Recommendations: Short Story Collections

I love short stories. I only started properly reading them a few years ago but I have developed such an appreciation for the format. When a short story is done right, it can pack an unbelievable punch.

16158505I am currently reading A Guide To Being Born by Ramona Asubel, a rather brilliant collection, with twisty, dark, wonderful, magical stories (I understand why Jen Campbell names this as one of her favourites) and the reading experience got me thinking about what I like in the collections I adore. I gravitate towards short stories with a bit of a magical twist – I find these stories to be super mesmerizing. I also appreciate more realistic stories but here I often find that these collections are overall rather bleak which can get too much for me.

Here are some of my favourite short story collections, in case you are (like me) always looking for more collections to read.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

28818921Nobody is surprised to see this collection of this list: I adored every second of it. I am in general a huge fan of Roxane Gay’s writing and these stories are a perfect example for her prose and her characterization, which I am just in awe of. The stories are well-plotted and purposefully structured. You can find my review here.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

29236311One of my all-time favourite books, everything about this spoke to me. Marra tells an overarching story in wonderfully structured short stories. His command of language is impressive, his way of characterising people with a sentence and a half something that I find fascinating, and his sense for pacing and plotting is absolutely on display here. Be warned though, the book and its subject matter is bleak (it is after all set in Chechnya and unblinking in its depiction of war and atrocities), but Marra infuses it with just enough hope to be a stunning ode human connection. I cannot wait for his next book.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

22693283I loved this (and its perfect cover!). The stories all deal with some sort of Brink – often the end of the world as we know it. I adored the vagueness of the stories and the punch they had. Bunn is a another of those authors whose next work I am eagerly awaiting. You can find my review here.

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

32874103Another set of interconnected short stories where I found the whole even greater than the sum of its parts. Strout shows great tenderness for her characters while being unflinching in her portrayal of their short comings. Her stories are wonderfully structured and impeccably paced. She excels especially in depicting families in all their dysfunctional glory. I adored this. My review is here.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

33570520These stories are peculiar. They feature anthropomorphic animals (amongst other things) and revel in their weirdness. But for me, these stories worked exceedingly well and I had a blast with this collection. There is just something poetic and lyrical in the way Loory’s language flows and his imagination is glorious. My review can be found here.

 

The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

25622828These stories just combine everything I adore in short fiction: they are magical and weird, wonderfully written, and often feature sibling relationships (I adore that). Her language flows wonderfully and every story in this collection is strong on its own. My review can be found here. (Sparks is apparently working on a new collection, an angry, feminist collection, which I cannot wait for.)

Do you read short stories at all? What are your favourite collections?

Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

23346874Verdict: Beautifully written, unbearably bleak.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Vintage Books, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

This magnificent collection takes us to Glanbeigh, a small town in rural Ireland – a town in which the youth have the run of the place. Boy racers speed down the back lanes; couples haunt the midnight woods; young skins huddle in the cold once The Peacock has closed its doors. Here the young live hard and wear the scars. It matters whose sister you were seen with. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it matters a very great deal.

Colin Barrett’s debut does not take us to Glanbeigh alone; there are other towns, and older characters. But each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire – and each crackles with the uniform energy and force that distinguish this terrific collection.

Colin Barrett has a stunning way with words. Some of these sentences are unbearably beautiful. As such I can absolutely see why this collection comes this highly praised. But, for me personally, the stories were just too bleak in the end and in their bleakness too similar to each other.

The stories focus young men and not so young men who for one reason or the other are unhappy in their lives. There is a sense of hopelessness that infuses these stories, a sense of roads not taken and lives not lived. All stories are impeccably crafted but maybe too similar in tone. Short fiction is often a format that plays with hopelessness and sadness, but even so, this one was too sad for me.

Barrett infuses his stories with a great sense of place in a way that I really appreciated. His depiction of small town Irish life rings true (as true as it can ring for me who has never lived there).

