Short stories make for perfect reading in the summer. Since each one is a self-contained dose of literature, you barely even need a bookmark—plus, there's no worrying about whether you'll remember what you read on the flight over when you reopen the book on the way back. If you're looking for a bite-sized dose of summer reading, explore our guide to 2014's spring and summer collections.
Readers looking for a voice from a very different world should pick up Hassan Blasim's The Corpse Exhibition (Penguin). Compared to Roberto Bolaño and Borges, this Arabic author sets the stories in his debut collection during the Iraq War—and they're told from the Iraqi perspective. If you want a collection that will test your beliefs and haunt your dreams, this might be your pick.
Another collection that features a distinctive cross-cultural voice is Snow in May (Holt), the first book from author Kseniya Melnik. Melnik was born in Russia and emigrated to Alaska as a teen, and the stories featured here are connected through her hometown of Madagan, a port city in the Far East of Russia that was a stopover on the way to Stalin's gulags. Spanning the later half of the 20th century and geographical locations from Madagan to Fargo, these stories plumb the weight of history and the struggle to reconcile where you come from with where you are now.
Those interested in coming-of-age stories and tricky relationship dynamics will enjoy the linked stories in Polly Dugan's debut collection, So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown). Featuring characters that reappear across decades, the book explores the way that relationships—romantic and otherwise—change over time. When Anne inadvertently dates her best friend's high school boyfriend, the same mistake destroys both relationships. A student's one-night stand changes her college life. And a deathbed revelation spurs forgiveness. Utterly real and insightful.
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions) is a much wider-randing collection, spanning decades and countries in stories linked only by the strange twists each one takes. The delusional narrator of one story is addicted to making lists, stalking a girl called Allison and writing love songs to Jodie Foster. In the title story, parents struggle with the dual burdens of unemployment and a child with behavior issues. Occasionally experimental, always imaginative.
Another edgy collection comes from Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. The stories in If it Is Your Life (Other Press) are mostly written with the stream-of-consciousness style and dark humor that Kelman is known for, and they're a bit more outré than his novels. But readers who like to read about lives lived on the edge will be excited for this new collection.
Take a nostalgic trip back to your childhood (at least, if you're a child of the late 80s like me!) with a newly published collection of Lois Duncan's short stories, Written in the Stars (Lizzie Skurnick Books). The author of teen classics like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan has collected 13 tales from her very early career—including a story she published when she was only 13 years old—and includes a brief contemporary commentary on each one. As you might expect of stories that originally appeared in places like Seventeen or American Girl, these are mostly focused on the concerns of youth, but the glimpse they provide into the shaping of a young writer are fascinating.
Another familiar name with a new collection is David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars returns with the playfully titled Problems with People (Knopf), which branches out from the author's typical Pacific Northwest territory to encompass most of the U.S. as well as Nepal and Africa. Though diverse in locale, these 10 tales are united by Guterson's strong storytelling voice and will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of his fans.
And we'll end with another collection from a beloved voice: Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck (Dial). Though most of these nine stories have been previously published in some of the best short fiction venues—Granta, The New Yorker—taken together, they demonstrate McCracken's remarkable range as well as her ability to truly understand the her characters and her quirky sense of humor (the title story opens with a 12-year-old girl being brought home by the police from a nitrous oxide party).
Kaui Hart Hemmings follows up her best-selling debut novel The Descendants—which was made into an award-winning movie starring George Clooney—with The Possibilities, a moving story of a mother struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of her 22-year-old son. Our reviewer says of the book: "While [it] is a book ostensibly about death, it is at its core really about life—in all its messy, funny, hurtful, confusing and transcendent moments." (Read our complete review and a Q&A with Hemmings about the book.)
We were curious about the books Hemmings has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
I’ve been a fan of Michelle’s work ever since our first workshop at Sarah Lawrence. This novel was rich, page-turning and simple, in the best way. Two brothers, two restaurants, one small town. The characters seriously sizzled with life—they were so utterly real, and the writing—the writing!—sings. Michelle is a master storyteller.
Another book about brothers that was captivating and fluid. This time the brothers are attorneys who return home to help their sister and her son who has been accused of hate crime. It’s an intimate book—clear-eyed, gripping and beautifully written.
The Stories of John Cheever
By John Cheever
I may as well stay the course. “Goodbye My Brother” is one of my favorite short stories of all time. A simple premise: The Pommeroy family—three sons and one daughter—meet at their summer place on the shore. One brother is so pessimistic and aggravating that he provokes his brother to hit him on the head. Small, profound and lyrical. Transcendent and enduring. It is, to me, a perfect story.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding The Possibilities—or any of Hemmings' recommended books—to your TBR list?
We're highlighting a new batch of the most humorous, unsettling and vibrant short story collections this April, and one of our favorite stars from NBC's "The Office" may surprise you with the strength of his literary muscle.
B.J. Novak is most often recognized for his role as Ryan, the Dundler Mifflin temp, but his first collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, is anything but a vanity project. Novak’s Harvard degree in English and Spanish literature combined with his sharp, absurdist style of humor are more than enough to convince us that he’s the real deal.
