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Short Stories Aloud

Monthly night where short stories are read aloud by actors, followed by a Q&A with the authors. Organised by Sarah Franklin, and featuring cake, wine and professional stories in a friendly setting. (NB yes, the authors really are present!)

Blackwells Bookshop, 48-51 Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BQ, monthly - third Tuesday of the month

January 15, 2020
"…She hoped to be back before long…”

Julie Mayhew and Elleke Boehmer, 14th January 2020

It was a dark and stormy night. No, genuinely, it was - I mean, darkness is pretty much guaranteed in mid-January at 7pm, but to add into the mix we had Storm Brendan gifting us with sideways rain and stupid drivers (that may not have been the weather’s fault!) as we headed to the warm and welcoming bosom of Blackwell’s in Oxford... Having attended this monthly evening before, I walked into the bookshop with an air of confidence, but not as boldly as our host for the evening (Sarah Franklin) apparently did, decreeing “I am the event!” in a very uncharacteristic way.

The event itself is a wonderful escape from the world for a couple of hours, into the brains of a pair of authors via the voices of talented actors. Tonight’s first offering came from author and Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, Elleke Boehmer, with a short story from her latest collection To the Volcano and other stories. “Synthetic Orange” was read beautifully by the talented Amy Enticknap (of the brilliant Human Story Theatre company) and gives a glimpse into some dark events from LeeAnn’s past; thoughts evoked by the fastening of an orange bracelet: “The clip clinked shut and in the same instant the memories crashed over me like a breaking wave”. The imagery used by Boehmer is powerful and Amy’s telling certainly heightened the drama. Even the author later admitted she was on the edge of her seat as she listened to the ebb and flow of the story drift neatly between the past and the present.

After a short break (cake, drinks and books available for a small fee) we were soon back and ready for our next performance. And what a performance. Our actor this time was the arresting Stavroula Kounadea, reading Julie Mayhew’s creepy tale “Kayleigh”; a mesmerising psychological thriller about a girl’s obsession with her partner’s ex-girlfriend. Mayhew did say she had initially chosen a humorous story for this evening’s consumption, but realised that since the book she was promoting (Impossible Causes) is “a thriller about four teenage girls accused of witchcraft on a remote British isle”, perhaps it would be more business-savvy to go with something less hilarious, more thriller-like. It worked – I had to buy the book after listening to the tale of “Kayleigh” unfold.Having also read the brilliant alt-reality novel The Big Lie (set in a modern Nazi Britain, having lost to Hitler) I genuinely can’t wait to get my teeth into Mayhew’s first adult novel.

After shaking ourselves free from the spell woven by “Kayleigh”, there was another brief opportunity to mingle and eat cake (and of course, buy books) before the most important task of the evening – the Q&A. Audience members are invited to ask the authors questions. About anything. In return, we are treated to witty responses and one or two lucky guests could win a new book for their question-writing efforts.

Such a lovely way to spend an evening, with lots of laughs (Sarah Franklin does not know how funny she is) and some interesting discussion, as well as the showcase of writing and acting talent. All for the modest price of £5.

September 19, 2018
I can't recommend this monthly event enough!

September 18th 2018 - Sharon Bolton and Daisy Johnson

Yes! It’s back. After the endless summer break, it’s time to return once again to the wonderful Blackwell’s Bookshop for the ever so slightly more wonderful Short Stories Aloud. Tonight’s event was populated by audience members old and new. And a large percentage of dogs. All were welcomed once again by the lovely, warm and quietly hilarious Sarah Franklin, whose muttered asides (seemingly to herself) are as endearing as they are funny.

The title of the event pretty much sums up what goes on in the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s from 7pm until 9pm on the (usually) third Tuesday of the month, but to elaborate a little further: short stories from visiting authors are read to the audience by actors. There are a couple of breaks involving wine (other drinks also available, I believe) and, importantly, cake. And the whole shebang is wrapped up with a Q&A with said authors answering questions of all shapes and sizes that have been lovingly written by ‘the best audience in Oxford’.

Our authors for this evening were crime writer Sharon Bolton and Booker-Prize-long-listed Daisy Johnson, who sat amongst the audience to listen to their stories being brought to life.No pressure then - on the author or the reader! A standard question Franklin asks to all visiting authors at the beginning of the Q&A session is ‘How was it, hearing your story being read aloud?’.The answer is usually along the same lines: awful but also rather pleasing. Tonight was no different; both Bolton and Johnson found themselves silently editing their writing but still managed to enjoy hearing it being beautifully delivered to a rapt audience.

Johnson’s story was first, a genesis which fits quite neatly with the biblical subject matter, Eve. Read with such contained drama and passion by Roseanna Mills, I was blown away by this epic retelling of the story of Creation, with Eve as our narrator. The imagery and language of the tale are as verdant and alive as the Garden it describes and having it read aloud so entrancingly was a real treat for the senses.

