The books your tokens are waiting for

As we all know, book tokens are second only to carefully chosen books, when considering the best gifts one can get. I had planned on putting together a list like so many others to recap on my reading this year to inspire gift choices, but I’m a few days or even a few weeks too late for that. These recommendations are the books I’ve loved this year, the ones Santa was kind enough to drop into my stocking, and the ones I’m looking forward to in 2017. That should be enough to be getting on with…

The one that outshone all the rest: novel category
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Lorrie Moore has said this debut is ’cause for celebration’, and she’s not wrong. I read an interview with the author, who said that every time she sees the novel in a shop, she wants to rescue Yuki. I thought I understood that feeling, of an author who has put their first baby out into the big bad world. But that wasn’t quite it. Having read the novel, it’s a maternal ache that won’t go away when you see Yuki’s portrait splashed with paint, her unseeing face lined up in rows on a shelf. This is a book of opportunities lost and gained, the chances that you miss or when fate takes your hand and pulls you away. It’s a book of relationships, the hard must haves, the fleeting passions, and unknowing unbound love. As the novel concluded, I cried. Not a solitary tear, but body convulsing sobs. Yuki had got in, and I was with her, with all of the gains and all of the losses. That, is something not many writers can do, but I implore you – take this journey with Yuki. It’s worth it.

Close seconds: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon. Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies. Two very very different child perspective novels which bring light to the worlds we encompass. Read them, they are brilliant.

The one that outshone all the rest: short story collection category
A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

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The short story category is always a tough one for me. I’m still writing /editing /rewriting /adding to my own collection, so I’ve found myself dipping in and out of collections over the past year. This collection was a gift last Christmas and it found its way to the top of the pile over the summer. These stories are retellings; subverted, twisted, and yet so close to the fairytales that should make you shiver.’Crazy Old Lady’ and ‘Little Man’ are two of my favourites, but it’s hard to have favourites in a collection of 11 stories that you wish wouldn’t stop at just 11. Even if you don’t like fairytales (what kind of strange creature are you?), try this.

Close seconds: Lightbox – KJ Orr. One Point Two Billion – Mahesh Rao. The Isle of Youth – Laura Van Den Berg. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July. Public Library – Ali Smith. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman. Fen – Daisy Johnson. I told you I’d been dipping in and out of collections! All amazingly talented writers. Read them, even if you think you prefer novels (what kind of strange creature are you?).

The ones I have lined up next (aka Christmas Haul):

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The Accidental Dictionary – Paul Anthony Jones. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises – Brian Kiteley. Angel Catbird Vol. 1 – Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood. Fantastic Beasts: The Original Screenplay – JK Rowling. Autumn – Ali Smith. The Wonder – Emma Donoghue.

 

 

The one you should be pre-ordering now:
Ink – Alice Broadway

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I had the fortune of winning a copy of this book, which isn’t out until February. Order it. Order it now. I believe it will be categorised as YA, and it is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t matter your age, this book will get under your skin and leave its mark. The strong themes of story telling, what we leave behind when we’re gone, and the art of tattooing, make this a compelling read. Leora is a character that may believe she’s yet to be formed, but her sense of self is clear from page one. This is a beautiful unfolding of a life. I’m not sure if there will be more, but I can see this challenging the likes of Hunger Games for its ability to shine a mirror on the world we live in currently for a new age of ravenous readers.

The others I can’t wait for: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Winter – Ali Smith, House of Names – Colm Tóibín.

 

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Good things come in…fours?

Seasons, cardinal directions, card suits, limbs… Okay, so I’m scratching around and breaking the rule of three. Normally I happily live by that superstition but you have to celebrate when there’s more good things around. Here are a four great things that I wanted to share with you this week.

 

Library Friendship

Friends of British LibraryThis to me is the most wonderful of gifts. My parents purchased this for me for my birthday at the start of February. Having enjoyed the last exhibition on the Gothic Imagination, and the current one on the anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the prospect of a year of opportunities there does make me extraordinarily happy, along with the chance to make the most of the member’s room when a spare seat in a peaceful place to write is needed. If you want to find out more, visit http://support.bl.uk/.

