Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A New Discovery

It’s always such a wonderful thing when you come across an author you’ve never heard of before and fall in love with their work. Finding someone new who just chimes with all that you love in a good book is such a joy.

Some great online writer friends of mine had been talking about a particular novel a while ago, but I was already into something else so I put the recommendation temporarily on hold. Then came a space and the recurring thought of: ‘oh, time for a book treat what shall I get?’ I got several things as it happens, and one of them was this book, one of the best I’ve ever read and one I can’t wait to read again. Okay, so what was it? Who’s the author?
It was this:

I had not heard of Anthony Doerr before, I missed his story that won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award in 2011, though I’ve read that too now. ... and what a story, absolutely sublime. More on that later. Back to the book. First published in 2014, it has two parallel narratives, one about a German boy, the other a French girl during the Second World War. It features radios, model buildings, humanity, barbarity, courage, fate and snails. It goes back and forth in time, gives detailed technical information, doesn’t make everything black and white, good or bad ... there’s lots of grey and happenstance. Everything is so seamlessly woven into the narrative and though it alternates between the two protagonists you never lose a sense of where you are in the story; that’s very clever but not remotely tricksy. The language is profound, fluent, glorious and takes you to a whole other level. I won’t write a conventional review here, because too much would be given away by all those little plot points and character profiles.

The journey through this work is an experience to be savoured and left for readers to discover in their in their own way and in their own time. If I tell you it won the Pulitzer maybe that’ll give you some idea of the heft of this book without revealing anything to spoil it. It’s absorbing, affecting and a real page-turner. Just go read it for yourself.

I’ve also been reading ‘Memory Wall’, Doerr’s anthology of novella and short stories. There’s some pretty good stuff here too! Tagged on at the end of the copy I have is that story, the one I mentioned earlier. It was a big win for Doerr, the prize money is £30,000 the largest for a single short story. His winning piece, ‘The Deep’, also touches on some of the themes in ‘All the Light..’ and juxtaposes the fragility of life with all its affirming exuberance, exemplified by the young, enquiring minds at the heart of it. It’s a fabulous story.

I shall be seeking out other work by this author. ‘All the Light ...’ took ten years to write and it’s probably his best to date. Earlier work doesn’t always reflect the same degree of accomplishment in an author, but here is someone who has ideas I’m interested in and an approach I empathise with. It will be fascinating to see how his work has developed over time and through experience ... I can’t wait. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

It's That Time of Year Again!

It’s way over time to get this show on the road again with thoughts on writing, reading, arty stuff and any random thing that takes my fancy.

This season it's been like living in the Twilight Zone with such dim days and SO much rain, not at all Christmassy and horrendous for all those in flooded places. We've needed dry, sunny weather and a Winter that looks normal. The seasons seem to melt into each other now with fewer definable features, somehow carols with snow, ice and frost were beginning to sound oddly misplaced for a lot of us in December. Daffodils flowering, (whatever happened to the snowdrops?), t-shirt temperatures, year round hot cross buns – a particular pet hate – there’s a blurring of time as if someone’s taken a wet brush to it all and merged it together. It’s unsettling, we know this is not how it should be. There’s a deep disjunct and all we’ve ever read, or noticed with our own eyes over time, about how our landscapes shift during the year is being thrown into question. Our collective nature diary isn’t following it’s own history and I for one find this new direction worrying. But at least we've got some respite now with bright, crisp days... proper Winter... brrrrrr!

