Category Archives: Short Stories

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine – Diane Williams

I am a sucker for a good cover and let us be honest Diane Williams latest collection of flash fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (which always makes me think of the Mary J Blige song Just Fine), has a rather fantastic cover indeed. So that pulled me to it in Foyles when I saw it, then the line ‘folktales that hammer like a nail gun’ in the blurb made me almost 100% sure that this was going to be the best collection of short stories I had read for a while. Hmmmm. How to put this? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

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CB Editions, paperback, 2016, short stories, 118 pages, bought by myself for myself

How to start with a review of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine when one of the main things you loved about it was the cover and you have already mentioned that? I guess I had better just simply go for it. What I was hoping to find in this collection of very (very, very) short stories was forty (yep, forty) little spiky modern fairytale and folklore like gems. As I started to read I discovered I was getting snap shots into people’s lives that felt like that the prose version of an Instagram feed, only the pictures all seemed to be out of focus, blurred or sometimes an accidental snap shot of the floor because so vague were they, I would read one and think ‘what on earth am I meant to make of that?’

The sad issue here is that the themes I felt Diane Williams was trying to write about, when I did grasp what I thought it was she was on about, are ones that I am really interested. She seems to be giving encounters of a wide and diverse group of women (I can’t remember if any are in a male narrative, though sometimes the gender of the narrator isn’t mentioned) from all walks of life at pivotal moments in their lives. The only thing is so vague and often flimsy did these snippets seem that any poignancy that Williams was trying to give, or maybe I was desperately trying to clutch to, was then lost. Take for example the opener of Head of a Naked Girl

One got an erection while driving in his car to get to her. Another got his while buying his snow blower, with her along. He’s the one who taught her how to blow him and that’s the one she reassured ‘You’re the last person I want to antagonize!’

Firstly I don’t even know if that opening paragraph makes sense, or is it just me? Anyway, what I thought I was getting here was the account of a young woman who had found herself in a profession of which she might have not intended. I was intrigued this might be a tale of how a beautiful woman couldn’t help the affect she had on men for better and for worse, from a neutral view point. We then follow some of her sexual exploits before something, unknown, goes wrong and then she ‘blamed herself – for yet another perfect day.’ Huh? What? I have no idea what I am meant to take from that. Well, apart from mild annoyance.

Now you could say that maybe I am just not one for flash fiction, however I would have to disagree somewhat there. Firstly because I have seen Val McDermid create a story from a tweet which was brilliant and also in this collection there was one very, very, very short story which I loved called The Skol which I will include below in all its entirety.

In the ocean, Mrs. Clavey decided to advance on foot at shoulder-high depth. A tiny swallow of the water coincided with her deliberation. It tasted like a cold, salted variety of her favourite payang congou tea. She didn’t intend to drink more, but she did drink – more.

I loved this. It is very vague, which I know is a criticism I have made in all the stories but here it works. I loved the fact my mind could leap of and ask loads of questions about it. Why on earth was Mrs. Clavey walking into the ocean? Was she just in the mood for a swim or did she have a more dark or sorrowful reason for walking in? Speaking of which, at the end of the story is Mrs. Clavey simply drinking the water because she likes the taste or has she gone a bit mad? Or worse still is she trying to drown herself or just drowning accidentally? Or, the fairytale part of my brain pondered is she actually a mermaid? From four lines all those thoughts. That is what I wanted in every tale.

You might also say that maybe Diane Williams writing isn’t for me. Which is fine, fine, fine, fine, fine (sorry, couldn’t help it!) we don’t like every author in the world, we can’t our heads would explode with all the books we could read; it would be bookshop/library carnage, we might never read anything again because of all the options. I think this is probably the main reason; Diane Williams possibly just isn’t for me. It isn’t her fault. It isn’t my fault. It just is what it is. Though I do want to say there are moments here and there where I just loved how she observes the little things that by saying so little say so much. One paragraph in To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing has really stayed with me as a character describes the cracks in her marriage, well that is what I thought she was doing but who knows?

A fire had been lighted, drinks had been set out. Raw fish had been dipped into egg and bread crumbs and then sautéed. A small can of shoe polish was still out on the kitchen counter. We both like to keep out shoes clean.

