Tuesday 28 February 2012

National Flash Fiction Day

The results are in! I was chuffed to be one of the judges for the excellent micro-fiction contest run by National Flash Fiction Day, which has just announced winners and commended entries. Congratulations to all. I hope you know what an amazing thing you did, subbing to a 100-word contest (tough, tough word count), and it was both an honour and a real buzz to read your stories. The winner was The Worst Head in the World by Angela Readman, an amazing flash with imagery I won't forget in a hurry. Judging was a fascinating process, reading nearly 300 short short stories in quick succession and then re-reading, and re-reading, until I could be sure of my choices for the top stories and those commended. I hope I get the chance to be a judge again, as it was a genuinely humbling and enthralling business.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Monster Books for Girls

A new review of this anthology is up at Future Fire. It raises interesting points about what makes a monster, and argues its case well. I'm grateful to be one of the authors the reviewer likes. The editor, Terry Grimwood, heroically shouldered a lot of the criticism, with excellent advice for readers feeling stung by the review: "For anyone who has not experienced this type of review before, gird your loins, polish up your self-belief, grit your teeth and in the words of that great old Victorian Baptist Preacher, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, "Suck in the honey and spit out the bees."

Another piece I enjoyed was the mysterious and evocative ‘The Spirit Level’, by Sarah Hilary. This was a flash piece that was packed with strong, precise imagery. The narrator deals with a complex desire and repulsion for her monster. It is compelling and lyrical, although somewhat confusing.
You can read The Spirit Level online, here.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Voices, and Flash

Absolutely lovely review of the Voices anthology by Alexandra O'Toole, here, in which she's kind enough to say, 'This diverse collection of works is punctuated and tied together by two stories written by established published authors, Sarah Hilary and A.J. Ashworth. Though unique and unrelated, the plots of Hilary’s, emotive elegy, ‘After A Long Illness, Quietly At Home’ and Ashworth’s poignant tale, ‘Eggshells’, share a similar focus: a quiet concentration on the tiny, seemingly insignificant and often intangible details that have made up a life.'

You can find a recording of me reading 'After a Long Illness' over at this site, run by the Voices editor, Sarah Jane Dobbs. And you can buy the anthology here.

In other news, I'm delighted to be the SW Coordinator for National Flash Fiction Day 2012, being held on May 16. I've enjoyed judging the contest run by Calum Kerr, reading over 250 stories of 100 words or less. A treat to see so many people inspired to write flash fiction! If you missed the chance to enter that contest, why not try your hand at the Lancashire Writing Hub's competition, which is free to enter and open until April 20. Stories must be exactly 165 words, but there's no other restriction on style or content. Full details can be found here.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Obsession and Possession

I started reading this yesterday and finished it just half an hour ago, in a cold bath (it was hot when I climbed in, but I couldn't stop reading until I'd reached the end). This slim novel is one of the first in a new series published by Hammer (of Hammer Films fame). The Hammer branding is extremely subtle; there's nothing here to recall the glory days of schlock horror. Instead, there is Dunmore's restrained prose, perfectly-pitched and incredibly powerful.

It's the winter of 1952 (the year of Dunmore's birth), and Isabel Carey is newly-arrived in Yorkshire's East Riding, with her husband Philip, a GP. Shivering one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the cupboard. When she sleeps under the coat for warmth, she dreams of a life that's not her own. Soon, while her husband is out, a knock at her window brings Alec, a young RAF pilot, searching for the woman he loves.

Reviews of The Greatcoat in the popular press have struggled to describe it as 'terrifying' or 'creepily chilling'. As if the Hammer name demands a horror tag. In fact, The Greatcoat is suffused with loneliness and longing, which is a very fine tradition belonging to the best ghost stories. This isn't to say that it doesn't have chilling moments - it does. In particular when Isabel tries to free herself from the insidious power of the greatcoat. But it's more - and better - than that.

The broken seam in time that allows Alec to come to Isabel's world, and lets her into his, is described with heart-breaking delicacy. Both are lost, yearning to find their way home. The wider world, recovering from war, is filled with lost souls; the story is layered with this sense of displacement and discovery. There is clear menace in Dunmore's themes of obsession and possession, but the overriding sense is of tragedy, in a grand classic tradition. Comparisons have been drawn with The Turn of the Screw, but I'd say Dunmore's economy of style is better suited to the genre than Henry James' verbosity.

As I finished the book, I hugged it, knowing I'd found a new contender for my Favourite Book of all time. Dunmore's writing is never less than impressive. Her novels, Talking to the Dead, and Your Blue-Eyed Boy, are two of the best crime novels I've ever read (despite never being labelled as such by her publishers). The Greatcoat is a potent reminder of her power to command language, character and plot. I loved every page.

Read my interview with Helen Dunmore in Fringe magazine.