My favourite story was the very last story of the collection: Kindly Forget My Existence was just the perfect way to end this collection. Here two former bandmates meet again at a pub in their hometown, trying to drink their cowardice away and attend the funeral of their ex-girlfriend and ex-wife respectively. The whole story is just pitch perfect and nearly had me up my rating. If you only read one story of this collection, make sure it is this one.

Review: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

39780950Verdict: Clever, biting, sad, funny.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Vintage, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this crackling debut collection Nafissa Thompson-Spires interrogates our supposedly post-racial era. To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.

A teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war of attrition against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer. And across a series of stories, a young woman grows up, negotiating and renegotiating her identity.

Heads of the Colored People shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic. It marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.

I knew I would enjoy this pretty much from the first page on. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a wonderful tone and an even better command of her stories. I found the stories uncomfortable and biting and so very very clever. Her characters feel real if often difficult and the situations they find themselves in are frustrating and perfectly rendered.

Some stories feature the same people again, which is something I always enjoy. I do like how this gave the stories more depth without them being incomplete without the added context – this is something that I assume is difficult to achieve but oh so satisfying when it works.

My favourite story is Belle Lettres: told in a series of letters two mothers write to each other about their daughters who hate each other. I made me laugh so very hard while also making me feel sorry for their daughters. I found it clever and mean and funny and so very well-constructed: the escalation was brilliant to observe, from tiny little things such as the signatures to the change in language. Another favourite was Suicide, Watch – again beautiful but very sad. The way Thompson-Spires characterizes Julie, the focus of this story, made me impatient – and broke my heart at the same time.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

10153529Verdict: Stunning.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Windmill Books, 2009

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff’s critically acclaimed “The Monsters of Templeton” was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers 2008, and critics hailed her as an enormous talent and a writer to watch. In “Delicate Edible Birds”, she fulfils that promise. “Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.

I love Lauren Groff. And I am trying to be better about reading other books authors I love have written, so I am currently making my way through her back catalogue and I am seriously happy about it. I think I liked this short story collection even more than her new one (which I reviewed earlier this year) and I enjoyed that one immensely. But this collection here just blew me away.

I am in awe of Lauren Groff’s command of language – every single sentence ist perfectly done while not making the writing sound clinical but rather organic and captivating. I also really like the way she structures her stories – they never felt like they were working towards a punchline but rather their endings were perfectly done. Some stories I would have loved to spend more time with but I mean that as a compliment.

I do have the same problem with these short stories that I had with Groff’s second collection: I am not too keen on her descriptions of overweight bodies; and the fixation on weight did not always work for me. I cannot quite put my finger on why I think she does this, but I do wish she stopped focussing on weight so much. But for me it never crossed the line into problematic territory and as such is not enough to ruin my enjoyment of these brilliant short stories.

My favourite of the bunch is the last story “Delicate Edible Birds” – I loved it so much I considered giving the collection 5 stars because it ended on such a high note. Set during the Second World War (which I usually am not too keen on), this story is told from different perspectives of a group of journalists fleeing Paris on the eve of its occupation. It was harrowing and wonderful and absolutely beautifully written. Bern, the female main character, was so absolutely brilliant, I wish there was a whole book about her.

Review: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

39668922Verdict: Beautifully written, slightly forgettable.

My rating: 3 put of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction.

Published by Picador, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

An interview with the last speaker of a language. A chronicle of the final seven days of a town that is about to be razed to the ground by an invading army. The lonely voyage of an elephant from Kerala to a princess’s palace in Morocco. A fabled cook who flavours his food with precious stones. A coterie of international diplomats trapped in near-Earth orbit. These, and the other stories can be found in this collection.

