BOOK REVIEW: The Penguin Book Of The Contemporary British Short Story edited by Philip Hensher

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As fans and stalwarts of the short story – I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to get to review this sublime collection from Penguin – ‘The Penguin Book of The Contemporary British Short Story‘. From the outset you get the feeling that this is a special book, the copy I had is a lovely yellow hardback edition with a purple inlay, which is immediately eye catching and also very regal in its presentation. The reader is also gifted a wonderfully detailed introduction by Philip Hensher about the short story as an art form, which is compelling reading for all short story fans – and in my opinion is worth the price of the book alone.

Then we move on to the marvellous collected works on show, it is really a thing of beauty – as if someone has spent a great deal of time and consideration plucking the best writers in the field and their masterful short stories – it’s almost like someone has walked through the National Gallery in and cherry-picked from the priceless works of art that adorn the walls and delivered them to you pleasing scrapbook – Philip Hensher has compiled something that is not only a stunning array of fiction, it’s closer to a priceless work of art.

There are so many super talented writers on the list here, with many a short story I hadn’t discovered and reading them here, they just blew me away. That said, it would do the book, and those collated within it pages a disservice if I were not to speak about each story and author in turn, so grab a coffee and a slice of cake as I talk to you about each story that made it into this quite breathtaking book.

A.L. KennedySpared – A chance encounter at a cheese shop sends a married man into the arms of another woman. An expertly told tale, fabulous prose and tantalising writing. I particularly loved the internal voice of our protagonist which was more of a projection of his inner yearnings and not the person he portrays to the rest of the world or come to that matter his wife. Spared builds masterfully to an astounding conclusion.

‘He’d been standing in the cheese queue. His bright idea: to visit the cheese shop, the specialist. Even though such places annoyed him and made him think there was too much money in the world being spent in far too many stupid ways, he had gone to the purveyors of nothing but cheese and things cheese-related to buy something nice for Christmas, a treat. Of course, thirty other people had been taken with the same idea and were lined right through and out of the shop and then along the pavement, all variously huddled and leaning away from the intermittent press of sleety rain.’

Tessa HadleyFunny Little Snake – This story settles around the stepmother Valerie, her stepdaughter Robyn, husband Gil and his ex-wife Marise. This story is observational writing at its very best, there is one scene in particular that was breathtaking, where Valerie wakes to a snow covered London – the observations are astute and deftly written – Hadley is able to put across in her writing things that I’ve thought but never been able to verbalise. Funny Little Snake‘s impact comes from its characters, each strongly visualised and each fully developed. The one-up-man-ship that occurs in the final third of the story when Valerie meets Gil’s ex-wife is delightfully difficult reading, and what follows regarding Robyn is dealt with delicately –  building to an deftly crafted, resonate conclusion. Perfectly balanced and a terrific raconteur.

‘He might have found fatherhood easier, Valerie thought, if his daughter had been pretty. Moodily, after Robyn had gone to bed, Gil wondered aloud whether she was even his. ‘Who knows, with the Great Whore of Marylebone putting it about like there’s no tomorrow? The child’s half feral. She doesn’t look anything like me. Is she normal? Do they even send her to school? I think she’s backward. A little bit simple, stunted. No surprise, growing up in that sink of iniquity. God only knows what she’s seen.’

Kazuo IshiguroCome Rain or Come Shine – The author of the brilliant ‘The Remains of the Day‘ brings us a hilarious tale which showcases what a talent Ishiguro is. Come Rain or Come Shine focuses on the lives of Charlie and Emily a married couple who have their fair share of internal problems. Charlie invites their friend Raymond to come and stay, to help give a distraction to their troubled lives – but we soon learn that Charlie is called away on ‘business’ he leaves Raymond with Emily. It’s great to see Ishiguro enter into comedy and he does a fabulous job, from when Raymond destroys the house trying to mimic the next door neighbours dog to when he is cooking a shoe is some of the best comedy I’ve read in years. It is so very fun and it contains one liners to die for!