Sadly though, despite a few short bursts of prose and a couple of stories that appealed to me, I was not a big fan of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine which I am quite cross about as I wanted to be. I think I need something that has some anchor in a sea of vagueness and this only really had that a couple of times for me. You can happily ignore me though Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen and many more authors think she is the absolute flash fiction queen. What reading this collection has taught me, delightfully, is that I enjoy flash fiction on the commute to and from work though. So if you have any recommendations of flash fiction collections I should try then do please let me know. Have you read Diane Williams? What have you made of her work?

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Filed under CB Editions, Diane Williams, Flash Fiction, Review, Short Stories

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass

Now there is a title indeed.  One that had in fact made me pick up this debut short story collection quite some time ago, only for it to (rather shame facedly for me) linger on my shelves for all too long. However that all changed when I was asked if I would join the inaugural official shadow panel for the, speaking of titles, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016. It was the only title that I hadn’t read yet and so I went to get the copy off my shelves… only I don’t have shelves at the moment, just masses of boxes filled with books I can’t get to, so thankfully the lovely folk at the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 sent me another copy, before the shortlist was officially announced, and I promptly devoured it. What a collection it proved to be.

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John Murray, 2015, paperback, short stories, 182 pages, kindly sent by FMcM

I usually find, and this might just be me, that a collection of short stories can be really, really hard to write about. Firstly, if it is a good collection, you want to talk about every short story as if it was a novel. That after all is one of the wonders of short stories, when they are wonderful they can compete with the longest of tomes because their intense impact can have such a potent punch. Nice alliteration there Simon Savidge, ha. Secondly, collections can have a huge amount of scope. Another thing that makes them so great to read, you can go off here, there and everywhere within a collection. Marvellous. This is indeed the case with An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It though there is one familiar strand in almost every tale, loneliness.

I was lonely all through that summer, although at the time I didn’t realise how lonely. It was only later, looking back after everything was over, when the leaves were gone from the trees and when the dark in close about the library by mid afternoon, and when my work was going well again and I was happy, that I began to see how things had been, and to wonder if I might have been a little ill from it.

In pretty much every tale in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (thank goodness for copy and paste) the narrator of the tale is inherently lonely, even if they might not seem it from their circumstance. A child might be feeling lonely at home as their parents marriage cracks become all the more apparent, as in Dolphin. A man and woman might become lonely strangers in a marriage, as in The Comfort of the Dead, or in a long distance relationship, as in Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty Five Miles. Someone may become lonely and ostracised by their own manners, as in Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague. You get the gist; you can also see that Jessie Greengrass likes a good title, the two combining with most effect in The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut The Whaler, which does what it says on the tin with the addition of a brilliant penguin and albatross. See made you want to read on there didn’t I?

This might have made An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It sound like a rather depressing and difficult, relentlessly lonely, read. Not at all. Where Greengrass makes things anything but is in her settings. Some of these are physical, so tales may take us from one side of the world to the other (though interestingly I always thought I was in cold seasons, even if in potentially warmer settings) but also some of these are time. We have stories from the past, like the title tale, we also have stories from the future such as Winter, 2058. This both showing loneliness has as few boundaries as Jessie Greengrass in her imagination and ability to take the reader anywhere and everywhere.

Yet whilst the settings might be foreign or futuristic, or indeed in the depths and mists of time, the feelings we humans feel and the extraordinary in the ordinary (something long time readers of this blog will know I love) feature heavily. Raw emotion, actually better put, basic/base emotion is always at the heart of Greengrass’ tales.  We have the simple situations of day to day life like the desire to find a new job/our true vocation and a plot for escape in the brilliant All The Other Jobs. I mean come on who hasn’t sat at their desk once or twice and daydreamed of becoming a cooper (yes, I had to look it up too) or tending chickens on a Welsh Island for a while? Ok, maybe I have imagined running a zoo, but you know what I mean. There are also those times of extreme emotions, for example this paragraph in my second most favourite story On Time Travel, which is one of the most vivid depictions of grief I have read.

