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Books Set in Ireland

I have been lucky enough to visit Northern Ireland, and the Republic, extensively in my life, and I have found such peace in the rolling green landscapes, and the sheer amount of history which the beautiful buildings all around me hold. I have always been drawn to fiction set there, and have also recently read – or listened to – a couple of non-fiction tomes by Irish authors. I know that there is a great deal of interest in Ireland on the blogosphere, so I thought it would be a nice idea to collect together my recommendations for fiction and non-fiction set within both Northern Ireland, and the Republic.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter might not be as harmless as she seems.

Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too.

The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect?

Dark, propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

‘Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her; and at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she realizes she must decide what is the truth, whether she can continue to live with a lie, and what the consequences might be were she to fully unravel the mysteries in both the life of Robert Locke and her own. In this gripping and wonderfully written debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that define us.’

3. Wildwoods: The Magic of Ireland’s Native Woodlands by Richard Nairn

‘Richard Nairn has spent a lifetime studying – and learning from – nature. When an opportunity arose for him to buy a small woodland filled with mature native trees beside a fast-flowing river, he set about understanding all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly.

Wildwoods is a fascinating account of his journey over a typical year. Along the way, he uncovers the ancient roles of trees in Irish life, he examines lost skills such as coppicing and he explores new uses of woodlands for forest schools, foraging and rewilding. Ultimately, Wildwoods inspires all of us to pay attention to what nature can teach us.’

4. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

‘In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.

In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.’

5. Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

‘It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma.

The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does.

Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…’

6. A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

‘In A World of Love, an uneasy group of relations are living under one roof at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. When twenty-year-old Jane finds in the attic a packet of love letters written years ago by Guy, her mother’s one-time fiance who died in World War I, the discovery has explosive repercussions. It is not clear to whom the letters are addressed, and their appearance begins to lay bare the strange and unspoken connections between the adults now living in the house. Soon, a girl on the brink of womanhood, a mother haunted by love lost, and a ruined matchmaker with her own claim on the dead wage a battle that makes the ghostly Guy as real a presence in Montefort as any of the living.’

7. Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they? Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich, silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.

Watching from the sidelines, their friend Sylvester regrets that Jane should be ‘loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by that frightful Jessica’, but decides it’s none of his business. When the Irish gentleman George Playfair meets Jane, however, he thinks otherwise and entices her to Ireland where the battle for her devotion begins.’

8. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

‘The stunning new novel from highly acclaimed author William Trevor is a brilliant, subtle, and moving story of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of violence leads the parents of nine-year-old Lucy to decide to leave for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay. Instead, she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of Lahardane’s inhabitants for the rest of their lives.’

Please let me know if any of these catch your interest, and also which books set in Ireland are your favourites to date.

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Books with Wonderful Titles

I am particularly drawn to books which have quirky and unusual titles.  I (sadly) tend to spot less of these in bookshops than I do when browsing book websites, and have so many of them on my to-read list.  I thought that it might be a fun idea to gather together ten wonderfully titled books, and display them alongside their synopses.  I have read a couple of these, and the rest are either on my wishlist, or ones which I came across whilst compiling this post.

1. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello 29633820
‘Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000 year old mummified woolly mammoth recently found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the 16 essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whipsmart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.’
2. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken ****
Spanning the waning years of vaudeville and the golden age of Hollywood, Niagara Falls All Over Again chronicles a flawed, passionate friendship over thirty years, weaving a powerful story of family and love, grief and loss. In it, McCracken introduces her most singular and affecting hero: Mose Sharp — son, brother, husband, father, friend … and straight man to the fat guy in baggy pants who utterly transforms his life.
8751363. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue finds her inspiration for these wry, robust tales in obscure scraps of historical records: an engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits; a plague ballad; surgical case notes; theological pamphlets; an articulated skeleton. Here kings, surgeons, soldiers, and ladies of leisure rub shoulders with cross-dressers, cult leaders, poisoners, and arsonists.  Whether she’s spinning the tale of an Irish soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, a Victorian surgeon’s attempts to “improve” women, a seventeenth-century countess who ran away to Italy disguised as a man, or an “undead” murderess returning for the maid she left behind to be executed in her place, Emma Donoghue brings to her stories an “elegant, colorful prose filled with unforgettable sights, sounds and smells” (Elle). Here she summons the ghosts of those women who counted for nothing in their own day, but who come to unforgettable life in fiction.
4. Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus by Allison Hawn
Has being late to work due to dancing clowns ever been a problem for you? Have you ever had to defend yourself against a giant iguana? Does the overture to The Music Man make you violently twitch? In Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus readers are immersed into what it would be like to live every day as if a herd of ballerinas were chasing you, without the inconvenience of actually having to run. This collection of truly bizarre short stories taken from the author, Allison Hawn’s, life takes one across the world and into the strangest crevices of civilization. The lessons learned through her adventures might very well save the reader if they too ever have to face birthing a cow, calming distraught technical support or death by furniture.
5. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres ** 828389
When the spoilt and haughty Dona Constanza tries to divert a river to fill her swimming pool, she starts a running battle with the locals. The skirmishes are so severe that the Government dispatches a squadron of soldiers led by the fat, brutal and stupid Figueras to deal with them.  Despite visiting plagues of laughing fits and giant cats upon the troops, the villagers know that to escape the cruel and unusual tortures planned for them, they must run. Thus they plan to head for the mountains and start a new and convivial civilisation.
6. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg ****
When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.  Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it?  Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.
8976517. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks ****
In his most extraordinary book, “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century” (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.
8. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey ****
As a long illness keeps her bedridden, Elisabeth Tova Bailey becomes intrigued by a snail that has taken up residence in a pot plant next to her bed. Her fascination with the snail’s strange anatomy and its midnight wanderings kindles an interest that saves her sanity.  The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an inspiring and intimate story of resilience, and an affirmation of the healing power of nature. It reminds us of how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

