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.

23 September, 2015

Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley - 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 first story is Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley. This is a first person story, narrated by a clairvoyant who has been called in to help a family whose daughter is missing. You can listen to the fabulous Maxine Peake reading the story here.

There is something beautifully sparse about this story. The premise is unusual - not many of us will ever be in the situation where we feel the need to call in a clairvoyant to help us in a heart-breaking situation - and yet it is not sensationally-written. I would call this a quiet story in the best possible way. There is an economy to the writing that creates a believable story rather than relying on merely an interesting idea.

The contrast between the level of everyday detail and the lack of over-explanation was my favourite thing about this story. In simple language the scenes are drawn so vividly, picking up details - the smell of polish, the slight changes in facial expression - that captivate and draw you in. And yet, the actual story is subtle. There is no sudden exposition - the premise is revealed gradually and naturally, no "I am a clairvoyant" kind of revelations. You come to realise what is happening as it happens which leads to a satisfying story without being obscure.

I often find the short stories with all the accolades leave me cold. They have almost no plot and no likeable characters. This wasn't like that at all. It wasn't a thriller or a mini-saga, just a beautifully-written slice of life, albeit and unusual slice, with a captivating narrator. A great start!

21 September, 2015

BBC National Short Story Award 2015 - The Shortlist

This week the five shortlisted stories in the BBC National Short Story Award are being read on Radio Four. This prestigious award is probably one of the most high profile short story awards in the UK and I always enjoy listening to the final five. The award isn't without it's controversies - from whether or not the entries are judged anonymously to whether stories can be called into the award without actually being entered by the writer. Dan Purdue has written a couple of interesting blog posts on these subjects which you can read here.

However, controversies aside, it's great to see short stories being given a higher public profile. A well-crafted short story is one of the most inspiring things to read - for me anyway. I intend to review each of the stories here on the blog as I listen to them - it'd be great if you'd listen along as well and let me know what you think too. I have so little time for short story writing now and I'm desperate to get back to it. Maybe discussing some short stories with other literature-lovers will inspire me! The stories are being broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 3:30pm every day this week, or you can catch them later on BBC iPlayer.

This year's shortlist contains some famous names and all five authors have a track record of published novels, grants or prestigious awards. I guess talent tells! The most famous author on the shortlist is Hilary Mantel, two-times winner of the Man Booker Prize, although many of you will also know of Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The other three authors are Jonathan Buckley, Frances Leviston and Jeremy Page. You can read more about them and their stories here. The winner of the £15000 prize will be announced on the radio on Wednesday 6th October, 7:15pm.

I look forward to listening with you!

10 September, 2015

Archive Autumn - That Would Be Myself

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be re-posting a few blog posts from my archives. I'm starting here with the post that recieved the most comments, both on the blog and on social media. It was first posted on 5th June 2012. I'd be interested to know whether you have anything to add to it three years later...

Just after I wrote the first draft of this post, I turned on the radio to the news that the Queen's English Society was closing down. This post, therefore, is a tribute to them...

A few weeks ago I made a comment on facebook about my current grammar hang-up. It got a lot of comments from people agreeing with me! I like it when people use correct grammar. I also know, that I don't do it all the time, not even when writing, so I try not to get too angry about such things. Grammar fascists do not make good party guests.

However, this particular trend was really annoying me. Why do some people insist on using 'myself' and 'yourself', instead of 'me' (or 'I') and 'you'? It's terrible English, and the bit that really annoys me is that they don't seem to be doing it just because their English is bad; they appear to be doing it to make themselves look better - as if the more letters they say in one sentence, the more impressive it is. It was The Apprentice that tipped me over the edge. I know what you're thinking - anybody who watches The Apprentice doesn't have the right to criticise anybody else - but it's not just them. I got an e-mail once from an editor of something I contributed to, which said something along the lines of, " ---- or myself will send you the contract". An editor. I almost sent an e-mail back saying, "Myself will sign the contract when yourself has sent it to me," but decided that was not the best way to develop a good working relationship.

I won't continue the rant here, but it got me thinking about these hang-ups. I guess we all have them - writers perhaps more than most. I've learned to my cost that one of my loyal readers does not approve of 'alright' (apparently it should always be 'all right'), and another is driven crazy by 'try and...' instead of 'try to...' (something which annoys me too, but I still have to correct it in my own work all the time!). So what's your hang-up? And what do you find yourself doing - if you dare admit to it?!

I suppose the real question in all of this is: does it really matter? Does it matter if good grammar disappears? Everything in me screams 'YES!', but our language is evolving and the changing use of grammar is part of that. I once jokingly corrected a friend who said 'wedding invites' instead of 'wedding invitations', and one of her friends - who (or should that be whom?) I didn't know - told me that as the common usage of words change over time, I was stupid for not thinking 'invites' was perfectly acceptable now. I didn't really have an answer. Why should we cherish some points of grammar and not others?

I quite happily google things and facebook someone, when technically Google and Facebook started as nouns. I pronounce the word "garage" as gar-idge. I know some people hate that and think it should be pronounced with a long vowel in the middle and soft ending. But I bet those same people pronounce "village" as vill-idge. They are both words we took from the French, so why do people get hung-up on one and not the other?

What are you happy to let slide when it comes to good English? Are your standards different for written and spoken English? Have you got any good examples of terrible grammar you've spotted anywhere?

02 September, 2015

The People's Book Prize

I am thrilled to announce that my debut novel, The Art of Letting Go (Thistle Publishing), has been nominated for The People's Book Prize.

The People's Book Prize is a quarterly competition which aims to get new or undiscovered authors read by a wider public. Each quarter a list of books in three categories - fiction, non-fiction and children - is drawn up and the public vote for a winner in each one. There is then an annual award ceremony where an overall winner is chosen from the quarterly finalists. The founding patron of the award is the great Beryl Bainbridge (five times Booker Prize nominee) and the patron is Frederick Forysth (best known perhaps for The Day of the Jackal).

If you have read my novel and enjoyed it, please do take a few moments to vote for it. It would mean so much to me. You can vote for it here. If you haven't yet read The Art of Letting Go then you can find it here, or you might be able to request it from your library (there are two copies in circulation in libraries and I don't know where they are currently!) As I write this it has 103 reviews with an average of 4.3 stars, so there's even a chance you may enjoy it!

I would also be very grateful to anybody who feels like blogging, tweeting or otherwise spreading the word on my behalf. I shall of course be doing all I can, but with a one-week old baby and a one year-old toddler, I rely on the kindness of friends and strangers!

Voting is open until 30th November. Thank-you!

01 September, 2015

Final Version

Sometimes a masterpiece takes lots of rough drafts. Sometimes after a bit of time and a lot of effort, they come out just right straight away. A week after finishing the first, and very rough draft of my latest novel, I managed to produce something quite different but pretty special. I think it might stop me working on anything else for a while, but it's worth it.

Here he is, my latest masterpiece, Wilfred Abraham Banks. Wilfred and his brother, Digory, are far superior to anything else I've managed to create, but I think I forgive them for it.