I thought I’d review some short story collections this month as, during a recent foraging session, I found a few I forgot I owned and still hadn’t got round to reading. So I finally did.
I started doing these Bibliophilia posts because I often find that no one I know has read the books I’ve read so I can’t really talk about them. And if I do, it causes spoiler alerts. I also have a couple of close friends who don’t read at all. I should probably join a book club. Maybe I’ll get onto that at some point. Anyway, I digress.
The beauty of the short story is that you often enter it right in the thick of action, and have to piece things together very quickly. There isn’t really time to fully flesh out a character’s backstory, so it’s a hefty challenge for the writer to make their readers care about what happens to them. As the reader, I like trying to figure out what’s already happened as well as what’s about to happen.
The short story collection also allows you to dip in and out and choose what you want to read at random. Which is great if you’re in the mood for a juicy short instead of a whole new epic.
Here are the goodies I recommend:
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
This was a compelling read both for its powerful imagery and familiarity, as Carter puts a new spin on old fairy tales, giving them a gothic twist and, it cannot be denied, heightened sexual undertones (The Tiger’s Bride). It’s actually a pretty feminist political read as she puts the spotlight on the feminine role in fairytales, dissecting them with a smart and critical eye, then very skilfully turning them on their head, sometimes making the female character the one to be wary of when you were tricked into thinking she needed rescuing.
At times, there is a feeling of being taken against your will but secretly wanting to be taken, a general backdrop of bewitchment and no sense for the reader how the tale might play out, as there is such an unpredictability and abruptness at play. You keep reading because the intrigue has reeled you in. Not to mention occasional moments of such bawdy dry humour, you will likely laugh out loud (Puss in Boots).
Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King
Reading Stephen King is always nostalgic because I read him a lot as a teen, so for me, he is quintessentially 90s. I thought it was about time I revisited him. This is a thick wedge of a book containing twenty five stories that are each so different, you can expect a new experience every time, as King cooks up tension and atmosphere with ease.
Some are incredibly creepy, to say the least, but then, of course they are. Others are mildly chilling and some will give you a feeling of doom from the start. Still others are cleverly macabre with twist endings (that you may see coming) and the odd one is a dull ramble of dialogue. There is a lot left to the imagination, and most of the time, the reader’s questions are answered by the end. A few I would also describe as the ultimate contemporary horror story, something you can easily imagine playing out in film, and happening in an everyday plausible way, which possibly makes them more freaky (Chattery Teeth, White Sneakers). Occasionally, there are those, I would say, (for example, The Ten ‘O’ Clock People, You Know They Got a Hell of a Band) that are quite surreal and clever in a Kubrick-esque kind of way, and King at his imaginative finest.
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
Five tales of music and nightfall is the strapline and it is truly the best way to describe this book. They speak of travelling musicians and transient relationships, spending summers in Italian piazzas or quaint English villages whilst trying to earn your keep, and the poignancy and nostalgia associated with a life like this. You will be gently wrapped up in a soft blanket by the fire, and made to feel homely and cosy before you have to move on again.
There’s some feeling of mutable magic that will creep up on you ever so softly whilst reading, and you’ll look up and realise the light is starting to change to dusk. And with it your night self will stir, as you travel from Venice to London, Malvern to LA, and experience all the good traveller feels.
This was my first taste of Ishiguro (I know, where have I been?) and although he has been dubbed “the unreliable narrator”, and I totally understand why, this read just really made me feel at home. Perhaps it will you too.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
Okay, so this one is an anomaly as it’s not a short story collection at all but a novel. I just assumed it was a bunch of short stories because of, well, the title. Silly me. I thought I’d include it anyway as I took the time to read it and it is indeed worth reading. In short, it’s an enchanting tale about a boy who has to travel far and wide with his father, a famous talented storyteller, to help him find his words again. For he has lost his words.
Which they do so whilst travelling through fantastical lands, crossing paths with a whole host of colourful characters. And of course, there is a quest that must be fulfilled. More than one, in fact, as Haroun’s mission becomes more complex the more he tries to navigate the new universe he finds himself in.
If you’re familiar with Rushdie, you’ll know how well he fleshes out his characters with a multi-layered back story, and whilst he still does this so well here, this tale is a very light read. I love Rushdie writing fantasy, his references and ideas are clever and refreshing, which surprised me because, as a writer, I sometimes find his sheer plethora of detail and plot-weaving exhausting. But this book is well-suited for younger and older adults alike. He has created a sophisticated world that is a joy to get lost in. It’s basically Rushdie writing comedy and nailing it.
I also find his use of the Punjabi / Urdu dialect for names of things delightful, as I have grown up with these languages, (this lingo is peppered throughout), so it allowed me to slide familiarly into the story. For example, it is set in the country of Alifbay (A and B in the Punjabi alphabet), they have to travel to Kahani (which means story), Khattam-Shud (the end) is the worst thing that can happen to someone, there is Gup City (meaning chatter) where is always excitement and action, and there is the land of Chup (silence) which is a dark silent place, and so on. Highly recommend.
I think I’ve talked enough so I’ll leave it there for now.
Have you read any of the above? Did you love them, or not? Are you a fan of the short story? If so, are there any great short story collections you’ve read at one time or another? Or do you prefer to get lost in a good novel instead? Feel free to comment…
© N Nazir 2022