Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review: 'The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories' by Karen Jones

Over the last couple of months I've been trying to tackle a specific region of my to-read pile: books by some of my writing friends. It's one of the perils/joys of getting to know other writers on social media - before you know it, you are swamped with dozens of books you might not otherwise have known about. This is certainly the case with me! But it's a good thing, and as it's always a pleasure to help other writers along, I thought I'd review a few of them here over the next few weeks.

First up was Karen Jones's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories. I 'previewed' this collection back in March 2014 when it was first released (having just written that I'm alarmed it took me nine months to get to it - but then again my pile of unread books is much taller than I am). The book is a collection of 24 of Karen's stories, the majority of which have been published - with a fair few of them having won prizes on their way to publication. There is a mixture of flash and longer stories, with the average being about three pages long. The full book is just under 100 pages.

Although they're short, Karen's stories don't tend to be sweet. These are tales in which nobody quite gets what they want - or if they do, it's usually only to find out that the reality can never quite live up to the dream. There's a bittersweet edge to many of the stories here, with a distinctly dark edge to most of the humour. In less capable hands this could easily make for a bleak and, ultimately, unrewarding collection. But what Karen does so well is balance the tone of the stories, so that even in the characters' darkest moments there are still splashes of colour and wit.

In the title story, a young girl overcomes a phobia while a tragedy quietly unfolds around her. In The Resurrection of Andy McPhail, a man's second chance at life gets off to a rocky start when his miraculous recovery turns out to be more of an inconvenience to his friends and neighbours than a cause for celebration. Natural Instincts, one of the stand-out stories in the collection, focuses on a schoolgirl's obsession with the murder of one of her fellow pupils, distorted by her fascination with the sexual experiences of the dead girl. 

The collection wraps up with Cowboys and Indians, the story of Grace, a young girl taken to a run-down hotel by her unstable mother, who has left her father. It's a story of outsiders, with the people who work in the hotel all hiding something - loss, regret, or their pasts. Grace possesses a special quality, which the men in the hotel find hard to resist. It's a discomforting read, and one of the best examples of how Karen's light touch can keep you guessing as to exactly what type of story it's going to turn out to be until almost the end.

As with almost all collections, there were a couple of pieces I felt didn't quite pull their weight (these tended to be the shorter stories, with one or two of them feeling a little under-developed), but there is such a good range here it's hard to criticise. I had read the majority of these stories in one form or another before, but to work through them en masse, so to speak, was a pleasure. It made me hope Karen will press on and write a novel, as it would be fascinating to see what she can do with the longer form.

The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories is available from Amazon, Waterstones online, and Lulu. Or, your local bookshop should be able to order it in.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

(Not-So) New Year

There's not much left of January now, but this is the first chance I've had to write a post since before Christmas. I've no idea where the time has gone; the first month of the year always seems to fly by for me - which is odd as most people complain about how January drags on interminably.

The start of the year often delivers a bit of a muddle of emotions. I generally feel optimistic about the start of a brand-new year - that whole sense of blank-page potential and the fact that the days are (very gradually) getting longer again. Then a few days into the year comes my birthday, and though I'm not one of those people who hates the thought of getting older, it's hard to ignore the fact that the number is creeping ever higher. I'm thirty-eight now; my chances of having a book traditionally published before I hit forty must be almost non-existent, given the glacial pace of the publishing industry (and of course the fact that I still need to edit my science fiction novel before I can start submitting it to agents/publishers). Not that it matters, of course, but as I get nearer to the Big Four-Oh I realise I've had that as a goal, subconsciously at least, for the last few years. I'm taking this realisation as a kick up the backside and an incentive to get on with it.

Having said that, I didn't write much over the festive season. I sent a couple of stories out and applied for the Arvon-Jerwood mentoring scheme. Getting onto the scheme would be a terrific boost, but it's hotly contested and the odds of me landing a place are pretty slim. I'll keep my fingers crossed and plough on with editing the old novel, writing the new one, and hopefully finding time to keep the short story production line running, too!

And with that aim in mind, I'm pleased that 2015 has kicked off on a positive note, with my story The You-Know-What in the Room published in Writers' Forum magazine. This is the second time I've had a story published in the magazine and it's a very good feeling. There are of course literary journals that are arguably more prestigious, but I don't think anyone should knock the buzz of having one of your stories on the shelves in WH Smith and other newsagents/supermarkets. The pleasure is only slightly marred by the fact that they don't seem to send a contributor's copy of the magazine any more. They did last time.

EDITED TO ADD: It turns out they do still send contributor's copies - it just takes a couple of weeks to come through, and arrives with the cheque, too. So all is well.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

It seems too clear and bright a day to be late December, but I guess the calendar doesn't lie. Where is the drizzle? Where's the howling wind? It doesn't feel like Christmas at all.

