You’re Telling me Lies

January has been a funny old month. For me it didn’t really begin ( in the sense of signalling the boringly familiar detox routine ) until the second week because of some post-Xmas celebrations and the Hullabaloo over the start of City of Culture ( all excellent and enjoyable stuff ) Yet even with a late start there still seemed a lot of month left, as the days plodded slowly onwards towards an ever distant pay day. Not to mention the weird weather which of course is nothing to do with climate change because according to President Fart that doesn’t exist…

My reading matter has mirrored this jumbled time: it’s been, well, eclectic would probably be the posh word to use. Firstly, I read a book by a friend of a friend which to me illustrated many of the positives and negatives that are attached to self-publishing. I’ve nothing against the latter. After all, it’s what many famous writers such as Dickens and Virginia Woolf did and how many writers today make a very good living. But there remains the old chestnut of quality control and it does seem better suited to genre fiction rather than literary fiction, fans of the former playing a big part in critiquing and shaping the work as it’s developed. When a writer has talent and gets professional support in terms of editing etc then the result can be indistinguishable from conventionally published work. This is certainly the case with another book I read at the end of last year, Rob Ashman’s Those That Remain, a crime thriller which is Lee Childesque in its clipped style, twists and turns, and gritty violence. I’ll declare an interest here – Rob is a friend and we had a joint book launch – but facts are facts ( unless you’re President Fart ) and Those That Remain is a good read.

I followed this with two Young Adult novels which I’d been directed towards for research purposes. One of these was Louise Rennison’s  Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. What a great exuberant title!! ( warranting triple exclamation marks really )It was snigger out loud funny, using the diary form like Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole to convey teenage angst.

From there to Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. This very much had the flavour of an issue based YA text: in this case the issue being rape. I guess it might be what has been termed a ‘crossover’ or ‘New Adult’ ( eg 18-25 ) novel ( I found a review in The Guardian’s children’s section though it was shelved amongst adult novels ) The bleak ending, which offers no hope or indeed resolution, works against the assumption of a younger reader while the irony of the title tells you the author’s take on the subject. Although it was on the whole an OK read, I felt the protagonist Emma’s thoughts and thus the narrative became rather repetitive.

Finally, a great book to get your teeth into while waiting for petite and romantic February to tiptoe in: The Muse by Jesse Burton, famous for her debut novel The Miniaturist. I didn’t rave about the latter as many did ( it sold over a million copies ) finding it a bit fussy and, in parts, unconvincing. The Muse, on the other hand, is a more straightforward work alternating between 60s London and Spain in the 1930s. By ‘straightforward’ I don’t mean to imply there’s not some brilliant twists and the narrative, which centres on a piece of artwork and explores the notion of female creativity, is a jigsaw. But I found it to be a jigsaw that once the edge pieces, or plot framework, were in place slotted together effectively and naturally. Highly recommended.

I’ll finish by re-writing the last line of January by the 70s band Pilot. Ahh (wistful sigh )… they don’t write lyrics like that anymore. Thank God.

January, sick and tired, you’ve been hanging on me
You make me sad with your eyes
You’re telling me lies
Do go, do go

Saving the Best for Last


This is not the time of year to strike out alone into the snow ( assuming any falls. The weather here on Xmas Day was balmy / barmy) foraging for new discussion topics. Accordingly, I’ll snuggle down with the well-worn refrain of how crap 2016 was. I started this yesterday with the deaths of George Michael and Liz Smith recent news items; since then Richard Adams and Carrie Fisher have pegged it and of course there’s still time for more. As one social media wag said, Keith Richards must be counting the sleeps until 2017. Interestingly, though, the sleb mortality rate has apparently not been unduly high: it’s more that us baby boomers perceive it to be. As for Brexit and Trump, just the words themselves are ugly enough to warrant no further mention.

