A short fiction collection is like a box of chocolates: in each there’ll be the select few you pick as favourites, others that you’re less keen on. But as the book is passed around the family, there will always be somebody who inexplicably likes the marzipan or turkish delight, while others go for the caramel. This ability to appeal through variety is one reason why short stories make a perfect gift. With that in mind, SaltWater author Lane Ashfeldt shares her favourite stories from the five collections she read this year. Click on the images to go straight to buy each book.
Where Have You Been? by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
This book is one for the menfolk. Or one about them, at least. The stories in Where Have You Been? explore the contemporary middle class Irish male, who, on this showing, is less cocksure than he once was. The capable women in this social group tolerate men and enjoy their company, but they do not rely on men as their mothers once did. As a result, characters like Sean in ‘Death of a Civil Servant’ have trouble adjusting to their new, uncertain status. Of these stories, my favourite is ‘Boyhood’s Fire’, set at a wedding in London in the late 1980s; it’s funnier and less settled than other stories, and takes an unexpected direction.
Once You Break a Knuckle by DW Wilson (Bloomsbury)
Again this is book of stories about men, But while O’Connor’s subject was the middle-class Irish male, Wilson focuses on working men from the Kootenay Valley in British Columbia, Canada. Men who couldn’t pass a written exam to save their lives, but who somehow know all there is to know about fixing cars, building houses and when it’s safe to take the four-wheel drive for a spin across a frozen lake. Safe, that is, so long you don’t mind losing the odd digit or acquiring a spectacular scar along the way. In this collection, ‘Valley Echo’ is my favourite: the tense ellipsis between father and son becomes a curveball weapon that will force them apart.
Mother America by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (New Island)
Many of these stories are about families, and the gaps between them that are part of Irish family life. The collection is strong on women’s perspectives: on the emotional mess that a woman can endure in order not to leave her child, or the untruths she can live with in order to fashion a picture of her grown-up child’s life that she finds acceptable. ‘When the Hearse Goes By’ is an unusual story concerning two brothers, the elder of whom dies in Paris. When the younger man visits to offer his sympathy to his brother’s widow, they get along strangely well. Fascinated by the life his brother made, and by Paris itself, he almost steps into his shoes. But not quite.
My Mother Was An Upright Piano by Tania Hirshman (Tangent Books)
Tania Hirshman writes flash fiction (fiction so short it rarely take up more than two pages). Thus, instead of the usual 10 or 15 stories, this collection contains ‘56 fictions’ in 124 pages. In these very short pieces, many of which are written in a gender-neutral style, characters develop either very swiftly or not at all. Often what carries the piece is the bizarre contrast between the personal and the global, or something as simple as an image or a mood that runs through a piece. My favourite from this book is one of these: a one-pager called ‘Think of Icebergs’ that simply describes a couple in a heatwave, and how they try to cope.
Silver Threads of Hope, ed. Sinead Gleeson (New Island)
This collection was dreamed up as a way to raise money for Console, the charity in Ireland that looks after people at risk of suicide. Stories were donated by rising new authors and existing heavyweights like Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, John Boyne and IMPAC-winner Colum McCann. Booker prizewinner Anne Enright wrote the introduction and was instrumental in getting the project moving. In an anthology of this scale — 28 stories over 312 pages — you’d expect plenty variety, and that is what you get. My top choice, for its sense of fun, is Kevin Barry’s ‘Supper Club’, in which a bunch of Dublin foodies are sent up in style.
Early reader reviews have called SaltWater:
“A gorgeous collection by a bright talent” — Nuala Ní Chonchúir
“A superb collection of powerful and evocative stories, with meticulous attention to language. The sea laps at the pages from start to finish” — Danielle McLaughlin (Amazon reader review)
“Short Stories at their best” — M Gray (Amazon reader review)