The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

cover117511-mediumWalter Craig was a clever scientist. As a young man he took away all the honours and prizes and some of his work was ground-breaking. But after he became seriously ill, his genius faded, and he needed the help of an assistant. When Silas Webb was appointed to the job he seemed the perfect choice, but he always preferred to work alone, even in secret. Then, quite suddenly, Webb disappeared.

Why ?

Later, Craig opens a prestigious scientific journal and finds a paper, containing his own work, in detail, together with the significant results he had worked out. The research is his and his alone. But the author of the paper is Dr Silas Webb.

Craig determines that he will hunt Webb down and exact revenge.

Were it not for a terrifying twist of circumstance, he might have succeeded.

So begins the first of four short ghost stories by Susan Hill, something I have been looking forward to reading as the nights have drawn in and with Halloween not far away. I love a good spooky story and a good old fashioned scare and Hill has always been able to manage both where I am concerned with stories like The Small Hand and The Woman in Black.

Here, all the ingredients that make those stories so successful are there. The “old school” style of story telling, the simple language that lulls you into a false sense of security, the slowly building tension as you realise not all is what it seems – leaving you wanting to read on but worried that if you do, you’ll end up lying awake listening for things that go bump in the night.Read More »

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Saturday Shorts: Marion by Emma Cline

After finishing The Girls by Emma Cline this week, I felt a bit bereft. I really hadn’t wanted the book to end. I had seen on Goodreads that she had a short story, Marion, so thought I would try and find it. I was in luck. A quick google found it available online in The Paris Review. You can read it here if you are interested. The story was the winner of the Plimpton Proze and I can see why. There is a lot packed into very few pages (one of the reasons I love short stories when they are done well).

Although there isn’t a direct link to The Girls, there are themes that are similar. A young teenage girl makes friends with a slightly older girl, escaping to her unconventional home because her own home life isn’t that happy. For her, though, it is more than friendship, it’s liked being saved…

“Marion was my first best friend. I never had the framed photos that girls like to give each other. I had never worn friendship bracelets, or even hated anyone else with another girl. My life seemed like something new and unasked for, Marion smiling at me in the sunshine, letting me wear her woven ankle bracelet for days at a time, braiding my hair that had grown colorless and thick, full of dust and the peculiar smell of heat.”

They spend the summer lazing, smoking, drinking and obsessing on boys – one in particular- thinking and behaving like they are older than they are. But they are still teenagers, still discovering themselves and still not really aware how the real world actually works. It leads to them making terrible choices, turning the story darker, and ends their friendship.

Again, I got completely lost in the language and the story. I really like the way Emma Cline writes, the way she draws me in with descriptions that make me feel the heat of the summer, the loneliness of being a teenage girl, and the angst of not quite knowing your place in the world. I already recommended The Girls as a read earlier this week but for those not sure this is an excellent introduction or taster of what is to come.

Emma

Saturday Shorts: The Summer People by Kelly Links

Over Easter, I happened to see a tweet by Cannongate books offering up a free short story by Kelly Link. Link isn’t an author I’d heard of but I love short stories as I think I’ve mentioned before and – added bonus – this was free, so a good chance to discover new author….if I enjoyed the book that is. Which I did, so yay!

Out in the holler, Fran isn’t well. Her daddy has up and left and she is full of fever. When her school friend Ophelia offers to help, she sends her for medicine – but not to the chemist. Instead she sends Ophelia to the house of the Summer People, along with a set of strange instructions on how to behave whilst she’s there. Ophelia does as she is asked and becomes as fascinated by the house and the people inside it as Fran is bound to it because of her family tree.

The Summer People have been around a long time it seems. Just what they are isn’t clear and I never did completely get my head around it, which is I think, part of the point of the story – that and whether we can ever truly escape our roots. Or maybe it’s that we can’t see the beauty of where we live and the lives we lead until we step away from them. And maybe I need to read the story again so I can get everything out of it because for something of so few pages, there were a lot of layers.

I would be happy to return to be honest, and think I will end up getting the whole book this was taken from (called Get in Trouble) because not only did it draw me in with it’s characters, I loved the language and the imagery . I could picture Fran’s home in my mind and have wonderful visions in my head of the gifts the Summer People left her. I only hope the rest of the stories are as good and would say if you can get yourselves a copy do.

