“A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” Stephen King
Below, we will be posting reviews of short stories and collections, old and new, as well as short story events.
April 2016, short story review (Debbi Voisey): Modern Voices, by Polly Samson
Novelist, playwright, lyricist – there are many strings to Polly Samson’s bow. As one half of a dynamic song writing team along with her husband Dave Gilmour, she has written songs for his band Pink Floyd as well as for his last solo album. So she is no stranger to the poetry and beauty of words, and this shows in “Modern Voices Collection” which was published for Good Housekeeping magazine. There are just 5 stories, so this is a great way to sample her talent. All of the stories seem to dwell on oppression and loss; loss of dignity, loss of morals, loss of life, and identity. And the main focus is relationships; old ones, new ones, relationships with lovers, children, family – and most of all with oneself. The coast and the sea feature heavily in the short stories, and Samson indeed spent much of her life in the West Country. Its rugged beauty is an obvious mood-placer for her writing. The Short Story Review: read more
April 2016, short story review (Maria Powell): It’s Beginning to Hurt, by James Lasdun
It’s Beginning to Hurt studies the impact strangers have on us through a collection of dramatic tales that take you to some uncomfortable places. The characters drop unwittingly into the laps of unscrupulous people, grapple with their weaknesses, fail to alter their destiny, or else they fatally misjudge situations with some catastrophic consequences. Trapped in events that they cannot control, or with strangers from whom they cannot escape, short stories don’t come much better than this. I was captivated to the end. The Short Story Review: read more
April 2016, short story collection review (Rupert Dastur): Mr Jolly, by Michael Stewart
The cover of Michael Stewart’s short story collection Mr Jolly (superb work from Jamie McGarry) provides an accurate depiction of the content: the middle-aged man, slouched in his chair, looking a little fed up. Perhaps he is sleeping. To his right is a flower, floating against the black backdrop. This is a collection about ordinary people, like the man on the jacket, dealing with the difficulties and absurdities of life. The disjunction between the name Jolly and this man’s appearance also hints at the playful, diverse range of these short stories, while the flower adds a dose of the unexpected.
Stewart’s first collection of short stories offers cheeky intellectualism, raves and rants, quiet solitude, and humour. Like many short story collections at the moment, you would be hard-pushed to find an underlying theme, though this is no bad thing. In fact, it would be reductive to seek a linking subject in a collection whose major accomplishments involve the extraordinary spread of topics, styles, and characters. The Short Story Review: read more.
April 2016, short story collection review (James Holden): Bream Gives Me Hiccups, by Jesse Eisenberg
Bream Gives Me Hiccups is the first collection from Social Network actor Jesse Eisenberg, who has previously written pieces for McSweeny’s and New Yorker. Some of those are included in this book, which is made up not just of stories, but pieces of humorous writing such as ‘Manageable Tongue Twisters’ (‘How much lumber could a woodchuck discard, if a woodchuck could discard lumber?’) There are lots of laugh out loud moments across this book which is solid enough to make it worthwhile reading. The Short Story Review: read more.
March 2016, short story collection review (Debbi Voisey): As Long as it Takes, by Maria C. McCarthy
As Long as it Takes is a collection of short stories that deal with the life of an Irish family as seen through the eyes of the women, along with some close female friends. This might limit its readership, but the writing in this is neither frilly, nor precious, nor overly feminine. It is gutsy and full of balls, telling stories of a world that is brutal and colourful. There is plenty of humour -laconically delivered – along with with grace and skill.
