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.

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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

Letter From An Unknown Woman – Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig is an author I have seen many people rave about and yet have always felt that, for some unknown reason, his work might be a little too high brow for me and I wouldn’t enjoy it. It was with trepidation that I started Letter From An Unknown Woman, a collection of four of his works, when it was chosen for Hear Read This. Well if all of Zweig’s writing is like this I have been a fool to have not read him for so long, I discovered his writing is wonderful and was somewhat spellbound by this collection.

Pushkin Press, paperback, 2013 (originally 1922, 1911, 1982 & 1900) , short stories, translated by Anthea Bell, 208 pages, bought by myself for myself

I have called Letter From An Unknown Woman a collection of Zweig’s works rather than a short story collection as the title story really verges on the length of a novella, and at the opposite end of the spectrum (and indeed the book) Forgotten Dreams is barely ten pages long, both A Story Told in Twilight and The Debt Paid Late are roughly the same length. Yet one thing can be said for Zweig, that no matter how long or short his works are the prose is simply gorgeous, the stories take you in directions you don’t expect and each one has an emotional intelligence and range that will have you feeling like you have read a novel rather than something much shorter. In this collection they all also tend to look at lost loves from a state of hindsight, which can make them all the more mysterious, powerful, romanticised or bittersweet.

My child died yesterday — for three days and three nights I wrestled with death for that tender little life, I sat for forty hours at his bedside while the influenza racked his poor, hot body with fever. I put cool compresses on his forehead, I held his restless little hands day and night. On the third evening I collapsed. My eyes would not stay open any longer; I was unaware of it when they closed. I slept, sitting on my hard chair, for three or four hours, and in that time death took him. Now the sweet boy lies there in his narrow child’s bed, just as he died; only his eyes have been closed, his clever, dark eyes, and his hands are folded over his white shirt, while four candles burn at the four corners of his bed. I dare not look, I dare not stir from my chair, for when the candles flicker shadows flit over his face and his closed mouth, and then it seems as if his features were moving, so that I might think he was not dead after all, and will wake up and say something loving and childish to me in his clear voice. But I know that he is dead, I will arm myself against hope and further disappointment, I will not look at him again. I know it is true, I know my child died yesterday — so now all I have in the world is you, you who know nothing about me, you who are now amusing yourself without a care in the world, dallying with things and with people. I have only you, who never knew me, and whom I have always loved.

The whole opening paragraph of Letter From an Unknown Woman, and indeed the first paragraph in the collection, could in itself be flash fiction. Zweig instantly pulls us into the mind, through the pen, of a woman who is writing to a famous author, only known as ‘R’, which happens to arrive on his birthday. As R reads on we are given the vivid account of a woman who not only knew him and loved him yet who he has no memories of at all. You might think you know where this is going, you would be wrong.

This is one of the things that I loved most about his writing throughout, you never get what you think you are even when you try and second guess it with that knowledge. For example in the case of the mysterious letter writer we start learning about her love of his words as a young woman and then how she became infatuated and indeed believed they were destined to be together. Naturally we think ‘okay, crazy obsessive fan’ yet as the letter carries on we start to have our opinion completely altered and a very different story emerges. It’s beautiful, melancholic and also incredibly poignant in the very last paragraph, I defy you not be moved by it.

As I mentioned earlier this happens in all the tales in this collection. In Forgotten Dreams a man meets a woman he was in love with once again, you think you know what is coming and you don’t. The Debt Paid Late tells of a woman who taking some mountain air, after looking after her grandchildren for quite some time who had scarlet fever, where in a cafe she spots an actor she was infatuated with as a young girl, a time when she allowed herself to be led astray. The actor is now a withered old man and a town joke, how this affects the woman may not be how you think. I am teasing you terribly, but I really want you to go and read this collection.

