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  1. Broadwater is a depiction of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham through 14 inter-linked short stories. Each story is a vignette, focusing on one resident of the estate, but these characters sometimes pop up in one another's stories. Some are bleak, some are inspiring. As a body of work, they do a successful job in showing the diversity of people who live in the estate - nuances that the newspapers sometimes miss. But none of the stories is quite long enough to build a real sense of engagement. So although the stories are interesting enough in the moment, they don't particularly leave an impression. It would be great to see a full length novel to really bring one or two of the characters to life. ***00
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  3. The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is the second of Rose Tremain’s short story collections that I have read and like those in Evangelista’s Fan, they are as good as I always expect of her writing. I still find the short-story form a little disappointing, but these are all interesting, unusual and thought provoking stories. I bought this collection on the strength of the title as I know nothing, other than the obvious, about Wallis Simpson. I certainly didn’t know about her final days, when her lawyer assumed power-of-attorney over the bed-ridden Duchess, who was suffering from dementia and had lost her power of speech. Tremain’s story imagines the confusion in Wallis’s head during those days, when her ‘carer’ demands she try to remember details of her life with the Duke of Windsor - who is a pale and shadowy, figure barely existing in her memory, compared to the more vivid recollections of her previous husbands. It did make me feel a little more sympathetic towards her. Some of the other stories include: A redundant East German border guard in 1989, tries to reach Russia by bicycling across Poland. A jilted man gets his revenge after 30 years A character in an impressionist painting tries to escape from the domestic scene. A single woman brings up her niece after her sister dies and her brother-in-law takes refuge in the local asylum And my favourite: An elderly man attempts to improve the lot of some penguins in a Wildlife Sanctuary (and in particular his sponsored penguin) and at same time come to terms with a childhood tragedy. As with Evangelista's Fan , a possible theme might be 'unfulfilled hope' - so not a jolly book, but each story says something worth thinking about.
  4. Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic. The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else. On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read. ***00
  5. Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt. The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others. Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread. The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature. The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale. Really, a very good collection. ****0
  6. This collection of short stories, published in 1994 is just as good as I expect of her work. Even though I don't enjoy the short-story form (they always finish before I am ready to stop reading) these are some of the best I have read, with intriguing plots, and well rounded characters. I have been trying to spot an overall theme, and it seems to be mostly 'unfulfilled hope', so a little on the sad side. But each one a little gem.
  7. NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO. Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not memoir or editorial. And it is not the life of Helen Garner portrayed by actors, in that the characters are so completely different: flighty women, abused women, strong women, a gay man, a nationalist drunk, ... Always Australian, though. Mostly the stories don't have what you'd think of as a narrative arc. They start with no preamble and the reader is required to piece together what it is they are reading, And the ends tend to just peter out rather than reaching any real resolution. So this is not an easy read. Nor is it what would traditionally be called entertaining. It's not even that thought provoking. But there is a beauty in it when looked at closely, in just how perfectly some moments and some details are captured. Invariably uncomfortable moments. ****0
  8. review of The Things We Don't Do by Andres Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. The Things We Don't Do is a collection of short stories from Argentinian author Andres Neuman. This is split into 6 sections being love & sex, family, death, crime, art and dodecalogues rules. Being a short story collection, I can't really describe the plots because of time restraints and such. However I will go through the ones I really liked. My favourite was My False Name in the section subtitled Relatives and Strangers. This was a little family history story, firstly started with how his family acquired the name Neuman or one of the told methods of who they did so. I enjoyed it and the ending of it touched me. Another one I really liked was Juan,Jose, a back and forth diary between two people who think they are the psychiatrist of the other. Which one is the psychiatrist, are either of them actually psychiatrists and both patients? Also Second Hand was a very good story being about a women who sees a jacket similar to one she had previously bought her husband for christmas. The story titled The things we don't do and A Terribly Perfect Couple both were very good at over a page each. Overall this was a very good collection, some were better than others. Wasn't too taken by the death section though but that might have been a mindframe thing on my part. Short stories are not my forte when it comes to reading but I liked this one. Neuman is a superb writer and though better suited to long prose. * * * *