Emma

Note: As mentioned at the beginning I received a copy of this from the publisher. There was no requirement to review it but I decided to anyway. All thoughts, feelings, and opinions are my own. 

The Octopus Nest, a short story by Sophie Hannah

imageFor my final short story this week I went for one of my favourite authors, Sophie Hannah. I found The Octopus Nest online at my local library. It’s from a full collection – The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets – and I guess was released as a teased (back in 2008 so I’ve missed it somehow).

In it, Claire and Tim come home to find their babysitter has made a rather strange discovery. The same woman is in almost all their holiday photos for the last decade. Album after album shows the same thing. They have, it seems, a stalker. Or at least that’s what Claire thinks. She might, though, be wrong.

At first I thought this was another spooky story but creepy is more like it. It’s also suspenseful and has a great twist in the tale, one I didn’t seem coming – which I love. It is well written, drawing me in quickly. The characters were well drawn, all through Claire’s eyes, and I felt my nerves stretch as I wondered just what was going on.

As I said, I missed the book this was taken from, but it’s now on order. I can’t wait for it to arrive and hope all the stories are as good as this one. Liked it a lot!

Emma

A Sheltered Woman, a short story by Yiyun Li

After yesterday’s BBC 2015 prize winner for best short story review, today I read The Times’ 2015 short story winner. Partly because I liked the sound of it but also because I wanted to compare the stories and see if I could hone my short story reading palette. I can’t say I succeeded with the later, though I did enjoy today’s story just a little bit more.

I think that is because it was different – there were no spooky goings on here – but also because it was a subject I know little about – Chinese American culture and I felt like I got a little glimpse into this world though Auntie Mei, a baby nanny.

A baby nanny is one who only stays for the first month of the babies life and takes care of child and mother. Auntie Mei is good at it and in demand – she has looked after 131 babies all told. She doesn’t get attached and she doesn’t linger, moving on as soon as the child is a month old. Her latest job, though, has her thinking it might be time for a change.

As with the other short stories this week, I was amazed by how much Li got into so few pages (16) and how real the character of Auntie Mei felt to me, how well I thought I knew her and her life by the end. She is an interesting woman with an interesting last, one who has made some very non-traditional choices in a pretty traditional world.

Li has a great way with words and painted a really detailed picture of a small slice of life. I have not read anything by her before but definitely will be now! Another well worth a read.

Emma

Briar Road, a short story by Jonathan Buckley

Next up for me short story wise this week, in recognition of national short story week, is Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley.

bbcnssa_2015_logo_webBriar Rose won the BBC national short story award for 2015 and – like yesterday’s The Memory Man – has a supernatural element to it as a psychic tries to help a family find out what has happened to their missing daughter. She visits their house, holds a séance, but can’t give them the answers they want.

I found the portrayals of the family and their reactions to the psychic’s visit very real – each was very different and not everyone’s was what you might expect.  Then there was the psychic herself – I loved her cynicism (“It’s a wonderfully written story, rich on the small details that drew me in.  On first reading, it seemed very simple but there was a lot of emotion here.”).

I can’t say I’m the best judge of a short story, as with all things we like what we like, but I can see why it won – this was a well written story that drew me in quickly and had me caring for the characters within a few paragraphs – something that is hard to do.  Well worth a read.

Emma

The Memory Man, a short story by Helen Smith

23624909Pages: 50

Reading time: about 30 minutes

Making her way through a dark cafeteria in what may well be an even darker warehouse, Sarah comes across Valerie, asleep in a chair and wrapped in a blanket. Next to her, a dead body…which they put in a disused fridge whilst they try to decide what to do.

Neither is sure. It is dark. They are scared. And they have no idea how they got here. No memories at all in fact. Which means they aren’t sure what is outside the door and at the end of the corridor. Valerie decides to try and find out, leaving Sarah alone and afraid, only to come back with strange stories and fragments of memories that may or may not be hers and a name that may or may not be the dead mans.

The where and the why are a nice twist in this story, which was well written with good pace. It packs a lot into its 50 pages. For some reason, I had in my head that it would be a crime story but it is more supernatural and spooky and I liked that. Sarah and Valerie and the Memory Man himself were interesting and there was so much not said, building the tension. I really wanted to know how they had ended up in the room and what would happen to them, which meant that for me, the story ended a little too soon. I would have liked a few more pages and a little more plot. Still enjoyed it though and would recommend to anyone with half an hour to spare.

