Category Archives: Short story

Seven books and a smell

For a few panicky seconds on Christmas Eve as the presents were being handed out, I was afraid we were going to do a Mr and Mrs Hilary Mantel thing. I’d read how last year they gave each other the same book. This comes of knowing perfectly well what the other one would like.

At Bookwitch Towers Daughter is good at knowing this (the Resident IT Consultant follows the list given to him), and when I found myself staring at a British Library Christmas crime anthology edited by Martin Edwards, I hurriedly tried to recall what I’d got the Resident IT Consultant. Two collections edited by Martin, but which ones? And how did they differ from the ones last year?

In the end they turned out to be different collections, but Daughter and I had clearly studied the list of crime stories edited by our Mr Edwards, and then made our separate choices. This was a problem I’d not even seen coming!

As you can see I am looking at a varied reading diet for the near future. Eoin Colfer and Shaun Tan were by request, so to speak, while the Literary Almanac was the result of individual thinking by the Resident IT Consultant. So, Silent Nights from Daughter, and also two Mary Westmacotts, chosen without even the prompting of Sophie Hannah’s suggestion in the Guardian during the year. Very perceptive. And at last I have got my Glamorgan sausages back! I’ve been going on about Michael Barry all year, after realising that parting with his cookbooks from the olden days might have been somewhat premature. I just couldn’t find his Glamorgan sausages online. But here they are. Someone paid attention to her mother, and then went secondhand book shopping.

That’s the seven books. The final gift was a scented candle from ‘an author’, smelling of old bookshop. The candle. Not the author. I’d have thought Bookwitch Towers might almost manage that smell on its own, but now we’ll leave nothing to chance.

I wish my hairdresser could see me now. I mean, when I unwrapped my books. Earlier in the week he’d asked if I thought the Resident IT Consultant would surprise me with a really special Christmas present. I’m afraid I laughed. I came home and told the other two, and the Resident IT Consultant said that it really would be a surprise if he were to do that. But I felt fairly safe from any development in that direction.

In return I surprised the hairdresser. Twice. Seven years on he discovered I have a Son. Who is not a scientist. And who does not translate for the police. He’s also into books. Son, I mean. And the hairdresser does read, so I decided to combine the two, and went back a few days later and gave him one of Son’s.

Addis Ababa Noir

What I found when I wanted to read the next short story in this anthology, was that I had to take a rest. The stories in Addis Ababa Noir are that powerful. The finished story was good. Ergo, I wanted to read the next one. But they do need space between them. At least for me.

But it’s good, this collection of fourteen stories, edited by Maaza Mengiste. Just quite noir. Although the title tells you that.

I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Because I like what I know, and apart from a couple of children’s books set in Ethiopia, I don’t know the country very well. Having said that, I don’t think these stories make me want to visit. The settings are bleak. But then, some of the stories are placed in a period when things weren’t good. And the mere fact that most of the authors seem to live, at least partially, in other countries, tells you something.

The reading is easy, except if you stop to consider the lives of the characters, and how quickly things can go wrong. At times I wasn’t certain if some of the wrong moves were accidental or done on purpose.

But as I said, this is good stuff.

Order, order

I own an old cassette of Christmas songs, sung by Roger Whittaker. I love it. I loved it even more – at first – when I was able to buy the same album as a CD. I mean, I thought I did. Was. Same title, same songs, but fewer songs. Seems a plastic ribbon has more room on it than a shiny disc. But apart from the lack of certain songs, and they were – obviously – some of the ones I loved best, there was a lack of order. It was the wrong order, as far as I was concerned. I’d nearly worn the cassette out, so I knew how I liked my songs. And it was not the CD order of things.

Order matters.

Then I happened upon an article by Dan Brotzel in The Author about ‘working out the best sequence for your story collection’. It seems it’s really quite difficult. Dan mused about his own stories, and also looked at what others have done.

I had actually pondered this before. Whenever I pick up a collection of one author’s stories or read an anthology put together by someone, I wonder how they determined what comes first, what sits in the middle and how to end things. Unless Dan is particularly unskilled at this, it would appear that someone has agonised over this very thing each time I sit there wondering about the why or the what.

And as with Roger Whittaker, some results feel better than others.

Love & Other Crimes

I’ve learned I am the same age as VI Warshawski. Or I was, until VI slowed down her ageing, and she’s now probably ten or fifteen years younger. But let’s say I know where she came from. I always feel very safe with Sara Paretsky and her detective, and look on both of them as my sisters. One older, one [now] younger.

Love & Other Crimes is Sara’s short story collection from last year. It’s got older stories and newer ones, plus a brand new story. Many of them feature VI, including the one set in 1966, when she was ten, but there are also other sleuths; some of whom are older women, and some set well in the past. I like that.

Short stories can be ‘easier’ to solve, with fewer characters and less background. But the plots are complex and it’s exciting to see how who did what and why.

At her launch last year Sara read the first half of Miss Bianca, about a young child and some laboratory mice, and most of that had some connection to Sara’s own family and her childhood. There is also a story set in the future, in a dystopian, but oh-so-plausible, America, showing both Lotty and VI in a completely new light.

You won’t be disappointed.

