Friday, 12 June 2015

Three Reviews

Way back at the beginning of the year, I tried to get up to date with a few of the books written by authors I've met either via Twitter or through blogging. The intention was to review each book as I finished it. I started off with Karen Jones's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories, but I didn't get much further. I did read and enjoy the other books on my list, though, and although it seems unlikely I'll get time to do a 'proper' review for them, I thought I'd post some mini-reviews instead.

The Electric by Andrew David Barker
Freshly available in a rather handsome paperback edition, this is a coming-of-age story steeped in a love of cinema - not just the films themselves, but the (seemingly) increasingly old-fashioned concept of going to watch a film in a building specifically designed for the purpose. Set in 1985, the novel follows Sam Crowhurst, a teenager reeling from the death of his father, who stumbles across a run-down cinema in the woods, the eponymous Electric. Unable to resist the urge to investigate, he ventures inside, and his exploration results in a fascination with the old building and its mysteries that borders on obsession.

It's quite a gentle story - although there are strong supernatural elements to the book, it steers away from horror. It struck me as the type of coming-of-age story Stephen King might write, although it's much more in the Stand By Me mould than the It one. There are subtle undertones of a different Steven, too - I'm sure Spielberg would have turned this into a cracking movie back in the day. Despite the spooky goings-on in the cinema, The Electric is not so much a ghost story as a tale of grief and loss, and an exploration of the vital part friendship plays in your life in those early teenage years. There were a couple of occasions where I felt Andrew took a bit of a run-up to saying what he was going to say, but overall this is an impressive debut. It's charming and full of heart, and its nostalgic, elegiac tone is perfect for the subject matter.

Looking out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell 
Dan Powell's short stories have won many plaudits and this, his first collection, was shortlisted for the prestigious Scott Prize (sadly now discontinued). There are twenty-seven stories here, with many having been published and/or winning prizes in a variety of different places. Although the subject matter of the stories varies considerably, they're united by a strong sense of being about a character (or characters) who have been dealt a rather unfortunate hand by fate, and are struggling to make the best of it.

There is a good balance here - although sometimes the subject matter can seem fairly heavy, Dan avoids letting everything descend into gloominess by employing deft touches of humour at just the right moments. There are some great surreal aspects to many of the stories - an unborn baby communicates with its mother via morse code, a man falls in love with a painted silhouette he finds behind his wardrobe, a woman discovers she's transformed into a vending machine - and it's to Dan's credit that these elements never seem forced or outlandish.

The Art of Letting Go by Chloe Banks
When attractive stranger Ben arrives in a sleepy seaside town to try to paint God, he throws the lives of three women into turmoil. Rosemary, a retired physicist, just wants to be left alone. To her, the artist's presence is an unwanted intrusion, but she gradually becomes intrigued by his work. Timid, middle-aged Jenny sees Ben as a possible cure for her broken heart. And young nurse Cheryl, bored of small-town life, is just looking for a bit of excitement. As they all begin to gravitate towards Ben, secrets they'd rather have kept buried are forced out into the open.

I was impressed by this debut novel. I'd read several of Chloe's stories before, but I got the impression she'd really upped her game for this book. The four strands (each written in first-person from the viewpoint of the different characters) are keenly observed, well managed, and provide interesting insights - for example, when the same event is described from different perspectives. The quality of the writing is very good, too, and makes for a deceptively easy read. It's a slow burn, and people looking for a breakneck, twisty plot may be disappointed, but if you are happy with a more relaxed pace, this thoughtful book won't disappoint.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Myth of "Prestige"

Prestige. Exposure. They're good things, right? The kind of thing writers hanker after, whether they're just scrabbling onto the foot of the career ladder or balancing way up on some lofty rung? Getting a story - or perhaps even just your name - into the right place at the right time might unlock doors to untold fame and riches.

Or not. Because, it turns out, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, getting a story somewhere prestigious doesn't automatically have agents beating a path to your door, or publishers fighting over your half-finished manuscripts. You can drop as big a rock as you like into the literary pond but the ripples you make will quickly be drowned out by the constant rain of pebbles everybody else is chucking in.

Jonathan Pinnock illustrated this nicely in his thoughtful and well-researched blog post regarding what happened after one of his stories was broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 4 'Opening Lines' series. Most people (and I counted myself among them) would probably assume that if you get your foot in the door at the Beeb, that's it, you're set for life. But it appears that's not the case. Hardly any of the writers who've been picked for Opening Lines have ever been asked to follow-up their appearance. (The same, incidentally, can also be said for getting a story into The Guardian). Such achievements help, but for almost everyone it'll be more a case of adding weight to a portfolio than any kind of magic shortcut to success.

So, with this in mind, what are we to make of the 'award' recently launched by Pin Drop Studios? On the face of it, Pin Drop seems like an excellent idea - an organisation celebrating and promoting short fiction read aloud, with a collection of big names onboard in terms of both voice and writing talent. I'm definitely going to have a listen to some of their recorded short stories. But that award bothers me. There's a ten pound entry fee, for a start, which is on the high side. I don't know how many entries they're anticipating, but they seem to expect enough to justify not acknowledging receipt of emailed entries. I don't know what happens to the entry fees because there's no monetary prize. All that's on offer is the chance to have your story read aloud at one of their events and added to their archive.

That may be enough for some people. It would certainly be good exposure, and who knows who might hear it and where that might lead? (Um... see above.) And I'm not suggesting you shouldn't enter if you can afford the fee and feel like one of your stories might be the perfect fit.

But, ask yourself this: if your story is good enough to be ranked alongside those by Sebastian Faulks, Lionel Shriver, William Boyd, and Jon McGregor, why should you have to pay to have your work considered? Did those authors send in a tenner with their stories? Do the actors who bring the stories to life pay a fee for such prestigious exposure? In fairness, I don't know; Pin Drop don't say. But it seems unlikely, doesn't it?

There are too many examples of writers being expected to write or contribute or perform for free - or worse, to have to pay to take part. Prestige is no bad thing, but you can't eat it and it won't keep a roof over your head. Competitions like the Pin Drop one contribute to the erosion of the perceived value of the writer - the one person without whom the story would not exist. I'd urge anybody thinking of taking part to consider the implications of what happens when the only people left writing are the ones who can afford to pay to have their stories heard.

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.