‘In fact, that’s when she told me she would saw my balls off. She was wielding this rolling pin at the time, so I pointed out she couldn’t very well do what she was threatening with a rolling pin. That’s when she said the rolling pin was for afterwards. For what she’d do to them once she’d cut them off.’

Jackie KayPhysics and Chemistry – There is something delightfully simple about Jackie Kay’s prose for this short story, it feels poetic in its construction and the tool of replacing the main protagonists names with what they teach was wonderfully simplistic but a masterstroke in resonating with the theme of the story. Physics and Chemistry focuses on the lives of two teachers who are in a relationship. They face growing prejudice and complaints from parents and the school swoop into action – sacking both Physics and Chemistry. The ending is powerful, showing that life continues in its various guises.

‘There was a blur of pupils beyond the glass at break time, one uniform part of another, as if they shared cells. There was the sound of them, high, hysterical, bouncing off the windowpane and back into the playground like a rubber ball. Chemistry was on playground duty: Physics thought she saw her, small and round, in the distance. Mr Smart’s face in front of her had changed. There was no doubt about it. It was like witnessing a strange conversation. A man reducing himself. ‘

Graham SwiftRemember This – Is a brilliant tale about a recently married couple who under the pressures put on them by external forces decide that they both need to create a will. It’s a wonderfully light tale full of comedy and fabulous rich prose. A real delight and introduction of Swift’s writing to me as I’ve not read any of his works previously. So, I will be checking out more of his work in the future after this offering.

They both knew that if they’d turned up at Mr Reeves’ office in jeans and T-shirts it wouldn’t have particularly mattered – he was only a high street solicitor. On the other hand this was hardly an everyday event, for them at least. They both felt that certain occasions required an element of ceremony, even of celebration. Though could you celebrate making a will?

Jane GardamDangers – This is a tale about a young boy and the love he has for his grandma, the dialogue in particular within this short story is what makes the story – both gripping and very insightful, which force the story to resonate with the reader that much more and it sticks with you a long while after reading.

‘Jake was six and lived in America in the city of Boston where he had never seen a cow. Or a sheep. Or a waddling goose. Or a dazzle-coloured pheasant in the garden. (He had no garden.) Or a rabbit. Or a mole with tiny hands. Or hens scratching about and laying eggs and talking to each other in rusty voices.’

Ali SmithThe Universal Story – I have to be honest here, I haven’t read an awful lot of Ali Smith’s work (I hang my head in shame), but after reading the quite brilliant short The Universal Story, I will be searching out more and more of her work. Smith’s storytelling is something to marvel at from the first paragraph to its breathtaking conclusion, it all seems effortless, and like nothing I have ever had the pleasure to read before. The story itself reminded me of the old song, I Knew an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly – with each part of the story leading on from something mentioned previously, which builds a multilayered strikingly different story written with a mastery in vocabulary and structure. A sheer joy to read and a wonderful story to discover! Highly recommended.

‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.
Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.
Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:
There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery.’

Neil GaimanTroll Bridge – Gaiman is a master of the form, someone that I love and he always has the ability in my opinion to craft magical brilliance with ease, and Troll Bridge is no different. It’s almost a re-imagining of the Billy Goat Gruff story about a troll that lives under the bridge. The story is great, full of youthfulness which immediately helps the reader engage in the story (as we were all young once). The story is broken into child, youth and middle age and builds with each passing passage of time that when the conclusion happens it blows you away! A real master at work!

‘I saw her chewing gum, when I was thirteen, and I fell for her like a suicide from a bridge.’

Martin AmisThe Unknown Known – When this story started I had no idea where it was going, I thought it was some strange apocalyptic world, a science fiction led story. But Amis has done a remarkable job of making it all seem one way, but as the story develops, you find out that actually this could be the here and the now. The story follow the life and struggles of a fundamentalist planning an attack, it’s a story that really pulls the reader in and the main protagonist has such a distinct voice, lending itself superbly to the storytelling. There are also traces of humour littered throughout the story, which help compliment the work on show, adding to the overall ingeniousness of the story!