The Tiniest Literary Magazine 

Matchbook StoriesThe latest issue (number four) of Matchbox Stories arrived exquisitely packaged up from Book Ex Machina. I will be honest, this was an on a whim purchase but I’m so pleased I did. The four tiny stories by Ali Smith, Etgar Keret, Marti Leimbach and Frances Gapper are brilliant. Full of wit and wonder, these micro-tales left me thinking. Thinking of all the possibility there is in so few words, and the power that can be contained in no more than five sentences. If you’d like your own set then visit their site here.

Sublime Beginnings

Word Factory
Photo credits: James Lawson http://www.james-lawson.co.uk

Word Factory‘s year began on Saturday. Although Marina Warner could not be with us, and we all send our best wishes to her, the evening was a wonderful start to the year. I’ve written about how proud I am to be a part of Word Factory before, and although I have had to step away to concentrate on my collection in the past couple of months it still continues to be a great source of community, understanding, and inspiration. If you haven’t been before do let me know, I’d love to introduce you into the family.

Beautiful Monsters

Mslexia 69I have been subscribed to Mslexia for a good few years now. I’ve seen them refresh their design before to ensure they stay engaged with their readership and this one is no different; beautiful inside and out. It offers features which cut into what the industry and writers are thinking about, how-to advice from exercises to inspire to ways to reconnect with your writing and reading communities. The showcased stories are always worth reading – this month, Ana Salote’s left me chilled as the layers of meaning sunk in. Their website is also a mine of information so pop along and find out what you’re missing.

 

 

Dear Library

 

This is one of my prized possessions. I’ve wanted to share it and my letter to libraries for a little while but today is the right time.

Happy National Libraries Day!

LibraryCard

I’m not sure what day or year I was given this, but I do remember it.
I remember the librarian saying this is yours.
I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility – I would be responsible for the books I borrowed, it said so on the card.
I remember the day that I realised that I could read the smaller books on the grey metal shelves rather than the bigger books wedged in colourful hand-height wooden boxes.
I remember reading competitions in the summer holidays that encouraged me to lie in the sun and read all day.
I remember late fines because I didn’t want to give certain books back.
I remember reading books on all the things I couldn’t dare to ask about.
I remember the first time I moved from the children’s section into the corridor between there and the adult part of the library. This in between space would now be called young adult. I think I may have read every book on those shelves.
goodbonesI remember finally looking on shelves I had bypassed for years for another Margaret Atwood book because I had craved more after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at A-level. It was this book which would become the first short story collection I asked for as a present because I had taken it out of the library so many times.
I remember hours lost and so much gained.

All of this in one building. A million worlds. I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. What I understand about myself, the world, my past and my future, would not be possible without libraries.

I first wanted to write a post about my relationship with libraries since I listened to Ali Smith talk so animatedly about her own relationship with libraries just after new collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, came out in November. In the time that it took her to write and collate these stories, seven years, over a thousand libraries have gone. It is a fact that never ceases to astound me.

I could be called a hypocrite. I don’t visit my library as often as I could. The one in my small town is tiny but serves the community very well. I do however have cards for libraries in three counties now so I have access and I know how important access is to so many of us. I am lucky that I can afford to buy as many books as I do. I am immensely proud of my own shelves at home. But I see libraries in new ways now. It has always been a place to ‘be’ and I do use them for writing as well as reading but now I can see how it will shape new lives in my life. From the sing-alongs on a rainbow of carpet with my best friend and her little one, to the conversations with my 12 year old god-daughter about the books she is exploring whilst we educate each other on the great and good of various canons.

The #libraryletters are flying in now, but my favourite so far is Meg Rosoff’s which the Guardian featured in their article yesterday. Please feel free to share your letters in the comments.