McCarthy describes lives that could be that of any reader. If you are a mother, a sister, an aunt or daughter – or even if you’re a man who loves one of these – and if you grew up amid family chaos (who hasn’t?), experienced love and loss, self-doubt, feelings of exclusion or astonishing self-discovery, then this short story collection will strike many chords. The Short Story Review: read more
March 2016, short story collection review (Hattie Pierce): Don’t Try This At Home, by Angela Readman
‘Don’t Try This at Home’ by Angela Readman is a dense collection of beautiful short stories that testify to her work as a poet as well as a short story writer. The stories are tonally varied, ranging from the fairytale-esque and the fantastical, to stories more urban and realist. They are stylistically unified by her distinctive use of language which blends a realist narrative style, punctuated by flat, dead-pan humour, with allusions to more dreamlike and magical storytelling. The stories are structured around striking images that are emblematic of the individual stories, and also of her extremely visual writing style. These images, invoked by certain phrases, are worked through the stories as a regular beat and linger well beyond the stories’ conclusions. The Short Story Review: read more.
March 2016, short story anthology review (Rupert Dastur): Being Dad, edited by Dan Coxon
There has been a great deal of anticipation for the Being Dad anthology, edited by Dan Coxon. Rightly so. After a successful Kickstarter, we are presented with an equally fruitful short story collection. Basting an impressive pedigree, Being Dad sizzles with creative skill; there are several readily recognizable names among the fifteen contributors, including Dan Powell, Toby Litt, Courttia Newland, Nikesh Shukla, and Rodge Glass to name just a few.
These dozen-plus writers, established and emerging, explore fatherhood in a tremendous range of ways, demonstrating the versatility of the form and the craft itself. Each author give a different slant on the subject of ‘being Dad’, though some commonalities do emerge: we’re shown the comic naughtiness of children, overprotective fathers, sleepless fathers, love, pride, irritation, disappointment, and even madness. Inevitably, there is also the due dose of loss/death; for seasoned short story readers this may cause a sigh or two, but take heart: the subject is well-mastered and pleasingly juxtaposes the vitality of the babies, children and teenagers that gurgle, chuckle, scream, and shout across these two-hundred pages. The Short Story Review: read more
Feb 2016, Short Story Collection Review (Maria Powell): Tea and the Midland and Other Stories, by David Constantine
After watching the acclaimed film 45 Years, adapted from one of David Constantine’s short stories, ‘In Another Country’, I was quick to buy my first collection by him. The film had made an impression on me with the slow build up of tension between the main characters, Kate and Geoff. Their anniversary celebration brings their relationship under the microscope, and the question shifts from whether the celebration might be cancelled, to whether their long marriage will even survive the week
I chose the collection, Tea at the Midland, David Constantine’s fourth short story collection; the title story was the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2010. I was drawn in straight away by the evocative prose which opens with a woman watching surfers from the hotel window and I floated along with the first description… The Short Story Review: read more
Feb 2016, Short Story Collection Review (Debbi Voisey): When Planets Slip Their Tracks, by Joana Campbell
Once in a blue moon you pick up a book of stories and from the first few paragraphs, you know you are going on an exciting journey – or several exciting journeys. When Planets Slip Their Tracks by Joanna Campbell, is one such collection. This is her first collection of short stories, and all of them have either won prizes or have been published previously in various anthologies or magazines. Her considerable pedigree shows.
The most fascinating people to watch are those whose lives are – for whatever reason – on the verge of imploding, or just about to change in either subtle or extreme ways. Much of the fun lies in witnessing their reactions. Campbell takes us by the hand and into the company of a disparate bunch of characters, each dealing with their own complicated life. The Short Story Review: read more
Feb 2016, Short Story Collection Review (James Holden): The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel
It isn’t often that short stories break out of review sections and into the news – it mainly happens twice a year with announcements relating to the Costa Prize and the BBC Short Story Award. A Hilary Mantel short story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983’ has been the only recent exception to this. The story – whose events are indeed what the provocative title suggests – made the news and generated critical headlines in the right wing press (the Daily Mail referred to it as ‘Mantel’s twisted fantasy’). Even the story behind the publication of the story created column inches: it was originally picked up for The Daily Telegraph before being by spiked by editors, nervous it would offend their readership.
The provocative title was also lent to this solid and occasionally outstanding collection of 11 short stories, nine of which have previously been published at various intervals since 1993. Despite the 21 years that pass between the publication of the oldest and most recent stories here, they are tied together primarily though being told from a vantage point years after the events recounted took place.