I have left A Story Told in Twilight last simply because it was my favourite. Here a man recalls a time in his not so distant past when he was holidaying at a castle in Scotland staying with a well to do family, friends of his family. One night, just at twilight, a woman comes out of nowhere taking him by surprise and kissing him, this happens yet again and again each time so fast and so suddenly he never realises which of the ladies in the house it might be. He naturally becomes besotted and so must find his true love, you can of course expect twists and turns. I loved this one because it is the most gothic and the most fairy tale of the whole collection and those are two of my very favourite things. There is of course the mystery and the comical errors that our narrator makes to find out who this mystery mistress is.

I don’t remember just how I came to know this story. All I do know is that I was sitting here for a long time early this afternoon, reading a book, then putting it down again, drowsing in my dreams, perhaps sleeping lightly. And suddenly I saw figures stealing past the walls, and I could hear what they were saying and look into their lives.

The other things I loved about this collection were how much about writing they all are. We have people reaching back and telling stories to themselves and those they know. Two of the stories are told through letters, one of the main characters is an author, it seems the power of words resides behind each tale embedded in Zweig’s own prose, which I must say is stunningly translated by Anthea Bell. I also loved how it looks at hindsight and how we can romanticise things from the past or suddenly see how foolish we were.

If I was being super critical I would say that I would probably have put the short stories in reverse order as I think this would build the collections themes and power as you read a long. I also think it would mean you read the weaker of the tales first (which is still very good but seems slightly flimsy, though it was his first, at the end after the others) then enjoy The Debt Paid Late before being completely blown away by A Story Told in Twilight and then Letter From an Unknown Woman which I think are now two of my favourite short stories that I’ve read had the pleasure of reading so far. If I was ever in a position to have curate a collection of short stories published they would both be housed in it. If this is just a taste of the power and beauty of Zweig’s prose then I think we have a fabulous journey of stories ahead of us. If you have yet to read him then do.

If you would like to hear more opinions on Letters From an Unknown Woman then do listen to myself, Gav of Cwtch Books and Rob and Kate from Adventures With Words on Hear Read This here. Have you read this collection and if so what did you think? Have you seen the film of Letter From an Unknown Woman, it has Joan Fontaine who played the second Mrs De Winter in Hitchcock’s brilliant adaptation of Rebecca so I now really want to see it. Which other Stefan Zweig stories, collections or novels have you read as I think I am going to have to get my mitts on many more of them?

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Filed under Pushkin Press, Review, Short Stories, Stefan Zweig

A Summer of Short Stories

I have fallen in love with short stories again this year. Not that I am sure I ever fell out of love with them. I think if anything I tended to read collections by authors I knew, and saw them rather like bonus scenes to the full novels, which I know is daft but it is true. It was rare that I would read a completely new to me authors collection, though when I did and they were like Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles (which if you haven’t read after the amount of times I have recommended it, you are bonkers and there may be no hope for you, ha) I was lost in them completely.

This year they have really come into their own though for me. During Fiction Uncovered I was introduced to several collections of which the standouts were longlisted The Way Out by Vicki Jarrett and one of the winners The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, both of which I will be telling you about and raving about in due course.

Collections can be an interesting experience as some will blow you away and some will leave you cold, I hasten to add none leave you cold in the two I mention above, which can create an interesting reading experience of peaks and troughs. When a short story is amazing though it can blow your mind and as I said when I was talking about how intense reading taught me about my own read habits and that Sometimes a single short story in a collection can have as much power as a 500+ page novel, which is true.

I also think they could be the perfect way to get people back into reading more if they think they haven’t the time or that reading isn’t really for them. You can read a story or two on a commute, or when you are on the loo (sorry over sharing) or when you’re waiting in the car park for your partner to finish faffing around Homebase or any other DIY store, or clothes store if your partner is more into that than DIY or just on your lunch break and need a quick fiction fix.

