man' sees a group of four barbers deciding to leave an old shop sign up when they open their business. Fortunately, 'The customers of Widnes didn't care that the new barber shop was called the Lingerie Lounge' - it's an irresistible opening to a collection that is bizarre, funny and tender. The collection is made up of more than fifty stories, so I'll briefly mention some of the stories I liked best. 'Delivered by Sharks' sees Bill Smethwick moving about with an 'over-chiropracted slink' in a £1 pair of leather trousers. In 'Emergency Kisses' a woman asks about industrial breathing equipment for her husband, requesting something 'to make his breathing quieter, like a silencer.' In 'The Buddy Holly Electrician' an electrician moves in with a couple as a kind of relationship talisman and 'Come and Play in the Milky Night' tenderly exposes the surprising, secret life of Maureen, a stalwart woman who has been 'woven into the fabric' of the village.
Read some of Gaffney's stories here.
Read reviews of 'The Half-Life of Songs' here and here.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

'Memoirs of a Gone World', Martin Bax

Memoirs of a Gone WorldMemoirs of a Gone World, Martin Bax
'Memoirs of a Gone World' is a collection of fifteen adventurous and unsettling stories. The first story 'The Turned-in, Broken-up World' begins with the memorable lines, 'It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root. The affair had been a casual one.'
The stories in this collection are eclectic; there is something old-fashioned and romantic about 'Le Magasin De Gants', while 'Second Out of the Ring' is both filthy and funny. 'When Childhood Ends' is my favourite story. It is a beautifully written account of Jewish child Pierre's evacuation after the Germans enter Brussels during the Second World War. The story arcs perfectly, beginning and ending with images of childhood play and toy soldiers.
Read reviews of 'Memoirs of a Gone World' here and here.
Read a brief interview with Bax here.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

'Screwtop Thompson', Magnus Mills

Screwtop Thompson'Screwtop Thompson' Magnus Mills
The eleven stories in this collection are characterized by 'spare prose and meaning between the lines'. In the opening story, 'Only When the Sun Shines Brightly', a large piece of industrial wrapping gets caught on a viaduct and flaps like 'great wings being beaten'. The noise disturbs the story's narrator initially, but he seems to become fond of it after a time, noting 'we live in an untidy world'. After the wrapping is removed he misses it, noting, 'our street seemed very quiet indeed, and it took me a long time to get to sleep.' These quiet changes characterize Mills' stories.
The title story, 'Screwtop Thompson' is an entertaining, nostalgic story in which four boys; the narrator, his brother, Martin and Conker, are believably callous, and Mills delivers an entertaining punchline of an ending. My favourite story was 'Good Cop', a clever look at good cop/bad cop interrogation techniques at a police station.
Read reviews of 'Screwtop Thompson' here and here.
Read an interview with Mills here

Monday, 11 April 2011

'Mud: Stories of Sex and Love', Michele Roberts

Mud: Stories of Sex and Love'Mud: Stories of Sex and Love' Michele Roberts
The fourteen stories in Roberts' collection are a delight of language. The title story in particular is memorable because of Roberts' beautiful descriptive writing: 'Children want to eat the world. It's a way of knowing. Touch the world. Stroke it, grasp it, pick it up, cram it into your mouth...the field glittered, shapes of pale brown and purple and coffee and black broken up, gleaming like chocolate.'
In 'Tristram and 'Isolde' Roberts surprises the reader so expertly that a second reading feels compulsory (I can't expand on that as I don't want to spoil it), while 'Vegetarian in France' is a deftly written story and ends with pleasing wickedness. One of my favourite stories was 'Annunciation' which expertly sweeps along the arc of Marie's life, exposing the terrible dichotomy offered by the (false) choice to be either 'slag or saint' with no room at all for anything in between.
Read reviews of the collection here and here.
Read an interview with Roberts here.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

'The Art of Contraception', Susie Wild

The Art of ContraceptionThe Art of Contraception, Susie Wild
'The Art of Contraception' is a collection of eleven short stories and a novella. These stories are linked by themes of relationships, sex and procreation. The first story 'Aquatic Life' is available to read online (see link below). Replete with watery imagery, it is a story of loneliness, secret desires and exotic holidays taken in the bath. Wild has a talent for writing about human oddness, hence the use of the word 'quirky' in so many of the descriptions of this collection. 'Pocillovy' is a story about a missing egg cup which suddenly becomes 'essential to the health and survival' of Alice's relationship, while 'Waxing, Waning' takes the reader on an altogether more unpleasant journey to Thailand with Natalie, who has a 'childlike need to believe in wishes coming true.' My favourite stories were 'Pica', in which a pregnant woman inadvertently poisons a work colleague and 'Stung', a story which opens up like a Russian doll into much more than expected.
Read 'Aquatic Life' here.
Read a review here and read Wild's Author's Notes here.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