 

9. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery **** 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.  Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
10. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
A guy walks into a bar car and…  From here the story could take many turns. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless, but the result is always the same: he will both delight you with twists of humor and intelligence and leave you deeply moved.   Sedaris remembers his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants), his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant), and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered Pygmy.  With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris shows once again why his work has been called “hilarious, elegant, and surprisingly moving” (Washington Post).

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite book titles?

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Reviews: ‘The Wonder’, ‘Merlin Bay’, and ‘The Upstairs Room’

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue *** 9781509818402
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

The Wonder started off well, particularly with regard to its vivid sense of place, and its sense of intrigue. Donoghue weaves in Irish history and superstition very well, and the novel has clearly been well structured. The slow pace takes a little while to get into, but undoubtedly suited the story which unfolded. Regardless, I found the twists rather obvious (and I am no supersleuth), and the whole ended on rather a flat note, which rendered the whole far less impressive than I was expecting. I would have preferred some sense of ambiguity at the end of the novel; what was included felt far too twee for my liking. Whilst well researched and relatively interesting, The Wonder is certainly not my favourite Donoghue book.

 

Merlin Bay by Richmal Crompton ****
9781509810208‘So begins Mrs. Paget’s month-long holiday as she journeys with the rest of her family to visit her grown-up daughter Pen and her grandchildren, who have moved to Cornwall to reap the benefits of the fresh Cornish air. But teeming beneath the calm surface of seaside life lies a whole world of secrets, infatuations, hopes and dreams. Over the course of their stay, visitors and residents of Merlin Bay become entangled in each other’s lives, disrupting the stability of Pen’s seemingly calm domestic life. From the elderly Mrs. Paget, who visited the bay on her honeymoon nearly fifty years ago but who has never returned, to Pen’s teenage daughter Stella, struggling to find her place in the world and feeling her first pangs of desire whilst her younger siblings play innocent childhood games on the beach, Crompton skilfully depicts the trials and tribulations of British domestic life. Will the hopes and desires of each family member be realized by the end of their stay? And what secret will Mrs. Paget unearth? Richmal Crompton’s adult novels are an absolute delight and every bit as charming as her beloved Just William series. A nostalgic treat for fans of the gentler brand of interwar fiction, Merlin Bay is the perfect heritage read for fans of 1930s fiction at its best.’

Merlin Bay is a beautifully wrought, engaging, and rather underrated novel. I did not enjoy it quite as much as Richmal Crompton’s 1933 novel The Holiday, but it was filled with a cast of fascinating characters, and did throw up a couple of surprises along the way.  Merlin Bay is a charming, quaint, and rather funny read, which proved a perfect choice for a beautifully warm summer’s day.

 

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne ****
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit 9781509837588to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’

The Upstairs Room felt like rather a good book to read when I felt unwell, pulling me in as it did from the beginning. It was not as dark as I had anticipated, but is undoubtedly well structured. The character studies which Murray-Browne writes are subtle at first, and then deepen and become more complex as the novel progresses. The Upstairs Room was not quite the book which I was expecting, but it is a compelling page turner nonetheless.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Here I Am’ to ‘My October’

I am beginning today’s Book Trail with Jonathan Safran Foer’s newest (and wonderful) third novel, Here I Am.  We move through a host of (relatively) new and exciting releases as we make our way through the Goodreads ‘Readers also enjoyed…’ pages.