They are a few pages of magic and so I am planning on reading lots more over (what is left of) the summer. Here are some, not all, of the collections I have been buying and others I have dusted off for just such a short story binge…

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  • Don’t Try This At Home by Angela Readman – This is a collection that The Beard bought me after I had heard great things about it from various lovely sorts on Twitter and also declared I wanted the cover art as bedding.
  • The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg – I saw this collection from Daunt Books (who have a publishing house as well as gorgeous bookshops) out the corner of my eye, because the cover shimmers, in Waterstones in Newcastle where they have wonderful displays of eclectic books, so purchased it.
  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim – This collection won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year (why all prizes don’t include short story collections I do not know) and my lovely pal Natalie was one of the judges and raved about it, a lot.
  • Young Skins by Colin Barrett – This won last year’s Guardian First Book Prize and whilst it pains me that the author was born in the same year as me, 1982, and is so talented it does mean I can tick off a box on my BOTNS Bingo Summer Reading card. This also links nicely with…
  • Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan – This was longlisted for last year’s Guardian First Book Award and was the public’s addition to the longlist. I read and really liked May-Lan Tan’s chapbook of two short stories Girly earlier this year and then randomly sat next to her at an event and had a lovely long chat about all sorts.
  • The Not-Dead and The Saved by Kate Clanchy – I do not know a single person who has seen Clanchy read her stories that has not been in hysterics and in tears in both happy and sad ways. This was enough of a recommendation for me.
  • An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass – One of the first books to come from the John Murray Originals imprint (the cover is stunning) which I want to read for the title, and title story, alone.
  • Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas – I love Tsiolkas’ writing and this is one of the collections I have been most excited about this year, it is out in September.
  • Jellyfish by Janice Galloway – Almost everyone I know loves Janice Galloway so by default I am sure I will and I think short stories can sometimes be a rather wonderful way of trialling an author, or maybe trying them out sounds nicer.
  • Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers – Again all the right people have been raving about this.
  • Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – Why on earth has this gone unread for so long, I am frankly embarrassed. She is a genius, we all know this, and this is meant to be a brilliant collection of nine tales.

Phew. You may notice that there aren’t any classics on this list, which I have realised is rather remiss of me. That said I am reviewing a modern classic collection next, so you’ll be hearing all about that. I have also been contemplating Hemingway’s short stories in September as I will be at some of his old hangouts and watering holes by Lake Michigan when I go on my road trip around some of northern America, we will see.

Have you read any of the above collections or other collections by some of those authors? What did you make of them? Are you a fan of the short story? As always I would love your short story recommendations be they new, recent or classic (I have a feeling many of you will mention Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, which I have read and adored but am struggling to write a review of) so let me know which other collections I should look out for and why…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Short Stories

Girly – May-Lan Tan

I cannot for the life of me remember where I saw pictures of May-Lan Tan’s Girly, a chapbook of two short stories Pacific and Little Sister, but I think it might have been Instagram (how modern) and just from the cover I knew it was something I wanted to try. Yes, even though I already owned Things to Make and Break, the magpie that lives in my head wanted something new, shiny and also rare as Girly is a limited edition of print runs – I think. So order it I did and a couple of weeks later it arrived from the U S of A, was it worth the wait?

Future Tense Books, chapbook, 2014, fiction, 33 pages, bought by myself for myself

Girly is aptly made up of two short stories that depict the life of two very different girls as they head into womanhood and also into independence, in two variants of the word. The first of the stories Pacific tell the tale of a young woman who has somehow ended up on the opposite side of the world, stuck in motels with an on/off ex who seems to come and go on a whim. As the story unfolds we learn through various flash backs how this girl has ended up so far away from home and in the predicament she is in.

After a while, it will all look the same.  You’ll wonder if you’re on an elevator that keeps stopping at the same floor. Perhaps there is only one motel, one gas station, one diner,  and the extras are putting on false moustaches and changing their hair. Sometimes you’ll think of your house at home. Your princess and the pea bed. The sound of the wok spitting oil, and your desk drawer crammed full of poems. Imagine your parents sitting on the sofa under the painting of flame trees, wondering where you are. Be too scared to call.