But what about books, I hear you cry! I read about 70 novels this year ( not many considering that for two separate months I was confined to barracks and did little except read and whinge ) My two discoveries of the year were Melissa Harrison and Jenny Eclair: with the latter I was initially sceptical that a good comedian could / should make a good novelist but she proved me wrong, in the same way that some time ago Ben Elton did. Can there be any stronger proof that God doesn’t exist when s/he gives some people multiple talents and others none? As for Harrison, she writes beautifully and lyrically about the natural world without ever compromising her hard-hitting stories about how we humans use and misuse it. My two most memorable books would probably have to be Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life ( little in title only ) and Eileen by Ottesa Moshfegh. ‘Memorable’ isn’t a synonym for ‘like’ but the fact that they remain etched in my mind must say something about them.

Despite several strong contenders the prize for Most Underwhelming Novel I’d have to award to Get Carter by Ted Lewis. Because he was a local lad ( indeed there’s a house on our street with a blue plaque celebrating the fact that he once lived there) I was hoping for some kind of bonding to take place while reading. Instead I became rapidly disengaged: it was boys’ stuff with a lot of tough guys and victimised women– though I should probably read more of his work before pontificating in case I incur the wrath of Neighbourhood Literary Watch. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was an interesting curiosity read and two novels – How to Measure a Cow and The Battle for Christabel – by one of my all time favourite writers Margaret Forster were lovely books, albeit now feeling a tad dated. (Incidentally Forster was another casualty of 2016.)

But by far my favourite read of the year, and indeed my most recent, is Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place. I was setting myself up for a fall by anticipating this book so eagerly but not one of its 480+ pages disappointed. If I say that This Must be the Place is about the disintegration of a marriage that comes nowhere near doing justice to the scope of a novel which is brilliantly and complexly structured without ever losing its emotional core. I won’t attempt to summarise – but at heart I guess the message is that although we all fuck up our lives in our own unique ways love ( not just romantic love but love of all kinds ) will always see us through.

On that note, a very Happy New Year to all my readers!


The Long and Short of it


I write short stories: for me discovering a well crafted short story is a delight, like popping a delicious chocolate into one’s gob and letting it melt into loveliness. However, here this comparison immediately breaks down: whereas the after effects of the choc ( or, more realistically, several ) are sugar coated teeth and a spoilt appetite the sweet taste of a good short story is likely to resonate through the rest of the day, week or even month.

So I read a lot of them, right? As I’m always telling students, you must immerse yourself in reading similar stuff to what you write. Well, actually… In my stack of unread books it’s always the novels that get chosen first. Indeed, in the real world, as opposed to the wordy one, if time wasn’t a factor I’d always go for the long option: a bath rather than a shower, a protracted leisurely meal rather than a snack, walking rather than taking the car. But of course tempus is always doing its fugit thing so eating, washing and getting where I want to be are often rushed activities.

Yet always when I come across a collection that I love, I resolve to read more. Such was the case with Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls, proving that his scope as a writer extends far beyond the success of Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time. Here are stories that range from the detached documentary style of the eponymous one of the title to the quasi mythical savagery of The Island to the wonderful sixty pages of Wodwo which in essence is a modern reworking of Gawain and the Green Knight.

Looking at my shelves other crackers that I’d recommend would be Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island, Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference and What Becomes by A.L Kennedy. And can I / should I recommend my own collection, Raw Material, published a few weeks ago? Hell, yes! I’m copying below what I wrote in my June 2012 blog when my first book was published because (a) it still applies and (b) I’m lazy.

The whole process reminded me of being pregnant in the way that it’s very easy to get caught up in the anticipation and planning of the event itself ( making the story selection, approving the cover and deciding on a title just as once upon a time I chose baby equipment and clothes and picked names ) without fully appreciating the long term commitment. The book and the child, once delivered, are there to be admired, scrutinised and, yes, over time -judged. Just as babies are always called beautiful, even when s/he resembles a rat, so I realise it will be difficult for me to get an honest opinion of my work. Having said that, with 15 stories there will hopefully be something there to like, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of people having to pronounce the literary equivalent of ‘ Hasn’t she got her father’s nose!’ in the absence of any other redeeming features.