 

1. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer 9780241146170
‘A monumental new novel about modern family lives from the bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and Abraham replied obediently, ‘Here I am’. This is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. Over the course of three weeks in present-day Washington DC, three sons watch their parents’ marriage falter and their family home fall apart. Meanwhile, a larger catastrophe is engulfing another part of the world: a massive earthquake devastates the Middle East, sparking a pan-Arab invasion of Israel. With global upheaval in the background and domestic collapse in the foreground, Jonathan Safran Foer asks us – what is the true meaning of home? Can one man ever reconcile the conflicting duties of his many roles – husband, father, son? And how much of life can a person bear?’

 

2. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

 

97805713278503. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
‘From the writer of one of the most memorable debuts of recent years. An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. This older man has a disturbing past that the young girl is unprepared for. The young girl has a troubling past of her own. This is her story and their story. The Lesser Bohemians is about sexual passion. It is about innocence and the loss of it. At once epic and exquisitely intimate, it is a celebration of the dark and the light in love.’

 

4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
‘dam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed. In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.’

 

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 9781783782666
‘In Canada in 1990, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming. As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie. Written with exquisite intimacy, wit and moral complexity, Do Not Say We Have Nothing magnificently brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation. It is a gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.’

 

6. We’re All in This Together by Amy Jones
‘A woman goes over a waterfall, a video goes viral, a family goes into meltdown — life is about to get a lot more complicated for the Parker family.  Like all families, the Parkers of Thunder Bay have had their share of complications. But when matriarch Kate Parker miraculously survives plummeting over a waterfall in a barrel — a feat captured on a video that goes viral — it’s Kate’s family who tumbles into chaos under the spotlight. Her prodigal daughter returns to town. Her 16-year-old granddaughter gets caught up in an online relationship with a man she has never met. Her husband sifts through their marriage to search for what sent his wife over the falls. Her adopted son fears losing the only family he’s ever known. Then there is Kate, who once made a life-changing choice and now fears her advancing dementia will rob her of memories from when she was most herself.   Set over the course of four calamitous days, Amy Jones’s big-hearted first novel follows the Parkers’ misadventures as catastrophe forces them to do something they never thought possible – act like a family.’

 

231650917. Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott
‘Close to Hugh is a glorious, exuberant, poignant comic novel about youth and age, art and life, love and death–and about losing your mind and finding your heart’s desire over the course of seven days one September. As the week opens, fifty-something Hugh Argylle, owner of the Argylle Art Gallery, has a jarring fall from a ladder–a fall that leaves him with a fractured off-kilter vision of his own life and the lives of his friends, who are going through crises (dying parents; disheveled marriages; wilting businesses) that leave them despairing, afraid, one half-step from going under emotionally or financially. Someone’s going to have to fix all that, thinks Hugh- and it will probably be him.  Meanwhile, beneath the adult orbit, bright young lives are taking form: these are the sons and daughters of Hugh’s friends, about to graduate from high school and already separating from the gravitational pull of their parents. As bonds knit and unravel on cellphones and iPads and Tumblr and Twitter, the desires and terrors and sudden revelations of adolescence are mirrored in the second adolescence of the soon-to-be childless adults.   With exquisite insight and surefooted mastery, Endicott manages something surprising: to show us, with an unerring ear for the different cadences and concerns of both generations, two sets of friends on the cusp of simultaneous reinvention. And, as always in Endicott’s wonderful fictional worlds, underpinning the sharp comedy and keenly observed drama is something more profound: a rare and rich perspective on what it means to rise and fall and rise again, and what in the end we owe those we love.’

 

8. My October by Claire Holden Rothman
‘Luc Lévesque is a celebrated Quebec novelist and the anointed Voice of a Generation. In his hometown of Montreal, he is revered as much for his novels about the working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri as for his separatist views. But this is 2001. The dreams of a new nation are dying, and Luc himself is increasingly dissatisfied with his life.  Hannah is Luc’s wife. She is also the daughter of a man who served as a special prosecutor during the October Crisis. For years, Hannah has worked faithfully as Luc’s English translator. She has also spent her adult life distancing herself from her English- speaking family. But at what cost?  Hugo is their troubled fourteen-year-old son. Living in the shadow of a larger-than-life father, Hugo is struggling with his own identity. In confusion and anger, he commits a reckless act that puts everyone around him on a collision course with the past.  Weaving together three unique voices, My October is a masterful tale of a modern family torn apart by the power of language and the weight of history. Spare and insightful, Claire Holden Rothman’s new novel explores the fascinating and sometimes shocking consequences of words left unsaid.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Which are you inspired to pick up?

