Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Short Story

Back in my university days, 1974 - 1978, when I decided to switch from Political Science to English Lit, one of the course I took was Introduction to the Short Story (something like that anyway). I don't remember very much about it, except that it wasn't my favourite course.

Since that time, while I haven't consciously avoided them, I really haven't explored the style very much. While at university, I read A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, a collection of lovely children's stories.

In later years, let's jump to the '80s now, while I was enjoying my exposure to Stephen King's early horror stories, I read a couple of his short story collections, Four Past Midnight, Skeleton Crew and maybe some others. It has been awhile. Al that to say, that when King is on, his short stories are some of his best works.

So what makes a great short story? Unlike a novel, which has time to create a mood, to introduce its characters and plot, the short story has to grab your attention from the 'get-go'. It can't go meandering along, adding a story line here or a character there, letting you come to grips with what is going on, until it slowly builds to the satisfactory conclusion. Ultimately, the short story can't take the time to develop its themes. It has to provide you with almost instant gratification. Here is the crux of the story in a nutshell, here are the key characters and it all builds and ends. Whew! I think it takes a unique writer to be able to achieve this successfully. I think a writer that can write both novels and short stories and be successful in both styles is quite unique.

Since I started tracking my reading more closely and that goes back to when I first joined Goodreads, I have made stabs at various short story writers. In 2007, Jo bought me Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock. Munro is a Canadian writer and has made a career out of writing short stories. The View from Castle Rock is a collection which traces her family, in a variety of stories, through time from their origins in Scotland to their settling in Canada in the early 1800's. Each story reflects a different time, a different part of the family. It's a deeply personal voyage. Munro is well worth reading, if you are just starting to check out this writing style. The View from Castle Rock or Lives of Girls and Women are both excellent examples.

Son of the Morning and Other Short Stories
From 2011 to 2013, my short story collection attempts, were mainly in the Science Fiction genre. The books varied from William Gibson's Burning Chrome, my least favourite, to Phyllis Gotlieb's Son of the Morning and Other Stories (my favourite). I liked some of Gibson's stories, Red Star and Winter Orbit to name a couple, but as I mentioned in my review, I just didn't get it in the other cases. Gibson has written some excellent Science Fiction novels and presents a unique vision of the future. The stories do offer some insight into this vision. The other collections included Iain M. Banks' The State of the Culture, which offers an overview of his futuristic world, The Culture. Once again his stories were hit and miss, there was nice humour in them and the essay on the Culture was very interesting. But the final stories were a bit of a chore to get through. J.G. Ballard's Passport to Eternity was excellent, a 4-star read. Ballard also has a strange, unique perspective on the future. My favourite stories of this collection were The 99th Floor and The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista.

Now on to Canadian author, Phyllis Gotlieb. She is a writer who can successfully switch from the different styles. The first book of hers that I read was Sunburst, a fascinating story of a world destroyed by radiation and of a group of mutant children. It was excellent. I've since read 4 others of her stories, a mix of novels and short stories. Sons of the Morning and Other Stories is an excellent collection of entertaining stories. Gotlieb can grab your attention from the beginning and hold your attention throughout. This year I read A Judgment of Dragons,  a collection of 4 stories featuring some of her favourite characters, the giant red Cats from the planet Ungruwarkh. Once again, I enjoyed thoroughly. This was my review.

" Canadian writer/ poet, Phyllis Gotlieb has written some of my favourite SciFi stories, especially Sunburst. A Judgment of Dragons contains four short stories featuring the giant red cats from the planet Ungruwarkh, the male, Kreng and his telepathic mate, Prandra. Unfortunately, the first story, Son of Morning, was also contained in another book of short stories I'd already read, Son of Morning and Other Stories, but it was still nice to be reintroduced to Prandra and Kreng with that story and then to continue with three other stories featuring the irrepressible pair; The King's Dogs, Nebuchadnezzar and A Judgment of Dragons.

