I’m not normally one for Christmas stories I have to admit but a short story by P. J. Tracy (who writes the Monkeewrench series, which I love) was too good to pass by.
Unlike her other books, this one isn’t set in Minnesota but in Las Vegas, where Emil – a not very good thief – is given the choice of returning to jail for two years after breaking the conditions of his probation, or, work for a year on a community programme.
He chooses the latter, only to find himself in what seems worse than prison – a psychiatric hospital, where he finds himself mopping the floors and helping the patients; he starts to look for a way to escape almost as soon as he arrives.
The Goodreads summary for The Relive Box by T. C. Boyle starts by describing it as a collection of “raucous” short stories. To me, raucous means rowdy, which didn’t quite fit. So, out came the dictionary, which says that – in fact – raucous means “making or constituting a disturbingly harsh and loud noise”, and this makes a lot more sense because one of the words I had written down after finishing the book and was preparing for my review was disturbing.
I also wrote down dark, cold and depressing; there is little in these stories that could be described as hopeful – maybe the end of Are We Not Men?, which left me feeling somewhat optimistic . The rest, if I’m honest, left me feeling depressed. The world they present, which is probably our not to distant future if we don’t play our cards right, isn’t one I want to live in.
How Much the Heart Can Hold is a collection of seven short stories on love, written by seven different authors. I wanted to read it because they were short stories, which are one of my favourite things to read; I was nervous to read it because it had love in the title, and love stories are not one of my favourite things.
In the introduction, this reaction is one the editor says she is used to, this expectation that the stories will be on romantic love. She is quick to stress that this isn’t the case. Instead, the inspiration behind this collection comes from the Ancient Greek’s idea of love and that there are different aspects to it: familial love, charitable, passion and desire, love of self amongst them. That the book looks at love from these angles makes the stories much more interesting that they might first appear.
Walter Craig was a clever scientist. As a young man he took away all the honours and prizes and some of his work was ground-breaking. But after he became seriously ill, his genius faded, and he needed the help of an assistant. When Silas Webb was appointed to the job he seemed the perfect choice, but he always preferred to work alone, even in secret. Then, quite suddenly, Webb disappeared.
Later, Craig opens a prestigious scientific journal and finds a paper, containing his own work, in detail, together with the significant results he had worked out. The research is his and his alone. But the author of the paper is Dr Silas Webb.
Craig determines that he will hunt Webb down and exact revenge.
Were it not for a terrifying twist of circumstance, he might have succeeded.
So begins the first of four short ghost stories by Susan Hill, something I have been looking forward to reading as the nights have drawn in and with Halloween not far away. I love a good spooky story and a good old fashioned scare and Hill has always been able to manage both where I am concerned with stories like The Small Hand and The Woman in Black.
Here, all the ingredients that make those stories so successful are there. The “old school” style of story telling, the simple language that lulls you into a false sense of security, the slowly building tension as you realise not all is what it seems – leaving you wanting to read on but worried that if you do, you’ll end up lying awake listening for things that go bump in the night.
After finishing The Girls by Emma Cline this week, I felt a bit bereft. I really hadn’t wanted the book to end. I had seen on Goodreads that she had a short story, Marion, so thought I would try and find it. I was in luck. A quick google found it available online in The Paris Review. You can read it here if you are interested. The story was the winner of the Plimpton Proze and I can see why. There is a lot packed into very few pages (one of the reasons I love short stories when they are done well).
Although there isn’t a direct link to The Girls, there are themes that are similar. A young teenage girl makes friends with a slightly older girl, escaping to her unconventional home because her own home life isn’t that happy. For her, though, it is more than friendship, it’s liked being saved…
“Marion was my first best friend. I never had the framed photos that girls like to give each other. I had never worn friendship bracelets, or even hated anyone else with another girl. My life seemed like something new and unasked for, Marion smiling at me in the sunshine, letting me wear her woven ankle bracelet for days at a time, braiding my hair that had grown colorless and thick, full of dust and the peculiar smell of heat.”
They spend the summer lazing, smoking, drinking and obsessing on boys – one in particular- thinking and behaving like they are older than they are. But they are still teenagers, still discovering themselves and still not really aware how the real world actually works. It leads to them making terrible choices, turning the story darker, and ends their friendship.
Again, I got completely lost in the language and the story. I really like the way Emma Cline writes, the way she draws me in with descriptions that make me feel the heat of the summer, the loneliness of being a teenage girl, and the angst of not quite knowing your place in the world. I already recommended The Girls as a read earlier this week but for those not sure this is an excellent introduction or taster of what is to come.
Over Easter, I happened to see a tweet by Cannongate books offering up a free short story by Kelly Link. Link isn’t an author I’d heard of but I love short stories as I think I’ve mentioned before and – added bonus – this was free, so a good chance to discover new author….if I enjoyed the book that is. Which I did, so yay!
Out in the holler, Fran isn’t well. Her daddy has up and left and she is full of fever. When her school friend Ophelia offers to help, she sends her for medicine – but not to the chemist. Instead she sends Ophelia to the house of the Summer People, along with a set of strange instructions on how to behave whilst she’s there. Ophelia does as she is asked and becomes as fascinated by the house and the people inside it as Fran is bound to it because of her family tree.
The Summer People have been around a long time it seems. Just what they are isn’t clear and I never did completely get my head around it, which is I think, part of the point of the story – that and whether we can ever truly escape our roots. Or maybe it’s that we can’t see the beauty of where we live and the lives we lead until we step away from them. And maybe I need to read the story again so I can get everything out of it because for something of so few pages, there were a lot of layers.
I would be happy to return to be honest, and think I will end up getting the whole book this was taken from (called Get in Trouble) because not only did it draw me in with it’s characters, I loved the language and the imagery . I could picture Fran’s home in my mind and have wonderful visions in my head of the gifts the Summer People left her. I only hope the rest of the stories are as good and would say if you can get yourselves a copy do.
Note: As mentioned at the beginning I received a copy of this from the publisher. There was no requirement to review it but I decided to anyway. All thoughts, feelings, and opinions are my own.
For my final short story this week I went for one of my favourite authors, Sophie Hannah. I found The Octopus Nest online at my local library. It’s from a full collection – The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets – and I guess was released as a teased (back in 2008 so I’ve missed it somehow).
In it, Claire and Tim come home to find their babysitter has made a rather strange discovery. The same woman is in almost all their holiday photos for the last decade. Album after album shows the same thing. They have, it seems, a stalker. Or at least that’s what Claire thinks. She might, though, be wrong.
At first I thought this was another spooky story but creepy is more like it. It’s also suspenseful and has a great twist in the tale, one I didn’t seem coming – which I love. It is well written, drawing me in quickly. The characters were well drawn, all through Claire’s eyes, and I felt my nerves stretch as I wondered just what was going on.
As I said, I missed the book this was taken from, but it’s now on order. I can’t wait for it to arrive and hope all the stories are as good as this one. Liked it a lot!