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Short Story Series: Part Two

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
‘In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt Aimee Bender has created a world where nothing is quite as it seems. From a man suffering from reverse evolution to a lonely wife who waits for her husband to return from war; to a small town where one girl has a hand made of fire and another has one made of ice. These stories of men and women whose lives are shaped and sometimes twisted by the power of extraordinary desires take us to a place far beyond the imagination.’

2. Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres
”Welcome to the village of Notwithstanding, where a lady dresses in plus fours and shoots squirrels, a retired general gives up wearing clothes altogether, a spiritualist lives in a cottage with the ghost of her husband, and people think it quite natural to confide in a spider that lives in a potting shed. Based on de Bernieres’ recollections of the village he grew up in, Notwithstanding is a funny and moving depiction of a charming vanished England.

3. Collected Short Stories by Truman Capote
My reviews can be found here and here.

4. Black Venus by Angela Carter
‘Extraordinary and diverse people inhabit this rich, ripe, occasionally raucous collection of short stories. Some are based on real people – Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s handsome and reluctant muse who never asked to be called the Black Venus, trapped in the terminal ennui of the poet’s passion, snatching at a little lifesaving respectability against all odds…Edgar Allen Poe, with his face of a actor, demonstrating in every thought and deed how right his friends were when they said ‘No man is safe who drinks before breakfast.’ And some of these people are totally imaginary. Such as the seventeenth century whore, transported to Virginia for thieving, who turns into a good woman in spite of herself among the Indians, who have nothing worth stealing. And a girl, suckled by wolves, strange and indifferent as nature, who will not tolerate returning to humanity. Angela Carter wonderfully mingles history, fiction, invention, literary criticism, high drama and low comedy in a glorious collection of stories as full of contradictions and surprises as life itself.’

5. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler
‘In these tales, young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds. Half the tales here are true oral tales, collected by folklorists during the last two centuries, while the others are reworkings of oral tales by four great Russian writers: Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov. In his introduction to these new translations, Robert Chandler writes about the primitive magic inherent in these tales and the taboos around them, while in the afterword, Sibelan Forrester discusses the witch Baba Yaga.’

6. The Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
‘Anton Chekhov’s short fiction is admired and cherished by readers the world over. This stunning boxed set brings together the largest, most comprehensive selection of his stories, all full of humor, truth, and vast insight. Included are the familiar masterpieces-“The Kiss,” “The Darling,” and “The Lady with the Dog”–as well as several brilliant but lesser-known tales such as “A Blunder,” “Hush!,” and “Champagne.” The entire collection is introduced by Richard Ford’s perceptive essay “Why We Like Chekhov. while each individual volume includes a brief reminiscence on the meaning of Chekhov from a celebrated author, among them Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey, Cynthia Ozick, and Russell Banks. Amidst a sea of Chekhov translations, Constance Garnett, who brought Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev to the English-speaking world, has a style particularly suited to Chekhov’s prose. Her benchmark translations enable readers to immerse themselves in his world, experiencing the breadth of his talent in one voice.’

7. Paris Tales, edited by Helen Constantine
Paris Tales is a highly evocative collection of stories by French and Francophone writers who have been inspired by specific locations in this most visited of capital cities. The twenty-two stories – by well-known writers including Nerval, Maupassant, Colette, and Echenoz – provide a captivating glimpse into Parisian life from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The stories take us on an atmospheric tour of the arrondissements and quartiers of Paris, charting the changing nature of the city and its inhabitants, and viewing it through the eyes of characters such as the provincial lawyer’s wife seeking excitement, a runaway schoolboy sleeping rough, and a lottery-winning policeman. From the artists’ haunts of Montmartre to the glamorous cafes of Saint-Germain, from the shouts of demonstrators on Boul Mich’ to the tranquillity of Parc Monceau, Paris Tales offers a fascinating literary panorama of Paris. Illustrated with maps and striking photographs, the book will appeal to all those who wish to uncover the true heart of this seductive city.’

8. Astray by Emma Donoghue
‘With the turn of each page, the characters that roam across these pages go astray. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. A sequence of fourteen fact-inspired fictions about travels to, in and from North America, Astray offers a past in scattered pieces, a surprising and moving history for restless times.’

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Flash Reviews (21st October 2013)

The Owl Service by Alan Garner **
I purchased this because it was recommended to me by a family friend, who said its story was fantastic and incredibly clever. The premise of the tale is certainly interesting. A scratching noise is heard in the loft of Roger and Alison’s home in Wales, and the son of their housekeeper, Gwyn, goes to investigate. He finds a service of plates with owls painted upon them, the patterns of which disappear despite them being glazed. They randomly begin to smash, with no clue as to why. The paper models which Alison makes by tracing the designs on the plates disappear.