After a brief refreshment break came our second story, All Souls Eve, penned by Bolton and linked to her latest novel The Craftsman. This time read by the versatile Richard Ward, the tone was quite different to that of the “mountain-old” Eve; a creepy but quite romantic tale with a chilling twist.

All too soon the ‘aloud’ part was over and it was up to the audience members to come up with some interesting and diverse questions for our authors. In the few times I have been to Short Stories Aloud the audience have never failed to impress with their sometimes insightful, always random questions.With Franklin firing the questions, it’s safe to say this section of the evening was equally as entertaining as the stories themselves.

Have recently had a cull of my bookcase due to limited space, I arrived at Blackwell’s with the absolute determination not to buy the books, no matter how brilliant they sounded. This, of course, proved impossible and I am unashamed to say I am now the proud owner of signed copies of two more beautiful hardback novels that I cannot wait to sink into.

September 20, 2017
My eyes were opened to some wonderful writing and readings

Tonight’s Short Stories Aloud was something of a special occasion, where regular audience members got to hear from usual host, Sarah Franklin, from a different perspective. But I am jumping ahead - host duties were instead performed rather spectacularly by Shelley Harris and people who had travelled from far (Amsterdam, Lancashire) and less far (Oxford, Witney, Standlake) were treated to another wonderful evening of literature and banter. Or literary bants, if you will. Along with the usual imbibing of wine and cake, and illicit ‘after-hours’ bookshop-browsing, once again I found myself thinking how lucky I am to have access to such events on my doorstep.

Our short stories were written by aforementioned Sarah Franklin, whose most recent novel, Shelter is “a captivating story of finding solace in the most troubled times,” set in 1944, along with author and journalist Lucy Atkins whose latest novel The Night Visitor is, in her own words, about dung beetles. Along with celebrity, ambition and lies. But mostly dung beetles. Possibly.

Our first story, ‘Dolly’, came from Lucy, and was read beautifully by the captivating actor Lissa Berry. The story is written from the point of view of a female protagonist in her forties simply taking a train journey and meeting an antipodean family whose young daughter evokes dark memories of another young girl from her past. The cleverly-scribed twists in the tale were made all the more unsettling by Lissa’s wonderful reading.

After a short break (a delicious cake break in fact) the audience settled down once again and awaited Sarah’s short story, ‘Fallen’. Our performer this time was the wonderful Richard Worland, who brought such warmth and pathos to a beautifully written tale of tragedy, loss and guilt. It took a moment for the audience to gather ourselves once he had finished, and my partner vanished for a few minutes during the second cake-break, I suspect to wipe away a tear and blow his nose.

Also during the brief interlude, scraps of paper were handed out to write down questions for the authors. There is no criteria for the kind of question that can be asked, it seems no question is too random, from previous experience. Tonight was no different; as well as a smattering of sensible literary questions we were treated to a paper aeroplane-making competition and a startling discussion around the room about who personally knows a murderer (or in one case, murderers).

Once again, as with my previous visits to this event, my eyes were opened to some wonderful writing and readings and I came away with an armful of books and a strong desire to spend my entire life reading.

May 27, 2016
Leaving Souls Slightly Lighter

May 24th 2016 - Tracey Chevalier, Salley Vickers & Tessa Hadley

This is my second visit to this monthly event, and I certainly chose a good one to attend! Where else could you possibly get to chat to the brilliant Tracey Chevalier and Tessa Hadley for either a fiver or a cake? Unfortunately Salley Vickers was unable to make it on the night, but we were still treated to a reading of her short story.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To recap, Short Stories Aloud is an event where actors read short stories, aloud (funnily enough) and the authors of said short stories are on hand, listening (how nerve-wracking that must be for both parties) and answering audience questions at the end. If you bring a cake, there is no £5 entry fee, which I really must remember. I bought an over-priced, under-sized traybake slice from a ubiquitous high street coffee shop before I went in, but it would have been a bit measly to present that. So I ate it.

Our host, Sarah Franklin, warmly welcomed the buzzing crowd, a good mixture of regulars and newbies and we were treated to the wonderful "stroke and hold" of the book of the evening, Reader, I Married Him - stories inspired by Jane Eyre compiled and edited by Tracey Chevalier. It is a beautiful looking book; very worthy of such reverence.

Alex Babic was our first reader, opening the show with Sally Vickers' story from the book, "Reader, She Married Me". He brought the story to life as Edward Rochester, whom Vickers has given a 'true' voice to, giving the story of Jane Eyre an interesting twist. The beautiful descriptions allowed me to picture the scenes, especially the drama unfurling on the battlements of Thornfield. I was engrossed, as was everyone else.