After the last bauble has been packed away, the remaining crumbs of mince pies digested and the mini-forest of pine needles hoovered up it’s time to get back to paper and pen – whether virtual or actual. A whole slew of lit. mags. across the globe are opening for submission and there’s a new one on the horizon too: The Forge Literary Magazine just launched on 4 Jan. Founded by volunteers of the international online writers’ forum Fiction Forge, of which I am lucky enough to be a member, it has a featured story by the fabulous JANICE GALLOWAY in the first issue, (it’s brilliant by the way), with work from some pretty exciting featured writers – NONA CASPERS – whose story is in issue 2, ROXANNE GAY – up now –, EMMA JANE UNSWORTH and ... KEVIN BARRY (!) – to come in future issues. You can read more about it all on the link above and in the article here ... where two of the editors, my writing companions, chat a bit about it. It’s very exciting and accepted writers actually get paid – hurrah!!! I’m looking forward to my stint as co-editor in the Summer. There’s also a great interview with founding editor JOHN HAGGERTY over at the excellent blog 'damyantiwrites'

We’re an eclectic lot at The Forge and you’ll find some sample stories, from a few of our writers, to give you just a taste of the sort of thing we’re into. So get cracking and send us your best, we’re ready and waiting!

SHORT STORY STARS – tales that shine and dazzle

JELLYFISH by Janice Galloway publ. Freight Books (2015)

Speaking of Janice Galloway I’ve been reading her latest short story anthology ‘JELLYFISH’ and it’s excellent. Full of strong characters and incisive, visceral writing that can take your breath away. There’s a certain fierceness here, an intensity rather than an aggressiveness, and a bold, fearless quality to the writing which I really admire. The title story is a wonderful evocation of the relationship between a mother and son caught on the cusp of change. The child is about to start school and has already begun that strain away from what binds him to his mother as a small boy. He’s taking his first tentative steps to join the ‘big boys’ and his mother’s reflections as he does are so sensitively captured in what I think is a truly moving and elegiac piece.  

The stories vary in length, some such as ‘jellyfish’ are longer, others like ‘that was then, this is now(1)’, nudge towards flash fiction but are no less powerful for that and I found this mix refreshing and well-balanced. It’s a great anthology and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Short Story Stars – tales that shine and dazzle

When all is said and done: technical skill noted, originality box ticked, believable characters conveyed etc. etc. ... our choice of favourites comes down to very personal components. Our own selection: what moves, excites, impresses will vary as much as we all do as individuals. It stands to reason that not everyone will enjoy the same stories and this difference enhances the rich diversity of writers and their readers. My own picks have been chosen for a variety of reasons but above all because for me the world shifted a little when I read them. If they were stars I know I would be looking out for them every night. 

So every now and then, in between other items on this blog, I will drop in one of my recommendations. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and that you find something new to delight you...and if you know them already I hope you’ll be drawn to read them again.

DARK HORSES by Claire Keegan

This story is taken from her collection ‘Walk the Blue Fields’ publ. Faber & Faber (2007).

I had not heard of Claire Keegan until I came across this wonderful anthology. It is always such a pleasure to discover a new writer whose work both stimulates and satisfies on so many levels. It is the depth of her humanity, the spareness of her writing that sets her apart for me. Deceptively simple, profoundly eloquent stories that leave you with a lurch in your heart.

In many of them the air between people is thick with the consequence of their histories and often carries the weight of damage they’ve inflicted on each other. There are tensions waiting to snap, passions roused and spent, past events worming their way to the surface, slowly by infinite degree.

In this story Brady, every night, dreams of the woman he has lost:

            ‘She’s out in the yard with the big hunter, laughing, praising her dark horse.’

This sentence, suffused with sexual meaning, introduces the relationship she and Brady once had. Her horse, this dark creature, represents her own desire, passion and perhaps even Brady himself. So the concept of the dark horse is introduced right at the start and lurking quietly at the back of our minds is its alternative meaning and the prospect of something unexpected looming on the horizon.

A man who has been too fond of the drink is haunted by his own loneliness, the barren nature of his solitary life and how less of a man he feels with the loss of his woman. How this contrasts with his neighbour McQuaid:

 ‘... a man walking through fields greener than his own.’

