Briar Road, a short story by Jonathan Buckley

Next up for me short story wise this week, in recognition of national short story week, is Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley.

bbcnssa_2015_logo_webBriar Rose won the BBC national short story award for 2015 and – like yesterday’s The Memory Man – has a supernatural element to it as a psychic tries to help a family find out what has happened to their missing daughter. She visits their house, holds a séance, but can’t give them the answers they want.

I found the portrayals of the family and their reactions to the psychic’s visit very real – each was very different and not everyone’s was what you might expect.  Then there was the psychic herself – I loved her cynicism (“It’s a wonderfully written story, rich on the small details that drew me in.  On first reading, it seemed very simple but there was a lot of emotion here.”).

I can’t say I’m the best judge of a short story, as with all things we like what we like, but I can see why it won – this was a well written story that drew me in quickly and had me caring for the characters within a few paragraphs – something that is hard to do.  Well worth a read.

Emma

The Memory Man, a short story by Helen Smith

23624909Pages: 50

Reading time: about 30 minutes

Making her way through a dark cafeteria in what may well be an even darker warehouse, Sarah comes across Valerie, asleep in a chair and wrapped in a blanket. Next to her, a dead body…which they put in a disused fridge whilst they try to decide what to do.

Neither is sure. It is dark. They are scared. And they have no idea how they got here. No memories at all in fact. Which means they aren’t sure what is outside the door and at the end of the corridor. Valerie decides to try and find out, leaving Sarah alone and afraid, only to come back with strange stories and fragments of memories that may or may not be hers and a name that may or may not be the dead mans.

The where and the why are a nice twist in this story, which was well written with good pace. It packs a lot into its 50 pages. For some reason, I had in my head that it would be a crime story but it is more supernatural and spooky and I liked that. Sarah and Valerie and the Memory Man himself were interesting and there was so much not said, building the tension. I really wanted to know how they had ended up in the room and what would happen to them, which meant that for me, the story ended a little too soon. I would have liked a few more pages and a little more plot. Still enjoyed it though and would recommend to anyone with half an hour to spare.

Emma

National Short Story Week 2015

NSSW-300x171This week is National Short Story week, something I hadn’t heard of – though it’s in its fifth year – until I read about it on Kimberly Sullivan’s blog.  I really enjoy short stories but haven’t read any for a while and so loved the idea of promoting them (now that I’m aware of it!) if I could.

You can find out more about the week here but, in a nutshell, the idea is to promote short stories, and short story writers, publishers and events. It runs from today, Monday 16th through Sunday, 22nd November.  Kimberly is taking part by trying her hand at flash fiction.  I’m nowhere near as creative but I thought I could do my part by reading and doing mini-reviews of short stories every day.

23624909The reading will start tonight with The Memory Man by Helen Smith, which has been on my Kindle for a few months now.

Two women become friends in an abandoned post-apocalyptic building. A psychic makes contact with a lost soul. His apprentice tries to find news of a man he has lost touch with. Fragments of memories are traded and twisted. Friendship provides comfort, but the recovery of memories brings torment rather than reassurance – until truth becomes secondary to survival.

It feels like a fun thing to do and I’m also hoping it might get me out of my reading funk and inspire me to read some new authors. Are you a short story reader – any recommendations for the rest of the week?

Emma

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Girl Meets Boy is part of the Canongate Myths series, where authors retell a tale from mythology their own 2547263way. I’ve only read one other (The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood) but wish I had read more because I love the idea…which is why I picked Girl Meets Boy up.

Based on Ovid’s story or Iphis and Ianthe, it is a about love, fear, family and the not so nice things in life like sexism and homophobia with a fair bit of corporate greed thrown in for good measure. That’s a lot for 84 pages (this is a short story) yet Ali Smith manages to cleverly get her messages of acceptance across without losing the love story at the heart of it.