Little Sister tells of a young woman having her first period at school, how she copes with it and also how those around her deal with it. Yet it is also has the additional layers of sisterhood (be it with those of you who are in the same family and those who aren’t and perform sisterly acts) and, as it goes on, gives you an insight into the lives of some of the women in society. It has a wonderful concoction of just the right amount of humour and poignancy.

When I pull my pants up, it feels like I’m straddling an air mattress. I think of all the people who already have it. Teacher Willow and Head Teacher Pear and Miss Hong Kong and Jennifer Aniston and the white-gloved girl who presses the lift buttons in Sogo. They must be so angry.

Whilst both the stories are about two girls coming of age, they couldn’t be more different both in terms of their settings and their structure. On one hand we have the campus tale of America, given the spin of being seen through an outsider’s eyes and on the other we have one set in modern Hong Kong. It is very rare that in just two stories you can you’re in the hands of an incredible talent and one who likes to experiment with form and play with prose and language, Tan does this seemingly effortlessly with Girly.

Pacific is written in two very clever ways. Firstly there is the way in which Tan weaves the present and various points in the past playing (nicely) with us as the readers as to how our protagonist is in the situation she is. It is also written in the style of a ‘How To…’ manual (with headings like How to Burn, How to Move, Death by Drive-Thru) and a self help guide, only one that is being written whilst its author learns the hard way. Little Sister seems more straight forward and yet as you read on there is both a slight magical and fairytale like element as well as a rawness as it moves on and a certain bittersweet tone as it leads to its conclusion. In both instances Tan creates characters personalities through the smallest of things. It could be that a character has an eraser the shape of a hamburger or that one writes stories about Vietnamese vets, whatever the case Tan uses a few words to create so much and so within paragraphs you are in these girls lives, warts and all. Both stories are brilliant and I could have read more of.

Needless to say, if you fancy a book that is both different in terms of its contents and its very physicality then I would heartily recommend you order yourself a copy of Girly pronto. There is something quite special about Tan’s writing both in how it tells you a story, the hidden depths they have and also what they leave out for the reader to make up themselves. I am really looking forward to reading Things to Make and Do over the summer when I am planning on having something of a short story binge, as with authors like Tan I am becoming a huge fan of the form. Great stuff!

If you would like to order a copy of Girly before they all sell out then you can head here to Future Tense Books. In a random aside I was at Literary Death Match in London back in April (a while after I read these stories for the first time, I have returned since) and guess who ended sitting next to me? May-Lan Tan! She recognised me from Twitter and between author’s reading and judges judging’s we had a lovely natter; so talented and lovely a double win!

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Filed under Future Tense Books, May-Lan Tan, Review, Short Stories

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote

I always think I don’t have that many quirks, or OCD moments, when it comes to reading and books yet it seems I have more than I think. One such quirk which you might have heard on the festive episode of The Readers is that I only like reading Christmas books at Christmas if I can help it. I often actually plan a small Christmas selection in advance the first of which was Truman Capote’s collection of three festive stories A Christmas Memory, which I picked up on a bargain hunt back in August when I was in Washington DC, part of my American haul, that I have been saving to read until now.

The Modern Library, 1956 (2007 edition), hardback, short stories, 107 pages, bought by my good self

The Modern Library, 1956 (2007 edition), hardback, short stories, 107 pages, bought by my good self

A Christmas Memory is, as it says on the tin pretty much, as selection of three Christmas memories from Truman Capote’s past that he has fictionalised in some way. Interestingly I didn’t actually realised they were all from the same narrator ‘Buddy’ until almost the end of the second story, and so we see through Buddy’s eyes a world of nostalgia with the additional vantage of hindsight  these three particular festive moments which have lasted in the boys mind.

The first A Christmas Memory tells a wonderful story of Buddy and his friend Mrs Sook, and her dog Queenie, have been saving up all year to make over 30 Christmas cakes. Some are for their friends locally, though interestingly not so many for the distant relatives that Buddy lives with, and for more random people further afield, like the president. It is a tale of a happy nostalgic ritual and how they go about keeping the tradition when times are hard.