After a brief cake break (no wine this time, licence renewal issues, alas!), we were straight into the next tale, 'My Mother's Wedding' penned by Tessa Hadley and read wonderfully by Shelley Harris. A completely different take on the 'Reader, I Married Him' theme, we were plunged into a hippy wedding through the eyes of Janey, the 17-year old daughter of the hippy bride. The ebb and flow of the action and narrative were read so well by Harris, with perfect comedic timing and high drama aplenty. Once again, the audience were hooked to the end.

And finally, for the story-reading section of the event at least, we had the lovely Scottish burr of Steve Hay reading us 'Dorset Gap' written by the editor of the book herself, Tracey Chevalier. To continue my effusive gushing, I can only repeat myself really - another wonderful piece, this time taking us to the late 1990s, and a hungover post-rave Ed is inexplicably (to himself) following Jenn "into the depths of the countryside" in Dorset. We see a glimpse of their relationship and personalities which are crafted so clearly; Jenn in her "confident wellies" and Ed wishing he was back in the "heap of recovering ravers". As funny as the story was, the biggest laugh was provided by Steve's rather unexpected rendition of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights.

And finally, after buying a copy of the book and shyly chatting to the two authors who we were lucky enough to have in attendance, we settled down for the final Q&A session. During the last break audience members had been invited to submit questions on slips of paper, in the hope that theirs would be chosen by the author as the most interesting to answer, to win a book. After Chevalier told us the interesting tale of how the book had come into being, we were wowed by Hadley's impressive finger-bending which she had apparently trained herself to do to impress a boy when she was 11 but never actually showed him. I'm pretty sure that is not a fact you would find in any other recorded interview with Tessa Hadley, or indeed, anyone else.

Once again, I would recommend this event highly, even without the wine (which we were promised would be back next month) and Steve's singing, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only audience member who left with a big fat smile on my face and my soul just a little bit lighter.

January 27, 2016

Short Stories Aloud is a monthly event held on the third Tuesday of the month at Blackwells Bookshop on Broad Street. Those attending are treated to an evening of, well, exactly what it says on the tin – having short stories read aloud to them by talented actors and getting the opportunity to throw random questions at some excellent authors afterwards. All for the bargain price of £5, or if you bring cake you can get in for free. I mean, what's not to like about this set-up? Oh, and there's wine. And it's all held in a bookshop. I may be biased here, what with my deep love for cake, wine and the smell of books, but it's pretty much got the ingredients for the perfect evening.

While the usual host founder Sarah Franklin was living it up at the Costa Book Awards, last night's event was hosted by Shelley Harris, an author in her own right, having penned the fantastic award-winning Jubilee and the quirky yet believably written and quite brilliant Vigilante. Joining Shelley were actors Amy Enticknap and Steve Hay, the latter treating us to a flash of his legs in full Scottish couture (in honour of Monday's Burns' Night celebrations). To start, after a lovely warm welcome by Shelley, we were thrown into a brilliant reading by Hay, bringing to life George Saunders' Exhortation, a long, rather dark, memo urging employees to perform to the best of their abilities in order to please management. The actions of Andy in Room 6 are never fully revealed, but his tale of triumph and woe is going to stay with me for a while. Enticknap followed this up with a brilliant short story written especially for the event by one of the visiting authors, Angela Clarke. The Good, the iPad and the Ugly sees Freddie Fenton, the heroine of Clarke's current novel Follow Me at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012. Again, read brilliantly by Amy, it kept the audience enthralled with the incisive depiction of the 'talent' that can be found at the festival (One Man and His Dong is a particularly ingenious title for what is undoubtedly a rubbish show) and the string of events that follows after the show Freddie is reviewing ends.

After a 'wine and cake' break we were treated to an excerpt from one of Colin MacIntyre's wonderfully titled short stories, The Sheep, The Haggis, The Sister-in-Law and the Drunken Trip to Glasgow. It's a long short story, so MacIntyre introduced it and brought the audience up to speed, before we were treated once again to Hay's delicious Scottish brogue. All I can say about the story is that it prompted my question to the author (after another cake and wine break – how good is this evening?!) "Have you ever killed a sheep? You seem to know a lot about it…" adding as an afterthought "Same question to Angela", so that she wouldn't feel left out…

The 'interview' section of the event is simply designed: audience members write a question on a slip of paper and pop it into a hat, where the host (or co-host) selects and reads the questions. There are prizes for the best questions. Alas, my sheep question didn't win, although it did prompt some interesting answers from both authors.

I can't recommend this monthly event enough – not just for the 'stroke and hold' of our guest authors' books, which was beautifully executed by our host. It's a really fun and interesting way to spend a Tuesday night. I left Blackwell's with a couple of new books, and new authors to keep an eye on, and a smile on my face.

