Category Archives: Short story

Finding Matt

I was getting rid of more books the other evening. After weeks of staring at flats for sale online, and admiring how nearly all of the owners have managed to prune their belongings to a ridiculous extent for the estate agent’s photographer, I felt that I would quite like my home to look as though it was for sale. Even when it isn’t. The empty surfaces appealed to me.

Hence the books facing the chop. Some were easy and some were keepers. And then there was one, which I didn’t immediately recognise from the spine, so pulled it out to look at. It turned out to be a short story collection from almost five years ago. Written by already authors as well as hopefuls, with a connection to MMU’s writing school, I remembered them sending me the anthology. I kept it because it looked good, and then I moved house and it sort of disappeared, until I found it this week.

And that was a good thing. Had it been much earlier, the name Matt Killeen would not have meant anything to me. (If you look back to the beginning of this week, you’ll see his debut novel reviewed by your Bookwitch.) I had seen in the press release that he was an MMU alumnus. And here he was, hiding in ‘the gym’ which is where my intermediate reading material rests.

Timelines (MMU)

In Lucky Hits the Skin, we meet a young drummer boy in the army, during the [I think] Napoleonic wars. It’s short, but those ten pages are at least as good as the WWII novel Orphan Monster Spy. It’s nice to see that so many of the people who enrol in the writing schools at our universities show so much promise, and that they go on to be published, and hopefully madly successful. (Liz Kessler is one of MMU’s.)

Now that it’s out of the gym, so to speak, I’ll have a go at some of the other stories, too. Coincidence is a funny thing.


Bengt Ohlsson?

Some years ago in a comment on someone’s [Swedish] blog I said I didn’t know who Bengt Ohlsson was. Another blog reader told me that since he’s a really great literary author and columnist, this was impossible. I [hope I] replied that I had no cause to lie. In the end I was allowed to not know Bengt because I was living abroad.

Anyway, yesterday I read a short story by Bengt. Vi magazine is celebrating their 20th Literature Boat (where authors and readers take to the high seas for book events and food) and have asked some of their former performers to write a short story for the magazine. The theme is literature at sea. The first story, last month, was about stalking an author.

The second one, by Bengt, was – seemingly – about boarding the Literature Boat for one more trip. It started in a fairly pedestrian way, but by the end it actually became something quite different.

It was interesting, and entertaining, but it didn’t necessarily make me want to join one of the sailings.

What I really appreciated, however, was the almost supernatural coincidence Vi provided me with. You see, there are more authors of some repute that I don’t know; not only poor Bengt. His story was in the December issue, and I’d saved it for ‘reading later.’

Yesterday morning, before reading the short story, I had glanced through the January edition of Vi. It very conveniently had an article about three shortlisted authors for the Vi book award; none of whom I’d heard of.

Within an hour, one of the three turned up as a character in Bengt’s story. And I wouldn’t have realised!

Bloody Scotland – the anthology

Bloody Scotland. What a – bloody – fantastic collection of crime stories! And what a gorgeous cover! It’s like blood dripping…

Bloody Scotland - the book

Although I have to admit to doubting the wisdom of going to bed so soon after finishing the last stories. How was I going to sleep after what Denise Mina put me through? Or Louise Welsh? She’d seemed like such a pleasant person when I got my book signed at the weekend. How could she?

Whereas Stuart MacBride, who usually is too dark for my general wellbeing, just entertained me, and almost made me laugh. Almost. I would like to see his crazy romp at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse with his insane characters made into a short film. I think. I might not be able to watch it, though. Crying out to be filmed, whether or not I am witch enough to view it.

This crime story collection with stories by twelve of Scotland’s best, was the brainchild of Historic Environment Scotland, or HES for short, in collaboration with Bloody Scotland. Why not have our professional killers write a story each, set in one or other of the many HES buildings or sites? Why not? Well, maybe in order not to scare people.

For those less feeble-minded than your witch, this is a marvellous memento of your visit to a HES site. It’s marvellous even if you never go, and after you’ve waded through some bloodbaths you might have second thoughts. So visit first, then buy, and read last. After which you either go back to look at the place again (I know your type..!), or your next visit will be to a place where Bloody Scotland has not murdered anyone.

Yet. I feel there should be more of these. Obviously not to be read at bedtime.

It’s not all blood and gore and devastation however. Chris Brookmyre is suitably fun and lighthearted, and Gordon Brown’s character has a lesson to learn. A couple of authors have gone for revenge, which was most satisfying. Or history, such as Lin Anderson’s visit to the distant past, or E S Thomson’s industrial history drama.

I’ve already mentioned how pleased Doug Johnstone was about my reaction to his tale about the Forth Bridge. And if I don’t mention Val McDermid, Sara Sheridan, Craig Robertson or Ann Cleeves next to their stories, it’s to avoid spoilers.

You don’t want to know when to beware the narrator/main character, or when they are as innocent as you want/expect them to be. Or people close to them. There’s a lot of bad people out there.

But as I said, once the sleep problems have been dealt with, I can’t but want more of this. I can think of authors not yet asked to kill for HES, or places to visit that have not yet been, well, ‘visited.’