Some of these stories are breathtakingly beautiful – and others are ever so slightly forgettable. I have problems reviewing short story collections at the best of times, but especially with this one. One a sentence by sentence level, this is stunning. The first story (“Swimmer Among the Stars”) starts like this:

“As a rule, the last speaker of a language not longer uses it. Ethnographers show up at the door with digital recorders, ready to archive every declension, each instance of the genitive, the idiosyncratic function of verbal suffixes. But this display hardly counts as normal speech. It simply confirms to the last speaker, that the old world of her mind is cut adrift from humans and can only be pulped into a computer.” – like seriously, stunning, stunning, stunning.

But even though I adore the way Kanishk Tharoor constructs his sentences, with their flow and ebb and wonderful eloquent excursion, the stories themselves did not always work for me. When the plot and the language converged, as they did in my favourite of these stories (“Tale of the Teahouse”) the result is breathtaking in that way that makes me clutch a book to my heart. But when they don’t, all the beautiful language in the world can not connect me to the story, this was especially the case in “The Mirrors of Iskandar” – a story told in short vignettes that felt laboured to me.

But still, even though not everything worked for me here, the mastery of language and tone is enough for me to pick up whatever the author writes next. And, can we have a moment of appreciation for this beautiful cover?

 

Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

36098092Verdict: Meticulously structured, deeply depressing, brilliant sense of place.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Random House UK, Cornerstone, June 5th 2018

Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff is a writer of rare gifts, and Florida – her first new book since her ‘clear the ground triumph’ Fates and Furies (Washington Post) – is an electrifying, expanding read.

Over a decade ago, Groff moved to her adopted home state of Florida. The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida – its landscape, climate, history and state of mind – becomes their gravitational centre. Storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats and mysteries are of a human, emotional and psychological nature.

Groff’s evocative storytelling and knife-sharp intelligence first transport the reader, then jolt us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, Groff pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury – the moments that make us alive. Vigorous, startling, precise and moving, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

Any book called “Florida” needs to be infused by a thorough sense of place and Lauren Groff does just that. I have been a fan since LOVING Fates and Furies a few years back and have been meaning to pick up more of her books and this very strong collection of short stories has cemented her place in my heart.

While not every story is set in Florida, Groff’s protagonists all have a connection to that place, a connection they sometimes strain against and sometimes welcome. Her protagonists are women, depressed and difficult and wonderfully flawed women, often mothers with a difficult and believable relationship to motherhood. I loved the way these women are allowed to be difficult while Groff shines an unflinching spotlight on them and their flaws and the way they are suffocating in their own skin. I adore that theycan be unpleasant while ultimately staying sympathetic. I do wish this unpleasantness did not always also show itself in a disdain for their own and other bodies. Once I noticed that I could not unsee it. I would have liked there to be more variety in their deepest flaws because as it is the fixation on (often overweight) bodies feels unkind and unnecessary.

Lauren Groff is in perfect command of her language; her sentences are sharp in the way that I like them to be in realistic short fiction (comparisons to Roxane Gay came to mind here and that is obviously one of the highest compliments I can give a short story writer). The stories are meticulously structured and surprising while her perfect tone is recognizable in all of them.

Now, excuse me while I buy everything else she has ever written.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Sum Of Us – Susan Forest & Lucas K. Law (editors)

34666135Verdict: Surprisingly great.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Date read: April 22nd, 2018

Published by Laksa Media Groups, September 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

The world of caregivers and unsung heroes, the province of ghosts . . .

Who are THE SUM OF US?

If we believe that we are the protagonists of our lives, then caregivers—our pillars—are ghosts, the bit players, the stock characters, the secondary supports, living lives of quiet trust and toil in the shadows. Summoned to us by the profound magic of great emotional, physical, or psychological need, they play their roles, and when our need diminishes . . .

Fade.

These are their stories.

Children giving care. Dogs and cats giving care. Sidekicks, military, monks, ghosts, robots. Even aliens. Care given by lovers, family, professionals. Caregivers who can no longer give. Caregivers who make the decision not to give, and the costs and the consequences that follow. Bound to us by invisible bonds, but with lives, dreams, and passions of their own.