Feb 2016, Short Story Collection Review (Rupert Dastur): All The Souls, by Mary-Ann Constantine
All The Souls, by Mary-Ann Constantine is an unusually, but pleasurably, thematically-unified short story collection that stretches the form, unashamedly rejects simplicity, and leaves the reader mulling the ghostly overlap of past and present.
The subtitle of the book ‘Stories of the living and the dead’ usefully points to the major theme running through the pages, with a number of ghosts haunting the eleven titles in the collection. This sometimes macabre preoccupation is further navigated through ideas of memory, history, landscape, and objects. War, photography, and religion also feature significantly. The effect of these recurring concerns creates a mixed, powerful mood that echoes and amplifies between the reader and narrative as we travel through the textual terrains which are variously sad, frightening, appalling, witty, and poignant.
Feb 2016 TSS Live Event Review (Abi Hynes): Verbose
For those of you who haven’t discovered this yet: Manchester is home to a remarkable live literature scene. It seems to grow on an almost weekly basis; new nights spring up, find their groove, and readers and audiences come a-flocking. Importantly, these nights aren’t just focused on poetry and spoken slam-style tournaments (though Manchester has some excellent examples of those, too). Many of these regular and one-off events here also make a large and comfortable home for the short story.
Verbose – the spawn of local wordsmith Sarah-Clare Conlon – is one of the relatively new nights that have started to spill out of the city centre and into the suburbs, and it regularly has a strong short fiction focus. I joined them at their January event to celebrate their first birthday, when three short fiction writers, Ailsa Cox, Jim Hinks and John D. Rutter, were headlining. It was a varied, warm and fleet-footed event (due to the quick-fire three minute open mic slots) that made me glad I’d ventured out of my usual Northern Quarter stomping ground to huddle in a packed out room at the top of the ever-welcoming Fallow Café.
February 2016 TSS Book Review (Rupert Dastur): Pick ‘n’ Mix by Gabriele Ansbach
Pick ‘n’ Mix by Gabriele Ansbach is aptly named. Each story is a surprise – colourful, often sweetly ending, sometimes tasteless, occasionally sickly. Whether or not you like this collection really depends on how much variety you can stomach.
These fourteen stories lurch from one place to another, shift forwards and backwards in time, and skip from voice to voice. Ansbach has a kaleidoscope imagination – easily demonstrated by a brief scan of the character list which reveals members of the aristocracy, ageing lesbians, space travellers, shape-shifting aliens, gay clowns, idiotic thieves, and talking cats.
These short stories are often surreal and frequently silly: a secretary marries an earl; old ladies fall in love; a dissatisfied wife goes gallivanting around the world; a drunk entertainer leaves the circus, felines are given medical treatment, two thieves display derisory ineptitude, a teenage girl is kidnapped by aliens, and a woman recounts her childhood during World War Two. A few of the short stories are beyond single-sentence summary.
Jan 2016 TSS Short Story Book Review (Debbi Voisey): Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2015
The Bath Short Story Award – currently in its fourth year – attracts writers from all over the world and is a well-respected prize. They also put out a mean anthology and their third, from 2015, is no exception. Now it’s a little off beam, I suppose, to write a review of a book that contains one of my own short stories, but this is such a rich and diverse collection that I am proud to declare that my story, ‘Death in the Nest’, is part of it.
There is much to love within these pages. It’s interesting to read an anthology of short stories from several different writers, as opposed to a collection from just one author, because it showcases so many differing styles and viewpoints – some lyrical, poetic and haunting; others stark and bleak.
TSS Short Story Book Review: Collected Stories, by Janice Galloway
First published in 2009, Collected Stories brings together the first two volumes of short fiction written by the Scottish writer Janice Galloway – 1991’s Blood and 1996’s Where You Find It (a third collection, Jellyfish, came out in 2015). Whilst the subject matter may often appear to be downbeat and mundane, the stories in this book are hugely satisfying thanks to a wonderfully evocative writing style and a clear sense of how far the rules of writing can be bent.