  9. Barking Dogs is a rather superior collection of short stories set in what I had thought to be a remote (fictional) town of Mt Barker, South Australia - but it turns out to be a real and growing town only 30 or so kilometres from Adelaide. For those who don't know, South Australia is age serial killer capital of Australia and Mt Barker has its own chapter in this canon with the disappearance and presumed murder of a schoolgirl. These stories intersect. Characters from one story will star in another; incidents central to one story will be referred to in another. It's about small town life where people live in each other's pockets and keep glimpsing one another even though they barely know each other. And the people of Mt Barker are tragic-comic. The Summit Club - a group of unemployed and semi-employed men who do good deeds regardless of whether they are wanted; the man who buys trophies from internet retail sites to sell at his bricks and mortar shop; the people driven to a frenzy by barking dogs. The reader laughs at the trivial things that matter to them but at the same time, acknowledges that if you are stuck in some Godawful small town in remote SA, there's not much more than trivia to bother with. My only criticism is that the timeline, as measured by proximity to the disappeared girl, seems to jump around a bit. That, ultimately, is what makes this stories rather than a novel. ****0
  10. All That Man Is appears to be a collection of short stories, each focusing on a male character from one of a variety of European countries who happens to be – or to be going – to a different European country. The lead characters are progressively older in each story, ranging from a British pre-University student behaving badly on an inter-railing trip through to a British grandfather seeing out his final years in the less fashionable part of Italy. All That Man Is has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, meaning that someone, somewhere thought this was a novel. I don’t see it myself; there is no continuity of narrative thread. At a stretch, I guess one could say that it is the story of human life illustrated in a number of discrete and unrelated episodes – and very sharp-eyed readers may spot the occasional detail in one story that is referenced in another – but this really is about as typical a collection of short stories as you will want to find. The collection is highly readable and some of the stories do linger in the memory. In particular, the middle aged failures stick in the mind – a British rake who lives a hand to mouth existence in an inland Croatian town whilst pretending to be a playboy; and a Russian oligarch watching his empire crumble from the deck of a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. Most of the stories do not have much in the way of an ending. They capture a moment in time but any resolution that they might reach – and some do not even manage that – will be unsatisfactory. Perhaps that is a metaphor for life. And as can happen with collections of themed stories, they can sometimes feel a bit samey. Having everyone travelling abroad was interesting at first but it got old quite quickly. Ultimately they all seemed to boil down to men looking for (and finding) sex. That may be all David Szalay's men are, but I like to think there's more to me. ***00
  11. I loved The Devil Is A Black Dog. This is a short collection of stories, mostly told by or told about photo-journalists who spend time on assignments in Darfur, Egypt, Gaza, Afghanistan and other, unspecified parts of Africa and the Middle East. There are also a couple of (weaker) stories set in Eastern Europe - presumably Hungary. The writer, Sandor Jaszberenyi, is himself a Hungarian photo-journalist and there is a sense that the stories are auto-biographical. Many of the stories are linked, narrated by or featuring the same Hungarian character in continuations of previous settings. Perhaps the whole adds up to a life story or perhaps it is fiction. Perhaps it is both. The stories are unremittingly bleak. Although most are set in war, strife or unrest, the action is almost incidental. What comes across is large amounts of down-time, drinking beer and playing cards in concrete hotels, waiting indefinitely for something to kick off. The cover is a masterpiece, showing a man swimming in a rooftop pool, surrounded by razor wire and with smoke and air raids in the background. The stillness and silence of the stories is similarly incongruous with how we imagine war to be. The stories have no sentimentality and little room for compassion; the reader is expected to bring his or her own humanity to the party. The collection has had a mixed response from critics; some have suggested that the stories become repetitive. I didn't find this to be the case, but I did drip feed the stories over several days to avoid "short story fatigue" where they all merge into one. Instead, I found each one to be a gem, giving a perfect sense of place, time and a window onto the complex characters who are drawn to countries in crisis - a mixture of local people, well meaning NGO volunteers, journalists and mercenaries. I found this short book to be rich and very satisfying. *****