March 25, 2015

Short Stories Aloud, Tuesday 24th March, Arts at the Old Fire Station

So what makes for a good story? A beginning, middle and end? A snapshot in time? Is it the words themselves, or is it in the telling? I think I may have the answer. It’s the fourth Tuesday of the month when Short Stories Aloud meet.

Approximately forty people filled the loft at Old Fire Station, with about a third of the group coming for the first time. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming, taking its lead from Sarah Franklin, founder and host of Short Stories Aloud, who was a bright, vibrant woman who obviously loved her work. Sarah quickly introduced the format for the evening. Four stories in all. Two really short stories taken from Devil’s Larder by Jim Grace and two longer stories from visiting authors. The stories were read by actresses Amy Enticknap and Jenny Johns, each taking two apiece.

We started with number thirty-two (no title) from Devil’s Larder. A story about a cheese fondue dinner party that turned into a strip fondue. Who would have thought a cheese story could be so interesting? Actress Amy certainly held a captivated audience. Next Jenny read a longer story, Mayday by Rebecca Whitney which was a rather sad tale of a woman suffering from OCD due to an incident in her past.

After this there followed a ten minute cake break. The audience were encouraged to help themselves from a table heaving with cake. Bring cake and you gain free entry to this story haven.

The evening continued with another offering from Devil’s Larder, number seventeen this time, read by Jenny. This was a sinister tale depicting the difference between men and women when having to make a choice of drinking urine or seawater to stay alive. The last story of the evening was The Stranger’s Letter by Claire Fuller, read by Amy. A woman living alone sends a reply to a letter not addressed to her and starts a strange chain of events.

Once all the stories had been read it was Question and Answer time for the two visiting authors, Rebecca and Claire. The questions were gathered, while yet more cake eating went on, and were read out by Sarah. What would you do if you didn’t write? Which literary character would you like as your best friend? Who in the audience do you find intriguing? Prizes were awarded to the three questions Rebecca and Claire most enjoyed answering.

Blackwell’s bookstore had a table set up, and sold copies of The Liar’s Chair by Rebecca Whitney and Our Endless Numbered Nights by Claire Fuller. The evening had a real fun feel, and I thought having stories read by professionals gave the storytelling a new dimension.

Short Stories Aloud have outgrown their present location and for their fourth year anniversary they will be at their new venue, Blackwell’s Bookshop, Broad Street, at the earlier time of 7pm. If you want a free taster they are also appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival at 3pm Saturday 28th March in Blackwell's Festival Marquee on Catte Street. I strongly recommend you give them a go.

May 24th 2016 - Tracey Chevalier, Salley Vickers & Tessa Hadley

I don't think I squeal about it enough. I love my life. Particularly when last night's happiness lingers this long.

In case you have forgotten, I have a savage crush on Tessa Hadley and before I burst out with it, I knew that a story of hers was to be read last night at an event in Oxford, so giving parental responsibility mid-GCSEs the two feathers, I grabbed the youngest but not so smallest member of Team Family and we sped off down to Blackwell's to hear it.

And oh my golly, maybe I didn't understand the set-up or failed to comprehend the very simple details, but there she was – Tessa Hadley AND Tracy Chevalier – about to take their seats. Suppressing the urge to scream and fan-chant, we too took ours and from story one I was hooked and thinking well maybe it's about time I read Jane Eyre.

That probably sounds seriously left field specifically at this point of my rantings…so to bring you up to speed. The three stories read out, by three talented actors, are part of a collection edited by Tracy Chevalier and include twenty one tales penned by the Who's Who of the literary world, inspired by Jane Eyre. It turns out that Reader, I Married Him is what you should be reading now…

We had the pleasure of hearing:
'Reader, She Married Me' by Salley Vickers
'My Mother's Wedding' by Tessa Hadley
& 'Dorset Gap' by Tracy Chevalier

So though I can't give you the complete lowdown (be sure I will later), I can offer up this… you can have a super night when short stories are involved. Either you reading them or having someone do it for you, there is something so satisfying about a tale being told in under 4,000 words. It's like having a meal (with dessert): when it's complete you feel satiated and content and know where to return for future servings of pleasure.

What's further good news, events like the one I attended last night occur monthly, so why not place the 21 June in your diary now, under the heading Short Stories Aloud, and then try and restrain yourself from wishing the days go faster.

Two more grand things before I go:

So I actually met Tessa, in addition to her signing my copy of the collection afterwards, for my friend Kate (thank you Kate, thank you Kate) introduced her to me after the first reading. Naturally, I couldn't speak, but I smiled LOTS and wished that moment would last forever.

And Sarah Franklin who organises/leads/hosts/chairs the session was also fabulous, not just at her job, but it appears at pretty much everything. She's really fun, interesting, lively and gets the best from her speakers and crowd. The kind of person you want at your party, or actually at all parties!

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