Tag Archives: May-Lan Tan

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