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The second tale One Christmas is the shortest of the three and sees Buddy leaving the home he has been sent to with distant relatives, to spend a Christmas with his estranged father. This is an interesting tale which starts of quite magically and ideally and then takes on a slightly more and more sinister turn of events as father and son try to work out the relationship between them. It also looks at how Christmas is changing in modern times, the classic Christmas against the commercial and contemporary.

Snow! Until I could read myself, Sook read me many stories, and it seemed a lot of snow was in almost all of them. Drifting, dazzling fairytale flakes. It was something I dreamed about; something magical and mysterious that I wanted to see and feel and touch.

The third and final tale is The Thanksgiving Visitor which tells of Miss Sook getting into the spirit of hospitality and charity (which has vanished if you look at what happened on Black Friday this year) when she invites a stranger to dinner. The stranger happens to be Buddy’s worst enemy at school, Odd Henderson, bringing a new tension into the young boy and older woman’s friendship and also brings about a tale of revenge which backfires somewhat.

Talk about mean! Odd Henderson was the meanest human creature in my experience.
And I’m speaking of a twelve-year-old boy, not some grownup who has had the time to ripen a naturally evil disposition.

It is an interesting, if a little strange, collection this one. A selection of almost fables. The whole collection brings about the childhood of a boy who isn’t living the stereotypical life with a stereotypical family, as his parents have split up he stays with distant family members as I mentioned before. In this scenario the wonderful friendship between Buddy and Miss Sook, who seems to have some form of learning difficulties and is in many ways childlike herself, is utterly beautiful and in the title story completely gorgeous and moving.

The slight problem I had with it though is that there lies a hint of bitterness in the second and third stories. Whilst the first is all about the good in people Christmas can bring One Christmas is really about greed and the commercialisation of Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor is a tale of someone seeking revenge and that revenge sort of back firing. True enough, both these tales end well (and we can see the moral of the story) yet there is a certain negativity in them, or still lingering anger which Capote may have seen this as therapy for, which made the book have a rather miserable after taste. I am a Scrooge enough as it is at Christmas, this ended up leaving me feeling glum when what I needed was something lighter and more chipper maybe?

Either way you cannot fault the writing. Capote is an author whose craftsmanship with words is just a marvel, simple as that. Maybe it should be no surprise that with his love for the macabre, as in In Cold Blood, and the darker side of the happy story (if you have read Breakfast at Tiffany’s rather than see the film you will know what I mean), this would be about the shadows behind the Christmas tree rather than the ones in front. I just wish they had all been like A Christmas Memory which I think is possibly the perfect modern Christmas tale.

Have you read this collection and if so what did you make of it? Have any of you seen the film which I have only just discovered exists? Finally, am I the only person who likes to only read about Christmas at Christmas?

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Filed under Review, Short Stories, The Modern Library, Truman Capote

The American Lover – Rose Tremain

If one book could sum up my reading year it would probably be Rose Tremain’s collection The American Lover. In part this is because this has been a year in which I have rediscovered my love of the short story. It wasn’t that I had abandoned them; I think I was just reading the wrong ones. It is also the year that I finally read Rose Tremain, after reading her work in honour of Granny Savidge who rated her as one of her favourite living authors. I am kicking myself for not having read her sooner and The American Lover again shows why she is such a master of the story whatever length.

Chatto & Windus, 2014, hardback, short stories, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the things that I most love about Rose Tremain’s writing is how she gets into the heads of the outsider or the underdog, or indeed the forgotten voices in society. This is probably the theme that runs through all her work and is the only thing that really connects The American Lover which is about as eclectic a selection of short stories as you could ask for in terms of scope, lengths and subject matter.