Emma

National Short Story Week 2015

NSSW-300x171This week is National Short Story week, something I hadn’t heard of – though it’s in its fifth year – until I read about it on Kimberly Sullivan’s blog.  I really enjoy short stories but haven’t read any for a while and so loved the idea of promoting them (now that I’m aware of it!) if I could.

You can find out more about the week here but, in a nutshell, the idea is to promote short stories, and short story writers, publishers and events. It runs from today, Monday 16th through Sunday, 22nd November.  Kimberly is taking part by trying her hand at flash fiction.  I’m nowhere near as creative but I thought I could do my part by reading and doing mini-reviews of short stories every day.

23624909The reading will start tonight with The Memory Man by Helen Smith, which has been on my Kindle for a few months now.

Two women become friends in an abandoned post-apocalyptic building. A psychic makes contact with a lost soul. His apprentice tries to find news of a man he has lost touch with. Fragments of memories are traded and twisted. Friendship provides comfort, but the recovery of memories brings torment rather than reassurance – until truth becomes secondary to survival.

It feels like a fun thing to do and I’m also hoping it might get me out of my reading funk and inspire me to read some new authors. Are you a short story reader – any recommendations for the rest of the week?

Emma

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Girl Meets Boy is part of the Canongate Myths series, where authors retell a tale from mythology their own 2547263way. I’ve only read one other (The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood) but wish I had read more because I love the idea…which is why I picked Girl Meets Boy up.

Based on Ovid’s story or Iphis and Ianthe, it is a about love, fear, family and the not so nice things in life like sexism and homophobia with a fair bit of corporate greed thrown in for good measure. That’s a lot for 84 pages (this is a short story) yet Ali Smith manages to cleverly get her messages of acceptance across without losing the love story at the heart of it.

In the myth, Iphis is born a girl. Her father had said he would kill the child if they were not male so the mother prays to the gods and they tell her to raise her daughter as a boy, which she does. When Iphis grows up, she/he falls in love with his best friend Ianthe, a girl, and they plan to marry. Knowing she/he cannot make Ianthe truly happy as a woman, she/he also prays to the gods who turn him into a real man. Then everyone lives happily ever after – unusual from what I know of Greek Myth.

In the present the story takes place Inverness with Iphis played by Robin (a girl) and Ianthe by Anthea (also a girl). They meet by chance and Robin helps Anthea find her place in the world, a world she had previously felt lost in and one where she had found herself employed by Pure, a corporation who believes they can make water a commodity and take over the world. Together, they find love, peace and – eventually acceptance of family.  Family includes Anthea’s sister Imogen who struggles with her sisters sexuality and is going through her own journey of discovery as she realises she does not have to conform to the male dominated world around her either.

What it means to be a woman and women’s rights across the world are writ large here. Ali Smith doesn’t pull punches and cleverly includes statistics by way of art as part of the storyline. These are alone enough to make you think but as I said earlier, there is so much more. I realy like Smith’s style of writing. It is sharp and witty and felt perfect here for the tale she was telling. It made me laugh and smile and question. All good things when it comes to reading. I liked this a lot. Highly recommended.

Emma

The Boy Who Could See Death by Salley Vickers

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I picked this collection of short stories because I liked the title and I liked the cover. I hadn’t read anything about it and nothing by Salley Vickers but I was quite looking forward to reading it once I had a bit of a Google. Unfortunately, none of the ten stories were as good as I had hoped.

That doesn’t mean they were bad, just that they left me feeling flat. I can’t say I actually enjoyed any of them, which is a shame as some of the ideas did intrigue me, including that of the title story, in which a young boys entire life is basically ruined because he can see when someone can die, and how, and so no one wants to look him in the eye.

I think the problem was they were all in the third person and I struggled to care for any of the characters. I felt that I was been told about them and their lives, not that I was living in their worlds. The stories were also very short for the most part, with one running to only nine pages, which probably didn’t help me relate. Instead, I felt rushed and a couple seemed to end before they’d even begun. Disapointing but not one I can recommend.

Emma