2014 Recommended books Short Story

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories

The Moth: This Is a True Story

Five words from the blurb: truth, stranger, storytellers, spellbound

I’m not normally a fan of short stories, but this book fell through my letter box and after trying it for only a few seconds I couldn’t put it down – the stories were so compelling. They describe the most inspirational or unusual moments in a person’s life and they give the reader hope for the future and a greater understanding of the past.

The Moth is an American storytelling event in which people gather together to hear interesting aspects of each other’s lives. This book is a collection of the best stories told since its foundation in 1997. Many are written by established authors (eg. Nathan Englander, Andrew Solomon and Joyce Maynard), but the most interesting ones were often by ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events. My favourite was the story of a hospital porter who was trapped in a lift with a patient:

So now we’re stopped somewhere, in this tiny, dark box, and there’s three sounds I can hear: the elevator’s emergency signal buzzing, Melissa’s screaming, and Mr William’s heart monitor indicating that, like our elevator, his heart has stopped.

Other stories include the doctor sent to Dehli to treat Mother Teresa; a man who tracked down the pizza delivery driver who’d stolen money from his account; and astronaut Michael Massimino’s difficult space walk. All were totally gripping and I was amazed by the speed in which each author created emotion and narrative tension.

My only criticism is the American bias of the book.  – I’d love to see a diverse mixture of countries represented. I hope that The Moth phenomenon travels around the world so we can experience a global edition of this book in the near future.

The Moth is entertaining, inspirational and jaw-droppingly unbelievable in places. The blurb states that truth is stranger than fiction and this book proves that over and over again. I highly recommend it.


2012 Booker Prize Short Story

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

Communion Town Longlisted for 2012 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: city, stories, imagined, diverge, voices

I’m not sure how this book ended up on the Booker longlist. The writing quality cannot be disputed, but this book is a collection of short stories and I don’t think you can argue that they are connected enough to justify status as a novel. All the stories are set in the same city, but that is where the connection ends. Characters do not reappear and I could not see any other link between them all. As a result I was disappointed by this book.

The first chapter was slow to start, but by the end I was completely hooked. SPOILER (highlight to read): People trapped underground with monsters!  Exciting premise for a Booker longlistee! Unfortunately that great story line was dropped, never to be mentioned again. There were a few other fantastic scenes sprinkled through the book, but they were never developed enough for me to care about any of the characters. I frequently found myself bored by entire sections and despite the beautiful writing I never rediscovered the excitement of that first chapter.

It was easy to read, containing a simple, but vivid writing style:

Blackness crept into the edges of my vision and I lashed out at the so-called doctor, colliding with him awkwardly shoulder-first and knocking him aside. Hunched against the wall, shaking, he cradled his phial. His face contorted and tears pressed from the corner of his eyes. I spun around and swung  my fists at the Captain, but he danced easily away, his hands billowing. He quivered with the effort of restraining himself. He couldn’t even speak any more.

Each chapter was slightly different in tone and some were very different in terms of content and genre. Everything from science fiction to crime, and even dark suspense, was included at some point, but rather than be impressed by the variety I just craved some consistency. I’m afraid I’m just not a fan of short stories. If Sam Thompson wrote a novel then I’d be keen to try it, but this was too disjointed for me.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a highly recommended book that offers an exquisite reading experience with its many voices in an imaginary city that vividly comes to life. Fantasy Book Critic

There were a few stories I didn’t care for at all, but for the most part, the writing carried throughout the stories I liked and didn’t like. Nomadreader

There are some truly beautiful speculative concepts to be unearthed here. Strange Horizons 

1990s Short Story

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried (Flamingo)

Five words from the blurb: Vietnam, war, healing, masterpiece, devastating

The Things They Carried is a modern classic. It has been described as “one of the war books of this century” and “essential fiction about Vietnam”. Before starting the book I knew little more than that, but on finishing it I can only agree. This is a very important book and I’m sure it will be read for generations to come.

The Things They Carried is a series of short stories about the Vietnam War. If I’d known that I wouldn’t have read it – I tend to get frustrated by short stories, longing for more character development and the complex plot of a longer novel. I experienced these problems with this book and that is why I haven’t rated it as highly as others, but I’m pleased I read it and if you enjoy short stories then you will really appreciate it.

The writing in this book is stunning. I especially loved the repetitive writing style of the first chapter:

They carried chess sets, basket balls, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ring worm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

The rest of the book highlighted individual events from the war, portraying shocking scenes with sensitivity and emotional power. Each situation was vividly described, but I longed for the events to be connected by a compelling narrative. Yes, some of the characters reappeared in subsequent chapters, but the narrative jumped forwards and backwards in time, giving it a disjointed feel that distanced me from the horrors. I wanted an emotional connection to the characters and to see their personalty change and develop with the increasing hardship of war.

The book provides a lot of thought provoking passages about the mental burden or war – how it really feels to kill someone and how it is possible (or not) for a soldier to return to their previous life after experiencing these horrors. There is also an impressive piece of writing about being conscripted for war.

