In the cold, dark evenings of February and March, here is our Top Ten selection of books with short stories, novellas or novels with a strong narrative drive to inspire and warm you to the tips of your toes…
- The Collected Stories – a stunning volume of William Trevor’s unforgettable short stories : William Trevor is one of the most renowned figures in contemporary literature, described as ‘the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language’ by the New Yorker and acclaimed for his haunting and profound insights into the human heart. Here is a collection of his short fiction, with dozens of tales spanning his career and ranging from the moving to the macabre, the humorous to the haunting. From the penetrating ‘Memories of Youghal’ to the bittersweet ‘Bodily Secrets’ and the elegiac ‘Two More Gallants’, here are masterpieces of insight, depth, drama and humanity, acutely rendered by a modern master. ‘A textbook for anyone who ever wanted to write a story, and a treasure for anyone who loves to read them’ Madison Smartt Bell ‘Extraordinary… Mr. Trevor’s sheer intensity of entry into the lives of his people…proceeds to uncover new layers of yearning and pain, new angles of vision and credible thought’ The New York Times Book Review
- The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley. Behind the large house, the fragrant camomile lawn stretches down to the Cornish cliffs. Here, in the dizzying heat of August 1939, five cousins have gathered at their aunt’s house for their annual ritual of a holiday. For most of them it is the last summer of their youth, with the heady exhilarations and freedoms of lost innocence, as well as the fears of the coming war. The Camomile Lawn moves from Cornwall to London and back again, over the years, telling the stories of the cousins, their family and their friends, united by shared losses and lovers, by family ties and the absurd conditions imposed by war as their paths cross and recross over the years. Mary Wesley presents an extraordinarily vivid and lively picture of wartime London: the rationing, imaginatively circumvented; the fallen houses; the parties, the new-found comforts of sex, the desperate humour of survival – all of it evoked with warmth, clarity and stunning wit. And through it all, the cousins and their friends try to hold on to the part of themselves that laughed and played dangerous games on that camomile lawn.
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Calvino. You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer’s error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.
- Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge. WINNER OF THE WHITBREAD PRIZE FOR FICTION 1996 and COMMONWEALTH WRITERS’ PRIZE 1997 ‘A narrative both sparkling and deep . . . the cost of raising [the Titanic] is prohibitive; Bainbridge does the next best thing’ Hilary Mantel ‘Brilliant . . . do not miss this novel’ Daily Telegraph. ‘A moving, microcosmic portrait of an era’s bitter end’ The Times For the four fraught, mysterious days of her doomed maiden voyage in 1912, the Titanic sails towards New York, glittering with luxury, freighted with millionaires and hopefuls. In her labyrinthine passageways the last, secret hours of a small group of passengers are played out, their fate sealed in prose of startling, sublime beauty, as Beryl Bainbridge’s haunting masterpiece moves inexorably to its known and terrible end. Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge.
- The Last Dance by Victoria Hislop. In ten powerful stories, Victoria Hislop takes us through the streets of Athens and into the tree-lined squares of Greek villages. As she evokes their distinct atmosphere, she brings vividly to life a host of unforgettable characters, from a lonesome priest to battling brothers, and from an unwanted stranger to a groom troubled by music and memory. These bittersweet tales of love and loyalty, of separation and reconciliation, captured in Victoria Hislop’s unique voice, will stay with you long after you reach the end.
- Diary of an Ordinary Woman. Margaret Forster presents the ‘edited’ diary of a woman, born in 1901, whose life spans the twentieth century. On the eve of the Great War, Millicent King begins to keep her journal and vividly records the dramas of everyday life in a family touched by war, tragedy, and money troubles. From bohemian London to Rome in the 1920s her story moves on to social work and the build-up to another war, in which she drives ambulances through the bombed streets of London. Here is twentieth-century woman in close-up coping with the tragedies and upheavals of women’s lives from WWI to Greenham Common and beyond. A triumph of resolution and evocation, this is a beautifully observed story of an ordinary woman’s life – a narrative where every word rings true.
- Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. An international best seller with over two million copies sold. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond. Tracy Chevalier’s extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic.
- Pack of Cards by Penelope Lively. Her complete short stories. Penelope Lively is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son, three granddaughters and three grandsons, and lives in London. She has written many prize-winning novels and collections of short stories for both adults and children. Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize. This collection of Penelope Lively’s stories from the 1970s and 80s is well worth a read, or several, though, revisiting the collection after 15 or 16 years, I was even more aware of the range of quality of the stories. I’ve read quite a lot of Lively’s work, and find that she can either be very witty, very moving or extremely depressing – this collection, not surprisingly, included stories that were all these things. At the best, these stories are wonderful, and really memorable. I savoured ‘Pack of Cards’, the story of a young journalist who lunches with his upper-class girlfriend’s family, and suffers their patronage for a couple of hours before leaving in disgust, cured of his infatuation. I was moved by the story of a serious young German student experiencing English country life, in ‘Nothing Left but the Samovar’. ‘Party’, the story of a calm and collected grandmother who experiences two parties in her daughter’s house – a teenage knees-up and her daughter’s elegant but progressively wild supper – before retreating to make a model aeroplane with her grandson – was hilarious. And ‘The Ghost of a Flea’, in which an unstable young woman latches onto a kindly young writer and his girlfriend, and another, later story dealing with a lonely widow visiting the Crimea, though bleak, were very memorable. Lively was also marvellously tart in the story of Lisa, an artist whose long suffering sister watches her for years lurch from one disaster to another, and captured the biographer’s obsessive tendencies that she was also to picture so well in ‘According to Mark’ in a short story about a writer desperate to find whether his subject, a poet, committed adultery or not. Two of the stories featuring young teenage girls were memorable, even though I don’t think Lively entirely got inside the heads of her subjects – in ‘An Easy Death’, Lively’s protagonist, Carol, transported from India to an English boarding school and then to her aunt’s home in rural Suffolk, never quite comes to life until the final page, and Lively makes her relatives rather too straightforwardly unpleasant, and in ‘The French Exchange’ Anna, surprised by her meeting with a very composed, very spotty French boy, tends to slide too much into the stereotype of stroppy teenager. Still, I enjoyed the setting and some of the descriptions in both stories. And ‘Clara’s Day’, another teenage tale, was masterful. There were also some sharp little studies of love in its various, often strange forms, a couple of Oxford set pieces, and a couple of light comic tales.
- Possession by A.S.Byatt. Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once a literary detective novel and a triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars investigating the lives of two Victorian poets. Following a trail of letters, journals and poems they uncover a web of passion, deceit and tragedy, and their quest becomes a battle against time.
- The boy who taught the beekeeper to read by Susan Hill. A young school boy visiting his aunt’s country house finds company and friendship with the gentle beekeeper and begins teaching the man to read, so that it seems nothing can ever intrude upon their closeness. A young country girl fights against becoming a downtrodden domestic skivvy like her dead mother, while another young girl reaches a delicate understanding with an elderly blind man as they walk along the beach together. On another beach a more sinister plot unfolds as a gang of boys plans the most wicked deed. Susan Hill has been a professional writer for over fifty years. Her books have won awards and prizes including the Whitbread, the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham; and have been shortlisted for the Booker. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Honours. Her novels include Strange Meeting, I’m the King of the Castle, In the Springtime of the Year and A Kind Man. She has also published autobiographical works and collections of short stories
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