My father had died very suddenly and it was hard, of course, in all the usual ways, but hard also because we hadn’t ever been a happy family; ever and it was this fact even more than the fact that he was gone which trapped us, me and my mother, in the moment of his passing; and because it seemed so awful that something so obviously terrible might in some ways come as a relief, we couldn’t talk about it and, unable to talk about it, couldn’t talk about anything else either.

Greengrass can turn her hand to pretty much anything. That isn’t to say this is a perfect collection, occasionally I didn’t ‘get a story’ or some were so brief I had to re-read them and ponder them a while and re-read them again, but that can be said of many collections. Overall this is a corking collection that I think looks at life now, regardless of when the story is set, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It may be set in the past but look at how we are treating nature now, Winter, 2058 might be about weird goings on in the future but actually I thought it looked at how we are, or aren’t as I think is more apt to say, dealing with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I started to see these themes again and again, I wanted to go back to the very beginning again.

I do want to mention Winter, 2058 again and give it some special dedication because for me this was like a perfect example a ‘Simon Savidge favourite kind of short story’ – I know a special award indeed. It had absolutely everything I loved wrapped up into a mere 15 pages. It is a tale of loneliness is a very real yet very other world, has hints of fairy tale, folklore, the gothic, supernatural and alien yet is really about displacement. Oh and as I mentioned I think also about the horrors and prevalence of Alzheimer’s, but that could just be me. If I ever edited an anthology of short stories it would go straight in. Worth the cover price alone frankly. I have thought about it so much since, so much.

I was a child when the first intrusion was discovered, stumbled across by a pair of walkers in a clearing in the Forest of Dean. At first, their story was treated lightly. It was midsummer, and what they described sounded so much like a fairy tale: the odd lights and sounds between a stand of beech; the half remembered visions; confusion; and afterwards a kind of stupor, so that they became lost for a day and a night, unable to find their way out of the trees.

As you may have guessed I really, really liked this collection. I think Jessie Greengrass is clearly a very talented writer and I cannot wait to read what she writes next.

Having read The Ecliptic, Physical, Grief is the Thing With Feathers and now this I have no idea how the judges of the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 are going to choose a winner, let alone we shadow judges this Saturday. It is a corking list and you can win all four of the books on it here because I think these are books you really need on your shelves.

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Filed under Jessie Greengrass, John Murray Publishers, Review, Short Stories, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award

Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas

I have ummed and ahhed for quite some time about so much this week I feel a bit worn out. The news from Orlando has been horrific and I didn’t know if I should write anything and then every time I tried to it felt slightly trite, preachy or just wrong.  Yet to say nothing as a member of the LGBT community also felt wrong. I then realised that a book I had been planning on sharing my thoughts on, Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods, unintentionally embodies all my feelings about everything that is going on in the world right now (including the awful murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the UK today) that feels bonkers, saddening, anger inducing, hypo critic, dark, bigoted and wicked with the world. It looks at them and unflinchingly points out how vile and stupid these views are; how awful people can be and asks us to reflect and learn from that. In doing so it discusses things that are not for the faint hearted and this review will be too, you have been warned.

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Atlantic Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 330 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties. She said Best’s penis was thicker, the bigger one, but that McCartney was the more beautiful. ‘Paul’s cock was elegant,’ she liked to say.

I did pre-warn you that Christos Tsiolkas’ writing can be pretty full on, that taken from the story The Hair of the Dog, so you can’t be forgiven for being shocked. Not that you would be that shocked if you have read any of his novels for which this is often part of the course. You can be forgiven for giggling though because, as is the case with many of the stories within Merciless Gods, the can be titillating but there is always a much darker and more daunting stink in the tail of the tale, quite literally.

In the fifteen tales that form Merciless Gods we look at revenge, homophobia, racism, old age, family feuds, love as it blossoms, love turning sour, death, grief, power, weakness and so much more. We also look at how men respond around other men, which I could write about at some length however Tsiolkas’ has his most heightened power when he is talking about injustice, prejudice or bigotry. One of the stories that depicts this most powerfully is in Sticks, Stones; where a mother hears her own son say something horrific to a girl in his school year who has learning disabilities. The shame, disgust and rage that flow within her at her own son and his words surprise her and then almost take control of her.

