what stories do you like? and what are you doing thursday?

First! I'm very interested in short stories (really? you gasp) and as I'm going to be doing a spot of guest-editing for the National Short Story Week website in March, I've been thinking about what makes a good story and what are great examples of the form. Now, I haven't reached any big conclusion, so don't ask - but what I am doing is making notes of brilliant collections, individual stories, great writers of the same, interesting anthologies and so on. So it was kind of handy that I got an email the other day from a nice lady who's made up just such a list. So I know it's a pretty generic and open-ended question, but I wanted to open it up to the floor: what are your favourite short stories? Do you agree with the list above? What collections or anthologies would you rave about? What do you insist your students read? What do your teachers insist you read? What story would you photocopy and paste on lamp-posts and telephone poles all over the country? What's your favourite obscure find? Comments below, please!

Second! This is for Manchester peeps; are you free Thursday night? If so, come to the opening of this art exhibition: BlankExpression 2011. It's a group show to celebrate the opening of a new gallery, BlankSpace, which has taken over the premises of the old EasaHQ building, and my boyfriend (Andy Broadey) is one of the participating artists. Go look at his work - it's ace. There's even nudity in it. And he tells me there'll be free booze at the opening. 6pm until 9pm - if you're not there, I'll tut loudly in deep disapproval.

not very much news

Last night I went to the launch of two poetry books - Adrian Slatcher's Playing Solitaire For Money and JT Welsch's Orchids, both published by Salt. JT's a graduate of the creative writing PhD programme at the University of Manchester, so that gave it a nice edge for me - to see what the kids one level up are playing at. (Very fancy games, that's what; I was dead impressed.) Anyway, it was a great event - two very different poets and a fantastic setting in the newish International Anthony Burgess Foundation building up near Oxford Road Station. Once again I find myself thinking I ought to read more poetry.

Other than that, and other than neglecting the blog, what have I been doing? Reading quite a bit - Anna Karenina  took a fair bit of energy, and then I veered away from the TBR pile to have another go at Margaret Atwood's Cats Eye, which is one my most favourite novels. It's about eleven years since I first read it, while spending a few months in Chicago as a student, and I remember finding it incredibly powerful and distressing. It's less distressing now, but still as heart-stoppingly brilliant as ever. (You should actually probably cease reading this blog and go read Cat's Eye RIGHT NOW, even if you've read it before. Go! Seriously.) Anyway, the reason for the fiction-detour into Atwood-land was that I'm writing about teenage girls and friendships and families at the moment, so it was all in the name of research. Ahem. So that was the reading, and then there was the writing - the novel is slowly coming along, though it's far from finished, ho hum. I think I'm still on the optimism side of the fence concerning it, though the book itself is terribly miserable, of course. What else did you expect?

I've got little else of import to note. Mainly I'm occupied with gestational matters and clothes that don't fit. So if you want excitement, head over to Claire King's blog - she's just nabbed a deal with Bloomsbury. Now, that's real news. Otherwise, watch this space, because I'm sure I'm due a bike theft soon and I'll blog all about it. In fact, I've had an attempted theft already since the last actual successful thievery at Halloween; the bike frame itself was utterly bolloxed by some idiot who still failed to get the lock off and steal the thing, but this time, I think I'm covered by the Evil Insurance Racket Bastards. If not, you're in for some Patented Valerie Ranting very, very soon.

Jo Cannon's blog tour! Interview!

So do you guys remember me mentioning Jo Cannon?  (Hint: it was here and here.)  Anyway, Jo's somebody I've known in the online world for quite some time now; we're both part of the same online writing group, a powerhouse of a place that boasts graduates like Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Tom Vowler and Nik Perring - and plenty more waiting in the wings to dazzle the world with brilliant  novels and story collections and all sorts.  Our latest star, if you haven't guessed, is - drumroll! - Jo Cannon, whose first collection, Insignificant Gestures, was published in November 2010 by Pewter Rose Press.  Jo's been kind enough to answer a few questions from me, and I encourage the lot of you to read on and then go and buy the book - it's great.