  12. The Promise is another collection of excellent short stories from one of Australia’s best exponents of the art. Tony Birch is an Aboriginal writer who grew up in some of Melbourne’s more unlovely suburbs, some of which have subsequently become gentrified. The stories tend to be set with a backdrop of poverty and racial tensions, there is alcoholism and violence. But the stories are seldom, if ever, about these themes. Instead, they are stories of life, hope and exploration where the poverty and social marginalisation are as incidental as the weather or the colour of the wallpaper. These stories have some parallels with the modern day, but also serve as a museum display of places and practices that have long gone. Many of Birch’s stories are set in his childhood – particularly 1960s Collingwood. But some of the most powerful stories are those set in contemporary times, and the title story, The Promise, is a particularly strong story about drink and the ephemerality of life. If there is a theme (and how people yearn to find themes in collections of stories) it is the idea of being trapped and finding a release. These may not always be the releases that lead to everyone living happily ever afterwards but there is always some sense that the protagonists have done something conscious in an effort to change their circumstances. The stories all share an accessibility; Birch is narrating, not preaching. He doesn’t hide behind flowery language or obscure metaphor. There is humour, there is beauty, some phrases almost sing off the page with their concise accuracy. ****0
  13. Shadowboxing is presented as a collection of ten short stories. In fact, they are ten self contained episodes in the life (mostly the 1960s childhood) of Michael Byrne. It’s the same kind of idea at David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. Michael comes from a poor family. His father was a boxer, is now a drinker and a wife-beater; he will go on to have mental health problems. The family grieves the loss of Eve, a special girl who died in infancy. When we join Michael, his family has just moved into inner-city Fitzroy from regional Victoria. I’m not a fan of the stand-alone chapter narratives. They tend to have a staccato feel, requiring an issue to emerge, happen and then vanish again within the same 20 pages. No two issues can ever overlap, every issue takes just the same number of pages to run its course. It tends also to work against character development. The characters stay the same during each story and the development takes place in the intervals between chapters. On the other hand, it can be a handy device to get around major time shifts without drawing attention to them. In Shadowboxing, for example, the first eight stories have Michael as a child; the final two have him as a grown man with a family of his own. For all my irritation at the choppy chapters, this is a well told story that shows the cycle of life. It captures the recent social history of Melbourne’s inner suburbs; the demolition of slum terracing and the construction of tower blocks; the domestic violence, poverty and improvisation that has given way to gentrification and million-dollar price tags. We see lack of education, manual labour in factories, bars and hotels that have long gone. And, just as in Father’s Day and Ghost River, there is a section about wagging school and jumping off bridges into the Yarra in Richmond and Collingwood. This theme comes up in Tony Birch’s work so often that it must be autobiographical. This is a turbulent collection with more than its fair share of death and violence. There are themes of aging and infirmity, friendship, grief, independence. But one theme that is never taken head on is poverty – for all that it is constantly present, it is simply the backdrop and never the story. This is a short collection/novel and is not as polished as some of Birch’s subsequent works. But it has a rawness and immediacy that carries the day. ****0
  14. One of the joys of e-publishing is that it is quite feasible to publish works and sell them at a fraction of the price of a longer work. You don’t have the printing, the distribution, the shelf space to worry about. Thirty page stories really can be sold for a tenth of the price of a novel. If I had Known Then is just such a case in point. It is a rather wonderful short story of a brief encounter kind. Eve spots Kate, a woman who had worked at the bar Eve used to visit ten years ago. Eve fancied the pants off Kate but never had the courage to say anything… What follows is a story of what might have been, and what might still happen. Of course, both Eve and Kate have moved on. It’s an ordinary story about ordinary people. Eve is an estate agent <shudders>, and Kate is a manager in the pub chain. They have staid lives with steady partners; they watch television; they eat sandwiches on park benches. Yet they both carry an inner spark of the people they used to be. On the surface, it’s a lesbian love affair, but underneath it is the story of middle age, lost opportunities and crushed ambition. It’s a simple, moving, troubling story. Well worth a pound. ****0
  15. Father's Day is a collection of short stories by Melbourne based writer Tony Birch. Since Father's Day was published, Tony Birch has received considerable recognition including the Miles Franklin shortlisting of Blood. Like his novels, most of these stories are set in the poorer suburbs of inner Melbourne. Some are set in the west of the city, and some in and around Richmond and Collingwood. One is set out of the city along the Great Ocean Road - but there is very much a local flavour to the work. One story - The Chocolate Empire - appears to be a short prototype that was developed into the recent (and excellent) novel Ghost River. There's drinking, there's gambling, there are children playing outside and there is racism. There's poverty too, but the stories are not about poverty but simple set in amongst poverty. Many of them feel set in another era - perhaps the 1960s or 1970s - and it can be jarring, then, when details from contemporary times poke into the narrative. Tony Birch brings a sense of humanity to his stories - some of his characters are flawed people, but the stories are told without judgement and give a voice and an existence to some of the invisible underdogs we might pass by on the street. Father's Day is like a collection of precious gems - each is brilliant but tiny, the collection as a whole will slip through your fingers quickly. You will be enriched by the experience. *****