Raw Material is available from Amazon or direct from Valley Press:

Mind the Gap!


More of a blogette this month as, once shingles were banished ( Go ye hence forthwith and never scab my scalp again!) it’s been catch-up time with limited opportunities for reading and writing. Also much preparation involved for a combined event this week: a show entitled, amazingly enough, Mind the Gap! and the launch of my book Raw Material. Exciting itch-free times.

Gaps are what all creative writing teachers, myself included, bang on about: we chant the mantra Show, don’t tell and encourage our students to use sub text and write endings that don’t offer full closure so that their readers have to do some of the work themselves. On the other hand, we warn, if readers fall into too many gaps and are unable to haul themselves out then you run the risk of really pissing them off when they simply don’t understand what’s going on. Getting the balance right is one mark of effective story telling and luckily I did get the chance to read two great examples of this during October.

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster is about identity. Tara has served a ten year prison sentence for committing a violent crime and has reinvented herself as Tara in order to start a new life in a northern town far from her roots. A fractured but compelling character, we never get to know her true self and others’ perceptions and opinions of her might well be tainted by their own prejudices. Although narrated in the third person, Forster skilfully weaves into the story a subtle multiple viewpoint. To piece together this particular jigsaw was a pleasure and reminded me why I’ve always been a fan of this writer.

Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time might first appear, not least from the design of its cover, to involve some kind of rural idyll. In fact, despite having some beautiful lyrical prose ( for example, a cuckoo’s call is described as settling lazily over the field like a pair of falling feathers ) this is a novel that is in many ways raw and visceral: ‘The Archers with bite’ as one reviewer put it. The Prologue describes a car crash on a country road: written in second person addressing a mysterious other, we will soon discover the owners of the cars involved but not who was in them at the time. We therefore start with the outcome known but with a satisfying number of gaps to fill.

Aside from the dental scenario, gaps are good.



The Pornography of Fear

My scalp itched as I read Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. In part this was because I’ve been suffering from shingles – a nasty infection which I thought only old ladies with tea cosy hats suffered from. But only in part. This is a thoroughly unpleasant book and I’m actually quite taken aback by the strong feelings it’s evoked in me. Behind Closed Doors is about a seemingly perfect married couple, Jack and Grace. In fact he is a psychopath who keeps her prisoner within their opulent and highly secure home. The reason he’s able to do this is because Grace’s sister, Millie, has Down’s Syndrome and is at boarding school: Grace being allowed to see her is dependant upon her, Grace’s, obedience to Jack. However, Jack’s monstrous behaviour towards Grace ( amongst other things he starves her and forces her to paint portraits of abused women ) is actually all geared towards him eventually getting hold of Millie and torturing her.

Although the subject matter is, to say the least, unsavoury it’s not that I object to. As far as I’m concerned, any material is fair game for fiction. Yes, it’s badly written ( there’s much repetition and a complete absence of subtlety. Predictably, Jack is a successful lawyer who deals with domestic abuse victims) which is annoying but, again, this happens in a lot of books and if people aren’t bothered by that ( as was the case with Fifty Shades ) then so be it.

Indeed, in many ways I felt this book should have made me laugh. The number of times Grace tries to escape and is foiled by the devilish Jack ( who really should have a forked tail and sport a pair of small red horns) is ludicrous. One possibility is that my sense of humour has flaked away along with half my forehead* but, even if it has, this book is not intended to be funny. Far from it. Instead, it’s obviously meant to tap into a woman’s worst nightmare ( I’m sure it’s probably the same for men but I can only speak on behalf of my own gender ) : that of being powerless to protect one’s vulnerable loved ones ( often children, though in this case a sibling) against an external threat. When that loved one is disabled and the threat is of physical and mental degradation it takes a far, far better writer than B.A. Paris to create from that scenario something redemptive for the reader.

* Uninteresting medical fact: shingles only affects half one’s head.