The four stories could just as easily have been one novel as the stories follow on one after the other as the two cats go to GalThree (AKA Earth) so Prandra can learn to use her esp powers better and they can obtain assistance from the Federation in helping the planet Ungruwarkh become more self sufficient. Prandra and Kreng are wonderful characters, grumpy, loving and just fun to read about. Each story is almost a mystery, as the two find themselves in situations that need resolution. The supporting cast; Espinoza, an esp brain who accompanies the in the first story, Kinnear, a blunt security official in the 2nd and 4th stories and others, are all excellent as well. The stories were very enjoyable and just added to my love of Gotlieb's writing. Check her out."

So let's move on to 2016. While I was preparing my challenge reads for 2016, I realised that over the past few years, I've purchased quite a few short story collections. I figured that was Fate telling me to try them out once and for all, so I decided to squeeze these stories into my other challenges. Since the beginning of January, I've always tried to have one collection of short stories on the go at any one time. I've got to say I've enjoyed them all immensely. Since January, I've completed 17 collections and I'm starting to run out.

They books are in a variety of genres, Science Fiction, Horror, Mystery and Fiction. There have been a few 3-star selections (3-stars doesn't mean I didn't enjoy, just simply that it was an average entertaining read):

1. Pieces of Modesty by Peter O'Donnell (Mystery / Adventure). A collection of six stories featuring larger than life heroine, Modesty Blaise. Pure entertainment and action. The best story was I Had a Date with Lady Janet, mainly because it centred more on Modesty's partner, Willie Garvin.

2. News from Elsewhere by Edmund Cooper (Science Fiction). This book contains a collection of stories dealing with space exploration, both away from Earth and towards. There was a mixture of darker stories and some with a nice bit of humour. My favourite was The Lizard of Woz, featuring an alien visit to Earth, very witty.

3. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie (Mystery). For the most part, except for one offering, this collection featured that irrepressible sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The other featured Christie's other favourite, Miss Marple. They were exactly what you would expect from Christie, except in a condensed format, intelligent, entertaining mysteries.

4. The Dark Side of the Earth by Alfred Bester (Science Fiction). This is the book that I just finished. The book contains six short stories and one novella. They were a bit hit and miss with me. The novella was witty and entertaining but it seemed as if he didn't really know how to end it. I think that was the main problem I had with some of the stories. They tended to leave me hanging, not sure where Bester wanted to go with the story. At the same time, there were some gems, The Men Who Killed Mohamed, about time travel and its consequences, Will You Wait, about the difficulties in trying to sell your soul to the Devil and They Don't Make Life Like They Used To, about the last man and woman on Earth with a creepy, unsettling ending.

4 - Star Selections - The  majority of the selections received 4 - star ratings, which was a nice surprise for me as I didn't expect to enjoy these collections quite so much. There were some authors I was already familiar with but many new authors. And they didn't disappoint. I'll try to break them down by genres.

Science Fiction

A Touch of Strange
1. Storeys from the Old Hotel by Gene Wolfe - Wolfe was a new writer for me. He has a way of telling a story that leaves you feeling there is always something you should be seeing just out of the corner of your eye. The stories varied from tales of robots, space exploration and fantasy. I liked his take on Holmes and Watson and I just enjoyed the stories, their different styles and how different they were.

2. A Touch of Strange by Theodore Sturgeon - This was a collection of nine stories from Sturgeon, once again, a new writer for me. The title says it all, his style takes a bit of getting used to but once you get into the flow, I'm sure you'd enjoy all of them. My favourite stories might be The Girl Had Guts, which was quite creepy, reminding me somewhat of Aliens. The title story was befitting of the title, it was strange.


Tales of Mystery and Suspense
1. Death Times Three by Rex Stout - This collection was my introduction to Stout's famous detective, Nero Wolfe. Even though this was his last published work, it suited me perfectly in getting to know about Wolfe and his partner, Archie Goodwin. The book features 3 stories; Bitter End, Frame-up for Murder and Assault on a Brownstone, all excellent. As I said, it was a suitable introduction to this famous detective, his way of life and his method of solving crime, which seems to be staying at home and letting Archie gather information which he uses to figure out what has happened. Interesting stuff.

2. Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers. I've previously read a couple of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Sayers and I've come to enjoy her sleuth very much. He's got a nice attitude, generally light and carefree, but at the same time there is something harder below the surface. This collection of 12 stories was entertaining and each story was enjoyable in its own right. The stories grabbed your attention right from the very beginning and held you entertained until the satisfying resolution. As well, they helped develop Wimsey's character even more.

3. The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates. An often unsettling, interesting collection of stories from another new author for me. The stories were often very suspenseful. The Hunter was my favourite, reminded me of an episode of your favourite crime series. The main reason that I only gave it a 4 - star rating was that a couple of the stories left me somewhat confused by the endings. But that's a minor thing, Oates is an author I'll explore more because of this.

4. For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming. I enjoyed this collection of stories featuring Agent 007, James Bond, very much. They were all quite different, with one featuring Bond mainly as a listener to a tale of relationships, jealousy and how they can go sour. Bond acts as a spy really only once, in A View to a Kill, where Bond is sent to Paris to discover how a dispatch rider carrying government secrets is killed. In one, my favourite, For Your Eyes Only, Bond is asked by M to revenge M's old friends on a Cuban killer who had murdered M's friends. I really enjoyed that one. All in all, Fleming is able to develop the stories quickly and turn them into tense, excellent stories.

5 a/b. Mr. Campion: Criminologist and The Allingham Minibus by Margery Allingham. Two collections from Margery Allingham. I've read her novels as well, but, from my limited exposure to her work, I have preferred these two collections the most. The Minibus is a varied collection of stories, only two featuring her favourite detective, Albert Campion. A nice surprise was the few that were more of a ghost story mystery. I liked them a lot. My favourite was A Quarter of a Million, which was about a gang of ruthless robbers who are outsmarted by an intelligent police inspector. The story had a nice little twist in the end. Mr. Campion: Criminologist was all about Albert Campion, with 7 stories from his case book. Campion is like Peter Wimsey in many ways, a wealthy individual who likes to get involved solving crime. He is often asked by the police to use his deductive powers to help them out. Both of Allingham's collections were most entertaining.


1. The Blue Lenses and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. I'd previously read du Maurier's novels, Rebecca and The House on the Strand, both fascinating and excellent novels. This collection was also quite excellent, strange in many ways but eminently readable. My favourite stories were The Alibi and the second The Blue Lenses. The Alibi is about a man trying to get some excitement in his life and finds it taking an unexpected turn. The Blue Lenses is almost science fiction/ horror, dealing with a person recovering from an operation to get new eye lenses, with unexpected results. Excellent stuff.

5 - Star Reads - Of my selections this year, 5 of my books were 5 - star reads, one humour, two fiction, one horror and one mystery. They were excellent collections and I've mentioned them over the course of the year. So here they are once again with my review of each.

1. The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse (Humour) -

"I have to say this is a perfect little book. As I wondered what to rate it, I thought, 'well, they're nice stories, they make me feel good, they are perfectly written.....' It has to be 5-stars.

I've read a few of Wodehouse's books, particularly enjoying the whimsy of his Jeeves and Wooster stories. This collection contains one story involving Bertie Wooster, in which Bertie is sent to New York to extricate his cousin from an impending marriage with a 'dance-hall' girl. For once Jeeves play almost no role and we see Bertie at his very best. It left me feeling very happy.

The stories, for the most part, deal with relationships and you tend to leave the stories with a positive view on life. I particularly enjoyed The Mixer, two stories told from the perspective of 'the dog', in which the dog moves through life happily affecting the people around him and, for all his mishaps, landing on all four feet. Just a joy to read and I highly recommend. (I even liked the cover of this Penguin edition, with illustration by Ionicus.)"