'Hot Kitchen Snow', Susannah Rickards

Hot Kitchen snow Book LaunchHot Kitchen Snow, Susannah Rickards
Rickard's Scott Prize winning 'Hot Kitchen Snow' is a wonderfully varied collection of twenty stories. The opening story, 'Beau de l'Air' is about about secrets and compassion. Teenager, Euan receives an invitation to what he thinks is 'a Goth gig at the crematorium', but as the story unfolds the true nature of the invitation is revealed and the reader is left wondering how well people ever really know each other. 'Things Like Meat' begins with the line 'Wendy Norman was perfect' and Rickards doesn't disappoint as she peels back the layers of Wendy's imperfect life. 'Ultimate Satisfaction Everyday' is a delightful surprise of a story that resists an obvious ending, allowing door-to-door dog food dog food seller Greg to complete his search for the girl whose life he saved with his credibility as a character intact. My favourite stories are 'Life Pirates' a dense story in which the unsaid is significant, and 'Things Like Meat'.
Read a review of 'Hot Kitchen Snow' here.
I can't find any interviews with Rickards, she appears to prefer being the interviewer - but a piece of her writing about writing can be read here.

Friday, 8 April 2011

'If it is Your Life', James Kelman

If it is Your Life, James Kelman
Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 and has recently been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. The stories in this collection are full of 'rough-hewn insights' which often 'act as a cover for some delicate observation of the characters' interactions, with a special emphasis on bashful, masculine tenderness.' Stories like 'Talking About My Wife' exemplify this tenderness and demonstrate Kelman's mastery of stream of consciousness narration and beautifully observed dialogue. In the memorably titled 'Pieces of Shit Do Not Have the Power to Speak', Kelman writes 'I belonged to that class of fellow whose existence antagonized a particular kind of older male', a problem that many of the narrators of these stories endure, and which can be seen as a continuation of Kelman's exploration of working-class life in a world where the middle-classes have the power. Stories I particularly enjoyed included the paraodic 'Our Times' and the excellent 'Talking About My Wife.'
Read reviews of this collection here and here.
Read an interview with Kelman here

Thursday, 7 April 2011

'Homesick', Roshi Fernando

Homesick, Roshi Fernando 
This collection of seventeen linked short stories won the 2009 Impress Prize for new writers and Fernando has subsequently been shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. Fernando has said that her stories convey a 'sense of not belonging anywhere' and one of  collection's central characters, Preethi, expresses this when she says, 'Nowhere is home and it makes me angry.' There is something cinematic about the title story 'Homesick' which introduces several of the collection's characters at a New Year party; the story is one that, having finsihed the collection, a reader will want to come back to. Stories range from 'Mumtaz Chaplain', the story of a mute Muslim boy who loves Charlie Chaplain to 'The Bottle of Whisky' a story of violence and revenge. My favourite stories were 'The Clangers' in which Preethi and her Grandmother get lost on the way home from school and 'The Turtle' a story that delicately explores parenting an autistic child.
Read a review of Homesick here.
Read a review of Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award nominated 'The Florescent Jacket' here.
I haven't been able to find any interviews with Fernando to link to.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

'Insignificant Gestures', Jo Cannon

Insignificant Gestures, Jo Cannon.
'Insignificant Gestures' is a collection of twenty five stories which are 'beautifully written, often with a surreal, dystopian edge.' Cannon is a GP in an inner city practice and her medical expertise is brought to bear in many of the stories. 'Mercy is Sick Today' is one such story; moving but decidedly unsentimental: 'Flicking at flies, shooing curious children, I guard her. At midday I light the fire for nsima. Not everyone in the village will eat today.'
Cannon is not afraid to tackle 'difficult' topics and 'Daddy's Girl', a story in which a young Muslim man boards the tube carrying a rucksack, is an intricate exploration of secret thoughts and isolation. Many of the characters in this collection are exiles or outsiders, this is true even in the more humourous stories such as 'The Alphabet Diet'. 'Daddy's Girl' was one of my favourite stories, another was the sinister 'Shutters' in which the narrator says to his wife, 'Now you're ill it's better. There's only me.'
Read interviews with Cannon here and here.
Read reviews of 'Insignificant Gestures here and here.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

'God of the Pigeons', Jay Merill

God of the Pigeons (Salt Modern Fiction)God of the Pigeons, Jay Merill
These dense stories are full of hidden objects, meaning and emotions. The title story, 'God of the Pigeons' takes the wing of a dead pigeon and makes it into something much more, 'a hand, clearly pointing to us, saying "Go for it". Spelling out "birth" to us. Does that seem silly? To me it couldn't have been more clear.'
Things are always more than they seem in this collection. The reader is frequently challenged by stories that require effort and deduction. 'Little Elva' is one such story; from the outset the reader is hypothesising, wondering, attempting to fill in the gaps. The moment of realisation is deeply satisying and a second reading offers an entirely different experience. My favourite story was 'Squeeze'. I don't want to spoil 'Squeeze' for future readers, but it offers a fascinating insight into the internal workings of an irrational mind and if the story had been a documentary I would have been equally transfixed.
Read an interview with Merill here.
Read a review of 'God of the Pigeons' here.

