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#bookaday Have more than one copy: The Lighthouse

lighthouse

 

I have two paperback copies and a kindle download. This gives you an idea of how much I enjoyed it. The doubling up of the paperbacks is down to a joyful discounted purchase of the Booker shortlisted books  in 2012. I have yet to read Wolf Hall.

The lighthouse caught, and held, my attention partly because of its sadness and for the emptiness of the main character. His life has fallen apart around him and he sets out on a journey, a walking trip to Germany. It is a journey that appears to mirror his own sense of a loss of direction. The abandonment of his mother, and the disappointment of his ex-wife and father, garner sympathy from the reader through Moore’s cleverly crafted narrative. A chilling and suspenseful read. So much emotion is conveyed through very scant explanation.

I have subsequently read her more recent short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. I reviewed the collection in previous post.

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Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

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‘I REMEMBER EVERYTHING. MEMORY FILLS MY BODY AS MUCH AS BLOOD AND BONES. 

This is Mary. A mother whose son was taken from her and lost to the world. A woman who lives now in exile, watched by those who seek to preserve the sanctity of her son’s memory. But Mary’s recollections of his difficult life and tragic death are a truth that few who knew her son now recognize. As the myths grow around her like walks, so Mary clings to the truth, revealing, in a time of turmoil and profound change, her own fragile humanity.’

I was intrigued by Colm Tóibín’s novella, given the controversial subject matter and read it in one sitting – 104 pages in its entirety. A fictional account of Mary’s loss of her son on the cross and of her doubts surrounding the miracles and the disciples, it delves into the nature of her fear and confusion. It is a brave attempt to fill the gaps in one of the greatest stories of history and daring in its openness, in its raw uncovering of the destructive nature of loss and what it can do to a person. The Testament of Mary has a beautiful, almost dream-like quality and the depiction of Mary’s grief, of her anger and distrust, is striking, powerful and at times shocking. Yet I could begin to relate to aspects of her pain and understand some of her crippling doubts. Tóibín’s use of language is poetic and lyrical keeping the reader absolutely engaged. There are times when the mind often drifts as you read but this book draws you in and holds you tightly in its grasp until the author releases his hands with the final words that ‘words’ in themselves ‘matter.’ My only wish would be for greater detail in the scenes to plant the reader in the picture and the events as they unfold, but the book remains firmly inside the mind of Mary as she waits for the inevitable to approach.

There is an otherworldly feel to the narrative and an ethereal quality that links cleverly to the context of the book. An inherent darkness seeps into the words, leaving you with the sense that this could almost have been a psychological thriller. Literary it may be, but it has the power to almost transcend genres through thriller, literary fiction, biographical non-fiction. It is difficult to draw the line. There has been less opposition to the book than might be expected and for good reason; the fact that it is a fictional representation of a biblical story leaves the pages open and ripe for an author of great talent to sensitively explore what it might have been like for a Mother to lose a son in the most graphic and torturous of methods. The detail in the crucifixion scenes is just enough and it is not overwritten. The claim that he was the ‘Son of God’ is not the focus of the book and it is interesting that his name is never used, instead we are taken to the core of a Mother’s memories of her child as a baby and of the cold distance between them now, and her excruciating powerlessness as he is placed into the hands of his enemies.

An utterly absorbing and memorable read. It is not difficult to see why this has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is Tóibín’s third Booker nomination. He was awarded the Costa Novel Award in 2009 for Brooklyn and has received numerous other awards and a Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlisting for The Empty Family in 2011. A gifted and enthralling writer. 

Listen to an excerpt of The Testament of Mary narrated by Meryl Streep.


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Swimming Home

swimming home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I managed to reading it, amongst other books, while I was away last week. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2012, I was expecting great things from this book and it did not disappoint.

As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

Both the unusual cover and the concept grabbed my attention from the start and I knew that this would be an allegorical journey in many ways. Levy’s use of visual constructs and rich symbolism retains a powerful hold over the reader’s experience. The wording is lyrical and enticing, wasting nothing. She casually underplays the devastating story as it reaches an unexpected climax. It has been described as a ‘literary beast’ of a novel and, although initially skeptical, I can understand why; I would agree. Reviews have been mixed, understandably, as her style is highly specific and will not appeal to all. Her power to draw in and to shock is almost a surprise and I found myself rereading parts of the text in disbelief. She uses subtle repetition to great effect and the prose has a circular narrative in that it ends almost where it begins. The outcome? Well, you’ll have to read it and decide what you think. I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction and a short, sharp shock. I look forward to reading her newer short story collection, Black Vodka.


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Book Review: The Pre-War House and Other Stories

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I have eagerly awaited the publication of Alison Moore’s debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. As regular blog readers know, I am an advocate for short fiction and I read and write as much of it as time allows. It’s a real joy to be able to review this collection of short stories.  I was kindly given an advanced copy by Salt Publishing, for which I am very grateful. The Lighthouse, Moore’s debut novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and I read it in one sitting. I hoped for the same emotional tension, her attention to detail, and a surprising climax in her short stories, and this collection did not disappoint.