In fact rage, and what we do with that emotion, is quite common in these stories from moments like that to seemingly insignificant arguments between a couple holidaying in NYC, in the aptly titled Tourists, as they wander around a gallery/museum which lingers and festers into something much greater. Tsiolkas wants to try and understand fear and rage and why they cause people to act in some of the ways they do (which reminds me of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, another fantastic and important book propelled by fury) from the stupid to the utterly contemptible.

The title tale of the collection looks at this in a very clever way. In Merciless Gods a group of friends after a night of solid drinking decide to play a game. Instead of truth or dare this group of friends decide to share their best revenge stories, leading to a dreadful case of competition but also revealing some of the more sinister sides of the people that the others think they know, one becoming so shocking and awful (and described so gleefully) the group can never be the same again. A no holds barred look at how unhealthy revenge and grudges can be, which is also looked at in The Disco at the End of Communism where a brother realises to late he should have forgiven and forgotten much sooner than he did.

‘I’m really sorry for your loss.’
It was the expected phrase, it came from a stranger, but she said it with unforced sincerity and they were the first words since he’d heard of Leo’s death that brought home the finality of the event. His brother was no more. From now on there would only be past.

Before I make this all sound too morbid or relentless (I would recommend reading this collection a tale at a time every so often) there is lightness in here too. Saturn Return is a wonderful story of acceptance and embracing difference between a gay man and his father, the latter who is at the end of his life. See, that sounds really sad but it is so full of hope and beautiful you’ll be weeping for both reasons. That said Tsiolkas isn’t here to bring unadulterated joy to your life, you can get some hope and the occasional giggle (appropriate or not) from the text but there is a statement and a point to me made. You have a tale like Saturn Return and then you go to the opposite end of the spectrum again with Jessica Lange in Frances which looks at the terrible ways in which internal homophobia can eat away at someone who is themselves gay. This also leads to the homophobia in general, several of these tales look at that yet one particular story in this collection embodies it and thoroughly whacks you with the impact of it on both parties.

The story that has stayed with me for quite some time and now seems all the more pertinent is Porn #1, which is the first in three stories which feature porn in some way, often opposing the message in the previous one which I found fascinating. Anyway. In this story, after the death of her estranged son, a mother discovers that he starred in gay porn. This creates a huge set of dilemmas for her. There is the fact she wants to see her son alive again, admittedly in a weird way. There is the fact that she cannot believe that her son would really do this. Then there is the bigger part of it, the internalised homophobia within herself; the stereotypes she has of gay men and how it conflicts with the love of a child she gave birth to. Potent, complicated and thought provoking indeed.

Why does this feel so pertinent with regards to Orlando? No I do not think this has happened since and no I am not saying that any of those sadly lost in such a tragedy had homophobic parents. To me the mother symbolises both society and some thoughts towards LGBT people, after all this was a homophobic attack (as well as an act of terrorism, I don’t want to get into the debate on this one – suffice to say I believe an act of terrorism is anything that creates terror and fear in people which this has) and the root of homophobia is, somewhat ironically, the fear of the unknown or the different. It’s all about the sex bit really and the love bit which incites so much hate and I think this one paragraph looks at this with unflinching brilliance. I hope you would agree?

When she returned to her armchair, the same monotonous exertions were taking place. Her disgust had disappeared. She had expected that she would find the images foul, not necessarily because they were pornographic, but because they depicted sex between men. Yes, the actors had seemed effeminate and ridiculous when they were kissing or performing oral sex on one another. But now that the older man was sodomising the younger one, frowning in concentration as he pounded away at the prostrate body spread over the desk, it seemed all too familiar. It was shockingly normal.