  16. I’m guessing that most readers will be coming to Emporium having enjoyed Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. Truly that was a magnificent novel. And Emporium starts well – a story about a teenage Police Sniper in a dystopian world that is possibly set in contemporary times. Our hero talks to us as though he is in a TV fly-on-the-wall documentary, telling us about the ins and outs of his job, revealing himself as he does so. We find a boy who has a black and white sense of justice, who has never really questioned the moral arguments that were presented to him when he took the job. He experiences teenage angst, especially with girls, and lacks the social skills to express his romantic feelings. However, if truth be told, the story is over-long and gets a bit repetitive. Plus, I’m not sure I ever quite believed in the character. Next up, we have a former policeman who gave up the force to save his son from playground taunts. He is a security guard at a zoo who has a sideline in euthanasing the surplus animals. He narrates to us as though he were in a TV fly-on-the-wall documentary, telling us the ins and outs of his job, revealing himself as he does so. However, if truth be told, the story is over-long and gets a bit repetitive. Plus, I’m not sure I ever quite believed in the character. Then we have a young chap driving a bus for a cancer charity, taking dying women on day trips. The charity was started by his mother. He has a bit of sexual frisson with his women. He narrates to us as though he were in a TV fly-on-the-wall documentary, telling us the ins and outs of his job, revealing himself as he does so. However, if truth be told, the story is over-long and gets a bit repetitive. Plus, I’m not sure I ever quite believed in the character. Do you see how irritating repetition can be? I’ve just done it three times. Adam Johnson does it several times in each story, and story after story is the same. I put up with five of them (there are nine in the book), and just the first paragraph of the sixth story told me it was more of the same. None of the stories tie up, they just meander aimlessly into psychobabble that aims to make profound observations about our own lives. Every single story has a slightly surreal take on a securocratic dystopia that might make the reader question our own governments’ current fascination with restricting freedoms in order to defeat terror. But after the first story or two, the point has been made. In the end, I gave up. Typically I give up one book every two years. In the same timeframe, I would finish over a hundred. Welcome, Adam Johnson, to by lowest percentile. *0000
  17. Foreign Soil is a collection of short stories themed around difference and exclusion. Sometimes this is based on ethnicity – as in the story whose name is used for the collection – but sometimes it might be based on sexuality or just living in a new place. The stories have a global feel; many have an Australian angle (Maxine Beneba Clarke lives in Melbourne), but some are set in the US, the UK or parts of the developing world. By giving voices to those who often go unheard, Clarke challenges our expectations and assumptions. In one particularly memorable story, a young Australian hairdresser falls in love with a Ugandan client and their positions reverse as they move from Australia to Uganda. The strength of the collection is that is doesn’t portray the outsiders as victims; does not portray them as weak; or even as necessarily sympathetic. Some of them, for sure, might be decent people but some are gangstas; some are greedy; some are tyrants. Their circumstances might restrict their choices (the young man in Villawood immigration detention centre has few available choices), but the different protagonists all have some degree of mastery of their destiny. If there’s a minor quibble, it is that the voices may all have an Australian twang. The Jamaican migrants in London, for example, talk of sandshoes and spruiking. Perhaps, though, this is forgiven in the final story where Clarke appears herself as the writer in Footscray (West Melbourne), playing with her characters and wondering whether to follow publishers’ advice to step away from controversial or unhappy endings to make her stories more marketable. This is a clever twist, but it may come at the price of breaking the suspension of disbelief, leaving readers to question the authenticity of the stories that have gone before. On balance, it might have been better had this final story not referred directly back to previous stories in the collection: this would have reduced the impact of this last story but saved the integrity of the previous ones. It’s an interesting conundrum. Overall, though, this is a collection that has the maturity you’d expect of an established writer. The scenes are vivid; the voices varied and distinctive; and the perspective switches effortlessly from first person to third person and back again. Some of the stories are quite long; it would be interesting to see whether Clarke will move into full length novels. Foreign Soil won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript in 2013. ****0
  18. Charity collections of short stories are a bit of a gamble; this one pays off. Ten writers, all top rate (many of whose full works I have previously read) and all contributing good stories. The theme is crime; in many cases this means good old murder, but one or two of the writers have taken a more oblique angle. In the case of Christopher Brookmyer's and Alison Kennedy's stories, it's not actually clear what crime, if any, has been committed. Nevertheless, these are perhaps two of the standout stories. Only a couple of the stories didn't quite work for me; the rest may not all have been deep, but they were diverse and entertaining. And in this case, having ten different voices worked well and avoided the sameness that you often get from reading ten stories by the same writer. There is supposed to be an Edinburgh theme to the stories (the collection is to raise money for a city trust) but this never feels forced and, in truth, a couple of the stories didn't really seem to have an Edinburgh angle at all. This is an inexpensive collection; it's a quick read, but well worth it. ****0