However you're celebrating Christmas (if of course you do), I hope you have a wonderful,  stress-free day. For me, Christmas has changed in spirit over the years, and I think I regard it these days more like the Americans' Thanksgiving Day. It's less about getting more stuff and gorging on rich food and drink all day, but taking time to be grateful for the things I already have and for the special people in my life. This year it feels especially poignant as I lost my stepsister to a brain-stem tumour in the summer, and although I won't see that side of my family for another couple of days, they're very much in my thoughts.

Writing-wise, though, it's been a pretty good year for me. I've had a couple of stories published, won a couple of prizes (including a first place at The New Writer), and finished the first-ish draft of my SF novel,  the first chapter of which was recently shortlisted for the Flash500 Novel Opening Competition - which was very encouraging. 2015 looks to be getting off to a good start, too - my story The You-Know-What in the Room will be published in Writers' Forum in late-January. And I have a brand-new novel to work on as well.

I'm not sure whether I'll get a chance to post anything before the New Year, so I'll sign off with my very best wishes for you all to have a fantastic 2015, full of good reading, good writing, health and happiness and all the other important stuff in life.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Guest Post: Richard Fleming

The second half of the year seems to have gone into overdrive - I was just getting used to it being August and now all of a sudden it's almost Christmas. Apologies for the rather sporadic nature of my blog posts in recent months.

Anyway, I'm very pleased to play host today and extend a warm welcome to Guernsey-based poet, Richard Fleming. Richard grew up in Northern Ireland but has made Guernsey his home. He's written verse for many years, had numerous pieces published or broadcast and taken part in poetry readings at local and international festivals. You can find many of his poems in the BBC archive, and others can be found in assorted publications throughout the UK and Channel Islands.

I have a couple of Richard's books - the back-to-back collection The Man Who Landed / The Boy Who Fell Upwards (a joint publication with UK-based poet Peter Kenny) and his own collection, Strange Journey. Both showcase his remarkable precision with words and a keen eye for the kind of detail that stir the emotions. Richard was kind enough to host one of my "lost" stories a couple of weeks ago, and I'm very happy to be able to return the favour and share one of his poems with my readers here.


Catechism came with porridge
on Sunday mornings, then.
and Answer.
What is man’s chief end?
A lifetime later, adult, grown,
I have the forthright answer still:
To glorify our God, amen.

How those morning pictures linger.

With hair slicked down and parting straight,
scrubbed knees, nails free of grime, clean hands,
in Sunday Best, clean underpants
and vest, black brogues with Bible shine,
I went with hymn-book to the church
then into Sunday School we trooped
like little soldiers off to war,
while parents stayed for Hell-Fire words
and promises of Satan’s wrath
that they, in turn, would promise us.

Grey were the Sundays of my youth:
shut shops, shut faces, shuttered hearts.
A football kicked would damn to Hell.
A comic read, a careless laugh,
would be recorded in God’s book.
Guilt was instilled and mortal fear.
I haven’t yet got off the hook.

If you enjoyed that, please go and have a look at Richard's blog, where he posts interesting observations and reminiscences as well as other examples of his work, including one of my favourites, Suitcases - the opener from Strange Journey.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Arvon, Again

I am, somewhat groggily and reluctantly, re-entering the real world after spending last week in Yorkshire, at Lumb Bank in Heptonstall, on an Arvon course. This one was entitled Fiction: Work-In-Progress and was tutored by Jim Crace and Susan Elderkin.

The house at Lumb Bank
This was my third Arvon course (my first was about nine years ago and also at Lumb Bank, and the second came at the start of 2012, when I went on a Starting to Write a Novel course - this time at The Hurst in Shropshire). When I signed up for the latest one, back in March, I had a plan: I was going to have finished my science fiction novel by about June, have made a start on editing it, and be stuck into the new idea, which I'd been mulling over for a couple of months.

It didn't quite work out that way. I only finished the SF novel at the end of August, and I'd spent a few weeks editing the opening section for a competition, but it wasn't as well put to bed as I'd hoped. In terms of the new project, as of a week ago I had nothing down on paper. I'd done a tiny bit of research and an awful lot of thinking, but I couldn't really claim to have started anything. Obviously this wasn't ideal for a "Work in Progress" course! But I was sure there would be plenty to learn that would be applicable to both my almost-finished and barely-started projects.

Fifteen of us were there for the week and we split into two groups, each having a morning workshop with one tutor and then switching to the other one the following day. The afternoons were ours to do with as we pleased - although we had to fit in taking a turn at cooking dinner and having a one-to-one tutorial with each of the tutors. My group's first session was with Jim, and he got us to justify our books as though we were pitching them to an acquisitions board at a publishing house. This was quite a bruising experience to start with, but it was a good exercise to be brutally honest about what was original or different about our various novels and face up to any weaknesses in concept or execution.

