This afternoon I’ve been lured into the depths of the internet whilst working on the next stages of some new stories. Normally I would later bully myself, as many of us do, on the procrastination of this act. Should I really be watching these videos, reading these articles, when I should be writing? Today, however, I am going to celebrate this wandering off the page and onto the screen.
As may be obvious now, I am obsessed with fairy tales, myths, magic realism; their function and imaginations. They feed my work, and free my mind. If I’m not reading stories then I am often dipping into the theory that works to bring further understanding to these tales.
I desperately wanted to go to this event last year but it sold out very quickly, so I’m thrilled that the British Academy have shared it in full on their channel. It might have been naive of me not to have already made the most of these resources, but it is something that has rescued me today.
If this introduction to fairy tale and Marina Warner’s expertise is something that interests you too, then you might like to come along to the Word Factory events next month where she will be leading a masterclass and then reading at the evening salon on 27 February.
First resolution of the new year: to blog more frequently, more immediately. Less thinking about what I should be writing here, more of the ‘here’s what I want to share right now’.
Which leads to the second resolution: review every book I read. It’s only polite, for each author provides me with something which could be returned. Sometimes my reviews are written in full, but more often they are shared briefly on social media or spoken about with fellow readers.
So with that in mind, here is my last review of 2015 and the first of 2016.
The Bees by Laline Paull
This is a beautiful novel that I happily spent a day or so inhabiting Flora 717’s hive world. I know a fair amount about bees from friends and relatives who keep them, but the journey that this novel takes enabled me to explore the facts as well as an imagined world. The deeper parallels with our current society, feminism, balance, understanding the worlds we inhabit made this an incredible read rather than a flight of fantasy.
Slade House by David Mitchell
I read Slade House in one sitting, just over 4 hours, because I couldn’t stop reading. I was gripped. The journey through time held my belief with characteristic detail; the repetitive elements were familiar rather than grating. It held the same magic that the journey into The Secret Garden did for me as a child, but with a deeply gothic and unnerving layer. I am certain the attic in Slade House will stay with me, and many others, just as the one at Thornfield in Jane Eyre and the prison that holds the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper.
Which allows me to conclude with my final book related resolution. Focus on my to-read pile and read for me. This allows me to ignore the current trend for reading challenges that part of me would like to take on but the bigger part wonders what is the point? I understand where it is used to engage new readers, but when you already read widely and often I don’t understand the need to pressurise the reading process. Yesterday I shared a link from Pam Mcllroy. She asks, when did reading become a competitive sport? I reposted the link because I felt that she understood my take on why we read without the how we should read. A more personal resolution is to avoid the negativity of should at all costs. And then of course I went and read a book in 4 hours.
So I’ve recommended my favourite short stories and novels from this year, but what else is out there? I’ve found that I’ve been inundated with book suggestions from websites, magazines and newspapers alike so I thought I’d conclude with a list of lists. These are my favourite sources when looking for some inspiration.
Want to read the books everyone is talking about or will be very shortly? Keep up with all the big book prizes by using Foyles’ very handy Book Awards page. From the Baileys to the Booker (and all the other prizes not beginning with B) they have it all for you within easy reach of a couple of clicks.
Not sure what to read next, or what to recommend? Lovereading is the site for you. Their regular newsletters and easy to use website is a great source of new inspiration. I particularly like their short story section which has recently had a refresh.
The Guardian Books section has always been a Saturday favourite for me, and their website ensures I’m up to date the rest of the week too. Their round ups are infamous, and this year’s part one and part two of the Best Books of 2015 are wonderful. This way you get to find out what your favourite authors are reading, as well as general recommendations in the Guardian’s brilliant article on the best fiction of 2015.
A fan of video over articles? Follow Jen Campbell on YouTube immediately. Her vlogs are humorous at times, always honest and insightful. You are guaranteed to find all the books you need for Christmas gifts with her.
Lastly, but of course by no means least, is Waterstones’ selection of Beautiful Books. If you’d like to gift an ageless gift, then here’s the place to look. There are many publishers now who are doing a grand job of making the book as beautiful on the outside as the inside. I’ll stop there with the book clichés. And the lists, for this year at least.
I promised a novel version of my favourites from this year, so here they are in no particular order (yes, they are all that good).
