During November Hillingdon Library Staff were set the challenge to read an anthology or collection of short stories. These are often overlooked or seen as less “literary” than novels, possibly because of length or possibly because of the time it takes to read. They’ve been described as “not as acceptable” (Neil Gaiman) and as “fiction’s R&D department” (Walter Kirn) rather than great pieces of work in themselves.
True, they are easier to read than a novel, but are they any easier to write?
We had a lively group of library staff this month who took on this task and read some of the best and most popular anthologies around, so that they could share their thoughts.
1. The Fantastic Book of Everyone’s Secrets by Sophie Hannah
This was a re-read of a book I loved first time around, and it didn’t disappoint. Sophie Hannah is better known for crime fiction these days but this excellent collection of darkly comic tales shows where her heart lies. Many feature gloriously unreliable narrators, not least that of the title story, a former deputy director of a literary festival now reduced to working in a hotel laundry, for reasons which soon become clear. Some stories lack a big finish but the quirky characters and dry laconic humour more than compensate. I particularly enjoyed We All Say What We Want, in which an office worker, accustomed to dissembling, suddenly starts to respond to his boss’s admonitory emails with increasingly frank and facetious replies. He copies in celebrities (including, topically, Donald Trump) and proposes an all-you-can-eat pizza place for a disciplinary meeting venue. “‘I’m sure you’ll beat me hands down, but I’ll give it my best shot!”‘ Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
By Mike – Eastcote Library
2. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
I thought I loved this enough the first time I read it, but 8 years on I was astonished at the quality of Angela Carter’s writing. The ten stories draw on the tradition of folk and fairytales, but these aren’t clever-clever pastiches. They are darkly sexual, dangerous, sensual stories that bring the edginess of many traditional folktales back into sharp focus, shorn of the child-friendly amendments and additions they’ve accumulated over the years. So whilst you might recognise what story Carter is drawing from in, for example, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, what you get is a highly original tale that slyly, magically subverts your expectations. Humans are made for stories and made of stories, and there’s something bone-deep in us that recognises the signs and symbols of our oldest tales.
The Bloody Chamber talks to that sense of familiarity but surprises us too, and the gap between those two sensations is what can take your breath away with wonder. Reading tales such as ‘The Lady Of The House of Love’ or ‘Wolf Alice’, I found myself reading sections out to my husband, partly so I could share the lyricism but partly so I could speak the words aloud, enjoy them again and greedily taste them. If I could give this 6 out of 5, I would. Actually, I will.
6 out of 5 stars
By Darren – Uxbridge Library
3. The Collected Short Stories of Saki by Hector Hugh Munro
It is sometimes said by precious critics that the short story is one of the most ‘lapidary’ of literary forms; meaning that it is an especially- fine art of creating gem-like, succinct texts rather than sprawling novels a la Dickens, Hugo or Dostoevsky, say.
Within the genre, too, Saki is often considered the engraver supreme. In fact, he wrote very little of greater length than political sketches, journalistic pieces & his famed short story collections.
Titles signify much with Saki, & obviously stand in for at least a few hundred words which the text could not contain without violence to its length & shape. Here are a few classics to whet your appetites: The Unrest-Cure, The Schartz-Metterklume Method, The Toys of Peace, The Square Egg, The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope.
They are designed to tease the imagination whilst hinting that a minor, esoteric, slightly-eccentric or sinister world may be encapsulated in the straitest of confines, ie the very-short story!
Animals often figure at the centre of the action, & function both literally & metaphorically/symbolically. ‘Sredni Vashtar’ is a common or garden polecat ferret kept as a pet, but becomes & represents a vengeful god & nemesis for the child who loathes his aunt. ‘Tobermory’ the talking cat exposes the hypocrisies & submerged tensions at work in Edwardian England, which is itself crystallised in the dinner-party, country-house ethos of that tale.
But to bark on for too long on themes, style or meanings here would ruin a newcomer’s reading enjoyment, perhaps? So, I will end with some Hamlet- used recently too by another master of the short story, Ian McEwan, as epigraph to his latest novel Nutshell (2016)-, & quote ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’. I hope this suggests some of the qualities of Saki’s honed writing, specifically the juxtaposition of the macabre, mystical, ironic & strange with urbane, polished exteriors!