The short stories in Pre-War House are drawn from a selection of magazine and anthology publications over a period of twelve years, alongside new and recently published work. Moore’s stories have been shortlisted for more than a dozen different awards (see below) including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013 for this collection.

The stories are evocative and often sinister, honing in on the details of everyday life with extraordinary insight into human nature and the many fears, often unspoken. Moore has a great sense of control over her prose, her language is understated and therein lies the power of her writing. She uses words which evoke a sense danger, of loss or unease.

I had previously read When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, and reading it again provided the same sense of threat and menace through the tightly written sentences as they wound their way towards an uneasy ending. There is something inherently satisfying in reading a story of this quality which makes you catch your breath as you turn the pages.

Overnight Stop left me gripping my seat as I read in disbelief. The plot lends itself to a novel length prose and this is no mean feat for a short story. This piece is a perfect example of Moore’s ability to play with your emotions and draw you in to the scene with frightening reality.

Seclusion lulls you into a false sense of security before packing a punch towards the end. The insight into one life is portrayed with telescopic accuracy.

Sleeping Under the Stars brings in details of Stargazy Pie, Liqourice laces and kirby grips with a layered story of the difficulties of fractured families. The ‘goosepimpled arms’ give a sense of foreboding, and words such as ‘queezy’ and ‘sickening’ provide a parallel for the emotional distress involved in the story.

Many of the themes centre around family, relationships, loss, and uncertainty. Some of the stories create a sense of claustrophobia as the characters become trapped in situations beyond their control. Each piece has its own unique style but the thread weaving through the collection is an intangible sense of anticipation. It is a delicious read and, having read some of the stories a few times, it is something I will keep going back to. A remarkable debut collection which comes highly recommended.

‘Overnight Stop’ (The Lampeter Review issue 7)
‘Sleeping Under the Stars’ (The Nottingham Short Story Anthology 2012)
‘A Small Window’ (The Warwick Review vol.6 no.4)
‘Jetsam’ (Ambit issue 211)
‘Seclusion’ (Paraxis volume 4)’If There’s Anything Left’ (The Yellow Room)
‘It Has Happened Before’ (Shadows & Tall Trees issue 4)
‘Trees in the Tarmac’ (The New Writer issue 112)
‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’ (The Screaming Book of Horror, 2012)
‘Small Animals’ (Nightjar Press, 2012)
‘The Yacht Man’ (The New Writer issue 111)
‘The Smell of the Slaughterhouse’ (The New Writer issue 111; Best British Short Stories 2013)
‘Glory Hole’ (The Lightship Anthology: 1)
‘The Egg’ (Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds, 2011)
‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ (Nightjar Press, 2010; Best British Short Stories 2011)
‘The Pre-War House’ (The New Writer issue 103)
‘Static’ (Manchester Fiction Prize 2009)
‘Monsoon Puddles’ (Quality Women’s Fiction issue 43)
‘Helicopter Jean’ (The New Writer issue 53)
‘Wink, Wink’ (Creative Writers’ Network magazine)
‘Humming and Pinging’ (Marches Literary Prize anthology 2000) 


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Hilary Mantel’s rules for writers

Hilary Mantel rounded off an astounding year by winning the Costa prize last night for her novel Bring Up the Bodies. Having also won the Man Booker Prize, she is the first person to win both. To celebrate, here are the golden rules for writing that she first shared with the Guardian on 25 February 2010.

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.

8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

 

 


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Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Having spent months editing Take Me to the Castle I have missed the writing process, which is what writers love. Editors scour written work for grammar, punctuation, style, consistency. Publishers focus on pulling a book together professionally and marketing it to readers. Writers love to craft novels and stories. I think we come unstuck when it is time to take a scalpel to the writing and cut out or change words, re-read, re-write, and change any inconsistencies. So I decided to take action and write some short stories and flash fiction. This has served two purposes – It has given me the opportunity to write in a shorter timescale than I would a whole novel, and it has sharpened my skills as a writer. I will keep you posted on the release of these. My aim is to publish an anthology in the future, with a collection of short stories and poems.

I have had some communication with the lovely Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She says that she began her journey into writing by writing short stories, and that it tightened her style and honed her craft. I had already read ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Salt Publishing, and loved it. So I set to work on short story writing and have also written flash fiction, generally under 350 words. For the writer it teaches you to keep the essence of your story within limited boundaries, and for the reader it is a pleasure to read something which is short and intense – like a good espresso!

Before I get back to my coffee, I just want to leave you with an exclusive short story by Hilary Mantel, The Long QT. It is striking in so many ways. Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with reading or writing short stories and flash fiction? Do you prefer these styles of writing to novel-length work or vice versa? Have your say and feel free to share any of your own reading or writing experiences with short stories or flash fiction.

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