Jo, welcome to Not Exactly True!  I've obviously been reading your work in a private forum for quite a while now, and it's fantastic to see your name emblazoned across the front of a book!  Insignificant Gestures is a really engaging and moving collection - funny and poignant, and quite brutal in places.  Congratulations!

Thanks, Val! Your opinion means a lot to me. I still can’t quite believe my name is on a book jacket.

You're not only a talented writer, but a GP too, which (in my probably limited experience!) is an unusual combination, and many of the stories in your collection involve the medical community, from the perspectives of patients as well as doctors.  Can you tell us how you came to writing in the first place?

I don’t think I’m unusual! There are many doctor writers, for example Anton Chekov and W. Somerset Maugham – though in a different league, of course! I came to writing via a reflective writing group for G.Ps. Although I can’t use patients as material, every day people tell me stories. We all rework the narrative of our lives to give it meaning. At a certain point, the reframing, exaggeration and omission become fiction; or like your blog title, Not Exactly True. Observing this, for years and years, is great training for a writer.

The short story form has many similarities with a G.P. consultation. First an individual describes the most pressing incident – the illness, trauma or drama. Then a back story unfolds, instalment by instalment, over years. Often I hear an event or character described by various people, from different perspectives. I’ve always read fiction – my parents were both librarians. Writing short stories seemed a natural way to express myself, both for fun and to clarify my thoughts.

You've based many of your stories in Africa, or on displaced African people in the UK.  Can you tell us a little about your own experiences living in Malawi and the effect it's had on you as a writer?

I worked in Malawi as District Health Officer in my late twenties. At such an early stage in my career, the responsibility was overwhelming and often traumatic. The suffering and poverty I witnessed changed my life. I wrote nothing but letters in those days, but when I started writing fiction twenty years later, certain memories of that time remained vivid, and I wanted to explore them. Living in a country so different and disadvantaged helped me understand why people move from one part of the world to another. Who wouldn’t? Many of my patients are immigrants or refugees. I recognise the enormity of the compromises they have made, and the hopes and disappointments of their journeys. This is reflected in some of my stories.

Plenty of the stories involve disintegrating civilisations or pretty scary views of the future.  Are you a fan of dystopian fiction - JG Ballard or Cormac McCarthy or anything like that, or do you just have a very bleak outlook?!

The chaotic backdrops of some of the stories are not intended to be dystopian, but surreal projections of my characters’ inner worlds. For example, Susan, the childless protagonist in ‘The Spaces Between,’ sees needy refugee children all around. David in ‘Needle-stick baby,’ abandoned by his wife, inhabits a broken, anarchic city, but this reflects his sense of disintegrating self. The windswept decaying estate in ‘Eye of the Storm’ symbolises the main character’s confusion at her bereavement and changing family life – and the fact she has a bad tooth!

Some of the stories were written in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. I’d recently experienced bereavement, and discovered the difficulty of untangling personal and external distressing events. Many people, when in low spirits, can’t watch the news because the suffering feels too close. Nasma in ‘Nasma’s Malady’ suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome and has lost the boundaries between herself and others.

My mother was a child evacuee in world war two. At the time of the Iraq war, my kids were young and I was troubled by the idea of any child alone and unprotected. This led to the recurring ‘evacuation’ theme in the book.

My outlook is not, on the whole, bleak! I believe people are mostly good and things come right in the end. Clearly this is as irrational a set of beliefs as any religion, but one that suffuses my stories.

Tell me some of your favourite books and/or writers.  Do you prefer novels or short stories, or what?  See if you can convince me (or my readers) to try something new...

I prefer novels when I want to lose myself in another world; short stories for their intensity; poetry for precision and beauty of language. Some fiction manages to do it all, for example ‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Mitchell: the book I wish I’d written. Another is ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. This year I loved ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout, a short story collection united by the flawed but credible character Olive, seen from every perspective.

