28 October 2010

Hanging with the literati

Wednesday evening, I eagerly take up my personal invitation to the relaunch, at Waterstone's Deansgate, of Elizabeth Baines' first novel, The Birth Machine. I've mentioned the Zedster (as Benjamin Judge deferentially nicknamed her during his Literary World Cup Final, which she won) on a few occasions over the last 12 months as she's pretty prolific on the reading scene round our way (Didsbury Arts Festival; Chorlton Arts Festival; Oxfam Bookfest Didsbury; Chorlton Book Festival). I've also just read her most recent novel, Too Many Magpies, so I was keen to hear extracts from this rerelease. (I'll admit it: I also wanted to try before I buy; the cover, although amazingly creative and rather different, is also quite shocking and a little offputting.)

I'm not disappointed. Elizabeth is incredibly warm and welcoming to everyone in the audience, many of whom she knows personally; many of whom form part of the Manchester literati. She begins by explaining the reasons behind the relaunch on 1 October - partly because the book, which was on a number of university reading lists at one point, went out of print; partly to reinstate its original, intended structure (feminist publishers The Women's Press moved chapter four to the start and changed its tense from past to present for "political" reasons). This time last year, Elizabeth (aka Helen; glad to see other people have schizophrenic names) was at the Northern Salt event held at the Whitworth as part of Manchester Literature Festival, when Jen from Salt (her new publisher) broached the subject of reissuing The Birth Machine. And to to cut a long story short - here we are!

Elizabeth presents three extracts, in the original storytelling order that builds up to the disorientating, slightly creepy fourth chapter. Similar to Magpies, TBM fuses reality with fairytale, and as Mrs Zelda Harris undergoes an induced labour and becomes confused, so her memories and myths become fused. The descriptive narrative and natural conversation I've come to anticipate with Elizabeth's work is all present and correct, and descriptions and images produce a couple of involuntary squeaks of laughter. (See, it's not all "literary misery"; a phrase coined the other day at MLF event Is There A Novelist In The House?.) You can read more from EB about the back story to the launch here and more about the the novel itself here. I'm really intrigued by the story, but we'll have to wait for payday before any more new books pass my way. Sigh.

EXTRA EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT! Check out EB's own blog for more from the event!

25 October 2010

Dramatic pause

A week ago, I saw The Lady From The Sea at the Royal Exchange. I'm always harping on about it, I know, but I love the Royal Exchange. For the first time in a long time, I got to sit in the posh seats, because I managed to blag myself onto the press guest list by saying I would write about the play here on W&F. It's taken me a while (well, a week), so big sorries for the delay, nice Rex people; I've been a bit caught up with Manchester Literature Festival. I did big it up on that Twitter, however, so all is not lost. Plus it's on until 6 November, so if you read this now, you still have time to swing by. And I'd definitely recommend it. As well as the usual high standard of costumes, props and sets I've become accustomed to at the Royal Exchange, I really enjoyed the piece.

The play, from 1888 (the painting of the same name, above, is by Edvard Munch from 1896), is by the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, and even though I'd never heard of it (I read a ton of his stuff as part of a subsidiary drama course at university: Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, Ghosts...), it has his trademark Naturalism, Realism and Modernism in spades. Particularly nature, and especially the sea and water, with the noise of waves in the background at points and a dappled image projected onto the floor to represent a pond. "Sea people are a law unto themselves. It's like they belong to the sea", is one line about Ellida (Neve McIntosh), the nutty woman at the centre of the story who bathes every day in the fjord (this water is described as "brackish"; such an evocative adjective). But all the characters are sea people, not just the lighthouse keeper's daughter Ellida: some have been brought to the town via the coastal steamers (interestingly, the ships are referred to in the masculine, not like our own convention of personifying boats as female); some will leave the town via the same route. As the blurb on the website itself says: "the undercurrents threaten to drag a whole family beneath the surface". Clever.

Chatting to a fellow reviewer a day later, it became clear he wasn't keen on the work because he couldn't empathise with any of the characters, but I think that's part of the point. Each and every person (even the fleeting German tourists) is dislikeable for one reason or another, but that makes the plot more complex than it appears at face value and drives the narrative and drama forward. I'm not sure if it's because of this that I was quite uncomfortable watching Ellida's husband Dr Wangel or whether it's because I remember seeing the actor Reece Dinsdale in quite a nasty episode of Silent Witness, but his performance was perhaps the only bit I had trouble with. And even that isn't worth mentioning, so maybe I'll just take it back.

21 October 2010

Readings of writings

Last night I appeared at the Manchester Literature Festival. And not just by turning up at a poetry recital or book launch. Nope. I actually climbed up on a stage in front of a ton of people and spoke into a microphone. Thankfully it was at about the right height, otherwise I'd've been jiggered. My first words were: "Hello." Pause. "I'm scared." Nice intro, wouldn't you agree?

I'd been asked to read one of my short stories published on 330 Words, which was up for two gongs in the Manchester Blog Awards, the event in question. I presented An Accident Waiting To Happen, my first submission to the site. It went a whole lot better than I expected; I even heard tittering, and at the right bits. Phew. It leads me to conclude that consuming three pints of strong lager before any public speaking can only be a Very Good Idea.