With 64 pieces that dip into everything from pop culture and celebrity to Mark Twain’s word choices in Huckleberry Finn, Novak delivers a fresh and emotionally astute literary debut.
The hilarious trailer stars Novak himself as he desperately tries to get his chic yet snobby Parisian crush (a fellow "Office" alum) to notice him.
What do you think, readers? Are you planning to read Novak's first collection? Is he giving Gary Shteyngart some competition for most entertaining book trailer?
Author Tony Earley's 2000 debut novel, Jim the Boy, was a national bestseller, but he is also known for his short stories, which serve up satisfying slices of life. On August 26, he'll release his third short story collection—and his first in 20 years—Mr. Tall (Little, Brown).
The seven tales—one of which is novella length—have varied Southern settings, from the Outer Banks to contemporary Nashville (Earley is an English professor at Vanderbilt University).
From the publisher:
Earley indelibly maps previously undiscovered territories of the human heart in these melancholy, comic, and occasionally strange stories. Along the way he leads us on a journey from contemporary Nashville to a fantastical land of talking dogs and flying trees, teaching us at every step that, even in the most familiar locales, the ordinary is never just that.
Will you read it?
We're still putting the final touches on our 2014 preview, but couldn't wait to share this news: Hilary Mantel is publishing a short story collection in September. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is the double-Booker winner's second short story collection and her first in 10 years—and it certainly has a killer title (ha).
If you need convincing that Mantel is as able a short-story writer as she is a novelist, there are a few samples of her short fiction online:
"Curved Is the Line of Beauty" (Times Literary Supplement, 2002)
"The Heart Fails Without Warning" (The Guardian, 2009)
"Comma" (The Guardian, 2010)
"Winter Break" (welovethisbook.com, 2012)
"The Long QT" (The Guardian, 2012)
I can't wait to get my hands on this book. Will you read it?
p.s. More about Mantel on our site. And did you know she was named one of Time's most influential people last year?
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Within these brilliant, often bizarre short stories, 20-something blue-collar boys seek escape from their stagnant lives by turning to an unnamed foreign war. Never political but rather introspective and familiar, Sayrafiezadeh’s fiction debut is truly a collection, as these eight stories capture the voice of a generation of young men and build a portrait of a nation where war colors every thought and action.
Read our review.
Watch for our full list next week! In the meantime, read more Best Books of 2013 coverage on the blog.
If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken
University of Iowa Press • $17 • ISBN 9781609382018
Published October 2013
The 12 carefully observed stories in Kate Milliken's debut collection introduce a fearless voice in fiction. Ranging in setting from California to Maine, from the 1970s to today, the stories feature everyday people, yet somehow manage to unsettle with their exploration of loneliness, dark motivations and desires.
Tim pulled off at the hookout, as usual. Josie opened the glove box to find the bottle of Jim Beam he stashed in whichever car he took. She uncapped it and slipped her shoes off and cranked the seat low enough that all she could see were the two or three stars visible behind the screen of smog. Josie had wanted to leave L.A. so badly, get as far as she could, filling out only out-of-state applications, but here she was all over, again. The whiskey warmed her: down her throat, inside her chest, moving through her until the whisper of its heat rested between her legs. She put her feet up on the dash and tapped her toes to the glass, pinning the stars.
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250034700
published September 10, 2013
Best book jacket of the year? Maybe.
With his razor wit and uncanny ability to capture the lives of everyday Americans, it's almost unbelievable that Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta's first true collection of short stories (Bad Haircut was technically linked stories). The characters in these 10 stories—and all their many terrible decisions—link together in their own way: Everyone's doing everything wrong, but they're not bad people. Because of these characters' collective foibles, I'd recommend reading each story individually rather than all in one sitting, as the stories here stand stronger on their own than as part of a group.
Read on for an excerpt from "Backrub":
I didn't realize I had a problem until my next run-in with Lt. Finnegan. This time I wasn't speeding and hadn't violated any traffic laws. I was just minding my business, heading back to Sustainable around nine-thirty on a Wednesday night, when an unmarked Crown Victoria popped up in my rearview mirror, that familiar white-haired douchebag at the wheel. There were no flashing lights, but he tailgated me for a couple of blocks before finally hitting the siren, a quick bloop-bloop to get my attention.
We were right by Edmunds Elementary School, the quiet stretch of Warren Road that runs alongside the playing fields. I pulled over, his car still glued to my bumper, and cut the engine. It felt like a bad dream, the same cop stopping me for the third time in less than two weeks.
I was fishing around in the glove box for the registration when he startled me by tapping on the passenger window—he usually approached from the other side—and yanking the door open. Before I could react, he had ducked inside my car and shut the door behind him.
The Prius was pretty roomy, but Lt. Finnegan seemed to fill all the available space. He reached down, groping for the adjuster bar, then grunted with relief as the seat slid back.
"That's better." He rotated his bulk in my direction. He was wearing civilian clothes, khakis and a sport coat, but he still looked like a cop. "How are you, Donald?"
"Did I do something wrong?"
"I don't think so," he said. "Not that I know of."
"Then why did you pull me over?"
"I didn't pull you over."
"Yes, you did. You hit the siren."