Fields that were once Brady’s. But it isn’t only the literal fields that are so verdant for McQuaid, he has a wife, status, a little money all things that Brady lacks, everything he’s lost. And so Brady drinks with the other lost souls in the bar. It is the farrier, Leyden, who has drawn him here, a man who puts small jobs his way when he needs his skill handling difficult horses. He is another man who has a home, rather than just somewhere to live ... and a wife.

For all his passion and empathy, it is Brady’s betrayal of these qualities, his reckless disregard of them when blinded by drink, that ruins his life.

This story, as with others in the collection, reveals more with each reading and rewards.  It is subtle, allowing readers space to work things out for themselves – a quality I particularly appreciate – here there is emotional depth. The simple truth is profound, as bare and as rich as the land and this landscape of rural Ireland, from which the characters are drawn, can be unforgiving. Life is harsh, money scarce, rewards few yet there are riches to be found in the telling of its tales.   

A must for anyone who loves reading and writing short stories.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Sense of Place – RED HOUSE ‘Life is short, but art endures.’

When I was a teenager I discovered The Pre-Raphaelites and was smitten. The jewel-like colours in their paintings, the depiction of myths and legends, those never-ending tresses falling down the backs of maiden’s fabulous clothes, all were a feast for a yearning fourteen year old to gobble up. And gobble I did! I had a whale of a time going all medieval within the confines of suburbia and I love the paintings still, though I am not uncritical of the role bestowed upon women in quite a lot of them. Still, I am grateful for what else they led me to and in particular to the genius of William Morris and the glorious Arts and Crafts movement. Imagine then the absolute wonder of wonders to discover that he’d lived literally a fifteen minute walk away from me. I passed his home frequently after that but could only see the boundary wall, all of it too tall for me to peer over for a glimpse of that extraordinary house – Red House. My frustration was palpable. I could run my fingers along those gloriously ruddy red bricks, feel the history but couldn’t see a thing. However, a brief but tantalising view from a coach window gave me one unexpected glimpse over that wall on a school trip and I loved what I saw. But, that was the closest I got. I treasured the memory topping it up over the years by looking at photographs in books I collected. A private house, at that time, there was no way I was going to get any further ... until last summer.

Decades after I had grown and moved away from the area I returned and walked straight through the front gate, up the drive and into the house by a side entrance. It was bliss. Now owned by the National Trust, Red House is open to the public and undergoing conservation work which has already revealed previously unknown paintings. However well you think you know somewhere from pictures, architectural drawings, photographs, nothing prepares you for the real thing. It’s a three-dimensional, sensual experience inhabiting the space, looking out through the windows, just being there. I could feel my fourteen year old self fizzing with excitement as I ran my hand along the bannister rail, no longer the outsider looking in.

The house is fairly sparsely furnished – most of the furnishings long dispersed– but gradually piece by piece, a chair here a table there is being added to the collection and other household objects designed by Philip Webb (the architect), Morris, and their contemporaries, acquired and displayed. But despite its lack of items the house still feels very much a home and one I would be very happy to live in I can tell you! Although Morris and his family only actually lived here themselves for a short time it does, of course, still feel very much their place and much of that is thanks to the wonderful Ted and Doris Hollamby who lived here for over forty years caring for the place as best they could while making it work as a home for themselves and their family. How wonderful that a young architect of the fifties, along with his fellow architect Dick Toms, should see the worth of this place and buy it. Who knows what might have happened if they hadn’t?

There is so much to enjoy here: the bull’s-eye windows, Burne-Jones stained glass, brick arches, lovely garden but above all the atmosphere. It sets off the imagination and you can almost hear Morris busying himself about the place with plans and ideas or playing with ‘the littles’ – his young daughters Jenny and May. It is a place that inspires and creates the necessary physical, mental and emotional space for creative minds to fly. (I have visited one of Philip Webb’s other houses: Standen in East Sussex. It too is a joy.)