We have all felt, even the most confident of us, like outsiders at some point in her lives and this theme chimes within us even if we aren’t like the two old men in Captive or Smithy, who both live alone and try to get by and be helpful both (heartbreakingly so), we can empathise with them from what we have experienced as we do in all the stories. Rose also looks at people who choose to be outsiders such as Walter and Lena in A View of Lake Superior in the Fall who have become recluses hidden away in the wilds to hide from their grown up daughter, you will laugh and you will cry; and in another tale the very real Leo Tolstoy who appears, having escaped his horrendous wife in The Jester of Astapovo. She also looks at Sapphic love and how being different in whatever way makes us feel an outsider in the brilliant Extra Geography. Another highlight for me though was the appearance of one of my very favourite fictional outsiders…

Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I am a breathing woman.

You can imagine my chills of excitement when I saw that yes, Rose Tremain takes on Rebecca in The Housekeeper looking at it from a completely different angle of the relationship between muse, writer and the finished works. In fact writing is one of the themes interspersed throughout The American Lover, indeed in the title story we discover the tale of Beth whose affair with a much older man when she was younger inspired the bestselling novel The American Lover, yet what was she left with after. This is a wonderful and, another Tremain trope, heartbreaking tale and you can see why it was up for the short story award earlier in the year. As we have a reimaging of how Rebecca was inspired and how Tolstoy spent his last days we also get a wonderful modern retelling of a rather famous Shakespeare play with 21st Century Juliet, which had me cackling. The excerpt below made me laugh and also reminds you all to pop my birthday date in your diaries, ha!

24th March
Cook supper for Cousin Tibs. I adore the bastard like the brother I never had. We get smashed on the (four) bottles of Corvo he’s brought and I tell him about Mayo and about Perry’s declaration. Relief to get everything out in the open. And Tibs is really sweet and on my side and agrees with me that good sex is awesomely rare and that Perry Paris is verging on being a pillock.

What I also love about Rose Tremain’s writing (and I have a lot of love for it if you hadn’t noticed) is that she explores all aspects of we strange human folk. She looks at loneliness, grief, rage, love, loss, death, kindness, bitterness in all their forms. One of the tales that did this best (and is probably in my favourites of the collection with The American Lover, Captive and obviously The Housekeeper) is BlackBerry Winter where we meet Fran as she goes home for Christmas. Here with time to reflect she does the things we all do now and again, and something that Tremain is very good at discussing in her work, asking the questions of ourselves we don’t like to face or are shocked to face. Some are hard and dark; what are we doing with our lives, are we in the right relationship, do we like ourselves? Some are dark but funny (Tremain does black comedy so, so well) like when we contemplate killing our mothers, or wishing we were dead, even just for a moment.

Fran unpacked her clothes and put them in her old wardrobe, which used to creak and grumble in the night, like something alive. Then, she sat down on the single bed and took out her BlackBerry and emailed David. She told him that she almost wished Peggy had been sliced in half by the gin trap; she told him that the moonshine on The Trib had made her long to be a Tahitian again; she told him that her love for him was as dark and familiar as the wood. When she signed off and contemplated her evening alone with Peggy and the TV, she experienced thirty seconds of wanting to be dead.

I loved the whole collection of The American Lover, there is so much that is wonderful in here I haven’t managed to mention A Man in the Water, Juliette Greco’s Black Dress, Lucy & Gaston  or The Closing Door which are all marvellous, and all have all the Tremain-isms in them that I mention above. Also you might need another reason to quickly run and get this from the shops for loved ones, though really I would recommend you just treat yourself and find a few hours to curl up with it and all the worlds and stories Rose Tremain creates for you.

When Simon Met Rose...