‘I arrived in midwinter, which muffled the shock – in several applications of that verb.’

China MiévilleEntry Taken From a Medical Encyclopaedia – This is a wonderful change to structure from the previous stories in this collection, the change of structure is a very effective tool (props to the editor for having it pop up here). The story is set up as the title denotes, an extract taken from a medical encyclopaedia, which also includes many footnotes which is another great tool at getting the reader to approach it as such. The language is in keeping with what you would find in a medical journal but the prose is delightfully bright and engaging as we explore a breakout of a new and unique disease. The writer achieves her goal in creating something that appears to be factual as I found myself after reading not wanting to say the word out loud, the word that changes everything, the catalyst to the disease ‘Wormwood’ – I can honestly say I haven’t uttered that word aloud since reading this story, but I’ve read it in my head…am I already damned?

‘There is a word, which when spoken inveigles its way into the mind of the speaker and manifests itself in his flesh. It forces its bearer to speak itself again and again, in the company of others, that they might be tempted to echo it. With each utterance another wormwood is born, until the brain is tunnelled quite through: and when those listening repeat what they have heard, in curiosity or mockery, if their utterance is just so, a wormwood is hatched in their heads. Not quite the parasite envisaged by my wronged father, but a parasite nonetheless.’

Peter Hobbs – Winter Luxury Pie – Hobbs details a delightful tale about families, agriculture and the changing of seasons, but the seasons of family are changing and so are their ideals and responsibilities. Our main protagonist is left a farm, his parents are too infirm to keep it running and his grandparents are the ones leaving it to him and his siblings. Hobbs explores deftly the fading dream of a family, and a future which doesn’t consist of farming or agriculture. It’s a tale of memories seeded in childhood and crops that are harvested in adulthood – which explores the pressures put on us by parents and how we cope or crumble beneath those pressures. I also thought when reading that the parents could be possibly looking upon their children as a crop to be harvested, as torch bearers and baton holders – but they (the children) long to be away from the world that constructed them and impacted them when they were young. It’s a wonderful story that explores family and the shifting of time.

My great-grandfather who bought the place committed suicide by drowning himself in a puddle. He just lay down and put his face in the muddy water. There were rumors he’d caught syphilis from a dancing girl up in Taylorville. He never really cut it as a farmer, the lure of the city dragging him ceaselessly away. Alcohol, gambling and dancing girls, the usual vices.

Thomas Morris – All the Boys – This is an ingenious piece of storytelling. Being a man who has been on his fare share of stag-do’s and having had my own, this type of environment is rich pickings for the short story form, and Morris does a fabulous job at showcasing this event with brilliance and a masters touch. It is both believable and also devastatingly accurate (just me?) and the all the boys element is detailed brilliantly – with what happens on tour stays on tour! It becomes somewhat a cauldron of anxieties, fears and bravado – with each person on the stag-do bringing their own issues, their own turmoils to the table – which only seem to bubble over when they are drunk. Showcasing what men are like perfectly, that we don’t talk about our issues, that we gloss over our weaknesses and the things we don’t want people to know. Morris delves into the male psyche so well, that you have to stand back and appreciate what you’ve just encountered! Bravo!

She’d taken Larry back to her place, and in the middle of the night he’d heard sex noises coming from the room next to hers. Larry said to the woman, ‘Your housemate’s a bit wild’, and the woman replied, ‘I don’t have a housemate, love. That’s my daughter.’

David Rose – A Nice Bucket – This was another golden nugget of a story. We follow a new labourer. A grunt who’s just started working the roads with a gang of older, wiser and more weathered group of individuals. He’s only started working with them as their previous grunt had lost two toes due to some sort of accident. The key to this story, is that not a lot happens, it is in essence a story about a new bucket – but the gem of this tale is in the conversations, conversations had whilst doing some hard graft.