You obviously write very powerful short fiction.  Have you anything else on the boil - anything longer, poetry, another collection, or anything else you'd like to reveal/pimp?

After my collection was accepted by Pewter Rose in April I went into an editing frenzy. In the last month or two, book promotion activities swallowed my writing time, which is limited, like most peoples, by work and family responsibilities. I have a stash of half done flashes I want to sort out. Then I plan to start on my next collection. As the first one took five years, there is no time to lose! But this time I will start with a theme, or maybe like ‘Olive Kitteridge’, a character, rather than wait for one to develop.

Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Val. I wish you lots of luck with your novel, which is shaping up in a most promising and exciting way! (ed: Jo's seen shameful drafts of parts of my novel. Let's not dwell on that, though, eh?  She was a brave woman to wade through it...)

So, Jo Cannon, ladies and gentlemen! Check out her website for links to further stops on the blog tour.  Jo, thanks again for dropping by - and the rest of you, why are you still reading?  Go buy the book, for the love of god.  Christ.  I give a simple order...

Reading List 2011

Another year, another list! Here's what I've been mostly reading (excluding isolated stories in journals, online, etc, and the occasional panicky delve into a baby name tome) in 2011, with the most recent conquests at the top. This year I'm going to split it into months, mainly because I've got a nerdish fascination with statistics. If a book is listed in a particular month, that means I finished it that month - I might have actually started it waaaay back when. Oh, and while in previous years, an asterisk meant it was an MA text, this year I've graduated (whoop!) so I'm using asterisks to indicates re-reads. Without any more ado:

December 2011
111. Hey Yeah Right Get A Life, Helen Simpson. Fantastic short short collection. Almost perfect.
110. A Fraction Of The Whole, Steve Toltz. Very long, but very entertaining.
109. Trout Fishing In America, Richard Brautigan. Surreal and funny.
108. Being Dead, Jim Crace. Interesting and very observational. Not sure I liked it, though.
107. Waiting for Sunrise, William Boyd. Disappointing. Bad characterisation. Daft plot.
106. Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link. Brilliant short story collection. Creepy, magical, sad, funny. Loved it.
105. Whoops!, John Lanchester. Non-fiction account of the credit crunch and the banking system. Excellent and terrifying.
104. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides. Trite, overlong, over-hyped.

November 2011
103. Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Vol. 4. I've been dipping in and out of this for months. Lovely stuff.
102. Friction, Joe Stretch. Brett Easton Ellis hits Manchester in this one. Horrible and funny.
101. The Onion Stone, Mandy Pannett. Novella speculating on Shakespeare's true identity.
100. The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall. Dystopia; an army of women in the Lake District; excellent!
99. Falling Sideways, Thomas E Kennedy. Large cast, interlocking lives, Copenhagen. Great.
98. The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes. Enormously underwhelming. Hardly Booker-winning quality, but what do I know?
97. Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels. I keep reading Holocaust stuff lately. Sad. Didn't like it as much as people seemed to think I would.
96. The Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall. Short stories. Great stuff.
95. How To Paint A Dead Man, Sarah Hall. Four intertwined narrative. Really vivid. Melancholy.
94. Point Omega, Don DeLillo. I like DeLillo, but I wasn't too keen on this. But I'm also not a huge Douglas Gordon fan, so go figure.
93. Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Elfriede Jelinek. Sharp, funny, shocking.

October 2011
92. Jennifer Government, Max Barry. Comedy/thriller/satire on consumerism. Brilliant!
91. 1Q84 Book 3, Haruki Murakami. Again, too drawn out, but better than Bk1. Overall - meh.
90. 1Q84 Books 1 + 2, Haruki Murakami. Not massively keen. Waaay too long. But picked up in Bk2.
89. All these Little Worlds: Fiction Desk Anthology Vol 2, ed. Rob Redman. Entertaining stories.
88. Never Never, David Gaffney. Light relief after Levi. First novel from flash-fiction maestro Gaffney.
87. If This Is A Man / The Truce, Primo Levi. Sobering, but brilliant.
86. Everything Beautiful Began After, Simon Van Booy. Hated this. A pseudo-insightful bore of a novel.
85. Ragnarok, AS Byatt. Retelling of Norse mythology. Excellent.