Let the blood flow and your nerves take a beating. Won’t be the only thing to take a beating, I can promise you.

Bloody Scotland blog tour

Quest – the Aarhus 39

Quest is the ‘younger’ half of the two Aarhus short story collections, edited by Daniel Hahn. I use quotation marks, because I am less convinced of the age ‘gap’ than has been suggested. Yes, it is a little younger than Odyssey, but I felt many of the characters in Odyssey were not proper YA material; they were children who tried out older behaviour.

It’s not important, as both collections offer a great range of stories from all over Europe. As with Odyssey, the authors are occasionally quite famous, and so are the illustrators, and I’ve come across several of the translators before as well.

Quest - Aarhus 39

Of the 17 short stories in Quest I chose to start in the middle, because I just had to read the one by Maria Turtschaninoff first. I might have a crush on her. The story, The Travel Agency, did not disappoint. In fact, I could want to read a whole book based on it.

It’s unfair to pick favourites, but I did enjoy Maria Parr’s A Trip to Town, about a girl and her grandma. And as for Journey to the Centre of the Dark by David Machado; you’d do well to have a hand to hold. In the end it didn’t go quite as far as I kept being afraid of, but I’d be happy to offer my idea to anyone who feels like writing scary stories.

The Quest stories are not as dark as in Odyssey. Maybe that’s why they are offered as children’s stories. And perhaps that’s why they suited me better. But, in short, I can recommend these two collections as a starting point for fun with unknown [to you] names in children’s literature.

Odyssey – the Aarhus 39

We have a lot in common. But also, we don’t. That’s no bad thing, though.

Daniel Hahn has edited this collection of translated short stories. I think there are 21 in this, the older, group of stories of journeys from around Europe. If the list of names looks longer than 21, that is because the stories have both illustrators and translators as well as authors. So it’s been a big job to do, this collaboration with the Hay Festival in Aarhus. The Aarhus 39 stands for all the authors involved, as there is a collection for younger readers as well. (And personally I’d prefer to write Århus, but I can’t have everything.)

Odyssey - Aarhus 39

Anyway, this is very interesting. Daniel points out how similar [young] people are, wherever they come from. I agree, but it’s also obvious that we are different. Equal in worth and importance, but a little bit just ourselves.

Another thing about all the languages the stories were written in. You look at the name of the author and you think you know what language they use. But you could be wrong. So many seem to have made a journey or two themselves, and their stories are in a new language. This is fascinating and points to a new kind of Europe.

The Nordic short stories seem to be more into drugs, bullying and illegal behaviour. Further south it is more weird and entertaining. But none of that matters; they are stories about being young, and the journeys are either actual journeys, or about someone learning something about themselves.

I can’t possibly describe them, either their contents or the style. There are too many and they are too varied. The stories are short (yes, that is what a short story is), and mostly easy to read, and interestingly illustrated. They make you think.

If I were to criticise anything, it’s the size of the font. It is too small. And the very worthwhile list of all the contributors at the back; well that font is even smaller and made my eyes ache. But this is such a good idea, and we want more of it.

Just in bigger print.

The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

You can’t read and review a truly divine story too many times. Siobhan Dowd’s short story The Pavee and the Buffer Girl has just been published as a book in its own right, by Barrington Stoke, illustrated by Emma Shoard, and you want to buy it purely for those pictures! They are stunning, and the whole book is so beautiful.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

(Here is the link to when I first reviewed it, many years ago. I can’t believe time has passed so quickly.)

It’s a story about Irish travellers, and if I didn’t know that Siobhan could turn her hand to anything, I’d ask how she could know what it’s like for people like Jim and his extended family. It’s as though she had been there. Maybe she was.

More poignant than ever, this brief tale about outsiders unwanted by a community is very touching. Jim and his cousins have to go to school when they stop to live in a new town. They are not welcomed, and Jim’s younger cousin is severely bullied, and eventually the group of travellers decide they will be better off somewhere else and they leave.

Before that, Jim has made friends with a girl in his class at school, another outsider who doesn’t quite fit in, and whose home life is dreary.

In the current climate where reading and libraries are so threatened, it’s humbling to learn that none of the travellers know how to read, but would love to be able to. Jim’s mum is so hopeful when she asks if he will teach her, if he learns anything. It makes you want to cry.

Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, The Pavee and the Buffer Girl

Counting Stars

Counting Stars was always my favourite book by David Almond. I’m not sure what it was, but after reading it I felt I could write stories too. Felt that I wanted to write them.

I obviously can’t, and won’t try, but the feeling was good. It was as if David and I shared a past, despite our pasts being considerably different in so many ways. But there was something.

David Almond, Counting Stars

Now there is a new edition of Counting Stars. It’s hardback. Mine is/was a paperback. It’s got a beautiful dustwrapper, which alone could make me want to buy the book again.

And to twist anyone’s arm if they are hesitating, a few new stories have been added. Don’t know whether to call that kind, or cruel. Yes, you will want the new ones, but no, you might not be able to buy a second copy.

As for me, I will have to decide which one to keep. I’m the type who likes to hang on to the worn one I read first. But then there are the new extras…