– You going over this year?
– I might if I’ve a mind.
– We’ll be on something fuckn else by then. There’s word of a hospital car park.
– Would’ve been handy last week, like, when Gerry lost those two toes. Took us an hour in the van.
– Serve him fuckn right. Desert boots. Fuckn ponce.

David Szalay – Chapter 2 (from All That Man Is) – This is a delightful meandering tale about a young man called Bernard, who at the start of the story we soon discover that he’s a bit of a waster. He’s employed by his uncle, but soon gets fired when he wants holiday leave after only just starting and it transpires he’s not asking he’s demanding, as his holiday is already booked. Bernard ends up getting fired and when going to see his friend about their holiday, finds out that his friend can’t go – so, Bernard has to make a tough choice, go on holiday by himself or scrape around at home. Luckily for us, he goes on holiday and it becomes a tale of awakening. It’s deliciously fun and laugh out loud funny and the observations and characterisations of Charmian and her mother Sandra are funny, horrendous and brilliant all at the same time! A thoroughly enjoyable read, not to be missed.

For a moment she stands there, in the veiled light, naked, looking like a huge melted candle, all drips and slumps of round-shaped waxy flesh. Pendulous surrenders. Those pale pink nipples the size of his face. There is just so much of her, it seems to him, standing at his end, stunned by how much he wants her now, so much of her, a quantity of woman nearly equal, if that were possible, to his need to possess it, physically, in every way imaginable.

Irvine Welsh – Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It) – I was thrilled to see Irvine Welsh on the list of contributors to this collection, I love his work and the sheer unrelenting, I don’t give a damn style he offers so freely. With Catholic Guilt… Welsh brings the pain, in more ways than one, and is one of the standout stories of the collection in my opinion. It is brash, weird and offensive – what more could you ask for, I love Welsh’s work, whether long or short prose his words maim you!

Come down if you get this in time. And get a fucking mobile, you tight Jock cunt.
Mobile my hole. I fucking hate mobile phones. And the cunts that use them. The ugly intrusiveness of the strange voice: everywhere pushing their business in your face. The last time I was in Covent Garden on a brutal comedown all those fuckin tossers were standing in the street talking to themselves. The yuppies are now emulating the jakeys; drinking outside in the street and blethering shite to themselves, or, rather, into those small, nearly invisible microphones connected to their mobiles.

Lucy CaldwellPoison – A perfectly balanced story of unfrequented obsession told through the eyes of a woman looking back at her childhood and more importantly her school life, and her infatuation with her male teacher. A chance encounter leads to a reverie which builds to a masterful, powerful and heart-wrenching conclusion. I love Caldwell’s writing and this story is up there with the very best of hers and those collated in this collection. ‘Poison‘ is bold, daring and has a readability to it that is both addictive and beguiling – a stand out story from a brilliant anthology, a sheer masterpiece.

I had his condom with me to. I’d slept with it under my pillow, and now it was zipped into the pocket of my school skirt. I could feel the foil edge rubbing against my thigh when I crossed my legs.

Rose TremainThe Closing Door – This tale by Tremain follows the life of a mother saying goodbye to her daughter who is heading off to boarding school for the first time. In the deep sadness of this situation, Tremain treats us to some fabulous observational writing as our main protagonist follows other mothers who seem to be getting on with the lives that they live when the children are away – freed from the ball and chain of parenthood. What lives are these women itching to get back to now they are free from the shackles of parenthood. A thrilling read – poignant and delightfully paced.

They went out of the station and walked towards the Number 11 bus stop. Marjorie followed. To get home to North London, she would have taken the tube, but the thought of going home – to sit alone and imagine Patience  arriving in a cold dormitory and unpacking her trunk and putting her new tartan rug on some hard, iron bed – dismayed her. She preferred to shadow these strangers. She wanted to observe what life it was they were going to get on with.

