Category Archives: Short story

Murder in Midwinter

I do like a good anthology of themed short stories. Especially Christmas themed. There is no murder so lovely as a Christmas one… Hang on, that doesn’t sound right. But you know what I mean.

I hung on to this Murder in Midwinter collection, edited by Cecily Gayford, until I felt Christmassy enough. The stories weren’t all absolutely set at Christmas, but at least in the colder, snowier part of the year. Some are quite old, others a little more recent.

We have some nice blackmail in the family, cunningly devious husbands, as well as the problem with dustbins and strikes. There is the rather sweet – and exciting – story about a boy in care, and then there was the Margery Allingham that made me forget everything and which, while I could sort of guess the direction the mystery was going, I didn’t quite see the last bit coming. That woman was a master of funny, caring, intelligent crime stories, be they long or short.

And give me a snowy, retro kind of cover picture, and I’m yours.

Stay at Home!

It’s not only sourdough bread that has happened over the last three months. Many authors have come up with online material to offer readers. In fact, there’s been such a glut that I’ve not been able to keep up. I just know there is much to find.

Small Scottish publisher Cranachan Publishing has a free ebook offering a wide variety of things to read. Their ‘Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children in Lockdown is a a free, illustrated anthology of poems and stories for children aged 8-12, comprising specially written lockdown-themed contributions by 40 writers based in Scotland.’

Try it! There are household names, and there are names you might not have heard of. Yet. But this is a nice collection, and what’s almost nicer still, is how people have pulled together to make it happen.

The Book of Hopes

It’s always like this. I get tired and want nothing more than to stay at home for ‘quite some time.’ After a while – it could even be after ‘quite some time’ – I have had enough and I begin to want to climb the walls. Or at least to get out and go to some event, somewhere.

Well, I am ready for an event. Now. Before agoraphobia takes over.

I’ll pretend. There’s a book you can read for free. Katherine Rundell has collected lots of writing from a lot of writers, and some illustratings from illustrators. You’ll find them in The Book of Hopes, which you can get here.

There were extracts in the Guardian Review at the weekend. I was particularly taken with Catherine Johnson’s Axolotl poem:

“Care of Exotic Pets: Number 1. The Axolotl at Bedtime.
Never give your axolotl chocolatl in a botl.
Serve it in a tiny eggcup, not too cold and not too hotl.
Make him sip it very slowly, not too much, never a lotl.
After all, he’s just a sleepy, snuggly, bedtime, axolotl.”

And so it goes. More verses online!

‘All’ the big names have contributed something. Whatever you like, it could well be in here somewhere. I’m thinking what a marvellous book launch this would make, if we could all get together. See you there?

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief

Pushkin Children’s Books know when they are on to a good thing. So does the Resident IT Consultant who has, yet again, got his mitts on the most recent of the new translations of Tonke Dragt’s books. And I have to say, they always look very appealing:

“The Goldsmith and the Master Thief, by Tonke Dragt, is another translation of a Dutch children’s classic from Pushkin. Originally published in 1961, De Goudsmid en de meesterdief is essentially a series of fairy tales set in a medieval world which, in my mind, seemed to owe something to Bruegel’s paintings.

Tonke Dragt, The Goldsmith and the Master Thief

Laurenzo and Jiacomo are identical twins, and many of the stories depend on the fact that no one can tell them apart. As we read, we see their characters develop through a series of exciting adventures. Magic pays no role in these, though it often appears as if it might. Nevertheless, the tales, twelve in total, have something of the character of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. At other points they could almost be the plot of one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The translator, Laura Watkinson, is the same as for Tonke Dragt’s other books published by Pushkin. As with these, her clear, straightforward language probably makes a significant contribution to the readability of the book.”

I am obviously still in Hans Christian Andersen land, and it really does seem as if this would also make an excellent Christmas present for someone. You will know who.

Amtrak tales

If you thought leaflets were the only things to be brought home when the Resident IT Consultant returned from the other side of the big water last month, you were wrong, if hopeful.

Not unexpectedly, Amtrak have a magazine on their trains. I suppose they need to, seeing how slow the trains go. 😉  You might run out of books. When the Resident IT Consultant travelled the current issue was The Kids Issue, which was a suitable thing to bring me.

I thought it was really quite nice. As with many ‘kids’ things, not all was aimed at children, but was about them. But it was all good. There’s an excellent interview with Michelle Obama, done by a 12-year-old. I learned new things about the former First Lady, and that’s saying quite a bit.

There are games. There’s a nice photo travel piece by someone travelling with her young child. There’s an article about food. ALMA winner Jacqueline Woodson has written about travelling by train with her best friend when they were young.

Best of all were the four stories from real life written by author Lois Lowry, whom I’ve never heard of but wish I had. She tells of four trips by train, beginning when she was five in 1942, and ending with Lois at 25 travelling with her baby son. These were interesting and so full of life, and I could have gone on and on reading about her life on trains. Possibly even off trains, too.

In all, this magazine was the right thing to have brought home for me to read.

Kiss and Part

I’d never heard of the Hosking Houses Trust, or the village of Clifford Chambers, and I’m guessing neither have you. The trust provides women writers with a “room of one’s own” where they can write in peace. And as such places require funding, they have commissioned a short story collection from past incumbents, and that’s Kiss and Part.