When Simon Met Rose…

I had the joy of meeting Rose, who is just lovely, and talking about The American Lover and some of the other books she has written (and indeed I have read for Trespassing with Tremain, the review of Restoration coming before the end of the year) a month or so ago which you can listen to here on You Wrote The Book. Who else has read this collection and what did you think? What about Tremain’s other works? I still have plenty to go which I am so excited about; she is definitely a firm favourite author of mine now.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for some time will know that I am a huge fan of the fairy tale and have been since I was a youngster, so much so that I named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Imagine my delight then when Faber emailed me and asked me if I would like to read a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic/comic short stories, Through the Woods, a collection of creepy fairy tales and urban legend like tales. Of course I practically bit their hands off through the medium of email and what arrived in the post a few days later was a thing of beauty, though as we know even the most beautiful of things can have a dark heart…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2014, graphic short story collection, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Through the Woods is a collection of five very eerie, gothic and deliciously chilling tales. Each tale manages to do that wonderfully uneasy thing of somehow allaying themselves to your childhood, and indeed grown up, fear.  First there is Our Neighbours House which tells of three sisters who are told by their father, before he goes off hunting in the snow, that if he does not return they must head to their neighbours house, of course he disappears and so the sisters must decide what to do alone with only each other and the mysterious neighbour through the snow and woods. Second up is A Lady’s Hands Are Cold about a second wife who moves into her new home where something isn’t happy about her arrival.

Next up His Face All Red looks at how dangerous jealousy can be even between siblings, though admittedly this is the one that worked the least for me. Penultimate tale My Friend Janna is a tale of a medium which has a very, very clever twist as it goes on which I admired very much. Then finally we have The Nesting Place which is all about a young girl who visits her brother and his wife and soon wishes she had never made the journey and superbly describes one of the most sinister written noises, skreaaak skriiiick, which has just made me shiver thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has the joy, or terror, of this collection to come so I will say no more on how the tales twist and turn out.

Carroll does some very clever things with this collection. The first of which is that, as I mentioned before, she marvellously plays with fears we have as children such as isolation or being lost, be it in a wood or the middle of a snowy wasteland. She also plays on more adult fears like the loss of teeth, which is something I have nightmares about now and comes up in one of the tales. She also plays with things that bother us, even if we don’t admit it, as adults and children the noises that you hear in the middle of the night and tell yourself that the house is either warming up or cooling down for the night for example. We all do this even as adults don’t we? No, just me? Oh, let us move swiftly on…

She also delightfully, be it for the blatant inner fairy tale geek in you or the nostalgic one in your subconscious, brings back and plays homage to the fairy tales of your childhood. Notably it is the darker  well know ones like Red Riding Hood (come on, who wasn’t petrified of meeting a wolf in a wood that would eat your Granny?) and the lesser known but very, very dark tale of Bluebeard. She also does it with some of the more modern gothic tales, with I thought a nod to Rebecca in one, but I would think that wouldn’t I? She also plays with the tropes that we know so well, for example swapping the wicked step mother figure in one tale to being a different new member of the family. These nods and winks add to the delight of the collection.

THR5

She also plays with emotions we all know all too well and have done all our lives; jealousy, rage and most importantly fear. At the start of Through the Woods there is a brilliant introduction in the form of a tiny piece of memoir which explains how as a child Emily would read long into the night herself and be scared to turn the light out just in case something was outside waiting at the window or ready to grab her from under the bed.

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In channelling that into these five tales along with the incredibly atmospheric and (cliché alert) haunting illustrations Emily Carroll genuinely creates a book that will properly creep you out, not just give you the odd chill or two. The Nesting Place, which was my favourite tale, is one that actually wormed (once you have read it you will see what I did there) itself into my brain and stayed in there bothering me, especially at night when I dreamt about it – and I know about three other people this has happened to with one or two of these stories.

Through the Woods is an incredible achievement and a cracking collection.  Somehow in using just the right words and just the right images Carroll creates a piece of work that genuinely gets into your head and plays with your fears in both a good shivery way and a really uncomfortable one. You will be reading it well into the early hours and left wondering just what on earth could be lurking outside your window on one of these cold dark nights before you turn the light off.

wofl2

Who else has read Through the Woods and what did you make of it? Will anyone else admit to be genuinely bothered by it? Which other collections of spooky stories or fairy tales, be they retellings or originals, would you recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Graphic Novels, Review, Short Stories