330 Words went on to snatch the Best New Blog, following in some damn fine footsteps, if I do say so myself. Congratulations to Tom Mason, and to all the other winners and shortlisted blogging champs. You can read the full list, with all the links and that on the MBA website. One day I may even get round to updating the blogroll here to reflect the newcomers.

Back-slapping, too, to the organisers: the upstairs room at The Deaf Institute turned out to be a great venue with its raked lecture hall-style seating and fancy flock wallpaper, while hearing Chris Killen (aye, he of The Bird Room) read was also a fantastic opportunity. (I only recently twigged why the Blog Awards form part of Manchester Literature Festival, hence all the readings: all the writers who blog in our fair city. I know: I can be a bit tick sometimes.)

Valerie O'Riordan wrote about the glittering shindig on Not Exactly True. Ben of Who The Fudge Is Benjamin Judge? too. Meanwhile, Dave Hartley was the official reviewer of the event for the Manchester Literature Festival Blog although at the time of going to press, it hadn't been published. I'm also trying to get hold of some pictures, so it may well be worth checking back to see if I'm successful. (And to see evidence of me wearing a skirt, which happens about five times a year.)

ADDENDUM 22 October 2010: Jon Atkin of Manchester Literature Festival has kindly sent over some snaps from the 330 Words readings. I have now pasted them into this post following the same order in which we appeared: Dave Hartley, my good self, Benjamin Judge and Tom Mason. I have also spotted that Fat Roland has written about the bash on his star-spangled Blog Of The Year, also referring to a previous post using the search function on 330 Words to bring up two references to "bananas". They are in stories by me and L'il Dave, and we (well, it was me, actually) happened to mention this on the very soiree. Well I never.

POSTSCRIPT 25 October 2010: Another wee mention, this time on the Manchester Blog Awards website. Thanks folks!

AND ALSO THIS 11 November 2010: Dave Hartley's write-up on the Manchester Literature Festival Blog, which has somehow alluded me until this very day.

19 October 2010

Literary movements

Manchester Literature Festival is in full swing, and this week sees my diary well and truly stuffed to bursting largely thanks to the fifth annual foray into all things wordy. Today and tomorrow see me well versed, with two quite different poetry events, which I'll be writing about for the official MLF blog. Keep checking back for new posts (I'll nudge you via Twitter); I understand the nice lady in charge of loading them into the ether is a bit snowed under!

At the weekend, I'll also be reviewing "Is There A Novelist In The House?" (shortlisted entrants include Susie Stubbs of Creative Tourist and Benjamin Judge, the other half of my other blog Ask Ben & Clare) and "Rainy City Stories: Writing About Place", a chitchat between author Clare Dudman, my list chum Nicholas Royle and 2008 Manchester Blog Awards Best Writing On A Blog winner Jenn Ashworth. I'll also, of course, be gracing this year's MBAs with my presence, where the wonderful 330 Words, which kindly put a couple of my stories out into the world, is pitted against Who The Fudge Is Benjamin Judge?. Oh blimey. I'm so torn, I feel like Natalie Imbruglia.

The events I've squeezed into so far (packed houses all round, so me not putting my name down was something of a silly oversight; thank goodness I have friends in high places) have incorporated as much fascinating production detail as they have highfalutin literary knick-knacks ("highfalutin" is totally the wrong word there. These are far from pompous or pretentious shindigs. It is however a good word, and one which I had to look up in the dictionary).

The first get-together was the Bugged launch, held in a room in the new but fleeting City Library; all fancy wallpaper and wood-panelling. This was the creative writing project mentioned in one of our popular regular features A Moment Of Fiction back in, ooh June, and encouraged contributions from scribes of all ilks. Co-founder Jo Bell filled us in on all the background and introduced each of the 14 poets, short storyists and "life writers" who gave snippets or full pieces of flash fiction, including the aforementioned Jenn (pictured above clutching McTiny and being stared at by the lovely little MLF dog adorning all 2010's promotional bumph) and also Valerie O'Riordan, who is mentioned later. Jo also explained the publishing process involved in getting the resulting compendium printed and distributed - the ever-improving "on demand" system worked a treat, she enthused. All the help you'll need to get your mitts on the collection can be found on the official site for "nosy buggers" (to coin a phrase).

To yesterday, now, and a special literary zine showcase, featuring Corridor8 (also, similarly, largely following the published-on-demand model) and Bewilderbliss, in the all-new Cornerhouse Annex (a much-needed space, if I might tangentally divert). Bewilderbliss has been described on this hallowed scrolly-uppy-downy site somewhere before, and issue four of the University of Manchester's Centre For New Writing brainchild features pieces by W&F cohorts Benjamin Judge (see above), Dave Hartley and Valerie O'Riordan (who also happens to be the fiction editor for the publication). Now, until the Annex gig, I'd never actually seen a copy nor witnessed the enthusiasm, cake-baking skills and humour-filled, almost humbleness (is that even a word?) of current editors Matt and Jon, but I was already a fan. You can buy it in the Cornerhouse shop; I suggest you do.