Monday, 4 April 2011

'You don't have to Say', Alan Beard

You Don't Have to SayYou don't have to Say, Alan Beard
In this collection Beard takes the mundane and makes it significant; his observational skills are excellent, his descriptions of Sue and two women in a bar in 'The Party' are fresh and sharp. Beard's stories are frequently dark, but they are also compassionate and tender. 'Hot Little Danny' the opening story of this collection sees teenage thug Danny embark on an affair with his middle-aged teacher Mel ('short for Melanie'), in an unlikely, but entirely believable scenario as Beard writes it.
My favourite story was 'Staff Development', a brutal, yet incredibly tender account in which a shed containing a handcrafted doll's house is the only place of safety for Jack, a character who is finding the real world increasingly incomprehensible.
Several of Beard's stories can be read online: 'Background Noise' can be read at East of the Web and 'Huddersfield versus Crewe' can be read at Laura Hird's showcase. 'Hot Little Danny' is linked above.
Read a review of 'You don't have to Say' here.
Read an interview with Beard here.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

'Perfect Lives', Polly Samson

Perfect Lives, Polly Samson
Set in an English seaside town, Samson's collection has been described by Ali Smith as 'an unexpected combination of romp and classical: thought provoking, sassy and comforting'. The lives of the characters in this collection are intertwined, allowing the reader to experience the characters at different times and various angles.
Samson's prose is elegant and deceptively effortless, and of course, there are no perfect lives. This is illustrated in the first story, 'The Egg', a story that explains exactly why, despite appearances, Celia Idlewild's life is not perfect. 'At Arka Pana' disorients the reader so successfully that, armed with the correct understanding of the characters' relationships, I had to go back and read it again. My favourite stories were 'A Regular Cherub', an exploration of a new mother's ambivalence towards her baby and the sinister 'The Man Across the River', a study in narrow escapes and what ifs.
Reviews of 'Perfect Lives' can be read here and here.
Interviews with Samson can be watched/read here and here.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

'Not So Perfect', Nik Perring

Not So Perfect: StoriesNot So Perfect, Nik Perring
Perring's collection of twenty two short, short stories is both an aesthetic and literary delight. The chunky, square-shaped book has birthday/Christmas/Mother's Day gift written all over it (metaphorically) and it's a perfect fit for a handbag. The stories are surreal, surprising and ultimately satisfying. The collection has been described as 'glorious ammunition to fire at those who link brevity with insubstantiality.'
The opening story 'Kiss' starts with the irresistible line, 'The man was rude to his wife, mostly,' and concludes tenderly when the unsaid is finally understood. My favourite stories are 'Bare and Naked in Siberia' in which a young girl's first sexual encounter is juxtaposed with the discovery of an ancient woolly mammoth, and 'Number 14', the story of a woman whose house is 'a rainbow of squares...a patchwork of post it notes.'
Reviews of the collection can be read here and here.
Interviews with Nik can be read here and here.

Friday, 1 April 2011

About the longlist... and 'The Method and Other Stories', Tom Vowler

Over recent months I've been the lucky recipient of boxes and boxes of brand new books as publishers have entered their authors for the Edge Hill Prize. It has been a pleasure to read so many fantastic short story collections. In the coming weeks I'm going to be blogging about the longlisted books and linking reviews of each collection to the short story prize twitter feed. So that I don't get carried away, I've set myself a limit of 150 words per collection.

I'll be writing about the books in no particular order, and because I don't have the responsibility of picking the winner, I have been able to sit back, relax and enjoy reading for its own sake. (The prize will be judged by writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, Marcus Gipps of Gollancz and Jeremy Dyson, winner of the 2010 Edge Hill Prize).

The Method and Other Stories, Tom Vowler

Vowler's Scott Prize winning collection has been described as an overture to a great writing career. The title story, 'The Method' sees an author resort to method-writing after his publisher complains that she doesn't believe in the main character of his novel 'Will's Island'. The author subsequently embarks on a quest for verisimilitude which leads to him getting fired, tattooed, arrested and high: his publisher is delighted to read new work that is suddenly 'real' and 'visceral'. 'The Method' is an excellent collection opener (an extract is available to read here) and Vowler's accomplished writing continues throughout. I particularly enjoyed the punch packed by the deceptively short 'Meet Malcolm' (I was tempted to count the words, but resisted) and the intriguingly titled 'There are New Birthdays Now', a compelling look at a mother and father more than a decade after the disappearance of their daughter.
Interviews with Tom can be read here, here and here.
Reviews of 'The Method' can be read here and here.