  19. I never know exactly how to approach a collection of short stories. Are you supposed to open it and read from cover to cover, following the sequence laid out in the book and not pausing to draw breath? Are you supposed to dip in and out in any sequence you like? Should you just slot a couple of stories in between novels? In Merciless Gods, I have decided after about half the book to set it down for a while. Not because I am not enjoying it, but rather because I am feeling that the stories lose their impact coming too soon after one another. These stories are too good to waste in a race to get from one cover to the other. Christos Tsiolkas, for anyone who doesn’t know (maybe they were living on the Moon for the past five years), is a gay writer of Greek heritage from Melbourne. His writing, both in short and long form, comprises social observations of the kind of people Tsiolkas sees in his daily life; many characters are gay, but his writing does not seem to be about *being* gay. He focuses more on generations, on friendships, and on cultural baggage that comes from ancestral homelands. Tsiolkas has an extraordinary eye for authentic detail. In Tourists, for example, Bill and Trina visit New York and determine to visit an art gallery. Poor planning and an unwillingness to look like “tourists” by referring to a map causes Bill to get more and more frustrated, culminating in an ill-judged comment about the supercilious ticket-clerk. Trina’s reaction, silent sulking and contrariness, is spot on. We’ve all been there. The story then wraps up with a nice little ironic twist. There is much of Melbourne to be seen – the inexplicably expensive Brunswick shoeboxes, the larger but poorer wastelands of Westmeadows, the arty-sleazy beach at St Kilda: where there are Greeks, there are Merciless Gods. Each location, just like each character, cut down to size. But there is also a wider world – one from which Melburnians come, and to which Melburnians go. Merciless Gods is a perfect slice of here and now. ****0
  20. This book was recommended by a teacher in a lit class long ago. I purchased an ex-library copy years ago and it lived in my shelf unread until now. I read the stories a few a day. At first I was interested in them but after getting about halfway through I got sort of bored of "the grotesques." I like the ideas that he was presenting and his description of everyday life in small town Ohio at the turn of the century but it was somewhat the same over and over which is probably part of the point. Things get more varied again though near the end when the short stories start wrapping up into some kind of a conclusion. The way the author writes is neat in a way where you can really picture the characters. the moments and feel what they feel. I felt like I was visiting the town in each story. Has anyone else read this book?
  21. Flash fiction can be very clever. Just a page or three setting out a story with a structured beginning, middle and an end, usually doing something slightly quirky or unexpected. Having been drawn to this book by the cover, I opened it and read a rather good half pager starring Wonder Woman, spending most of her time wondering things as she flew about the place trying to avert disasters. It was well done, drawing on our existing pre-conceptions of Wonder Woman (which are so entrenched they didn’t need to be articulated) and letting them conflict nicely with the portrayal of a bored, fey woman. So, I put the book down and bought the Kindle version – much cheaper! And it is a short collection of mostly superhero themed flash fiction – 24 pieces to be precise. Most of them raise a smile; few will be remembered for long. They have basic images – religious leaders playing poker in the Bellagio; a Ross Geller Man walking around looking like Ross Geller; a man who reluctantly accepts the mantle of King of the World. All this Americana with a distinctly Australian sub-text. The problem I have, though, is how to read flash fiction. Sitting down, reading from cover to cover, the book might take a couple of hours. But the rapid fire of scene setting - comic reveal - closure gets very wearing, very quickly. A couple of pieces at a time might work; three at a pinch but more than that and there’s a feeling of reading just for completeness’ sake. But reading only a couple of pieces is only going to take five or ten minutes, then what? Perhaps flash fiction would be happier published as singles in current affairs magazines or on websites. But as a bound collection they don’t really work, especially when the subject matter is so samey. Actually, Patrick Lenton has done remarkably well to create 24 works that are not straight repeats of one another; he has got 24 distinct ideas and each one is well done. One can hardly blame him, as a writer, for bundling his work into a format that is likely to be commercially appealing to a publisher. It does, though, create a product that is less than the sum of its parts, giving out its ideas too cheaply and in a form that means most of them will not get the attention they deserve. ***00
  22. Short Stories don't get as much discussion on this site as I think they deserve. Fay Weldon's Weekend is the best short story I've read. It's a whole novel compressed into so few words, but the feelings of the characters are so well drawn in so few words it's a work of art. She also wrote Polaris which is another favourite of mine. What's your favourite short story? Preferably a standalone story with original characters, not just one in a collection of, say, Sherlock, Marple or Wooster stories.