Christmas is Murder

You’re not all done with Christmas, I hope. Although, apart from its title, Val McDermid’s Christmas is Murder isn’t primarily Christmassy. Some of the twelve stories are seasonal, but many are not. Which is fine, as I believe Val was after creating Christmas crime reading like the Norwegians do at Easter (when I suspect not all the murders are egg or chicken related).

I had just about despaired after a couple of good, but too dark [for me] stories, when Val hit me with a traditional style ‘pleasant’ murder, which cheered me up no end. The preceding murders had been of people who didn’t deserve to be killed…

The most interesting story is a Sherlock Holmes one – Holmes For Christmas – which takes the reader in an unexpected direction. Quite fun. But it set me thinking about whether you are allowed to write more of someone else’s stories? With Sherlock Holmes I feel we are always getting new material, be it written or on screen. So I don’t know whether Watson being addressed as James in one instance meant anything, or if it was an unfortunate mistake.

Anyway, once the stories became a little less dark, I enjoyed the collection. And for anyone into same sex relationships, there’s much to discover.

Let’s sell this again

I was too naïve. Next time I will look more closely, because it did say, some distance down on the page for the book in the online shop. But even when I looked for it, it takes some degree of cynicism to decide that they are telling you that this is mostly old stuff.

Stuff you might have read before.

So, it mentions ‘featuring classic tales alongside exclusive, never-before-seen material.’

In a way it doesn’t matter. And the book wasn’t for me. But it sort of amounts to paying for previously published stories, except for – I believe – one that’s new. It is very good. But still.

I’m comparing it with the anthology of period Christmas stories I finished last week. I expected them to all be stories I potentially might have read, but because of the age they were from, I suspected this was unlikely. I didn’t read magazines in the 1950s. Or earlier.

But when a currently active author mentions their own new collection of stories, I kind of thought they’d be new. Not just newly selected from what had been written and published in the past.

One of them I read not very long ago. I have it in another volume on my shelf. Except it goes under a different title, so even if I had perused the list of stories with a great deal of suspicion, I’d not have known. The other one that is awfully familiar I have no idea how it is reminding me of itself, since according to the information it was published in a book I’ve not read. Unless that book in turn got the story from some other place.

If I were a collector of this author’s work, then it’d be worth it, to get some new material. Let’s face it, if this was a ‘new’ album by Roger Whittaker, with just the one track I didn’t already have, then the collector in me would scream to me to buy it. But not in the case of this story collection.

Maybe I’m saying that meeting a story again, in a volume of stories compiled by an editor, chosen from stories written by numerous authors over many years, is one thing. For an individual author to hand out their stories a second or third time without making it clear… well.

A Surprise for Christmas

Be still my beating heart. I now know how Daughter felt when I unintentionally kept interrupting her while reading the longest of the short stories in the Christmas anthology A Surprise for Christmas. Or I think I do. I’m all shaky and disturbed and that adrenaline is pumping.

This will no doubt be because these stories are extremely well chosen. Martin Edwards as the editor of the series clearly knows what he’s doing, down to getting the order of the stories right. The ‘long one’ was the antepenultimate story, and it was followed by two more that didn’t calm me down quite as much as I would have liked.

Well.

There was not a single dud in this collection. You’d think at some point editors would run out of material from which to choose. But not yet. It looks like many of them originally were published in papers and magazines, just before Christmas, and when I think of it, it’s obvious that this would have been a big market. Good for writers to have short stories published and good for magazine editors to have suitable entertainment for their readers.

I’m not sure, but I suspect this market is no longer as big. Or it could be I don’t read the right publications, or not enough of them.

But here they are all collected for me, and I can see I will not only become a serial user of anthologies, but some of the hitherto unknown [to me] authors are calling to me to look out for their crime novels as well. I will need a lot of time to read. And preferably nerves of steel. Anthony Gilbert’s Give Me a Ring (aka the ‘long one’) scared me as much as Philip Pullman’s Tiger in the Well did.

It was preceded by [more comfortable] stories from Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and countless others. Have a go yourself, unless the lack of Christmas stops you. Or save it for next November/December.

Thoughts on Christmas shorts

For her birthday I got Daughter a Christmas crime anthology, edited by Martin Edwards. (How that man manages to fit so much into his time, I will never know!) I reckoned she’d enjoy reading about gruesomeness at Christmas, or rather, in the run-up to that peaceful time. In the snow. She did. She hinted she wanted more (because the clever publisher listed further reading suggestions at the back of the book).

I had calculated on this success, so had obviously bought her a second collection, also edited by Martin. We just had to wait for Christmas to come. And after watching the event with Val McDermid last month, Daughter felt that Val’s new Christmas murder story anthology would also be essential for her happiness.

I shopped some more.

Now I have started reading the first one, the birthday gift, and it’s very promising. The trouble is, I feel these stories really are best consumed during the month, or so, around Christmas. And I’m running out of time here. Once the sprouts have been cooked and the dishwasher’s been seen to, and a few other chores, I appear to have very little time left.

Other people watch endless television and go for walks and do jigsaw puzzles and even read books. (You should have seen me watch the other two do a jigsaw. I might have managed to put about 25 pieces in their places, but they were left to find the other 975. I did the green bits. There were not many green bits at all.)

At this rate I’ll be saving the anthologies for December 2021.

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.