Whilst the story sounds good, it feels too drawn out, which is a real shame. There are great chunks of narrative where nothing much happens, and if I belonged to its intended child audience, I imagine that I would have been incredibly bored with the tale. I didn’t much like all of the dialect used throughout, as it felt a little too overworked. The entirety was underdeveloped, and I did not empathise with any of the characters. Their actions were not believably coherent, and it appeared rather disjointed in consequence. There were also a few loose ends which did not join up. On the strength (or lack thereof) of The Owl Service, I would not pick up another of Garner’s books in a hurry.

At Large and At Small: Literary Essays by Anne Fadiman ****
I adore reading literary essays, and after reading this wonderful collection, I feel I should do so more often. I have read and very much enjoyed Fadiman’s Ex Libris in the past, hence my choice to purchase this. A wonderful wealth of material has been included within its pages, and Fadiman writes of such topics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ice cream, insomnia and Lepidoptera. She fills each essay with marvellous facts and glorious quotes. Her writing is both honest and exuberant, and the entirety is very enjoyable. I was originally intending to use it as a supplementary volume to another book which I could read throughout October, but once I had begun, I found it very difficult to put down.

Room by Emma Donoghue ****
(Thank you April, for very kindly sending me this book!)
I have put off reading Room for such a long time, believing that it would be terribly sad and uncomfortable to get through. My curiosity eventually got the better of me, however, and when this lovely book plopped through my letterbox, I was eager to begin. I told April when I was reading that Room is powerful and sad and lovely, and it is all of those things, and so much more. It tells the story of five-year-old Jack, who lives in Room with his Ma, a woman who was kidnapped when she was still a teenager and who has been held there ever since. The confines of Room are his world, and he believes that everything outside Room is a fabrication created by the television. Jack’s voice is striking and believable. I adore unreliable child narrators, and he is thankfully no exception. In Room, Donoghue has demonstrated how incredibly perceptive she is, and how well she can write a novel.

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‘Astray’ by Emma Donoghue

Irish author, Emma Donoghue, of course, is most famous for Room, an international bestseller which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Her newest publication, a collection of short stories, has been hailed by such authors as Ann Patchett and Colum McCann, who states that, ‘In her hands the centuries dissolve, and then they crystallize back again into powerful words on the page’.

Astray is split into three sections – ‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’ and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’. Throughout, Donoghue has used many different periods and places, ranging from London in 1882, New York City in 1735 and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1849, to the Yukon in 1896 and Cape Cod in 1639. The titles of the tales within the pages of Astray all intrigue in some way: ‘Snowblind’, ‘The Body Swap’, ‘Vanitas’, ‘Last Supper at Brown’s’ and ‘The Gift’, to name but a few.

Each story in this collection is followed by the factual inspiration behind it. The events and characters whom Donoghue has used are far-reaching in themselves. Tales are historically set amongst the ‘Orphan Trains’, the Irish Potato Famine and natural disasters. We learn of Caroline Thompson, whose passage to Canada was paid in full by Charles Dickens, and the story of Negro Brown, who ‘killed his master in Texas in 1864 and “throughout all his wanderings… he was accompanied by his slain master’s wife”’. The international gold rush of the late nineteenth century in the Yukon inspires ‘two fictional partners… as the news of the Klondike discovery hit’.

Throughout, Donoghue has used a series of literary techniques to present her stories. Here, we find the first, second and third person perspectives, as well as a tale told entirely through correspondence. Her storylines are both varied and unusual. In ‘Man and Boy’, the story is addressed to an African elephant named Jumbo, who is housed by the London Zoological Society: ‘No other keeper here can handle him; every time I assign you an assistant, the creature terrorises the fellow and sends him packing’. In ‘The Long Way Home’, we learn about the feisty Mollie Monroe of Arizona, and throughout the book, we find a wealth of criminals and victims. In ‘The Gift’, a baby of ‘one hundred percent American parentage’ is (supposedly temporarily) given up by her mother, who cannot currently afford to keep her.

Astray features a great selection of tales, and there is sure to be something within its covers which will appeal to everyone. The imagery throughout is lovely, and the sense of time and place has been wonderfully crafted without exception. The stories of each and every character and situation seem of equal importance to Donoghue. There is nothing which she does not devote enough time, effort or consideration to, and she is sympathetic to them all. The majority of the tales here are rather unhappy ones, and there is an overriding feeling of melancholy in the book, but her stories are still sure to delight.