The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
Know me well enough and you will have seen I have a shelf dedicated to Atwood’s books. Literally because there are so many of them. I’m going to explain why in my next post but for now, you can understand her work is a favourite. This latest novel is a step sideways from the MaddAddam trilogy, and I briefly reviewed it as the Handmaid’s Tale for this generation. It is an incredibly readable, darkly humorous look at where our world could get to without much work.
How to be Both – Ali Smith
At the other end of my bookshelf, I almost have a full shelf of Ali Smith’s books – yes, you can see the pattern emerging. Her latest novel is my favourite so far – I find joy in seeing how open she is to pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be and is never limited. This is a novel of two halves, and which half you start with depends on which book you pick up. It is the present and it is the past. It is what limits us and what sets us free. It is a book you have to read.
The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan
I talked lots about Logan’s short stories in my last post, and her debut novel is no less magical. A story of love, loss and finding connections – it is a gorgeous tale to get lost in. I cannot wait for more of her work.
The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood
I fell in love with Wood’s writing with his debut novel a couple of years ago which I go back to again and again. This is just as mesmerising. If you’re looking for a book for a writer or artist of any kind, then this is the one for them (or you). The lengths we go to for art, for love, for understanding are encapsulated here. I felt bereft at the end and yet entirely satisfied.
The Good Son – Paul McVeigh
Don’t let my friendship with this wonderful man seem like a bias. Paul’s debut novel is stunning. Want to learn more but also be completely transported? This is the novel with you. One of my top if not favourite child narrators, join Mickey on his journey through the Troubles. And if you’re a fan of audio books then wait for this to be released because if Paul’s performances are anything to go by then his narration is going to be mind blowing.
Vitus Dreams – Adam Craig
This is a novel I am incredibly proud of. Written by my publisher/editor/friend at Liquorice Fish, this is a book I’ve seen from in vitro to birth and I am so pleased that it is out in the world now. Walk into this journey with Vitus and explore the places between dreaming and waking, and the reality and losses of both.
There is one novel that isn’t in the picture, and only because it’s on my kindle not in paper form (a rare thing). The First Bad Man by Miranda July is a you-have-to-read-it-why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet book. Please read it and then find me and Charlotte (from Nothing Good Rhymes with Charlotte fame) because we need to have more people to discuss this book with. It may even start a book club.
This time of year brings the need to compile lists out in all of us. I’ll put the blame on the stories we were told by our loved ones in order to have some kind of clue (or just a short list) of what we would like to receive.
Books have always been high on my gift lists. Even before I could read, the greatest gift my family could bestow upon me was a well chosen book. I still have the first books my grandpa brought me – Swallows and Amazons, and a miniature library of the Beatrix Potter stories. They are among my most treasured possessions – a link to a man who I barely knew whose love I still feel through our shared imagination.
So there will be a few of these posts to inspire you to surprise your loved ones, along with the many more that are popping up across the internet, newspapers and magazines. First to start with my greatest interest at the moment – short stories.
This year short story lovers have been spoilt for choice. My currently-reading and to-read shelf is packed with collections from established and new writers, and I would recommend them all but for now here’s my top three female writers whose stories have fuelled my creativity and made me dream big whilst writing my collection.
Any book from And Other Stories comes with an automatic recommendation from me. They continue to publish incredible writers, and if you are unsure of what to get for the book lover in your life then look at their subscriptions which are guaranteed to delight. With Readman’s debut collection, there is real magic in the ordinary – think Angela Carter or Adam Marek if you want literary comparisons. There’s a reason Readman is collecting awards, including the Costa short story award. These stories have taught me to be fearless, to go beyond what you initially see or create, and will be a collection I return to again and again.
Often with short story collections and anthologies, I dip in and out, selecting stories at the “right” time. Every now and then a collection comes along where I cannot help but read them in one go. With these I tried to pace myself, but consumed them all within a day or so. It was a day incredibly well spent. The stories are linked by the search of absolution which at times is captured rather than fulfilled. Most of all it showed that no matter whether in the past or future we continue to be surprised, out-witted and led by the creations of our imagination and our minds as a whole. ‘Some Kind of Safety’ reminded me that carefully chosen words and very little space (less than 3 pages) can create the most honest and intense stories. Greengrass is fearless when using the first person narrative allowing the reader to feel these stories as presented truths rather than tales. I found this collection on a table of selected short story writers at Waterstones Cambridge – well done them for selecting astutely. I had not heard of Greengrass before then but she will certainly be a writer I search out in the future.