Helen Oyeyemiif a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think – Oyeyemi gives us a gem of a story, that focuses on workplace politics. A great astute example of what happens when the office gets some much needed new blood. You may have worked in an office before, had a new member join your team – everyone goes on some sort of mission to impress the new employee, doing things they would never normally do, just trying to impress them or become a friend. That is until the varnish wears off and the idolised worker becomes a blot in the office that they would much rather wipe out of existence than befriend. Things pick up and unravel to an odd conclusion, which was handled deftly and expertly by Oyeyemi – a haunting and mesmerising tale!

Eva waves her hands and speaks, but whatever excuse or explanation she’s trying to make can’t be heard above the begging. You say that someone should call security and people say they agree but nobody does anything. You’re seeing a lot of folded arms and pursed lips. Kathleen mutters something about ‘letting the woman have her say’. You call security yourself and the woman and child are led away.

Leone RossThe Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant – I love the style of this piece, it takes the ordinary and mixes it up into a cocktail of the weird and wonderful. It’s about love, a strange and consuming love about a woman who lives in a restaurant because she loves the chef, but he is married. It’s the only way she can get close to him and be with him. Because the chef, is married not to a woman, but to the restaurant – I told you it was weird. Ross does a tremendous job at making the weird accessible, and in including such a bold slice of the strange, it brings something fresh and exciting to the anthology, something as fresh and delectable, like a pomegranate seed on the tongue.

One waitress deliberately spills fragrant, scalding Jamaican coffee onto the woman’s wrist. The woman rubs her burned flesh and smiles. The waitress shudders at her happy brown eyes.
‘Stupid bitch,’ the waitress hisses. ‘Why are you here?’
She is fired the next day, as are all waitresses who hate the woman.

Helen SimpsonEvery Third Thought – is a story about death, and more importantly our protagonists infatuation around the subject, which seems to consume her every third thought. From reading we soon understand that our protagonist is one hell of a hypochondriac – always fearing the worst, this is made unbearable when coincidences in the community and friendship groups (various ailments and illnesses) seem to be getting more frequent. She’s convinced that her time is coming, that the Grim Reaper is lurking behind every bump, lump, cough or odd coloured poo. Simpson delivers a terrific tale, which has some dark humour in it, which lifts the piece into the more comedic rather than depressing.

Somewhere around this time I had to go for a smear. The practice nurse did it, and once sh’d finished digging around and had withdrawn those metal salad servers, I realized how jittery I’d been feeling.

Zadie SmithMoonlit Landscape with Bridge – I have to admit that Zadie Smith seems to have been one of those writers that I’ve failed to read (I know shoot me now!) – but after reading Moonlit Landscape with Bridge I’m going to be tracking down more of her work. In this story we follow the Minister for an impoverished country, as he flees after a natural disaster. We ride along with the Minister and his driver Ari as they head to the airport where he is about to get on a privately chartered plane and leave the devastation behind. But as he flees, he can’t help but feel called to help his people – madness ensues when they pick up an aid worker with a dark secret. Smith delivers a wonderfully told yarn and with the addition of this aid worker – creates a tense tale with delightfully executed prose, ensuring that its impact last long after the final pages. I now see what all the fuss is about and will be clambering to read more from Zadie Smith.

The water had retreated, leaving behind a shredded world of plastic, timber and wire. Under the wall that had once circled the parade ground, the Minister spotted several pairs of feet, purple and bloated, liberated of their shoes. If Ari slowed or hesitated even for a moment, the sound of hands banging on the trunk came, but mostly he did not slow, and the SUV rolled over everything in its path.