TSS Short Story Book Review: The Open Cage, by Lochlan Bloom
Bloom’s short story ‘The Open Cage’ is a mysterious piece of roughly 3,500 words. The story is told from the first person perspective of an expedition leader, guiding a group through that well-known trope, the ‘god-forsaken’ jungle. On their journey, they stumble on what becomes the central image of the short story: an enormous, rust-ridden cage, overgrown with dense vegetation. To the consternation of our hero, the door of the cage has been left open, suggesting ‘a thousand unwanted possibilities’. Awed by the spectacle, he asks the attending Artist to make some sketches of the contraption.
The narrator, explorer, philanderer, (closet?) homosexual, and artefact trader, is haunted by the image of this gigantic iron structure which reminds him of a disturbing incident of animal cruelty at a circus he once attended (in a roundabout turn of events) at Rennes.
TSS Short Story Book Review: Spindles – Stories from the Science of Sleep, ed. Ra Page & Penny Lewis
Storytelling and sleep have a connection centuries old – especially when sleep, perchance, involves dreaming. However science and fiction are not always the easiest of bedfellows (yes, pun intended). Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep, attempts to bring the two together.
Those already familiar with the ‘Science into Fiction’ projects from Comma Press will know what to expect: in Spindles, fourteen authors work with professionals who specialise in sleep to respond to research and new hypotheses into the study of slumber.
TSS Short Story Book Review: Man V. Nature, by Diane Cook
Titles work hard in short fiction. They’re like the calling cards left behind by the serial killers in TV and films who can’t help wanting, just a little, to get caught. While Diane Cook is (almost certainly) not a serial killer, the title of her 2014 debut collection, Man V Nature, is a good place to start unravelling the strange and enduring thrill of reading Cook’s fiction, which, by the way, like so many reviewers of the collection so far, I’d definitely recommend.
TSS Short Story Event Review: The Short Story Review: Big Impact; Small Story – Where Does the British Short Story Go Next?
An event by The Word Factory, launching The Penguin Book of British Short Stories, edited by Philip Hensher.
Last week saw the launch of Penguin’s Book of British Short Stories, a magnificent two-volume collection, edited by Philip Hensher. The event, held at Picadilly’s Waterstone’s and in association with The Word Factory, was extremely well attended, with over a hundred seats filled.
The panel comprised Hensher, Tessa Hadley, Adam Mars-Jones, Shena Mackay – all short story writers – and the delightful Cathy Galvin, director of The Word Factory and one of the founders of The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.
TSS Short Story Book Review: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, by Thomas Morris
Authors have a choice to make when pulling a collection of short stories together on how to make it hang together – do they share a common setting or characters, or are they individual pieces? Thomas Morris has chosen to set nine of the ten stories in his debut collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, in the Welsh town of Caerphilly.
Morris, the editor of Stinging Fly magazine, currently lives in Dublin, but he grew up in Caerphilly. The town he describes is dominated by a castle and a mountain that looks like a “big Christmas pudding”.
TSS Short Story Book Review: The Lost of Syros by Emma Timpany
Critiquing the short stories in Emma Timpany’s debut collection is not the easiest of tasks, as suggested by a reference in the endorsement notes to the ‘indefinable quality’ of her writing. The author Rupert Wallis attempts it by describing her stories as ‘little windows into life, showing you things to think on long after you have finished reading’, and it’s the latter part of this comment which is most telling. Timpany’s stories are generally light on narrative action, working instead through rich description and distinctive images, and it’s the images that stay with you. In that respect, her stories are much like poems and all the better for it.
TSS Short Story Book Review: New Welsh Short Stories
New Welsh Short Stories, edited by Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas, is a collection of nineteen stories from a diverse range of authors. The Welsh connection is used extremely loosely, but with positive results; all of these short stories crackle with creative skill.