5 out of 5 stars
Len – Harefield Library
4. The Man from Beyond & Other Stories by John Wyndham
John Wyndham is a master of all things fantastic & weird. In Hillingdon Libraries we are lucky enough to have a copy of this book in our store, it’s almost impossible to acquire a copy now. I love Wyndham’s novels but I was unsure about his short stories, so thought I would give this a try and I’m so glad I did.
A truly wonderful collection of sci-fi stories set in space, in the most extraordinary circumstances but totally relatable and real. Take for example, the story “Dumb Martian” where a human man has taken a Martian as a wife, as a marriage of convenience. Martians are looked down on by humans, seen as less intelligent and slightly inferior looking, but very obedient. You go through the story with the husband using & abusing his wife, berating her, ridiculing her and other awful things. The story highlights issues such as prejudice, abuse and sexism, all relatable just in a different setting. Even more satisfying is the ending, which I won’t give away here.
In the current climate of dystopian fiction trend we should be looking backwards rather than forward, as Wyndham is the best .
5 out of 5 stars
By Lara – Harefield Library
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Our impressions of Sherlock Holmes have been so greatly affected by the incredible amount of film, television and video game adaptations that it’s always rewarding to return to the original stories. Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (a collection of 12 short stories, all of which had been serialised in The Strand magazine from 1891-1892) is a surprising experience. Take the short story The Case of Identity in which Miss Mary Sutherland comes to Holmes because she is worried that her fiance, Hosmer Angel, has mysteriously vanished. The conclusion is almost Freudian and while the short story doesn’t involve murder it reveals a dark heart to the Victorian family.
A second story, A Scandal in Bohemia was recently, and quite famously, adapted for BBC’s hit television show Sherlock. While an interesting modernisation it’s notable that the original story ends with Sherlock Holmes admiring “the woman” who outsmarted him while the recent adaptation weakened Irene Adler by having her in need of rescuing by Sherlock at the conclusion of the episode. Doyle’s Irene is smart enough to devise her own escape plans and doesn’t seem like a character in need of Sherlock’s help. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a fun and surprising read. These original short stories are often odd curiosities rather than the twisted tales of murder, corruption and grand adventure we have come to expect from the name Sherlock Holmes and this, in effect, freshens them. Ideal reading for anyone who has become a fan of the Sherlock television series or who enjoys Victorian or Crime fiction.
5 out of 5 stars
By Mark – Uxbridge Library
6. Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin
A darkly comic interpretation of absolute power, and although set several hundred years in the future, the author tackles many issues which can be related to our own specific timeframe: Environmentalism, racial friction and armed conflict, with slight religious overtones.
Each chapter can be considered a standalone novella, categorized under its own genre within the umbrella of Sci-fiction. Martin however, does an exceptional job of tying them all together and I considered it, almost as if reading a new episode of his adventures in each chapter. I am confident, that any fan of science-fiction or horrors such as the ‘Alien’ movie series, will attest, that this is, a must have book for them.
The First chapter being my all-time favorite for any book, made me wanting for more. Tuf Haviliand is a refreshing character; he uses mind and strategy over brawn and I often commended his pragmatic brilliance. Martin pays homage to fantasy author Jack Vance – and gained considerable inspiration for his collection of “Novellas” which transpired into a combined novel in 1986 entitled: ‘Tuf Voyaging’. Tuf Voyaging is set in the same fictional universe as several of Martin’s pieces, including Sandkings and Nightflyers.
Tuf Haviland is an eccentric, exceptionally clever, overweight, tall and reclusive space-trader; dealing in rare and antiquated items. Not the typical recipe for a protagonist, not to mention, Tuf’s sharp distaste of his own species (Homo-sapiens) from the offset. Tuf has a particular affiliation for the feline species especially his beloved pet cats, which accompany him throughout his adventures and praises them of their potential psychic ability. Despite the obvious lack of dialogue between each other; it does not take long for the reader to become warmly attached to Tuf and his furry companions. It must be said Tuf Haviland, as a character is considerably complex, and is often left with tough choices; the reader at times will question his compassion and humanity, this I feel creates a wealth of emotions throughout the book and helps convey a sense of realism , nor forgetting a personal question; would you do the same? And does one life equal that of millions on a planet?
5 out of 5 stars
By Elliott – Northwood Hills Library
Thanks for reading!