Twenty-three science fiction and fantasy authors explore the depth and breadth of caring and of giving. They find insight, joy, devastation, and heroism in grand sweeps and in tiny niches. And, like wasps made of stinging words, there is pain in giving, and in working one’s way through to the light.

Our lives and relationships are complex. But in the end, there is hope, and there is love.

This was such a constistently good short story anthology. I have been struggling with anthologies recently so much that I started to consider not reading any anymore. This one, however, was really mostly good. I struggle with reviewing anthologies in general and while I thought this was really worthwhile, there were no stories that became new favourites and that I want to gush about.

The collection of speculative works looks at the concept of caregivers from many different angles; some of which I just adored. I loved the idea of a retirement home for former super villains and their henchmen (and henchwomen) and thought this story was executed wonderfully (The Dunschemin Retirement Home For Repentant Supervillains by Ian Creasey). Bottleneck by A. Am. Dellamonica was action-packed and interesting enough that I would love a whole book set in this world.

As always, there were some stories that did not quite work for me – I mean what is it with stories set in societies that closely resemble beehives? There were two of those here and while the first one did in fact prove to be charming after a while (The Mother’s Keepers by Edward Willet), the second dragged and did not offer anything new I found (Am I Not A Proud Outlier? by Kate Story). Also, this is a premise I have no definitely have read enough of.

So overall, worthwhile but not groundbreaking. I even now struggle to recall most of the stories and I think this will prove to be even more the case in a few weeks time. But I enjoyed it while I read it, which sometimes is enough.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Laksa Media Groups in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen

36262478Verdict: Uneven.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Published by Head of Zeus, March 8th

Genre: Fantastical Short Stories

Find it on goodreads.

Bewitching and playful, with its feet only slightly tethered to the world we know, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover explores hope, love, and loss across a series of surreal landscapes and wild metamorphoses. Just because Jenny was born without a head doesn’t mean she isn’t still annoying to her older brother, and just because the Man of the Future’s carefully planned extramarital affair ends in alien abduction and network fame doesn’t mean he can’t still pine for his absent wife. Romping through the fantastic with big-hearted ease, these stories cut to the core of what it means to navigate family, faith, and longing, whether in the form of a lovesick kraken slowly dragging a ship of sailors into the sea, a small town euthanizing its grandfathers in a time-honored ritual, or a third-grade field trip learning that time travel is even more wondrous–and more perilous–than they might imagine.

Andreasen’s stories are simultaneously daring and deeply familiar, unfolding in wildly inventive worlds that convey our common yearning for connection and understanding. With a captivating new voice from an incredible author, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover uses the supernatural and extraordinary to expose us at our most human.

I was beyond excited about this: it sounded so very much up my alley. The biggest strength of this collection is Andreasen’s fascinating use of juxtaposition: pirates with smart phones, doubting saints, death as celebration. His premises are brilliant and his imagination flawless; however, there was something missing for me here. I cannot quite pinpoint what exactly my problem with this collection was. There is nothing wrong with it per se but it did not invoke any strong feelings in me whatsoever.

As usual, there were stories that were stronger than others. I particularly enjoyed Rockabye, Rocketboy; a story about a boy about to explode. It’s quiet rumination on compassion and doing what is right really resonated with me. I also really happen to love short stories told from a collective we-perspective. I also adored The Saints in the Parlour: I found it funny and moving and just very clever. On the other end of the spectrum I thought The Man Of The Future fell flat. The main character was unsympathetic and felt slightly lazily constructed. The message of this story stayed muddled for me.

Overall, the writing is solid, the premises intriguing. It just was not the slam-dunk I thougt it would be, quite far from it actually. I did include it in my 5-star prediction post and my list of most anticipated releases after all.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Head of Zeus in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Starlings by Jo Walton

35909363Verdict: Uneven; partly wonderful, partly flat.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: January 27th, 2018

Published by Tachyon, February 23rd, 2018

Genre: Short Fiction.