Susan's sessions tended to be more focused on generating new writing, coming in the form of exercises that encouraged us to consider point of view, characterisation, and perspective. I found these really useful and a couple have given me ideas for blog posts, so I will come back to them in more detail in the future. Our second time with Jim involved a discussion and various exercises looking at editing, and although I feel like I've more or less got the hang of the process, it was very interesting to hear a different take on it and get a few extra tips on how to make your prose work as hard as it possibly can.

Sunrise over Lumb Bank as seen from my 'front door' - utterly magical

Overall, the course was fantastic and I feel like I've taken a big step forward with my new project. Just having a chance to talk the idea over with tutors as knowledgeable and talented as Susan and Jim was invaluable, and it's given my confidence and determination to see it through a huge boost. Arvon weeks tend to be a strange mixture of exhausting hard work and huge amounts of fun, and this one was no exception. As before, another highlight turned out to be my fellow writers on the course - a great bunch and, as the Friday performance night proved, a very talented lot too. I'm looking forward to seeing some of them hitting the bestseller lists in the months and years ahead.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Is it an Award? Is it a Competition?

From tomorrow, the five stories shortlisted  for the BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) will be broadcast on Radio 4, one each day. I'm not sure how many I'll catch live, as they go out mid-afternoon when I'm usually working, but I'll make sure I download the podcasts once they're made available.

This was the first year in quite a while that I wasn't holding my breath and listening to the announcement of the shortlist with the absurd and fading hope that my name would be read out. I didn't enter this year's competition. Part of my decision was, admittedly, down to me not having written a story of suitable length, subject matter, and quality. However, a far greater part was attributable to the lingering sour taste left by last year's revelation by one of the judges that the way the competition was run meant the final selection might be, possibly, not actually being judged as anonymously as everyone had assumed.

I wrote that post almost a year ago and, while I was pleased to see that for the 2014 Award the organisers had updated the Terms & Conditions to make the situation regarding the final stage of judging much clearer, there are still elements of it that concern me. Here's the relevant section from the rules:
4.3 Some judges may reserve the right to read the longlisted stories anonymously, however they are not required to do so. The whole panel will be provided with the name of the author of each longlisted story ahead of shortlisting to ensure all judges are party to the same information when making their decisions. At this stage, judges may call-in entries from authors whose stories were not longlisted in stage 1.
So, we know the final-stage judges are given the names of the authors, and that it's down to them whether or not they ignore those names. That's strange but, OK, fair enough, if that's how they want to run things. It's that last sentence that doesn't entirely make sense. Are the judges entitled to call in stories that didn't make it past the initial readers? Isn't that like a football team winning the World Cup even though they were knocked out of contention at the group stage? Considering only the longlisted stories are forwarded to the judges, does that include stories they haven't read? Or maybe it's even stranger than that; as the stories can be previously published (as long as it's within the 12 months before the closing date), can the judges bring in stories they've read elsewhere - stories that weren't actually entered in the competition?

The problem, I think, is that the BBC is in an awkward situation. They need good stories, but they also need authors who are recognisable enough for people who aren't really into short fiction to take an interest and get on board with the idea that the Award is a genuine reflection of the 'best' of the work that's currently out there. Consequently, it's not really a competition, but it's not quite a straightforward award, either. And I wonder if that's why in some ways, although the stories are usually pretty impressive, the Award itself is beginning to feel a little stale. The shortlist seems to have fallen into a pattern whereby it contains two or three household names, a couple of lesser-known but well-established writers with a book or two to their name, and a newbie, who often turns out to have a novel or at least a collection of short fiction approaching publication.

Obviously I don't know exactly how the judges come up with the shortlist. There's no way of knowing how many of them ignore the names of the writers when making their decisions. Maybe they all do. Maybe even if they recognise a story they've read somewhere else they can somehow ignore that. Maybe none of them call in any other stories from the rejection piles or from outside the competition. Maybe all that stuff's in the rules just in case, but it's never been put into practice.

Whatever's happening, as a reader/listener, I can't help but think the quirks of the selection process might be contributing to the fact that the NSSA is getting a bit samey. Even 2014's all-female shortlist didn't attract much comment - because this is the third time in the Award's seven-year history that's happened. I'd love the whole thing to be a lot less predictable. I'd love to think the Award was bringing me exciting, new stories I couldn't hear or read anywhere else. I'd love, just once, for the shortlist to be announced and for me to have never heard of any of the writers. I'd love to believe that stories by talented writers at the start of their careers were competing on equal terms with those from established best-selling authors, that the quality of the story was the only thing that influenced the selection of the shortlist. At the moment, I'm not really feeling any of that.

Asked how it felt to be shortlisted for a third time, Lionel Shriver quipped, "Familiar". Well, quite. This year, three-fifths of the shortlist is recycled from elsewhere (Zadie Smith's story was in the Spring 2014 edition of The Paris Review, while Tessa Hadley's and Lionel Shriver's both appeared in The New Yorker towards the end of last year).The NSSA is one of the biggest and most prestigious literary prizes in the UK. It should be many things, but I don't think "familiar" should be one of them.