Sunday, 14 August 2011

Good Stuff

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction by Alison MacLeodI keep promising myself that I will draw a line under short stories; I will stop reading them and no longer allow myself to write them so that I can devote myself to the big thing that begins with an 'n'. But I can't seem to make good on the promise.

While I was on holiday I read four short story collections and a memoir. I've already blogged about Rob Shearman's Everyone's Just So So Special. I also read Alison MacLeod's Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, reviewed here and here. The collection is essential reading for the fiction module I will be teaching and I hope to blog about it in more detail in the coming weeks.

I also read Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines, reviewed here, and Tender by Mark Illis, reviewed here. Both collections were extremely enjoyable and memorable, which is a huge compliment as I've read more than thirty short story collections this year and there's only so much space in my head; the really good stuff is the stuff that sticks.

I met Elizabeth at the Edge Hill Prize award ceremony. I'm always especially curious to read the work of writers I've met in real life - perhaps because even though I know quite a lot of writers, they still seem exotic and mysterious, and reading their work is exciting, in the same way that eavesdropping can be (of course I would *never* eavesdrop). Elizabeth's collection is gorgeous, full of lines that make my heart sing. It is also tremendously varied; every story is skillfully executed and the depictions of childhood are unerring. My favourite stories are the funny and brutal Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth and the heartbreaking Compass and Torch.

TenderTender is a collection of linked short stories. I've read quite a few collections of linked stories and there is often something quite unsatisfying about them; individually they are frequently excellent, but collectively there is often something missing: they feel like a novel with holes. Tender is the best linked collection I've read to date. Illis's writing is humourous, intelligent and full of the lovely details that provoke a smiling, head-nodding response. The stories are successful individually and the threads from each are skillfully worked to also provide collective momentum. My favourite stories are There's a Hole in Everything and The Realm of the Possible.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

So so special...

While on holiday I was swept away by Rob Shearman's Everyone's Just So So Special; a furious, frantic, whirlwind of a book. I read the majority of So, So Special in the car during a 3,000 mile journey through and around Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana: a much more interesting way to pass the time than driving in straight lines on cruise control for hours on end (sooo glad I left my driving licence in England).

Everyone's Just So So Special (Big Finish)As I read, I had visions of Rob writing the book, sitting at his desk, typing so quickly that smoke rose from his keyboard while shouting 'You liked the cat story in 'Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical'? Here, have another, even more incredible story about cats...ha-ha-ha' (it's important to imagine the ha-ha-ha part in the voice of The Count from Sesame Street). 'You liked what I did with time and history in the title story of 'Tiny Deaths'? Here, watch me tackle the sweep of two thousand years of history (1AD to 2001) while interspersing it with an hilariously insane narrative... ha-ha-ha.'

There is a real sense that Rob has upped the ante in this collection; cumulatively it is even more surprising, horrifying, disturbing and entertaining than his previous collections, (is this possible? It turns out that the answer is Yes) and individually it contains many brilliant and memorable stories that continue to entertain and quite frankly, bother me (I'm still queasy about/appalled by 'Granny's Grinning').

The stories are linked by a crazy and entertaining historical rant (which may require a magnifying glass to read). It often feels as if the history/timeline and the italicized story which is nestled within it is an elaborate joke (I'm pretty sure that it is), but then a particularly searing observation or unnerving comment will illustrate something about the desire we all have to be remembered, to be special, and the reader is suddenly wrong-footed into contemplation; at times like these it is easy to imagine Rob at his keyboard in creative genius mode, a la Willy Wonka:
'I'm joking,' said Mr Wonka, giggling madly behind his beard. I didn't mean it. Forgive me. I'm so sorry!'
My favourite stories are 'Cold Snap,' a frightening and funny take on Santa (who is quite a scary character if you take the time think about it) 'Restoration,' a beautiful and inventive story about history and memory, 'Without You, I Wouldn't Be Alive' guaranteed to make book lovers' hearts sing, 'Endangered Species,' the aforementioned cat story, and 'Acronyms' which I promise will make you crave a BLT made in exactly the way described (also included are MI5, GPS, AKA and PS).

I haven't done the book justice - it's hard to capture the work of a writer whose stories are 'as light as souffles and nourishing as steak' (Jack Dann) but it's been a pleasure to try.

P.S For people who love Rob's writing, follow his progress here as he writes 100 short stories to accompany the leather-bound issues of So, So Special.