  23. Simon Rich is my discovery of the year and I shall be reading more soon based on the evidence of this collection of 29 stories - well, sketches really - in a little over 200 pages. The book is split into three sections: “Boy Meets Girl,” “Boy Gets Girl,” “Boy Loses Girl”. It opens with the story of a boy's coming of age told from the perspective of the condom he's been carrying in his wallet. This, I hope, gives you some perspective on the skewed and very funny take Simon Rich has on the world of love and relationships. It is generally the male half of these relationships that is the butt of the jokes. In Occupy Jen's Street, a radical anti-capitalist sets up a protest camp in the street of a girl who has spurned him. Musicians are lured onto East River rocks by sirens playing Arcade Fire songs. Dogs place lonely hearts ads. A man is dumped for a 120 year old Adolf Hitler, another is set up on a blind date with a troll. A secret agent uses an invisibility drug to spy on his ex-girlfriend rather than foil an Islamist plot. The Adventure of the Spotted Tie parodies Sherlock Holmes. If I have a criticism at all, it is that the stories are a little bit one note and more variety might have made me even more envious of Rich's abundant talent. You have to have a taste for the zany and the smart ass to enjoy Rich's work. I do, and enjoy it I most certainly did.
  24. Jesus' Son is a collection of interlinked short stories, setting out the young adult life of an American man as he drifts between girls, jail and the next fix of smack. The opening story finds our anti-hero hitching a ride, having a vision of death coming to the family that gives him a ride. At this point, one wonders whether our anti-hero might actually be Jesus' Son - actually have some kind of deity status. But future stories confirm that he is only human, named, presumably, after a line in Lou Reed's Heroin. The stories are atmospheric, creating a window on America's underbelly. The characters are all real people and demonstrate complex emotions - no mean feat in stories that are only half a dozen pages long. They are violent, but there are also moments of compassion, of rationality, of decency. The stories sort of piece together into a story, told in non-sequential chunks, as our anti-hero progresses from youth to adulthood. But along the journey, some of the immediacy is lost. The barroom fights and drunken night-time drives are far more interesting than settling down with the girl. And a further issue is that, even though there is a narrative progression, it starts to feel samey after a while. It would be interesting to see how a writer of such obvious talent could manage a novel where the option of restarting every few pages was no longer an option - where pacing was necessary. I would read more Denis Johnson but, perhaps, not for a while... ***00
  25. It is difficult to sustain quality through a collection of short stories and I'm not sure Kirsty Logan has managed it. There is one gem of a story - Una and Coll are Not Friends - that shines far brighter than any other story in the collection. It is gentle, subtle, humorous and human. It has a depth and makes one think about the nature of being an outsider. There are a couple of other interesting stories, particularly the Tiger Palace. Most (but not all) stories have some current of lesbian love. And most seem to have some reference to fairy stories as a genre, although few seem to be readily identifiable to specific stories. The problem is that the collection is very patchy and, like a 1980s pop album, seems to be mostly filler. Many stories seem to be quirky for its own sake - e.g. the Rental Heart or the Coin Operated Boy - but don't actually seem to go anywhere or have anything to say. Maybe they just didn't press my buttons, but the whole did seem somewhat dull and repetitive. Few of the characters seemed to have much humanity or warmth which tends to further disengage the reader. **000
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