A varied collection, it dips and dives through an impressive spectrum of emotions, times, places, voices, and styles. The reader is transported from the mountains of Wales in decades gone by, to the clustered streets of modern-day Tokyo. Stretching from childhood to old age, the narrative styles range from the traditional to the experimental.
TSS Short Story Book Review: Samantha Herron’s The Djinn in the Skull
Samantha Herron’s debut short story collection, The Djinn in the Skull, provides a glimpse into a world filled with magic and myth. Having spent time with a family of former nomads in Morocco’s Draa Valley, near the Sahara Desert, Herron is well-placed to open a fictive door into this extraordinary setting.
The fifteen tales in the collection are short and simple, but pack plenty of action into the prose. Like all good literature, the stories are concerned with the great themes of life: love, death, deceit, marriage, regret, and fear. The swift-moving and sparse language, influenced by Herron’s encounter with Morocco’s oral tradition, make these stories perfect for parents looking for something to read to their children.
TSS Short Story Event Review: The London Short Story Festival, Day Four
It’s the last day of the London Short Story Festival.
I arrive to the first event which is packed out, to the extent that extra chairs have to be brought. We’re here to listen to Julia Bell chair ‘Fairy Tales and the Short Story’, starring Dame Marina Warner, Diriye Osman, and Kirsty Logan.
We’re given a long introductory essay-styled reading by Dame Marina Warner which is studded with insight and intrigue. In the simplest sense, the fairy tale is, ‘a short story with some magical elements… a climate filled with unpredictability.’
TSS Short Story Event Review: The London Short Story Festival, Day Three
I’m sitting in a chair (as one generally does when sitting), waiting to hear about Flight 1000, an initiative by Spread the Word. The gregarious Paul Sherrard introduces the event and the scheme: ‘The aim is to help London writers and those underrepresented in the publishing industry.’
The arrangement offers successful candidates (‘associates’) one thousand paid hours, working as an intern for various companies in fields such as publishing, editing, and literary agencies. These hours also include time for writing. It’s a fantastic initiative that has the opportunity to really launch a career. Whether you’re unsure of what you want to do or where you want to go, it’s well worth looking more into this generous organisation. More details can be found here.
TSS Short Story Event Review: The London Short Story Festival, Day Two
It’s Friday afternoon and normally I’d be heading to a pub, but tonight I’m going to Waterstones in Piccadilly for the second day of the London Short Story Festival.
As I enter the book-bundled store, I’m greeted by a couple of the LSSF volunteers who direct me to the first floor. Although I’m a little late and the room is near-capacity, I’m lucky enough to grab a chair close to the front.
Before us sit Stuart Evers, Nikesh Shukla, Jarred McGinnis, and Salena Godden. They are here to discuss humour in short stories. McGinnis, who is chairing the talk, asks whether they should simply tell jokes for the next hour. Shukla is keen on the idea, but it’s not to be; after all this is a festival for short stories.
TSS Short Story Event Review: The London Short Story Festival, Day One
I’ve just got back from the opening launch of the London Short Story Festival (LSSF) and I’m still buzzing; the diversity of events and writers means that this isn’t just a festival for short story lovers, it’s a literary extravaganza for readers, writers, and critics of any form. Today was an impressive start.
Hosted at the large Waterstones in Piccadilly, you’re immediately surrounded by an atmosphere of intellect, imagination, and creativity. It’s the perfect setting for a festival that celebrates the dynamism and complexity of the short story.
The Short Story: A Critical Appreciation of William Boyd’s ‘Killing Lizards’
The title, ‘Killing Lizards’, immediately places violence at the centre of this story. This is rapidly reinforced by Gavin’s desire for a new catapult which Israel eventually gives him – in exchange for a packet of cigarettes which the young boy ‘had stolen from his mother’s handbag.’
In fewer than a hundred words, Boyd portrays Gavin as manipulative, attention-seeking, and aggressive. These qualities are stressed throughout the short story and it’s not long before the reader is confronted by the disturbing revelation that Gavin hates his sister and frequently dreams of her death.. Click here to read more.
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