Sunday, 29 January 2012

Books of the Week - Jon McGregor and Lucy Wood

Short stories are one of the most undervalued literary formats, but many very fine writers have achieved their initial success in this format before going on to full length novels, while others continue to produce very high quality short stories throughout their literary career (Haruki Murakami, for instance). A good short story can achieve considerable impact in a few pages, along with providing an easily accessible introduction to an author’s work. When there is not much reading time available, or for readers with a short attention span, short stories also have a lot to offer.

This week Costa announced that they are adding a short story prize to their list for next year, although it will be for a single short story rather than a volume. This should help to increase interest in the area which is a good thing, so this week I want to highlight two strong volumes of short stories, recently released and attracting good reviews.

Jon McGregor is one of my favourite writers with a well-established track record in this genre – as he says on his website “Britain’s second best short story writer”. The stories inThis Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You are set in the Lincolnshire Fens and are often about middle aged men having difficulty coming to terms with life. They are an unsettling bunch, some of which will live long in the memory, from a writer who clearly loves the genre and has considerable mastery of it. Jon McGregor has an excellent website, well worth investigating carefully, where further details of this and his other books can be found.

"A man builds a tree house by a river, in anticipation of the coming flood. A sugar-beet crashes through a young woman's windscreen. A boy sets fire to a barn. A pair of itinerant labourers sit by a lake, talking about shovels and sex, while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war. These aren't the sort of things you imagine happening to someone like you. But sometimes they do. Set in the flat and threatened fenland landscape, where the sky is dominant and the sea lurks just beyond the horizon, these delicate, dangerous, and sometimes deeply funny stories tell of things buried and unearthed, of familiar places made strange, and of lives where much is hidden, much is at risk, and tender moments are hard-won."

Diving Belles is a first book of short stories by Lucy Wood set in Cornwall and steeped in Cornish Folklore. Several reviewers have likened her writing to some of the work of Angela Carter, whose short stories I greatly admire. I haven’t had a chance to read Diving Belles as yet, but based on the reviews I am looking forward to it.

" Along Cornwall's ancient coast, the flotsam and jetsam of the past becomes caught in the cross-currents of the present and, from time to time, a certain kind of magic can float to the surface...Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true - provided you know how to wish properly first. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A teenager's growing pains are sometimes even bigger than him. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker's lamps, standing stones and baying hounds, and relationships wax and wane in the glow of a moonlit sea. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction."

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