In the myth, Iphis is born a girl. Her father had said he would kill the child if they were not male so the mother prays to the gods and they tell her to raise her daughter as a boy, which she does. When Iphis grows up, she/he falls in love with his best friend Ianthe, a girl, and they plan to marry. Knowing she/he cannot make Ianthe truly happy as a woman, she/he also prays to the gods who turn him into a real man. Then everyone lives happily ever after – unusual from what I know of Greek Myth.

In the present the story takes place Inverness with Iphis played by Robin (a girl) and Ianthe by Anthea (also a girl). They meet by chance and Robin helps Anthea find her place in the world, a world she had previously felt lost in and one where she had found herself employed by Pure, a corporation who believes they can make water a commodity and take over the world. Together, they find love, peace and – eventually acceptance of family.  Family includes Anthea’s sister Imogen who struggles with her sisters sexuality and is going through her own journey of discovery as she realises she does not have to conform to the male dominated world around her either.

What it means to be a woman and women’s rights across the world are writ large here. Ali Smith doesn’t pull punches and cleverly includes statistics by way of art as part of the storyline. These are alone enough to make you think but as I said earlier, there is so much more. I realy like Smith’s style of writing. It is sharp and witty and felt perfect here for the tale she was telling. It made me laugh and smile and question. All good things when it comes to reading. I liked this a lot. Highly recommended.

Emma

The Boy Who Could See Death by Salley Vickers

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I picked this collection of short stories because I liked the title and I liked the cover. I hadn’t read anything about it and nothing by Salley Vickers but I was quite looking forward to reading it once I had a bit of a Google. Unfortunately, none of the ten stories were as good as I had hoped.

That doesn’t mean they were bad, just that they left me feeling flat. I can’t say I actually enjoyed any of them, which is a shame as some of the ideas did intrigue me, including that of the title story, in which a young boys entire life is basically ruined because he can see when someone can die, and how, and so no one wants to look him in the eye.

I think the problem was they were all in the third person and I struggled to care for any of the characters. I felt that I was been told about them and their lives, not that I was living in their worlds. The stories were also very short for the most part, with one running to only nine pages, which probably didn’t help me relate. Instead, I felt rushed and a couple seemed to end before they’d even begun. Disapointing but not one I can recommend.

Emma

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

8456717Too Much Happiness is a collection of short stories written by Alice Munro in 2009. I know short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (there was an interesting discussion about them recently on The Socratic Salon) but I really enjoy them – when they are done well, and these were.

Alice Munro has a way of drawing me in from pretty much the first sentence and painting pictures of people and places that feel very real to me. I was amazed throughout this book just how quickly I became involved in the stories and attached to the characters.

There are 10 stories in this collection and all but one, Too Much Happiness, are set in Canada sometime in the past (between the late 40s and 70s I think). And all, bar one, are pure fiction as far as I can tell. Too Much Happiness is the one that isn’t.  Instead, it is based on the last days of Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky.

This is the longest of the stories too. When I started it, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying it and it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what I’d been reading. In retrospect, though, it is one of the ones that has stayed with me most and it does follow the same themes of women trying to make their way in a world they seem slightly out of sync with. They are looking for their place in it, often after an important life event, and their expectations of themselves and others seem to change as they get older.

The other story I couldn’t let go of was Child’s Play, a tale of childhood cruelty and how this can be hard to let go of. There is a twist in the tail of this one that made me stop for more than a second.  This story is about 30 pages, as are the rest, making them easy to fit in and read in bursts. As well as childhood, the stories deal with domestic abuse, infidelity, ruined friendships, mothers and sons, bereavement, and love. None are easy subjects and some are pretty uncomfortable reading. All are handled well, even the most disturbing, though – making me think back through my own life and ask questions of the world around me. They are all well worth a read. Highly recommended!

Emma

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Title: Stone Mattress
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories
Source: Library
Rating: Loved it (5 out of 5)

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Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories, or tales as Margaret Atwood prefers to call them. The first three, Alphinland, Revenat, and Dark Lady are linked, telling the tales of a girlfriend, a boyfriend and his mistress (though as they take place in bohemian Toronto in the ’60’s lovers is maybe a better description of their relationships). Now, it is many years later. They are all a lot older, a lot greyer, and all still living with the impact of one man’s infidelity.