September 2011
84. Good Offices, Evelio Rosero. Excellent little novel by Columbian writer. Black humour.
83. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li. Short stories set in modern China. Interesting.
82. Mrs Darcy Versus The Aliens, Jonathan Pinnock. Funny Austen spoof.
81. BBC National Short Story Award Anthology 2011. Five great stories - nice and simple!
80. Any Human Heart, William Boyd. Really enjoyed it. Old fashioned, kinda epic.
79. The Blue Book, AL Kennedy. Disappointing.
78. The World's Wife, Carol Ann Duffy. A rare foray into poetry for me (read it to the baby!) Great stuff.
77. Coraline, Neil Gaiman. Brilliant, scary, smart children's horror. Better than the film.
76. Father! Father! Burning Bright, Alan Bennett. A short story masquerading as a book. Meh.
75. Looking For The Possible Dance, AL Kennedy. @writerer's first novel. Liked it very much.

August 2011
74. Now That You're Back, AL Kennedy. Short stories, a couple of brilliant ones in there.
73. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace. Clearly unfinished, flawed, but vast and interesting, still.
72. Ballistics, Alex Keegan. Short story collection. Polished and all, but left me cold.
71. The Book Of Other People, ed. Zadie Smith. Excellent short story anthology.
70. Pricksongs + Descants, Robert Coover. Horrible, hilarious, brilliant short stories.
69. True Murder, Yaba Badoe. Eleventear-old girls get caught up in murder and divorce.
68. The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje. Interesting novel about a shipboard murder.
67. Room, Emma Donoghue. Moving, but less convincing as it went along.
66. Villa Pacifica, Kapka Kassapova. Uninspiring creepy story set in South America.
65. Comes The Night, Hollis Hampton-Jones. Flawed story of a teenage girl's disintegration.
64. The Other Hand, Chris Cleave. Brutal story about a Nigerian refugee. Fantastic book.
63. Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman. Booker longlistee; child narrator; immigrants; a good read.
62. A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Funny, readable, interesting set of linked stories.
61. Then, Julie Myerson. Pretty hardcore emotional dystopia, to coin a genre.

July 2011
60. Is This What You Want? Asham Award Anthology, 2007. Nice diverse collection, all by women.
59. The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers. Thought-provoking near-future dystopian stuff.
58. The Outcast, Sadie Jones. Moving, very sad, but a little predictable.
57. The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, Bruce Robinson. Funny coming-of-age story.
56. On Canaan's Side, Sebastian Barry. Another lyrical, but very sad, tome.
55. Spoiled, Heather Cocks, Jessica Morgan. YA light relief from the Fug Girls! (Cheers, Orla!)
54. The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry. Very depressing, beautifully written. Not sure if I like it or not.
53. The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst. This really grew on me. Interesting look at storytelling.
52. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett. Excellent novel set on the Brazilian Amazon.
51. East Of Eden, John Steinbeck. Amazing. Stunning. No wonder he got the Nobel.

June 2011
50. The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin. Fascinating look at Aboriginal culture in Australia.
49. Hungry, The Stars and Everything, Emma Jane Unsworth. A rollicking love-story; immensely readable.
48. Various Authors: Fiction Desk Anthology, Vol 1. Mixed bag of short stories.
47. The Thing on The Shore, Tom Fletcher. Creepy horror story set in a Cumbrian callcentre.
46. The Nimrod Flip-Out, Etgar Keret. Fantastic short stories. Hilarious and weird and sad.
45. The Vintage And The Gleaning, Jeremy Chambers. Impressive Australian debut. Very bleak!
44. The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer. Epic, brilliant novel about Hungarian Jews in WWII.