Morris has been a hero of mine for many years and the more I’ve learnt about him the more impressed with him I’ve become. If you think all he did was make fabric and wallpaper think again! A writer, conservator (he helped to inspire the birth of the National Trust), social reformer, designer, printer ...  it’s an extraordinary list of achievements and yes, there are his exquisite fabric designs seen in a huge variety of guises all over the world still, more than a hundred and twenty years after his death.

Red House is a gem lovingly peopled by The Friends of Red House who act as guides and volunteers safe in the knowledge that their own contribution has helped to secure a safe future for this wonderful place.

If you ever visit South East London I highly recommend a visit, it’s a stone’s throw from Greenwich Park and the Maritime Museum and even nearer to the recently restored Danson House – a whole lot of other gems!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Books to Inspire – No. 2

‘Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction’ edited by Tara L.Masih (Rose Metal Press) AND ‘Short Circuit : A Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ edited by Vanessa Gebbie (SALT publishing)

Okay, I know there are two books here, but they make such perfect companions it feels unnatural to split them apart. They work so well in tandem and if you haven’t come across them before then you’re not only in for a treat, but also some of the best writing advice you could get.

I shall admit straightaway that I know the editor of ‘Short Circuit’, but that’s not why I’ve chosen it, although I could sing her praises long and loud! I know some people don’t like to review work by colleagues, to avoid accusations of cronyism etc. but this guide is just too good to miss and if you doubt my word just check out how many creative writing courses have it on their reading lists. The endorsements on the cover are pretty impressive too:

        On ‘Short Circuit.’: ‘An essential read. A gold mine...’ – The Bridport Prize
‘...wisdom and insight hop off the page like light on water.’ – Clem Cairns, the Fish Prize

And ....

On ‘Field Guide..’: ‘...Each essay is a gem, encrusted with outstanding 
                                   prompts and valuable exercises.’ – Dinty Monroe, editor of 
                                   The MAMMOTH Book of Miniscule Fiction

Hopefully, that’s whetted your appetite! Both books follow a similar format with chapters created by writers with an impressive track record in the respective mediums; most are multi-award winners, with prizes from some of the most prestigious writing competitions under their belts. Both books also cover a wide range of subjects, within each form, with suggestions for further exploration, plus a variety of exercises. 

Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih (The Rose Metal Press)

'A successful flash enchants us, each small story successfully rendered engulfing us for a brief moment .... in its own brand of light, or truth.'  So says Tara Masih in her informative and engaging introduction.   

A burgeoning form in this twenty first century, Masih informs us that it has actually been around much longer than most people think – in fact since the early part of the nineteenth when Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe were amongst its earliest proponents. 

Now, in this age of compression, where all aspects of life are crammed ever more cheek by jowl, the flash seems the ideal bite-size fiction to savour in those increasingly brief moments we have to ourselves. So it follows that as the flash itself garners more attention, with a high online profile and a growing number of writers engaging in the form, the inevitable 'How To Do It'  books should start pouring from the publishers. 

There are many writing guides, brought in on the wave of Creative Writing courses steadily multiplying across the globe. There are good ones and bad ones: the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is definitely a good one; I would even say a very good one. It doesn't promise unparalleled success or anything else it can't deliver, but does provide real insight into how writers work in this medium doing exactly what it says on the cover – providing guidance that gently leads the would-be flash writer along the path to making their own work truly shine.

Collectively, the twenty five essays contained here explore the different facets of writing good flash fiction and such a prismatic approach reveals much of the art to writing the very best of them. The authors, many distinguished and multi-award winners amongst them, are all actively engaged in the form as either writers, teachers or editors – some in all three – and precisely because of this experience, they don't mess around but go straight to the heart of what they want to say. Each focuses on an aspect of either writing, teaching or editing flash fiction and what they convey is frequently eloquent, often illuminating, always passionate as forceful advocates of the form.