Meg Rosoff
To Whom It May Concern:

Welcome to the library
where
no one will tell you what to read
or tell you what to think.
No one will bother you
Or bully you.
No one will require a report;
you don’t have to revise.
You can spy
Draw a picture.
Or sleep.
You can write.
Or wander.
Ask advice
ask for help
think anything
everything
or nothing at all.
No one will stop you.
No one will even try.
Meanwhile
a book
over there
on a shelf
will be glancing at you sideways
getting up the courage to
ask you out
make you laugh
make you cry
make you fall in love.
I’m trying to write a book like that now.
In a library.
Love,
Me

Resources that rescue

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.

Whilst reading an email from the London Review Bookshop (one of my favourite places), I came across their YouTube channel and the video of Edmund Gordon introducing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This of course led to the leapfrog onto other videos and I found this video which has delighted me this afternoon whilst thinking on my stories.

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.

Waiting for stories to fly

Most short stories take time to write. The one I have finished a new draft of this morning as evolved over the past year. A year of thinking about it, writing it in part of another story, and then thinking about it a bit more. And a bit more. Then playing, seeing it from another view until the story I was trying to tell, became the story I am telling.

It is only an initial draft. It has gone through another filter by my reading it aloud to my wife, who I am grateful to have in so many ways but this morning mostly as my first reader. An honest first reader really helps. Then it will be off to the critique group I belong to who will give their invaluable feedback. After any further redrafting with my editor, its next journey will be as part of my short story collection.

I am an incredibly impatient person when it comes to myself, my work. Allowing my stories time feels like an impossible task. But when it works, when it clicks into place, it feels like how I imagine these Jackdaws feel.

 

The story is about a Jackdaw among other things.

Christmas stories from Word Factory

Here’s a little present, from me to you. Or maybe it is a present from them to me. Either way, I am grinning.

At the start of December, Word Factory took part in the Waterstones Piccadilly Christmas event. The store was packed with shoppers, writers, entertainers, lovers of all things book shaped and more.

So here is the recording of my story. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, thank you for supporting me and everything that Word Factory does.

And after you have watched this one, please watch the rest of the team and their wonderful readings. It really was a gift of a night.

Books are for life…(the short story one)

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Sculpture by Malena Valcarcel

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.

20151121_164452This 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.

Don’t Try This at Home – Angela Readman

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.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass

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.

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

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…

 

Let the title do the talking*

12 short stories. For you to read. Now. Get electrocuted.

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I am so proud to be involved with this project. With thanks to Fran for inviting me and all her hard work alongside Jane and Bernie. They are super stars and this is the first of many for Literary Salmon.

Did I forget to mention, read the collection now.

*if the title doesn’t work, then the praise and inspiration should! Find out the full story on Twitter – follow the salmon.

Dog Horn Presents – free launch event on Monday 8th July

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Join me in conversation with Aliya Whiteley and Montague Kobbé on Monday evening at The Victoria Library, Westminster from 7pm. This will give you a chance to hear them both read excepts from their new books, as well as put your questions to them.

Tell us if you are coming along!

Aliya Whitely launches her latest novel, Skein Island: Marianne Percival has been summoned to Skein Island by its owner, the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. There’s only one problem – Lady Worthington has been dead for years. So who wrote the summons? And what does it have to do with the disappearance of Marianne’s mother? All the answers lie on Skein Island. It’s a retreat, and it holds many strange relics from a time of heroes and villains. At its centre stands a library that holds the stories of thousands of women. And underneath the library there is a secret that Amelia Worthington kept from the world. A secret that is about to be uncovered.

Montague Kobbe launches his collection of micro-fictions, Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges: Fifty bilingual micro stories strung together by emotional ties progressively weave a sense of reality that is both drastically different to that expressed in each individual tale and at the same time shared—perhaps even created—by the entire collection. The conventional tropes of love and lust, travel and sleep are deliberately approached with awareness of the tradition and a dose of provocation, sending the reader on a dangerous path along the outer edges of the cliché, hanging by the thread of irony and humour over the abyss of the banal. Form is central to a concept in which the short story has been boiled down to its most fundamental core: action. In this sense, context has often been totally or partially removed, giving primacy instead to the verb and its echoes, both within the collection and in relation to literary tradition. Equally central to the concept is the role of sound.