Will SelfThe Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz – It’s Will Self, so we know it’s going to be a crazy ride. This is no exception. Our protagonist trying to get away from the gang life he was stuck in flees his old life, he’s on the straight and narrow now – that is until he finds that there is something lurking within his basement. On deciding to do some work on his house he starts chipping away at some old brickwork in the basement, as the bricks fall down, they reveal a wall of crack – it appears, that the whole foundations of his house are made of the most purest crack ever to have been discovered. So, with the help of his brother, his mule in his new venture – he begins dealing. It’s a fabulously weird story and told with the all brilliance we expect from Will Self – the characterisations are the key to the piece and are deftly executed!

‘Woss the point?’ he used to say to Tembe. ‘Get the fucking ‘O’ levels, then the ‘A’ levels, whadjergonna do then, eh? Go down the Job Centre like every other fucking nigger? You know the joke: what d’jew say to a black man with a job? “I’ll have a Big Mac an’ Fries…” Well, I’m not going to take that guff. Remember what the man Mutabaruka say, it no good to stay inna white man’s country too long. And ain’t that the troof.’

Gerard Woodward – The Fall of Mr and Mrs Nicholson – A short story writer is summoned to the palace of a governor to prepare a speech, which the governor and his wife hope will placate and diffuse the civil unrest that is beseeching the palace walls. As he awaits his instructions the riot grows, the gathered baying masses are swarming. But the tension within the office and palace is growing too, along with the nerves of the writer summoned to diffuse the growing animosity. There are so many fabulous threads that Woodward sews into this piece, and it’s a delight to read and beguiling to watch them all come undone.

I wondered if I had the option of refusing the commission. Mr Nicholson seemed to read my mind, because he said, ‘You needn’t think you have any choice in this matter. Now that you are here you are trapped, along with the rest of us. The only way out of here is by cutting a path through that crowd out there, and I would much rather do that with words than bullets. To put it quite simply, the future of our great country rests on the words you can produce in the next sixty minutes.’

James Kelman – justice for one – I wasn’t a huge fan of this story. I found the continuous stream of consciousness idea and the execution of it quite difficult to follow and fully comprehend. The story follows a baying crowd, a person at a march, a march leading towards a waiting army, of growing resentments and bubbling nervous angst. It just fell a bit flat for me and confused me no end – but there is still something within it which captivates the mind. I’ve read many stories where this tool has been used before and to great affect, but these are usually restricted to one or two people. Due to this story having many people within it, in such a short space of time, it just became a little confusing. But writing this now, I’m thinking…was that the point? A confusing rambling narrative, the swaths of bodies, and minds jostling together, a mixing of angst and peoples points of views…if so bravo. If not…I’m still slightly confused!

Somebody tried to sell me something or give me something I was unsure which. Somebody else asked me a question. I was not sure about that either. I could not decipher what they wanted to know or even understand what they said. Was it even myself they were talking to? I heard someone saying: Shit he’s drunk out his skull.
Me? I was not drunk, not drunk out my skull. Shit man I was not drunk at all. What the hell were they on about? I asked them but they paid no attention. They had made up their mind.
This is what people do, especially in this par of the world. A woman said, We’re going this way.

Lucy WoodFlotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict – This story settles around the lives of Mary and Vincent Layton a couple who have moved to a house overlooking the sea, they have had their busy lives, their jobs, their children which are now grown and married and moved on. So, they move to enjoy life again! But once they’ve moved, they start their new life, but Mary is content on nesting, on creating a new nest for their new life. The thing is though, that this new nesting feeling…is becoming a hoarding issues. Lucy Wood’s collection The Sing of the Shore is one of the best collections I’ve read this year and this story in particular stuck out to me as being one of her best, so it’s great seeing it get the recognition it deserves by being included in this collection. You can read our review of The Sing of the Shore here. Lastly, Lucy Wood evokes landscapes and nature with remarkable precision and grace, providing a sensuous framing for each unfolding drama.