Another independent, Salt, who can always be relied upon to present us with wonderful storytellers (buy direct from them too ,- they have a 20% off offer on at the moment). I’m not sure how I had not heard of Kirsty Logan before, but ‘The Rental Heart’ is possibly the most perfect story and that level of perfection and exploration doesn’t stop there. Her retelling of traditional fairytales, are balanced by the creation of new ones. References to Angela Carter can be made again, as can those to Ali Smith and Marina Warner. Logan thrives in this condensed form, but her debut novel is also a fantastic escape; the extended tale of The Gracekeepers story in this collection. Along with her debut collection and novel, she has a second collection A Portable Shelter that came out as a limited run of 1000 beautifully bound books which now seem impossible to find due to 800 of them being pre-ordered! If anyone finds a copy, please remember I would love to receive this as a gift this Christmas! If you fancy seeing her read, and to get a signed copy of one of her books – come along to Word Factory next Saturday (28 November 2015).
I would love to hear about your inspirations – and let’s face it, we can all use a little help when picking out new books to surprise people with. Next on the blog will be the novel list…
I love that we as a nation give time for a whole week to encourage young readers and writers to get involved with the short story form. As the week comes to a close, I wanted to share some favourite links that I hope will give short story lovers resources to keep them going for the next 51 weeks.
You may have noticed this blog can be sporadic. Mostly, and with great joy, Word Factory is to blame for this. I am involved with this amazing team who every month for almost three years have provided short story salons, masterclasses and workshops to writers and readers of London. So when you can’t find me here, I’m normally over on the Word Factory site – where you can find videos of all of the readings, a wonderful monthly round up of opportunities that Paul McVeighsources, as well as profiles for over 70 short story writers.
And as it is Sunday, it is only right that I mention Short Story Sunday. This new online publication which has been running since the start of November. Already there have been three wonderful stories published and I can’t wait to see what will come next.
There’s so many more I could mention – but please do post in the comments if you’d like to share you own favourites.
I am one story away from the end of Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. I’m late to pick up on how challenging, honest and brutal Hall’s stories can be but I am savouring every one. Difficult to do as a short story fiend but this is a collection worth time.
Adding to my reading excitement, two of my most favourite authors have new books out this week. Ali Smith with her Booker short-listed How to to be both, and Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. You know where to find me on Thursday when these hit the bookshelves.
The Philosophical one
Whilst considering my next moves for my first novel and the second one which is becoming louder, I’ve been delving into philosophical discussion on how we develop as writers and as humans. We are Verbs is my favourite so far.
The writing one
This week I’ve been taking part in The Write Track‘s trial of audio writing exercises. Led by novelist and top creative writing tutor Julia Bell to work out if writers find audio exercises useful, the idea is to take exercises out of the classroom and into people’s lives as they live them, kind of like a pocket writing coach. Soon their the goal-setting community for writers will be launched online – if this trial is anything to go by, this will be an exciting community to be involved with.
I would love for find out what is inspiring you at the moment – please use the comments box for links and feedback.
For the past year, although I haven’t been blogging, I have been inspired by so many articles etc online. I have tried to share these via social media which of course moves quickly and I have a collection of links that may benefit other writers, editors and readers too. Book Riot has a great weekly post, Critical Linking, which I love. What I’m really linking is born from reading this and wanting to do something regular and useful with this blog.
I would love for find out what’s inspired you this week – please use the comments box for links and feedback.
The writing one…
Meet the instant gratification monkey and the panic monster. It’s very likely that you have your own, but this made me smile on a day when I let my monkey go for a wander when I should have been writing.
It won’t help that this became a useful blog addition.
The political one…
I stumbled across this a couple of months ago. I like the comparisons it brings to the table in one place and shows up the media led bickering that goes on with feminism on what is wrong and what is right.
Tears are like snowflakes – every one is individual. But even more interesting is thow tears carry the human experience, looking different for every emotion expressed. I hope to eventually use this in a story.
I am a little bit in love with Jackie Morris’s bears. Stumbling across her artwork on Twitter led me to learn that she is the cover artist for Robin Hobb’s books as well as a writer and illustrator of many children’s books.
Carys Bray’s debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, pulled me into the lives of the Bradley family. I couldn’t stop reading it. That’s not a cliché, I promise. I really did have to find out what happened to them all. Watch this Word Factory video to get caught up with them too.