I think I will end on that note. I know I haven’t spoken about all of the fifteen stories; I just wanted to concentrate on some in light of what has been happening. Suffice to say that Merciless Gods is a collection designed to unsettle you with its overall reality in some way in each and every story. Sometimes we need fiction like this. Stories and books that rattle and shake us, shocking us out of our pacificity and make us act. Not to the extremity of inciting hate, which is kind of the butt of the jokes in the story, but to stand up to hatred, embrace what is different and try to understand and welcome it. That is what the power of amazing fiction can do, often all the more so when it is uncomfortable and confronting. Thank goodness then for authors like Christos Tsiolkas who want to shake us out of our reading routines now and again, forcing us to look at what’s going on rather than escaping from it through the power of such concentrated prose.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2016, Christos Tsiolkas, Review, Short Stories

Sweet Home – Carys Bray

Having had one of the worst bouts of flu in years over the last week, hence the silence, the one thing that would have made it bearable would have reading. As I seemed to become allergic to light this was not possible until yesterday when I promptly devoured Cary Bray’s short story collection Sweet Home (which I discovered through Jen Campbell) and it proved the perfect reading prescription. Short captivating tales with a hint of magical that entertained me and allowed me to doze between each or every other tale and have slightly surreal and magical dreams that matched the books contents. This was a huge relief to me, for the last week while I have been (seriously) sweating, sneezing, coughing or having an occasional woe is me weep, all I have been dreaming about it giving politicians a tour or a very grey office block, seriously, on repeat. So as I said, this collection was the perfect short series of bursts of escapism.

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Windmill Books, 2016, paperback, short stories, 180 pages, bought by myself for myself

When it comes to short stories I tend to have two types that I really love, make that three. First there is the fairytale; be it a classic, a modern retelling or something completely new. Secondly I like short stories that have a twist you don’t see coming or pack a hefty punch when you least expect it. Thirdly I like a bittersweet tale that encompasses a whole novel in mere pages, I want it all – love, grief, happiness, devastation. In her debut collection Sweet Home, which was published in 2012 by Salt (and annoyingly I missed) and has now been republished by Windmill, Carys Bray delivers all three of these things that I love, sometimes all at once.

It is always difficult to summarise a collection, something I say in every single review I do of one I know, yet there are certain themes which Bray seems to be studying and exploring the intricacies with Sweet Home. The first, funnily enough, is ‘the home’. Through the collection what constitutes a home, what makes a happy one and if home really is where the heart is, are all looked at. In the story Wooden Mum, Bray cleverly looks at the role and respect a mother feels she is shown through the ways her children play with a dolls house and the wooden family within it. It is also the main point of the title story which looks at a woman who buys a piece of forest and building a house made from sugar and sweets…

Of course no one accused the woman of being a witch. But she was foreign. Her words percolated up the tunnel of her throat, espresso-thick and strong. Bad weather had eroded her face. Some believed that the sun had crisped her skin into coriaceous pleats. Others blamed the chaw of a wintery climate. No one knew where she had come from, though lots of people privately thought that perhaps she ought to go back.

This leads us nicely into the element of fairytale that runs through the book. In most stories there is mention of one or comparisons of one. It is probably the retelling of Hansel and Gretel in Sweet Home or in The Ice Baby, a wonderful and quite literally heartbreaking tale of a couple who are desperate to have a child and so far have been unable to. There is also the dystopic fairytale, if such a thing exists, The Baby Aisle where the busy working mum or dad can simply pick up a child in a supermarket, they even have reduced ones, it isn’t specified but I think you could probably get club card points with them too. This really is the second main theme and topic of Sweet Home, children and childhood. In stories like The Countdown, Bed Rest and the incredibly unsettling Just In Case, we find parents who have either lost children, are panicking about losing children or are looking at certain periods of worry in their own childhood’s. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is Scaling Never which is told through the eyes of a young boys as he deals with his own, along with his families, grief after the death of his sister Issy…

The house is full of sadness. It’s packed into every crevice and corner like snow. There are bottomless drifts of it beside Issy’s Cinderella beanbag in the lounge. The sadness gives Jacob the shivers and he takes refuge in the garden. Like the house, it is higgledy and unkempt. The lawn is scuffed and threadbare in places like a grassy doormat that’s felt too many feet.

For those of you who know of Carys Bray’s incredibly well received and read debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, this is where I am guessing the story originated and it has certainly left me with a real hankering to get to that novel very soon. Grief and death soon become clear preoccupations for Bray as much as birth, this also links into health and in many of the stories someone is ill be it bed rest for a child to come, a simple bug, Alzheimer’s or cancer. The latter are the case in two of my favourites tales, which sounds odd considering the subject matter. My Burglar made me want to cry as our protagonist goes around her house telling us, and her daughter, that she is sure she is being burgled or the most random items. Then there is what I think is the collections knock out story, Under Covers.

Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat. The wind has blown it off the washing line and tossed it onto the wispy fingertips of the leylandii, where it reclines in a sprawl of wire, hooks and corralling lace. Despite her best efforts, she can’t reach it. Her washing basket is full of dry laundry. She has removed the pegs from the line and placed them in their little bag. But she can’t go back indoors until she has retrieved the fugitive bra. People might see it.

What follows here is the tale of Carol, her husband, and the two girls watching from the upstairs window and it is just so beautifully told and intricately woven. We see the story of the change in a marriage as an older woman tries to find her bra and thinks of all the things it stands for, from a healthy sex life to a healthy life and the two giggling teenagers who have their whole lives, and love lives, ahead of them. If it doesn’t choke you up and have you thinking long and hard about everything then you have no heart – there I have said it!

It is a testament to Bray’s writing that all these subject matters are dealt with in a way that is  honest, unflinching and confronting, yet told in a warm, emotive and tender way even when at their most bittersweet. Bray also does that thing I love so much, she makes the ordinary seem extraordinary and, particularly in the case of On The Way Home where we flit from person to person down a street, she finds the magical in the tales of everyday folk. I think Sweet Home is a wonderful, wonderful collection. I shall be heading to Cary Bray’s novels very soon indeed.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Bray, Review, Short Stories, Windmill Books

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

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Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

Some New Ambush – Carys Davies

The first book of the year to me is always an important one. I used to pick them willy nilly and then would have willy nilly reading years, as it were. In the last few years I have got wiser and so now take a bit of time deciding which book to read. I chose Carys Davies’ debut collection Some New Ambush because I hoped it would fit the bill of what I want in the reading year ahead. I want to read corking writing, marvellous stories and things that are a little quirky which might be lesser known. Oh and I really want to read quite a few beloved authors back lists this year too, and last year with The Redemption of Galen Pike Carys immediately was sent into that category. So I opened Some New Ambush and promptly devoured it in a day.

9781844713417

Salt Publishing, 2007, paperback, short stories, 110 pages, bought by myself for myself

It is very difficult to try and categorise Some New Ambush because with every story Carys Davies takes you somewhere totally different. We might be in a bookstore cafe in America, and then off to a small welsh town. We might head to an island where everything is red or we may take a wander in an airport on the outskirts of London. In a similar vein time varies as much as place sometimes we are in a magical land and time; like the island of red in Red Rose, we may be off with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visiting an asylum; as we do in The Visitors or we could be in the present day in a school possibly just down the road; as with Historia Calamitatum Mearum or we may be in a story that could take place in any time. There is no boundaries to where these stories may lead to, which is wonderful, no story is anything like the others.

There are however some similarities with the stories and some themes. In the latter case, in all fifteen of Carys Davies stories something is lost. What is really, really difficult though to do is try and explain this in a way which will not give anything away as with every tale of Davies’ there is always an element of surprise somewhere and I defy you to be able to see any of them coming. It might be a friendship or it might be hope. So where was I? Oh yet loss and losing things, this seems to be a theme in every one of the tales in Some New Ambush. It might be a friendship or it might be your dry cleaning. It might be a bracelet, it could be a child. It could be love, it could be hope.

I always hoped it wasn’t someone old who took Bobby. He was afraid of old people. He’d look at the yellow whites of their eyes and their ugly teeth and the shiny brown skin on their hands and then push his face into Lily’s skirts and hide. He was afraid of old people and dogs and witches, though he was very fond indeed of fairy tales and I always thought it likely that he was lured away, not with the offer of sweets or a drive in a nice car, but with the promise of a story.

If this sounds all a bit maudlin, fret not for one of the things that I love most about Carys Davies’ writing is that there is always humour within, some of it might be pretty dark but the humour is there all the same. There is also always the sense of the fairy tale and the magical within the stories too, without these ever really being fairy tales, well with the exception of Rose Red I suppose which feels more like a fable. Instead I think Carys leaves in a hint of the magical and more often that not she pays homage to fairy tales, which were really the first short stories, and then twists them in a modern more ‘natural’ way. Tales like Pied Piper, Waking the Princess, Ugly Sister and Gingerbread Boy may have names of fairytales past or nod to them yet the magic that Carys is celebrating really is the everyday and it works wonderfully. Even in other stories like The Captain’s Daughter when you think you are getting a fairy tale or something supernatural a surprise will come along and give you something quite different. Those surprises again, how I love them as they are always better than what you could imagine.