Find it on goodreads.

An intimate first flight of short fiction from award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among Others, The King’s Peace).

A strange Eritrean coin travels from lovers to thieves, gathering stories before meeting its match. Google becomes sentient and proceeds toward an existential crisis. An idealistic dancer on a generation ship makes an impassioned plea for creativity and survival. Three Irish siblings embark on an unlikely quest, stealing enchanted items via bad poetry, trickery, and an assist from the Queen of Cats.

With these captivating initial glimpses into her storytelling psyche, Jo Walton shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself.

I have wanted to read Jo Walton’s novels for a while now and I can definitely say that after this collection of short stories that I am more excited than ever. As is sadly often the case with short story collections there were a few stories that did not work for me and a few poems that didn’t either, however, the stories I liked, I adored.

Jo Walton has a way of choosing pitch perfect voices for her stories and they all sounded completely different depending on the genre she chose. She tells stories in a vast array of genres: re-tellings, science fiction, straight up fantasy. Some stories are more of a cheeky joke (she admits so freely) while others are highly political (I happen to like that in my genre fiction). I absolutely adored the fairy tale that starts this collection (“Three Twilight Tales”): it feels like a fairy tale while being completely original and I never saw the ending coming. I found “The Panda Coin” to be the strongest of the collection: here we follow one coin through different hands. Jo Walton manages to create a believable science fiction setting in just these glimpses. “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” would have been a brilliant start to a novel and I wanted more from this than I got.

The stories that seemed to be more for her own amusement were the ones that did not quite work for me: Especially “Remember the Allosaur” and “Joyful and Triumphant: St. Zenobius and the Aliens” just felt like extended inside jokes to me.

I am glad to have read this because I am now more eager than ever to get to Jo Walton’s novels (where hopefully she won’t need to tell me after each chapter how she thought it up).

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Folk – Zoe Gilbert

35892355Verdict: Somehow disappointing.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date Read: January 8th, 2018

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ), February 8th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Every year they gather, while the girls shoot their arrows and the boys hunt them out. The air is riddled with spiteful shadows – the wounds and fears and furies of a village year.

On a remote and unforgiving island lies a village unlike any other: Neverness. A girl is snatched by a water bull and dragged to its lair, a babe is born with a wing for an arm and children ask their fortunes of an oracle ox. While the villagers live out their own tales, enchantment always lurks, blighting and blessing in equal measure.

Folk is a dark and sinuous debut circling the lives of one generation. In this world far from our time and place, the stories of the islanders interweave and overlap, their own folklore twisting fates and changing lives.

A captivating, magical and haunting debut novel of breathtaking imagination, from the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award.

I was so very much looking forward to this; I even featured it on my list of most anticipated books. This collection of connected short stories is steeped in myth and folktale and set on an island with an absolutely gorgeous cover – how could I not read this? This sounds like absolute perfection. And the writing is lyrical and the atmosphere haunting. But it is also disjointed and lacks a sufficient emotional punch to be the great book it could have been.

As is normal with short story collections, there were some that worked better for me and some that left me cold. I absolutely adored Swirling Cleft with its rumination on family and loss and love. It was stunningly beautiful and left me aching. On the other end of the spectrum I did not like Fishskin, Hareskin and thought its rumination on postpartum depression stayed on a superficial level.

The language is absolutely stunning with vivid imagery and interestingly structured sentences (that sometimes border on inaccessible). Zoe Gilbert has a brilliant way of creating metaphors and storylines that feel familiar while still being original. Her original fairy tales feel just like that: fairy tales. Their  matter-of-factness in their weirdness is spot on and brilliantly done.

I think ultimately my main problem was that the connections between the stories were not strong enough to give the individual stories the impact and depth I would have liked while the stories themselves often were not strong enough to stand on their own. I could never remember the characters between each stories because they mostly did not leave all that deep an impression on me and I think this lack of connection is what ultimately left me feeling mostly ambivalent about this book.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.