May 2011
43. Realms of Gold, Margaret Drabble. Good solid storytelling, and very funny.
42. Cold Light, Jenn Ashworth. Dark tale about teen friendship, bioluminescence and flashers.
41. Baltasar and Blimunda, Jose Saramago. Normally a fan, but couldn't get into this at all.
40. The Subject Steve, Sam Lipsyte. Funny and odd, but liked it less as I went along.
39. The Rain Before It Falls, Jonathan Coe. Boring, boring, boring.
38. Perfume, Patrick Suskind. Excellent; very funny and rather horrible.

April 2011
37. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters. Massively creepy ghost story. Excellent read.
36. Badlands, Cynthia Reeves. Very sad, beautiful account of a marriage and a woman's death from cancer.
35. Poppy Shakespeare, Clare Allan. Sub-par Cuckoo's Nest. Didn't like it.
34. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, Lauren Liebenberg. Novel set in the last days of Rhodesia. Some beautiful imagery but the plot wasn't up to much.
33. Piggy Monk Square, Grace Jolliffe. Didn't like this at all, prose too simplistic, plot lacked tension.
32. The Man Who Walks, Alan Warner. Surreal, beautiful language - as always.
31. Strangers, Taichi Yamada. Creepy Japanese ghost story.
30. Born Free, Laura Hird. Dysfunctional family life in Edinburgh. Graphic and gritty. Love it.
29. Legend of a Suicide, David Vann. Really, really beautiful.
28. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer. Great. And incredibly sad.
27. The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis. I've rarely been so bored. Repetitive, misogynistic crap.
26. Diamond Star Halo, Tiffany Murray. Rock'n'roll and incest in Wales.

March 2011
25. The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna. Nice exploration of childbirth, love and creativity.
24. How I Lost The War, Filippo Bologna. Disappointing Italian novel.
23. City of Bohane, Kevin Barry. Surreal, poetic and savage novel.
22. The Coincidence Engine, Sam Leith. Pynchon-esque maths conspiracy thriller thingy. Meh.
21. The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan. Excellent supernatural thriller.
20. Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa. Resonant Japanese novella about an S/M relationship.
19. Spurious, Lars Iyer. Funny, odd novel about Kafka, mould and man-bags.
18. Great Days, Donald Barthelme. Strange little stories, just like you'd expect.
17. Monsters Of Men, Patrick Ness. Final installment of the Chaos Walking trilogy (see below).

February 2011
16. The Ask and The Answer, Patrick Ness. Sequel to below. Still excellent.
15. *The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness. Excellent YA stuff, massively readable and scary.
14. Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, SG Browne. Really funny zombie rom-com.
13. Burley Cross Postbox Theft, Nicola Barker. Epistolary novel. Didn't like this at all.
12. The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, ed. Sarah Eyre, Ra Page. Some excellently creepy stories in here.
11. Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine. Brilliant debunking of the pseudoscience supporting the gender inequality status-quo. Everybody should read this.
10. Sunnyside, Glen David Gold. I really enjoyed most of this and I'm not even a Chaplin fan. Poignant.

January 2011
9. 6S, Vol 2. Flash fiction anthology. I'm in this and I only finished reading it now, after two years. Shame.
8. Some Rain Must Fall, Michel Faber. Nice, diverse collection of short stories.
7. Darkmans, Nicola Barker. Confused the hell out of me and I thought it was over-long, a la Zadie Smith.
6. A Widow's Story: A Memoir, Joyce Carol Oates. Veeery long.
5. Voice of America, EC Osondu. Short stories about Nigeria and Nigerian emigrants. Meh.
4.* Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood. Re-read. One of my all-time favourites, it blows me away every time.
3. We Had It So Good, Linda Grant. Excellent novel. Go get it.
2. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.  Can't say I loved it, but parts of it were downright hilarious (and sad).
1. Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Novelists. Interesting anthology; see if you agree with the choices.