The book covers ten main areas ranging from 'In Defense of the Exercise', through others such as  'Beginnings and Endings' and 'Taking Risks' to 'A Call to Action'.  Each of these is further defined by the essays themselves with inevitable titles like Expose Yourself to Flash and Flash in the Pan, but don't let that put you off, under the puns you'll find some incisive, educative writing.      

Many sections are inspiring and with the added bonus of both top notch examples of the form, and exercises to get the creative juices flowing – at the end of each one – this makes the volume an invaluable addition to any writer's reference collection.    

A couple of the contributors do get a little caught up in their own philosophising, but are no less interesting for that and there are some truly inspiring pieces to get fingers flashing across keyboards and pens moving in hot little hands.

It seems churlish to single out specific authors from the pack, when so much of the writing here is good, but both Jennifer Pieroni and Vanessa Gebbie deserve a special mention for getting me to briefly abandon this review, in order to go and write a new flash myself! I really can't think of a better recommendation than that.

(My review for 'Field Guide' first appeared on Jane Smith’s blog. ‘How Publishing Really Works’.)

‘Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ edited by Vanessa Gebbie

There are twenty seven sections here covering such areas as ‘Finding Form in Short Fiction’, ‘Writing and Risk Taking’, ‘Setting’, ‘Endings‘ and ‘Short Story Competitions ...’ 

One of the joys of this book, as with its companion above, is the multitudinal approach to its subject. As well as examining the nuts and bolts of writing, by choosing so many different writers to talk about them a huge variety of perspectives are presented. This shows, with real clarity, just how many different approaches can be taken, how rules can be made, followed and broken. It’s not that any one writer here specifically contradicts another, far from it, but that each offers their own unique approach and encourages the reader to pursue their own too. There are examples of what excites them as readers themselves and what gets their own creative juices flowing:

    Adam Marek sums this up brilliantly in the section ‘What my Gland Wants – Originality in the 
    Short Story’:       

‘When I read or write fiction, what I’m really doing is hunting for a very particular sensation. It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness. It’s the excitement we get when we discover something new, something which in childhood we can’t take a step without tripping over, but which in adulthood is woefully infrequent. ....Originality is the most important thing in fiction for me. My gland needs things it has never experienced before. And when I’m thinking about ideas for a short story, it’s my gland that I’m guided by.’

For each writer there is their own way, their own uniqueness to embody and ‘Short Circuit’ celebrates this, encourages the writer to explore, experiment and dare themselves to push their own boundaries. At the same time it highlights elements that are common to them all and gives invaluable practical advice. There are lists of reference books to consult, anthologies to explore, individual stories to encounter and free pages at the end for notes too. It is thorough, engaging, informative, a delight and one of the best, (if not THE best) books on the short story. In fact, I can only think of one that might just top it, buy a slim margin, and that’s its new edition!

If I am stuck, get swamped by ideas, need to home in on the heart of a piece etc. it is to these two books that I return again and again. They help me cut through the layers and engage with the nucleus of what I am trying to say; they are quite simply brilliant.   

Thursday, 2 January 2014

2014 : New beginnings

They say ‘start as you mean to go on’ – whoever the great ‘they’ are! As one of those glib homilies it’s actually not bad when you think about it. Preparation is often the key to success in so many things, so building a secure foundation to support yourself is a pretty fundamental requirement for achievement – however small or immense.

The New Year is a good time to take stock, reflect, digest, learn and shift up a gear. There are all sorts of reasons why time and space get swallowed up in our lives and it can sometimes be genuinely tough to re-claim what we need but staking that claim is vital. January is a good time for this with the added bonus of knowing there are thousands of people out there in the ether trying to do the same thing. You can feel it in the air and if you’re a tweeter, or facebook devotee, you’ll see it for yourselves: loads of people like you, trying to make a difference in their lives. The writers amongst us are a part of this, a whole worldwide community often so generous in their mutual support. The ‘good luck’s’, ‘well done’s’ and commiserations are so heartfelt, the ‘go for it’s’ so encouraging and coming from people who really understand because they’re doing it too. And there are many sites painstakingly set up to provide masses of information on every aspect of ‘getting there’ you can think of. It’s all out there, you just have to seek it out or ask someone how to!