(As an aside, I wonder if there are quite enough links in this post. More to the point, I wonder if any of them actually work.)

15 October 2010

Ask Ben & Clare. No, really

Hullo. Remember me telling you about the, like, way awesome new collaboration I'm involved in, called Ask Ben & Clare? Yes, you do; stop messing. I've been dropping enough giant, neon-signed hints. Here's our Graham with a quick reminder.

My inimitable co-collaborateur and most deserving Manchester Blog Awards 2010 shortlistee (in not one but two categories - vote for him here before 5pm on Tuesday!) Ben says, in his very own pages: "Those of you who are still all trousers and a large champagne cocktail on a Friday night will have already seen that there is a cool new blog on the undeniably hip medium of blogs. In fact I’ll go further, I’d argue that if Ask Ben & Clare was any closer to the cultural zeitgeist it would be opening up its own bar in Chorlton while celebrating the fact that its new single [...] has gone straight to number one by having a good laugh about how cupcakes are so late last year."

Quite so. And the enterprise is now well and truly open for business, as you'll see if you happen to shimmy on over, and we're looking for new customers (the photograph is, uh, ironic). Yes, we want you to get involved, and, we're telling you, you want to get involved, you really do.

So send us a question, please. Do it now, while you're in a mid-Friday afternoon lull and staring blankly at your screen pretending (quite well, it has to be said) to look useful and an asset to your secretly-but-everyone-knows-it-planning-on-downsizing company. Email it to askbenandclare@gmail.com and we will endeavour to answer it both succinctly and wittily (and hopefully usefully). You can choose to remain anonymous by utilising a nom de plume if you so wish, either to keep your identity a secret from your adoring public or to protect the innocent. We don't mind. We don't ask questions; you do.

04 October 2010

Reading lists

I was trying to come up with something new and interesting to write about, which has been proving difficult (my brain has, for the past fortnight or so, been fuddled from strong winds and some pretty reckless all-day drinking), so I distracted myself by swinging by some other of my favourite blogs to see what's going down with them.

Over on my estimed Ask Ben & Clare colleague's own personal weblog, a nattily entitled post The Book Spreader caught my attention, encouraging bloggy folk to list their favourite tomes so other people might share the pleasure of reading them. You can read Ben's suggestions in their original context here, and follow his link to the Nik Perring post which sparked it off.

Anyway, I thought a reading list was appropriate in the run-up to the fast approaching fifth annual Manchester Literature Festival (14-25 October), so I've put together a five-strong selection of modern works I've recently enjoyed. Feel free to pass it on. (It's kind of like a chain letter, but without any guilt, shock tactics, or weird religious undercurrents.) So, in no particular order and without further ado, ta-da...

Two books ago, I read Catherine O'Flynn's debut What Was Lost. I'd been waiting to get to it for a while, and especially since hearing Catherine read at last year's Manchester Literature Festival, but my copy was elsewhere. Anyway, we've been reunited and I can report back that it was worth the wait: an easy read with some interesting twists, and a fancy line in intertwined storytelling. Certain sections reminded me of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time (just because lots of people have read it doesn't necessarily make it bad) and the style wasn't too far removed from my fave, Douglas Coupland.

A bit before that, I read my second Nicola Barker offering. This one, Five Miles From Outer Hope, had been recommended to me by the previously cited Ben (who had her up against the wonderful Elizabeth Baines in his Literary World Cup over the summer), and I can confirm its credentials. I'd previously read her "novella", Small Holdings, which I perhaps prefer, although they are both quite different to each other, despite sharing a certain similar dark humour and dramatic build-up.

Just before Central Library shut down, I managed to pop into the lending library and borrow Gwendoline Riley's most recent (but not that recent being published in 2007) novel, Joshua Spassky. I have to admit I was a little disappointed. It's about a writer enduring some rather cliched writer problems not to mention some equally cliched hardships of the heart. Her previous novels Cold Water (2002) and Sick Notes (2005), however, are definitely worth getting your hands on, with familiar Mancunian sights and nights detailed in abundance.

Another Manchester writer I checked out not so long ago was Chris Killen, who is going to be doing a reading at the upcoming Manchester Blog Awards on 20 October. His first work, The Bird Room, is really well written with some fantastic utilisation of swearwords for effect. Both big and clever. I understand he's in the process of writing a second, so I'll be keeping an eye out for that.

My final pick, Erlend Loe's Naive. Super isn't Manchester related in any way except I bought my copy in a Chorlton charity shop purely out of intrigue in the back cover blurb. It turned out to be a fine purchase and it's a shame that none of Loe's other books seem to have been translated into English from Norwegian. If you've read Room Temperature or The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (not to be confused with the aforementioned Nicola Barker), you too will be pleased with how fascinating the minutiae of mundane everyday life can be made to appear. Lovely obsession with Duplo, too.

So there you go. A few wee ideas. As both Nik and Ben have recommended Like Bees To Honey by Caroline Smailes and Something Beginning With by Sarah Salway, I will put these on my own reading list, along with Armistead Maupin's new Tales Of The City book, Mary Ann In Autumn (above), out across the pond next month.