07 October, 2015

BBC National Short Story Award - The Result

Yesterday, the results were announced for the 10th BBC National Short Story Award. The five shortlisted stories were broadcast on the radio a couple of weeks ago and I wrote micro-reviews of them all. My conclusion was that there was a good reason they were all on the shortlist of such a prestigious award! I didn't like them all equally, but I did think they were all beautifully-written.

The runner-up, and the winner of the Student Choice Award, voted for by 16-18 year-olds across the UK, was Bunny by Mark Haddon.

The overall winner with a beautifully emotional and simply-told tale of a clairvoyant asked to help a family whose daughter is missing, was Jonathan Buckley's Briar Road.

My favourite stories were probably the ones that made me laugh as well as think - Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston and Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page, and I was perhaps most impressed with the writing of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. So that shows how much I know!

Which was your favourite story?

28 September, 2015

Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The final shortlisted story is Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page, where a young man meets his girlfriend's parents for the first time and is determined not to be taken aback by their alternative lifestyle.

I think this was probably my favourite story of the whole list. It was a simple story - not a thriller or a plot full of twists - but it was sharp and funny, and somehow a little sad at points too. The premise was that blend of an ordinary situation with a spin on it that made it quirky but not bizarre. I wasn't on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to find out where it was going. My only criticism of the entire thing was that I felt the last couple of lines were unnecessary. The point being made had already been made much more subtly - I didn't need it spelled out for me and I would've preferred to be left to fill in the final thought for myself, rather than being spoon-fed. Apart from that though, I thought it was great.

I've been trying to think how to rank the five stories in order of how good they are in my opinion, but I find it is impossible. At this level of competition, all the writers are so good, I am in awe of all of them and couldn't say who was the best writer. I was instantly impressed with the quality of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, but would I say it was better than say, Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston? Perhaps. I'm not sure. All I can say is that I am surprised at just how much I enjoyed all the stories. In previous years there have been at least a couple which have left me completely cold - sometimes including the winner - whereas this year I was interested from start to finish with all of them.

If I had to choose, then Do It Now, Jump the Table would be my choice of winner - purely on how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps followed by Broderie Anglaise. But any of them would be worthy winners. Maybe it's not a coincidence that those two were the ones that made me laugh? Anyway, I'd be glad to know what you made of the stories - have you got a favourite?

The winner will be announced on BBC Radio Four at 7:15pm on Tuesday 6th October.

25 September, 2015

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The fourth shortlisted story is The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. The story takes place in a flat overlooking a hospital where Mrs. Thatcher is due to emerge from minor surgery. The main character lets in a "plumber" only to find he is really a sniper. You can listen here.

There was something perverse in me that wanted to dislike this story. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize twice for her lengthy novels. It seems unfair that she should be such a good short story writer as well. As this particular story had already become famous, the judges knew who had written it before reading. Surely then, they had only shortlisted it because of the name attached? No. Hilary Mantel's talent shone through.

The thing that struck me straight away was the detail. The scenes are drawn so carefully, with tiny details that give the story colour without slowing the pace. There is a strange, almost flippant, tone to the narration, but somehow that seems to work too. I loved that such a dramatic situation was told without drama - drawing me in by weaing the story around me, rather than setting off fireworks in my face.

As with Broderie Anglaise, this story has the kind of ending that occurs a few scenes before you're expecting it. With both stories, some of the events the narrative appears to be leading towards haven't happened by the time the music stops, as it were. However, I think in the case of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, it works really well. I didn't feel cheated of the main event. I'm not convinced I'm smart enough to get all the nuances and subtleties of what was being said, but as a story it worked for me and I appreciated the quality of the writing - slick without being fancy. It wasn't the most entertaining of the stories so far, but I think it's the best-written one. One more to go!

Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The third shortlisted story is Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston. The story is narrated by a young woman who intends to make her own dress in order to attend a family wedding. But the enterprise reveals tensions between her and her mother. You can listen here.

I didn't think the premise of this story sounded promising. Dress-making and kitchen sink dramas don't capture my imagination. But I really liked this. The voice of the narrator was brilliantly-written and the other characters so perfectly-drawn it was impossible not to feel I was listening in to a slice of real life. Although it isn't a comedy, the sharp writing of Frances Leviston and excellent performance of Kate O'Flynn brought some moments of humour that seems to be quite rare among literary short stories.

I enjoyed the straight-forward story-telling - a story that started somewhere and built chronologically towards a specific moment in time. However, I was a bit taken aback by the suddenness of the ending. The story was, of course, less about actually making a dress for a wedding, and more about how it revealed the nature of the relationship between the main character and her mother. Therefore the ending wasn't unsatisfactory as such, I just felt it could've tied up a few more loose ends. I know that's not how literary fiction usually works, but I often feel the same way about other highly-acclaimed short stories - as if I'm missing something somewhere. Perhaps I'm not high-brow enough and that level of subtlety is just wasted on me! Anyway, I found this story highly-enjoyable regardless - probably my favourite so far.

24 September, 2015

Bunny by Mark Haddon - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The second story on the shortlist is Bunny, by Mark Haddon. This is the story of a seriously over-weight compulsive eater who forms an unlikely friendship while house-bound by his weight and agoraphobia. You can listen here.

On the face of it, this story is right up my street. I've always had a bit of fascination about obesity and fitness and won a public speaking competition as a teenager, talking about the subject and the potential ways of combating it. Last year I listened to the audiobook of Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, which is also about a man who is massively overweight, and I enjoyed that. However, this didn't quite hit the mark for me.

The writing was great. As with Briar Road, the language was simple and straight-forward - nothing poetic or flowery. The characters were believable and I did find it compelling to listen to. The opening paragraphs I thought dragged on a bit and it seemed in danger to me of becoming a character portrait rather than a story, but it rescued itself just in time. The main downside to me was the "twist" at the end. It didn't ring quite true to me. It wasn't a cheat or anything, it was only that in such a short story I didn't feel the character of Leah was sufficiently developed enough for me to believe in her actions. It also - and I'm sure this was unintentional by Mark Haddon - was a twist that was very similar to something that happened in a mainstream TV drama I watched a year or two ago. I know there are no truly new plots, but that did allow me to guess what was happening and feel that it wasn't much of a reveal.

Overall, I enjoyed the subject matter and the writing of this story very much, but I didn't find the plot one that captivated me.