Here are a few places you can start:

So where does this take you? To the land of no excuses? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of it as the route to opportunity, to new beginnings and that feeling of positive anticipation when you don’t know just where something may lead. The year to come is unwritten, a vastness full of possibilities. Who says you have to do everything the way you always have? Some things maybe, but move your axis a little to the left or right and a whole new vista could open up before you, one which provides that little bit of time and space.

So, if you didn’t manage to start, or finish, that novel make this the year that you do. If you didn’t enter any, or many, competitions go for them now. If you weren’t able to read the books that you wanted to, choose one and buy/borrow/download it today. Set yourself some goals: realistic ones that you feel are achievable and one or two that are right out of the ballpark – who knows what might happen. Don’t let that critic in your head tell you there’s no point, you’re not good enough, there are loads of other great writers out there. Somebody’s got to win those comps., get published, achieve great things, why shouldn’t it be you? Just make sure you get involved, look and see what you can do to move things along for yourself ... and remember ... you’re not alone ... I’ll be doing it too!!  

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A Gem of Small Wonders

The downs above Charleston

It is a testament to the rich diversity of its programming, the top quality of its speakers and the gloriously inspirational location that the Small Wonder Festival at Charleston has grown into such a success. For the organisers, ten years must have flown by and it must be heartening to see such a throng of people eagerly swimming their way round the site every Autumn.  I have only been once before, when I was lucky enough to win an Asham Award, and I had such a wonderful time I was eager to come back. I managed to cram three events in one day this time and found them all stimulating, inspirational and thought-provoking.

A short story festival is indeed a wonder and attracts readers and writers alike – very often they are also one and the same. Short stories constantly receive such a mixed press. We are told there's no market for them by publishers and booksellers, that nobody reads them, or that they are now enjoying a resurgence! It's sometimes difficult to pick your way towards the truth here, though I suspect that a bit of everything is probably the most accurate reflection. Surely a medium perfect for bite-sized podcasts is ideal for our technological age and those journeys to work? There's such a range of material too covering everything you can think of … and more … from all over the globe. Try a classic Chekhov, Woolf or Dickens. How about something by Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro or Raymond Carver. There's Helen Simpson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,Vanessa Gebbie, Yiyun Li, Adam Marek, Haruki Murakami …. Some you will know, some not but look them up and you're in for a treat … anything from separations, reunions, unrequited love, lost children … zombie restaurants. Zombie restaurants? Oh yes!

I have loved reading short stories since I was at school and an inspirational English teacher introduced me to the work of Katherine Mansfield – a revelation. I still marvel at her skill, her humanity, her insight into human nature and her glorious way with words. There's a lovely piece about one of her stories by Cath Humphris on the Thresholds' site here:

The Man Booker longlistee Alison MacLeod gave a wonderfully vibrant talk about her and eloquently echoed so many of the things I have always felt about her work. It is always heartening to find people who feel the same way as yourself about certain things, even more so when they are people you admire. There was also a lovely reading of 'The Garden Party' – one of her most well known stories – by a young actress, which really set the mood for the evening and placed the audience right at the heart of her writing. A perfect way to end my visit to this year's Small Wonder.

My treasured old school copy

Charleston is such a unique place, with the slant of the downs curving round its perimeter and, of course, the wonderful farmhouse with its glorious interior imbued with the work and lives of the Bloomsbury Group. I have visited the house a few times before, marveling at the unique exuberance of the decoration on walls, tables, fireplaces, doors, and the other art works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Picasso, Renoir, Sickert, Derain … it is an emotive place and the studio, the last room you pass through before leaving, has a charge all of its own – extraordinary.

If you fancy a visit check it out here:  

The garden at Charleston