There is a lot to admire in this book and I do think it is an extremely important piece of literature. I wish I could love it as much as I feel I should do.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

One of the most moving, beautifully written books I’ve ever read.  Bookfoolery and Babble

Tim O’Brien’s writing in this is absolutely breathtaking.  He has the ability to put you right there in the middle of Vietnam with all the characters. The Betty and Boo Chronicles

It is beautifully written and eloquent in a way that few books about war are. Lit and Life

1910s 1920s Short Story

‘They’ – Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling is one of those authors I felt I should have read, but hadn’t until now. ‘They‘ is a collection of three of his short stories. The blurb states that they are very different from his novels and poems, being more sinister and macabre. This darker element really appealed to me, but unfortunately I didn’t find any of the stories particularly chilling – early 20th century fear is very different to that of the modern day!

They is the first story in the collection and it reminded me of The Turn of The Screw; or at least a shorter, more easy to follow version. The writing was of a very high quality and contained vivid imagery, but glimpses of ghostly children did nothing for me. 

‘I heard that,’ she cried triumphantly. ‘Did you? Children, oh, children! Where are you?’

The voice filled the walls that held it lovingly to the last perfect note, but there came no answering shout such as I had heard in the garden. We hurried on from room to oak-floored room; up a step here, down three steps there; among a maze of passages; always mocked by our quarry. One might as well have tried to work an unstopped warren with a single ferret.

The rest of the stories were equally well written, but all succumbed to the problem I have with short stories – they were too short! I longed for some plot, instead of just brief scenes.

The second story in the collection is Mary Postgate. It was written during WWI and it has been suggested that it is anti-German propaganda, but this is a disputed topic among Kipling scholars. It should have been a disturbing tale, but I remained unmoved. The subtlety of the words meant that I appreciated it much more on a second reading, but this appears to be one of those stories which benefits from being studied and discussed rather than just read once for pleasure.

The third story is called The Gardener and I have to admit that on completing it I had no idea what the point was. I didn’t understand what had happened until I found these notes on a Kipling site. Even this insight didn’t help me to appreciate the story. It is another story that needs to be studied to be enjoyed and I’m afraid that I just like to read a story without having to tease the significance out of individual sentences.

Overall I can see why these stories are significant, but they were too subtle for me.

Have you read anything written by Rudyard Kipling?

His novels are supposed to be very different. Do you think I’d enjoy them?

They is one of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics (a series of 50 books launched on 15th February). They can be bought individually for £3 each or as the beautiful Penguin Mini Modern Classics Box Set

1800s Classics Mystery Short Story

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

I decided to read The Turn of the Screw after I heard Audrey Niffenegger describe it as her favourite book. Halloween also seemed the perfect time of year to read this classic, spooky story.

The book is set in an Essex country home and describes the life of a governess who is charged with looking after two children. She becomes increasingly disturbed by glimpses of strange ghostly figures and begins to suspect that the children may have something to do with them.

I’m afraid that I don’t share Niffenegger’s passion for this book. I found it very hard to read – the writing style meant it required a great deal of concentration and I had to continually re-read sections to understand exactly what was happening. His overuse of commas meant that the writing had an irritating, jumpy feel to it.

The large impressive room, one of the best in the house, the great state bed, as I almost felt it, the figured full draperies, the long glasses in which for the first time, I could see myself from head to foot, all struck me – like the wonderful appeal of my first small charge – as so many things thrown in.

The complexity of the writing and the fact that the book is written from the viewpoint of a narrator who wasn’t present as events took place meant that I failed to connect with the characters. I was so distanced from events that I didn’t find it remotely scary.

I loved the ambiguity of the plot and in hindsight I can appreciate the cleverness of it, but I much prefer it when modern writers take aspects of this book and re-write them from a modern perspective.

I am really pleased that I read it, but it felt more like a chore than entertainment at the time.


Did you enjoy The Turn of the Screw?

2009 Recommended books Short Story

Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

Legend of a Suicide is a book which is hard to classify. It has been described as a collection of short stories and is now being marketed as a novel. I think the truth is that this book is similar to Olive Kitteridge, in that it is a very successful book of interconnected short stories.

The book follows Roy, a young boy whose father commits suicide. The emotion in this book is pitched perfectly. The suicide of the author’s own father enables him to give us an insight into the real, conflicting emotions experienced by a child put into this terrible situation. This book shows us how immersing a child into the dark, adult world is such a bewildering experience – one they don’t have the knowledge to handle.

There was nothing Roy could think of to say, so he didn’t say anything. But he wondered why they were here at all, when everything important to his father was somewhere else. It didn’t make sense to Roy that his father had come out here. It was beginning to seem that maybe he just hadn’t been able to think of any other way of living that might be better. So this was just a big fallback plan, and Roy too, was part of a large despair that lived everywhere his father went.

The first few stories were slightly disjointed, in that I couldn’t follow the narrative, but once I reached the novella of their trip into the Alaskan wilderness I was completely hooked. I found the book impossible to put down and I read the rest in a single sitting.

The writing was vivid, emotionally charged and thought-provoking. I think that this book might help relatives of suicide victims to be able to cope with their loss and it should also be read by anyone who feels that suicide is a good option, as it is the best demonstration of the devastation a suicide brings to a family I have ever seen. The number of issues raised and the power of this story make it perfect for reading groups too.

Highly recommended to anyone who loves books which are packed with emotion.