Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Friday Gospels paperback launch

I'm going to be reading from Sweet Home at the paperback launch of Jenn Ashworth's new novel The Friday Gospels.

The launch will take place at Ebb & Flo the lovely new bookshop in Chorley on 20th July at 7 pm.

There's going to be cake and everything - I can't wait.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Catch Up

I have finally finished my marking which means I can resume editing the as-yet-nameless novel (next time I'm going to decide on a name *first*). 

I also need to start to think about how to approach a very exciting short story commission and an essay on The Book of Mormon Musical which I saw earlier this year (an hilarious, blasphemous, yet extremely affectionate portrayal of Mormonism and Mormons which left me with a jumble of happy/sad, uncomfortable, nostalgic feelings). 

Sweet Home update:

Sweet Home didn't make the Edge Hill Prize shortlist, but many congratulations to the collections that did (see here for details). It might just be the most exciting shortlist the prize has ever seen. I've looked at stories by four of the six shortlisted authors with my students this year (clearly I have excellent taste!) and I reviewed Hitting Trees With Sticks for the Short Review and wrote a feature piece about The Stone Thrower for Thresholds. I can't wait to hear who has won (I've got a favourite, but I'm not telling). 

Robaroundbooks has been profiling collections that were longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. You can click on the link to his blog to read his thoughts on Sweet Home which is profiled alongside Fireproof and Other Stories by Celeste Auge, Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry, Catching the Barramundi by Rebecca Burns and Tea at the Midland by David Constantine (collections pictured below). 

Fireproof by Celeste Auge (Doire Press) Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape) Sweet Home by Carys Bray (Salt Publishing) Catching The Barramundi by Rebecca Burns (Odyssey Books) Tea at the Midland by David Constantine (Comma Press)

Treadmill desk update:

I'm still walking as I work. It's a bit addictive to be honest and it's starting to feel odd when I sit down to work.

The desk space is big enough to hold huge piles of student essays, stories and a rather odd PC solution (while I decide what to do about my ancient, but very much loved laptop). I've got a monitor propped up on packs of A4 paper so it's at eye level which works well (there's probably a more aesthetically pleasing solution, but I'm quite happy with it like this).

I've walked more than 40 miles in the past 3 weeks. I had expected the total to be higher and I think it may have something to do with the amount of time I've spent reading and marking student work - I found I needed to walk really slowly as I did this, sometimes at .5 mph - perhaps slower speeds are necessary for contemplation.  

Now that I'm finally back to editing my novel (hooray) a steady 1.4 mph seems to be working pretty well and I take back what I said previously about not being able to eat or drink while walking - it's actually pretty easy (although probably not recommended). 

The children love the desk. They like to take it in turns to use it for homework - and anything that makes homework more enjoyable gets a massive thumbs up from me.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A few words for my daughter

Sometimes it's hard having three big brothers, especially when they say mean things like, 'You can't come to the park and play football with us.'

Occasionally you get really cross and storm up to your room and shout things like, 'It seems like the suffragettes died for NOTHING.' And although I might laugh when you say things like this, it does make me sad (and angry) when boys (particularly your brothers) don't let you join in because you happen to be a girl.

This morning we stood at the computer together, smiling as we looked at the photographs here. You asked if we could take our own photographs and you raced off to think about who you wanted to be.

You came back with my book and pointed to the author picture on the back cover. 'I want to be you, Mum.'

And here you are.

Next week you want to be England footballer Natasha Dowie. I don't know who or what you'll decide to be after that, but you can be anything you want.

And if the boys say you can't play football again (I'd be surprised if they dare), we won't ask permission, we'll just follow them to the park and join in, regardless. Or we'll stay at home and make rocky road like we did yesterday. You can choose. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Stone Thrower

My shortlisted feature piece about Adam Marek's second short story collection, The Stone Thrower is now up at the Thresholds blog. Here's an excerpt: 

"When my first daughter is born she is quiet and sleepy. Soon after birth she loses consciousness. A team of specialist doctors arrive in a screaming ambulance. They dash down the corridor, a portable incubator coasting between them like a bobsled. My daughter is raced to another hospital, and hours and miles later, when I am finally allowed to join her, I find out she is blind. The consultant peels back her lids and the spheres underneath are uniformly blue-grey, like balls of glass or ice. I will learn Braille, I think. As soon as she is old enough I will teach her how to fill her darkness with stories.
As the days pass, her condition worsens and I learn she has a mitochondrial disease. These diseases are extremely rare – I don’t realise how rare until doctors who don’t work in Intensive Care start popping in to have a look. They try not to sound excited when they say “I’ve never seen this before”, and they thank me as they leave, making my creation of such an imperfect child seem deliberate and clever. I don’t know what mitochondria are; I scraped a B in GCSE Science, a subject I approached with all the enthusiasm of someone who had already selected humanities A-Levels. The consultant says the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell. She says every cell in my daughter’s body is missing a vital metabolic enzyme, and although they have removed a slice of muscle and enough blood to require a transfusion, they don’t know what is missing.
The back cover of The Stone Thrower states, ‘sometimes only outright surrealism can do justice to the merciless strangeness of reality.’ I learn this as I sit beside my daughter. When the consultant says mitochondrial defects are inherited via the maternal line, I imagine a game of pass the parcel: my grandmother passes to my mother who passes to me and the music stops just as the genetic booby prize lands in my daughter’s lap. When there is talk of cloning, I envisage rows and rows of glassy-eyed babies, even though the consultant says the technique would only involve the replication of individual cells. As my daughter weakens, I picture tiny cell mechanics racing around her body in a last ditch effort to restart her engine. They push buttons and pull levers, but lactic acid continues to pour through permeable cell doors like something out of Titanic. The cell mechanics retreat. They batten down the hatches, allowing the kidneys to flood in an effort to save the heart. And they fail."