The rest of the tales cover freaks of nature (Lucus Naturae), murder (The Freeze Dried Groom), misunderstandings (The Dead Hand Loves You), revenge (Stone Mattress), and the rage of youth and ineffectualness of age (Torching the Dusties). This is probably all too simple a rounding up as each tales has plenty of layers and complexity and many touch on anger, resentment, sexuality – and sexual violence.

My favourite tale was I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth because it revisits characters from one of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels, The Robber Bride. This time, Zenia might actually be doing the right thing and reading this tale felt like spending time with old (if slightly dysfunctional) friends. The tale is one of three that have been previously published- the rest, I believe, are new.

In her acknowledgments, Margaret Atwood says she has chosen to call these tales to remove them “from the realm of the mundane” and “evoke the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and long ago teller tales”. This idea fits perfectly with what I read because each story is outside the ordinary, sometimes fantasy, and a little bit twisted. All are pure Atwood – and so right up my street. Already a fan of the author, this book cemented that. Loved it!

Emma x

A Bunch of Sweet Peas by Henry Donald

Recently, I came across a great little short story from (where else?) my local library. With it being a short story, a review didn’t seem in order but I really enjoyed it so thought I would do a quick post as a recommendation. If you have half an hour or so to spare and want something light-hearted to take up the time, you wouldn’t do to badly with this. Even better, try to get the audio version, which is narrated by Judi Dench.

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A bunch of sweet peas is the story of a national sweet pea competition hosted by the Daily Mail in 1911. And it really doesn’t seem like it could take place in any other time. It’s a really sweet tale (pun intended) and a very simple one.

A newly wed living in a small Scottish village is convinced by this part-time gardener to enter the competition. Although he doesn’t think he has a chance of winning, he gets drawn in, worrying about his plants and whether they will survive the sudden heat wave that has hit the country. First prize is a £1,000. Second £50. It’s second he would like to buy a new alter for the church. His wife would like £50 too; their house is bare as they are just married. Some furniture and curtains would be nice. Thanks to the rules, they can both enter.

They aren’t the only ones thinking how nice the money would be – it was an extraordinary amount back in the day (heck, I wouldn’t mind a £1,000 now either). Over 15,000 people applied for the competition, causing a logistical nightmare for the postal service and a full days worth of judging for the paper. Everything was carefully planned as box after box of sweet peas arrived at the Alexander Palace.

How much effort it takes to grow what seems like such a simple plant fascinated me and just how simple the whole idea was but how it swept the nation was wonderful to read. And then, of course, there was the will they / won’t they win question – I won’t give the answer here but you can probably guess.

The audio recording I listened to was 40 minutes long (I think the story is around 50 pages) and it flew by. Loved it!

Emma x

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Fiction / Short Stories
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

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When I put this book on my reading list, I did so because the only Hilary Mantel I’d read was Wolf Hall, which I’d found hard going. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction which didn’t help but I’d heard though that Mantel’s other novels were completely different, funny and clever (I think the word acerbic was used by one reviewer). I didn’t want to take on a full novel straight away so thought this collection of short stories might be a good place to start. The title, which is also the name of the last of the short stories, sealed the deal for me because I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain and have never known a person to divide people more.

There are 10 stories in total, all of which, bar The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, have been published previously between 1993 and 2012. All of them are dark, claustrophobic, and not very cheery. I don’t think one had a happy ending (unless you happen to dislike Maggie that is). They range from the oppression of being a woman in 1980’s Saudi Arabia to childhood cruelty and infidelity. The language reflects this darkness and I can see shades of Wolf Hall in way the stories are written; there is a grittiness to it. The real focus seems to on what is going on inside each character. In each case, it’s not particularly pleasant. Mantel’s subjects (including herself as I believe the first story is autobiographical) are not in good places and they aren’t very likeable.Read More »