2. The Best of Saki by H.H. Munro (Fiction) -

"I heard about Saki (AKA H.H. Munro), a British short story writer from the early 1900's only by chance. I found this book while wandering through a used book store in Kingston, Ontario and bought it partly because I liked the binding. Now that I've read the collection of short stories, I can honestly say how glad that I was to have taken the chance on this book.

Saki's stories are funny, witty, sharp and to the point. Each story runs from 3 to 6 pages and each is concise and exact and so well-written. The foreword mentions that writers such as PG Wodehouse, of the Wooster and Jeeves stories, were influenced by Saki's works. I can see the similarities in humour, although Saki is more biting. I was not bored by any of the stories, and there are many in the collection, some made me laugh out loud, some chuckle and many had me thinking about the mind that created them. I don't know if you'll find a similar collection anywhere else. It was an excellent, most enjoyable read. (5 stars)"

3. The Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft (Horror) -

"An excellent collection of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, from Dagon, originally published in 1919 to The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, 1943. There are linking themes throughout, the Old Ones, the area of Arkham, Mass, the Miskatonic University, the Cthulu, etc. The stories are creepy, more so than outright terrifying, but still, they leave you feeling nervous and chilled. Some are excellent; the Mountains of Madness, The Dunwich Horror, the Haunter of the Dark, the Thing on the Doorstep. Excellent to be provided the opportunity to explore Lovecraft's worlds and stories under one book."

4. Petrella at Q by Michael Gilbert (Mystery) -

"This is the 2nd book by Michael Gilbert that I've attempted. It was excellent. The basic premise is that the book follows Detective Chief Inspector Patrick Petrella, of London's Patton Street Police Station over the course of a year.

It is a collection of short stories, each a different case, but, at the same time, some that follow one on the other. There are some mundane cases and as you get into the stories, some that create a great deal of tension. The last couple of stories, especially, where Petrella and his team are involved with the local heavy - hitter underworld, had me on the edge of my seat. I quite enjoyed the investigation process, how Petrella and his inspectors follow leads and sort through issues. It reminded me of the process that Law & Order followed as the police investigate the particular crimes.

I also liked the personalities of the various team members and the bursts of inspiration that come from Petrella. He knows his area and the people there and uses his smarts in sorting through the chaff to come up with solutions. Excellent, perfect little book. It turns out that Gilbert also wrote 4 other books featuring Petrella. I will have to check them out."

5. Four Short Stories by Elizabeth Gaskell (Classic Fiction). This might be my favourite book of short stories this year.

"This collection of short stories contains 4 stories by Elizabeth Gaskell; The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh (1847), Lizzie Leigh (1855), The Well of Pen-Morfa (1850) and The Manchester Marriage (1858). From the introduction by Anna Walters, they were unique not only because they were written by a woman but also for the subject matter. Popular at that time were stories of the upper classes, where women chiefly looked to get married to fulfil their lives.

Gaskell's stories featured women as the protagonists, women who were of the lower classes, who had to struggle to live, single mothers, seamstresses, prostitutes. The stories are hard looks at life, but at the same time, feature tenderness, love and even optimism. I loved how she crafted these tales, well-written, well-described and thoughtful. They were very much a pleasure to read as Gaskell creates such excellent pictures and characters and stories. This was my first experience with Gaskell's writing and I'm very happy that I was able to experience her talent. (5 stars)"

Still in the hopper

Unless I've labelled some of my books incorrectly, there remain two collections to read. I'm about  to start Helsinki Noir, a collection of mystery stories by Finnish writers, compiled by James Thompson. This is an ongoing series by Akashic Publishing, whereby they feature authors from various cities and countries from around the world to expose readers to the wonderful variety of writers in the mystery genre.

Finally I just recently received Trent Intervenes, the third book in the private detective, Philip Trent series. I have read one book featuring Trent and enjoyed very much. This is the last book featuring Trent, E.C. Bentley only wrote 3.

So there you go, my explorations in the world of short stories. I've enjoyed this year and won't hesitate to try more authors.

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