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Instruction Manual For Swallowing

Front CoverI've been marking first year undergraduate creative writing reflections this week. Many of my students mentioned enjoying Adam Marek's short stories. Although Instruction Manual for Swallowing is not a set text, I always play 'The 40-Litre Monkey' and 'Testicular Cancer Versus the Behemoth' (available for free at the Comma Press Story Bank) at some point during the year. I remember when I first read Instruction Manual For Swallowing - I loved it, and that's why I decided to discuss Adam Marek's writing when I entered the Thresholds feature writing competition. My piece concentrates on Marek's second short story collection, The Stone Thrower and it will be published soon. In the meantime, here's a whistle-stop review of Instruction Manual For Swallowing.

Instruction Manual For Swallowing opens as the narrator of ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’ follows a pet shop owner up a narrow staircase to view a record-breaking, Vaseline-slicked baboon whose expression says, 'I know I look ridiculous, but if you say anything, I'll pull your arm off.' In a wonderfully tragicomic scene, the men measure the creature and discuss the highs and lows of competitive animal growing. So begins a beautifully strange, kaleidoscopic collection. 

The characters in Marek's stories inhabit familiar, yet off-kilter worlds. In ‘A Belly Full of Rain’ Brendan fathers thirty six babies. He tries to be a proud father but he feels empty and fearful during the caesarean. It's only when baby twenty nine is stillborn that he is moved, tormented by the fact that she is alone, ‘floating in space, drifting forever.’ The emotion fades however, and the story ends as Brendan poses for a family photograph smiling because baby 17 has filled her nappy and he knows someone else will change it. 

In ‘Sushi Plate Epiphany,’ Gilby forsakes his family to go on a date. He ignores his wife when she calls to say the kids are sick, but he is reminded of them later in the evening when he is suddenly struck down by the same bug. It's wonderfully satisfying to see him hiding in the bathroom, 'firing hot liquid shit into the toilet bowl,' his bum 'swollen in his trousers.'  

The title story tightropes between horror and hallucination as its narrator becomes trapped in the intricate landscape of his own body. When his subconscious says, 'Screw you and screw your job, you can stick it up your arse,' and jumps from the summit of the engine room, the narrator is left with a wooden chest of instruction manuals and the realisation that it could take forever to learn to operate his own body. 'I wonder whether I too should leap from the ladder,' he thinks, in the dying moments of the story. 

Marek's stories have been described as meaty and funny, and they are underpinned by a 'nagging psychological realism' which means that no matter how strange the settings, the characters are all too recognisable. ‘Robot Wasps’ takes place in a delightfully alien world however, misanthrope Hum’s refusal to pay an exterminator to deal with the nest in his garden is distinctly human. The nest is Hum's final straw, the icing on his cake of his financial problems and when the young next door neighbour offers to help, Hum is tempted to blast him with foam and 'seal him up right there in the garden.'  

Other notable stories are ‘Testicular Cancer Verses the Behemoth,’ in which there's a satisfying synchronicity between Austin’s terminal diagnosis and a large scale disaster; ‘Cuckoo,’ a story about a man who inexplicably bumps into a grown up version of his baby daughter and realises, ‘she’s going to be amazing. She’s this incredible kid. The thoughts she has in her head, they just sparkle;’  and my favourite story of the collection, ‘The Centipede’s Wife’ in which a giant centipede makes a terrible confession and Grady, a human, listens without empathy; he finds the centipede's remorse comical, leaving the reader to wonder which creature is the greater monster.

Instruction Manual For Swallowing is clever and funny and big. The collection sweeps across genres and styles. It’s a like the cadenza in the first movement of a piano concerto; Here I am, it says. Look at all the beautiful, incredible things I can do

The Stone Thrower N American coverMarek's second collection, The Stone Thrower is just as skilled, but it's got second movement focus and restraint, and there's a single, unifying theme with subtle echoes and resonances throughout. My piece about The Stone Thrower is available to read here. You can read the other feature pieces by the winner - Nuala Ni Chonchuir, the runner up - Dan Powell and a shortlisted piece by Tom Vowler, at Thresholds, home of the International Short Story Forum.