This is great fun to read and not in the slightest as worthy as it might sound. The introduction is by Margaret Drabble, and the list of authors has some names more famous than others on it, and all have contributed something original, something that connects with the cottage and the village.

Kiss and Part

We meet Shakespeare. After all, it’s more or less in his backyard. There is poetry. There are long stories and shorter ones, and they are all interesting in their own way.

I especially enjoyed The Incumbent by Elizabeth Speller, where I was at first annoyed by the seemingly narrow-minded narrator, but grew to understand her and to sympathise, and the ending is a masterpiece.

The stories are all different, as are their authors, and the fascinating aspect is how they all connect to the same place, while still being so diverse. They mirror literature today, showing us quality while proving this doesn’t have to be in just the one style.

An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends

First I went for the story set at Stirling Castle, and it was quite satisfying. I knew the tale before, but this was a lovely, and humorous re-telling about the man who tried to fly down from the castle. (Don’t try this!)

If you’d asked me, I would have – almost – thought that Theresa Breslin couldn’t possibly manage another host of Scottish stories. She and illustrator Kate Leiper have already produced a couple of gorgeous collections, and here they are with An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends.

It’s everything you’d expect it to be. What you’d want it to be. From the wonderful cover by Kate, to every last little story by Theresa, set in different castles all over Scotland, and taking place at varying times in history.

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper, An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends

I especially like the sepia coloured map of Scotland, with sepia coloured ‘postcards’ of the castles, at the front of this rather large volume. It is a little hard to hold, actually. For us small ones, anyway.

And also the show-stopping night skyline of Edinburgh. Some of us would pay to put that on the wall. I can understand how Kate might have sat in some suitable spot to capture that, but I wonder how she got the selkies and the various monsters and other creatures to pose for her?

As for the stories, well, they are what you know Theresa can tell. I’m sure they are all quite true, but she does do nice things with her characters. The stories are mostly short, so make for easy reading at any age.

I didn’t know that thing about Nessie. Or Walter Scott’s great-many-times-granny. As long as you have the arms for it, this is a great book. And if you don’t, it is actually greater still. You might need a child, but I managed just fine on my own.

Murder in Midsummer

This summer crime anthology seemed like such a great idea. Clever title as a Midsomer look-alike book, and if you equate midsummer with summer holidays, or even warm, sunny holidays, you are mostly there.

And it starts well, with Ruth Rendell’s Wexford on holiday with his wife. I really enjoyed the story, nicely period, but not too old, from the 1970s. Later on, Appleby and wife are also out holidaying; also enjoyably, apart from for the poor victim.

Actually, I’m being unfair here. Nearly all the stories are good fun, and make for nice period entertainment.

Murder in Midsummer

I think it was primarily the Dorothy Sayers story featuring Lord Peter Wimsey himself which disturbed me. Yes, it’s historical. And yes, I firmly believe in not tampering with language for our delicate modern eyes. It wasn’t even the use of the word dago that got to me. It was how good old Wimsey looked at life. Yes, lighthearted as ever, but he made me feel uncomfortable. Even crusty old Sherlock Holmes felt slightly fresher.

There’s a curious – intentional? – pairing between the stories, with similar settings or characters. Lions, beach deaths, closed rooms, that sort of thing.

I’m the first to say how much I love period crime, but there is something that no longer feels quite right. And it’s so reassuring when the English, even when abroad, put their superior brains to good use and solve the crimes the local police are struggling with.

Return to Wonderland

Return to Wonderland

Many writers have a relationship with Alice. A whole bunch of them have now written their own new stories about Wonderland and the wondrous creatures you find there. It’s Alice Day on the 4th of July, or so I’ve been told, and here’s a whole new story collection featuring your favourite characters.

In fact, I was struck by how nicely these authors played; they all seemed to have an affinity with a different character from the other authors, which seems to mean there was no fighting. They simply sat down and mused in an interesting way about the Cheshire Cat, or the Knave of Hearts, or any of the others.

To tell the truth, I only ever read the original Alice once, and don’t have a deep and meaningful relationship with any of them. I like tea parties, but prefer them to be normal. I like my head attached. And so on.

Some of these stories were great, lots of fun and interesting new takes on the old tales. I didn’t like all of them the same, but that’s understandable as the eleven authors don’t write the same way, and maybe for me some of Wonderland’s characters are more my cup of tea than others.

‘One morning, Pig woke to discover he had been turned into a real boy.’

How can you go wrong with a start like that?

Home Ground

Home Ground is a short, but necessary, story. Alan Gibbons has written this for Barrington Stoke, and like most of his books it is very much a book for boys.

Alan Gibbons and Chris Chalik, Home Ground

It’s got football at its heart, and would appeal to all football fans out there. And the other thing that matters is friendship. Fairness. Understanding that not everyone is the same, but that we are equal in our own way, and that we all matter.

Even refugees. Some of the boys in this story don’t like outsiders, or change. Not even if it helps their team win. Or at least, not come last.

So here is a story that shows the reader why people are the way they are, and how it can be good for everyone to include newcomers, who might look and speak different. But they’re all football players.

Alan has included short pieces on refugees, what they are, and why. He mentions what might have happened to them before they came here, and what their lives can be like. This could seem too obvious, but for the target readers in this case – boys between eight and twelve – it may well be necessary. There is also some information on famous, refugee, footballers.

I hope this book will both entertain and inform, and change.

(Illustrations by Chris Chalik)