Hilary MantelThe Clean Slate – Digging up the past can sometimes unearth things that we’ve tried so hard to bury, things that we didn’t or don’t want to find. This digging can shift light onto the things we’ve buried so far down we’ve forgotten what they look like. Mantel delivers a fine tale regarding a daughter and a mother trying to construct a family tree. Mantel as always does characters so well, and these are the cornerstones to the piece, they draw you in and won’t let you go.

A man once told me that you can date women by looking at the backs of their knees. That delta of soft flesh and broken veins, he swore, it is the only thing that cannot lie.

Eley WilliamsFears and Confessions of An Ortolan Chef – Eley Williams is one hell of a writer, she’s exploded of late and when reading this tale, you can see why. It focuses on the things we covert, the things that are banned or restricted – something about them just becomes that more enticing and exciting. An assured short story that has an arrestingly absorbing quality about it – astoundingly pure and uniquely told. A great story of lives under the microscope.

I grow sick of metaphor and sick of the idea of the bird. I am certainly sick of having pride in any talent I might possess in terms of the birds’ preparation – they are just claws and fluff and hard mouthparts on a plate.

Sarah HallLater, His Ghost – is Hall writing dystopian which she creates so effortlessly in her prose that you have no choice but to believe the construction. Here we find a man battling the elements – the wind ravaging everything in sight. He is one of the few survivors, and we follow him on a trek across what remains to find a specific present to gift for Christmas. It is nothing you’d expect. (from the collection Madame Zero – which we reviewed here)

After the stock check, he took a tin of salmon out of the stack, opened it and ate it cold. He was hungry and he ate too fast. His mouth hurt. Ulcers starred his tongue.

Mark HaddonThe Pier Falls – this is another one of my favourite stories from the collection. Haddon writes in a frenetic break neck pace which only helps to serve the storytelling – it’s like a car crash and you can’t look away. The story details the failing of a pier and the ongoing drama and sudden aftermath as the pier begins to crumble into the sea…with all those lives stranded within the crumbling wood and steel. It’s a majestically told story and shows Haddon’s skills as an incredibly gifted raconteur, a powerful voice within this collection and his story quite literally crushes you!

The shorter, bearded man grabs the claw foot of an iron bench and hangs onto the woman till a teenage boy is able to lean down and help them both up, but the taller man with the braces and the rolled-up shirtsleeves slides down the buckled planking till he is brought to a halt by a spike of broken rail which enters the small of his back. He wriggles like a fish. No one will go down to help him.

Helen DunmoreNorth Sea Crossing – I couldn’t think of a better way of closing this collection than that of Helen Dunmore. I have been a huge fan of her writing and North Sea Crossing is just one of those stories that has never left me. It tells the tale of father and son on a boat trip – detailing unflinchingly how much the son longs for his father to accept him. The story builds with each cutting remark, each put down and hurtful comment – it’s a brooding, poetic and immersive tale which showcases in all her glory the mastery Helen Dunmore had over the form.

It has taken me a great deal of time to read this book, not that it was arduous or boring – it’s because when you are given something so special, something that has been so delightfully crafted you want to take your time with it, not rush it and then have wasted the experience.

Because believe me, this collection is a bit like Christmas – a book of such quality, such importance, only comes once a year.

The Penguin Book Of The Contemporary British Short Story is a thing of unparalleled beauty and is something all short story fans need in their lives.

I couldn’t recommend a book more than I do this!

The Penguin Book of The Contemporary British Short Story is published by Penguin Classics and is available here.


Includes short stories by A.L. Kennedy, Tessa Hadley, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jackie Kay, Graham Swift, Jane Gardam, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Martin Amis, China Miéville, Peter Hobbs, Thomas Morris, David Rose, David Szalay, Irvine Welsh, Lucy Caldwell, Rose Tremain, Helen Oyeyemi, Leone Ross, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Will Self, Gerard Woodward, James Kelman, Lucy Wood, Hilary Mantel, Eley Williams, Sarah Hall, Mark Haddon and Helen Dunmore.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery




Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.

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EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.

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Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.PayPal-Donate-Button

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