These days he seems worse. He appears frightened now, when I leave the room, a look of startled alarm freezes his features. There are times when we are out in the street when he truly does not seem to know where he is, and if I let go of his arm for two seconds to go and post a letter, or to go and get the Pay & Display sticker for the car, I come back to find him standing next to it, apparently bewildered and afraid, anxiously toeing the gravel with the point of his shoe. One day in the kitchen a while ago he was making one of his Bakewell tarts and he couldn’t remember what an egg was.
Then last Thursday morning, he came downstairs without his hand.

Just as it is hard to talk about any of these stories in depth for fear of spoiling them, as obviously you are all going to go and get your hands on them straight away, it is also very hard to pick favourites when a collection such as this one is so strong. Naturally I loved going to an asylum with Wilkie Collins and (to a lesser extent, ha) Charles Dickens in The Visitors. Opener Hwang is a wonderful tale of two friends regular meeting and bitching about their scary dry cleaner, which soon becomes a very upsetting and then darkly funny tale of revenge. Monday Diary might just break your heart as a boy discusses why his mother calls him a gift from god. Historia Calamitatum Mearum is a tale of a feud between a latin teacher and a technology teacher, which looks at history vs modernisation in a very witty way. Ugly Sister is a tale of two sisters who have become inseperable, now living together in their older years still trying to get men and taking it in turns to win them with a twist you will not see coming and possibly another one after that. Metamorphosis starts as a tale of mild stalking in a library that leads to madness. See I could go on.

That said, Pied Piper did completely blow me away, which is honestly saying something when you love every single story out of a whopping fifteen. A woman who has been unable to have children finds a baby abandoned in the sand dunes on her birthday whilst taking one of her regular trips out to see the sea. As there is no one there and as the baby needs care she takes it. Back in her village everyone, from her husband to her neighbours, each knows the baby isn’t hers and they keep up the pretence for years and then something happens that changes the life of everyone in that village. I can’t say what, or really say much more, but it completely shocked me, broke me and left me unable to do anything except make a strong cup of sweet tea before I could go on. It is an absolutely amazing short story and does in ten pages what some novels don’t manage to achieve in 400.

As you might have guessed I simply adored Some New Ambush. Having read this and The Redemption of Galen Pike there is no dout that Carys Davies is my favourite writer of short stories. She can create a character in a single sentence, build complete worlds in a mere paragraph and create entire lives in mere pages. She is just wonderful. I am only sad there isn’t a new collection on the horizon, though I have heard one is being worked on thank goodness. If you haven’t read her work then please, please, please do. What a start to my reading year, the only worry now is if anything else can live up to this?

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Davies, Review, Salt Publishing, Short Stories

Thunderstruck & Other Stories – Elizabeth McCracken

One of the most talked about short story collections of last year was undoubtedly Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories rave reviews were flying in left right and centre and so earlier this year, when the praise had died down somewhat, I decided that I would give them a whirl. Having not read any of McCracken’s work before (which interestingly horrified many and led them to say ‘but The Giant’s House is so you’, I still need to get my mitts on it) I went in blind to a collection of stories that when you initially describe them might sound dark and maudlin but actually have many moments of hope and humour.

Vintage Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Short stories are always a little difficult to write about because you don’t want to give everything away in each one, yet at the same time you want to give anyone thinking about reading it a sense of what the whole work is about. In the case of Thunderstruck & Other Stories the one thing that ties them all together really is loss. It might be the loss of a partner, a child, an animal. People tend to die or go missing predominantly in these tales at the start and then we go off backwards to find out more about them or forwards into the ripples of loss and grief that follow. ‘Oh bloody hell,’ you might be thinking ‘this sounds like a right cheery bunch of tales.’ Yet whilst the overall feeling, particularly as it ends on the title story, might be one of make sure people know you love them before they or you die or disappear, there is a quirky humour and sense of hope that resides within the whole collection. I probably sound like a loon saying that, once you have read it you will know what I mean.

Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street. Nobody saw her go. She must have stepped out the door of the Victorian she shared with her father and son. She must have walked down the front steps. She was accompanied or unaccompanied, willing or unwilling. She left behind her head-dented pillow like a book on a lectern, on the right page one long hair marking her place for the next time. She left behind socks that eventually forgot the particular shape of her feet and the shoes that didn’t, the brown leather belt that once described her boyish waist, dozens of silver earrings, the pajamas she’d been wearing when last seen. She left behind her mattress printed with unfollowed instructions for seasonal turning. She left behind her car. She left behind the paperback mystery she’d been reading.

I am not going to tell you about every single tale in the collection as I think that might over egg the pudding and you would have very little left to discover. I will however give you a taste of some of the stories I really loved. If you go and read any other reviews, as I did before I borrowed the collection, what you will find interesting is that no person’s top three or four stories are the same though some feature the same one or two. Those tend to be Juliet and Thunderstruck itself.

Juliet initially starts as a slightly kooky tale of a town seen through the eyes of a librarian as she observes her patrons, soon enough things take a darker twist as we discover that there has been a murder, of a woman named Juliet, which leads to a confrontation between patrons and librarians and librarians with librarians. The farce with the tragedy becoming truly bittersweet. In Thunderstruck a pair of concerned parents decide to take their daughter away to France, after she is brought home by the police having done drugs at a party. In France it seems that she blossoms and all is well, only of course McCracken has a twist waiting for you and what a twist indeed. I thought this was interesting both in how it brought up the subjects of parents not always knowing best and teenagers just being teenagers, whilst also being a contemporary look at the old historical act of sending young girls to France to better themselves which has happened throughout time.

Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s landing. Still, surely somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.

Two other highlights are Property which tells of a couple who sell their house to return to America for the next stage of their life, only for the wife to die before they leave. Her widow then has to move into a new rental home which is far from idyllic and seems to match his situation as life no longer has the shine, romance or excitement without his wife with him. If you aren’t broken (and then enraged) by this you have no heart. Hungry also looks at grief, though in a very different way as whilst staying with her grandmother one summer not knowing her father is about to be taken off life support, ten year old Lisa is left to her own devices and the contents of the larder and fridge, where she gorges her grandmother to grief stricken and guilty to do anything about it. It sounds funny but it becomes incredibly difficult to read. I should also nod to The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston and The House of Two Three Legged Dogs which were also highlights but I won’t say more about as I will end up telling you about them all.

I do have a favourite though and actually I would suggest you leave this till last, though it is first in the collection. Something Amazing is just that, something amazing. It is the tale of the children of a neighbourhood who believe they still see the ghost of Missy Goody, who was six and a complete bully, since her death they believe her mother Mrs Goody is a witch and a mad woman. In many ways Mrs Goody is mad, driven crazy by grief, to the point where her grief and loneliness cause her to do something quite bonkers indeed. Yet oddly, because McCracken writes her so well, understandable in a very, very weird way – you don’t condone it, you get it though.

Something Amazing just worked for me on every level. It has a Du Maurier (highest form of compliment from me) gothic sensibility, it is utterly creepy and then utterly heartbreaking whilst also having the elements of a ghost story, mystery and fairytale. I had to read it all over again as soon as I had finished it. For me the whole collection is worth the cover price for this tale alone. There, I have said it. I liked the others very, very much indeed this one though completely stole my heart.

Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Gooby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.

So as you can see I concur with all the rave reviews of Thunderstruck & Other Stories and think that the way McCracken uses tragedy and farce, emotion and dark humour marvellous. I also love the way she writes about every day people, everyday problems yet at moments of great endurance in one way or another. I am now very keen to go and read all of her other collections and novels. So would love to hear your thoughts on them and of course on this collection too.

*Note in case you are thinking ‘didn’t you say that book was from the library yet you’ve had it sent from the publishers?’ I did get it from the library in hardback and read that copy in Spring and then was sent a paperback unsolicited later and read Something Amazing another three times, which was delightful.

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Filed under Elizabeth McCracken, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books