"Oh, that." He chuckled at the misunderstanding. "I just wanted to say hi. Haven't seen you for a couple of days."
Do you like Tom Perrotta's novels? Think you'll check out his short fiction?
The Mystery Writers of America, along with editor Brad Meltzer, have brought together 21 original stories from 21 contemporary mystery writers in The Mystery Box.
On Monday, author Jan Burke introduced readers to the question behind The Mystery Box: What’s inside the box? (Any kind of box.) On Tuesday, Katherine Neville introduced the fascinating history behind her Mystery Box story.
In the last of three guest blog posts, Charles Todd (composed of the mother-son writing duo Charles and Caroline Todd) shares the inspiration behind the story, "The Honour of Dundee."
It was the legend of Pandora that started it all—the mysterious box she wasn’t allowed to open. And when she did, she released all the sorrows of the world to make man’s life wretched. All that was left in the box was Hope—to keep us going. Agatha Christie collected boxes—she found them both intriguing and beautiful. You can see them at Greenway, her fascinating home in the Devon countryside. We have a small collection ourselves, picked up in countries we’ve visited. Easy to pack and a reminder of that moment.
When we were writing our short story for The Mystery Box, we wanted to explore the idea that a box might be something worth killing for—but what happens when the contents of the box are very different from what the killer expected? A variation on the theme of Hope inside. It’s fun to turn something upside-down and look at it from a different perspective.
Many great families had an Honour, something that would protect them or save them in time of peril—like the Fairy Flag of the MacLeods in their stronghold of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Even England has such a legend: Arthur and the Knights of his Round Table lie sleeping on the Isle of Avalon, until called to save their country. And there’s Drake as well, the great Elizabethan sea captain who stopped the Spanish Armada. He also waits for the summons. It’s a way of looking at desperate times and knowing that help is there. Perhaps Churchill, while writing his famous speeches in World War II, wished he could call on Arthur to win in France or Drake to deal with the submarine menace. John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (also remembered as "Bonnie Dundee”), was the Scots leader at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, the forerunner of the Stuart rebellions of 1714 and 1745. And he died there. Bonnie Prince Charlie has supplanted him in the romantic folklore of lost causes. But he was a hero in his day and revered. And there was our title, "The Honour of Dundee."
Put these all together and you can’t resist writing about a mystery box that has historical roots. It’s one of the reasons we enjoy setting stories in Britain—there’s such a rich and infinite vein of material to explore. Mining that vein is the adventure of every trip we take to look for stories and settings. And we’re never disappointed. The box we brought home from England long ago still sits in the glass cabinet where we keep treasures. And we like to think that it holds untold stories. And one day, we’ll open that box and set them free.
Charles and Caroline Todd are the authors of the popular Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series, set in WWI England. Their most recent novel, Proof of Guilt, was featured in our February 2013 Whodunit column.
The Mystery Writers of America, along with editor Brad Meltzer, have brought together 21 original stories from 21 contemporary mystery writers in The Mystery Box.
Yesterday, author Jan Burke introduced readers to the question behind The Mystery Box—what's inside the box? (any kind of box)—and previewed her story, “The Amiable Miss Edith Montague.”
In the second of three guest blog posts, Katherine Neville introduces the fascinating history behind her Mystery Box story, "The Lunar Society."
As a former technological person myself, who'd participated in the early commercial phase of the computer revolution, I had long been fascinated by its predecessors: that handful of scientific entrepreneurs who, inspired by the Enlightenment and living though the American and French revolutions, had then gone on, on their own, to spearhead the Industrial Revolution that has transformed modern society.
Experimental scientists like Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Galton, Joseph Priestley, William Small (tutor of Thomas Jefferson) and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles); or the steam engine manufacturers James Watt and Matthew Boulton, whose products would mobilize everything from ships to trains to factories; or the pioneering ceramist Josiah Wedgwood, who created an affordable dishware product (one which had for so long been monopolized by another country, that it was named after it: "China")—these were inventors who'd gone from invention to mass production of their own creations, hence often combining the "spirit" of discovery with the very "material" result in wads of money. Alchemically inspiring!
What I did not know until later was that most of these men not only knew one another, but they belonged to a society they themselves had founded in England—not a secret society or a fraternal order, but a society whose sole purpose was to further and quicken the application or use of scientific discoveries. Hence, they backed the creation of better bridges, canals and waterways for moving goods and traffic; they experimented with oxygen and gas and hot-air balloons. They dubbed themselves "The Lunar Society" because they always met on the night of a full moon (for the very pragmatic reason that they could see to find their way home on horseback!).
But this Industrial Revolution, as with every revolution, was met with fierce opposition from the reactionary camp. This time, everyone—from royalty, nobility and Anglican church officials to peasant mobs—was out to nail those upstart freethinkers (or just any "thinkers" might do in a pinch). As the "Seditious Meetings" and "Treasonable Practices" Acts were passed by Parliament, forbidding all meetings not government-approved, and as the "Church and King" riots moved across the English countryside, leaving factories and laboratories smoldering in their wake, the Lunar Society met once more—this time in secret.
For the Lunaticks were not only scientists, but also pragmatists and humanists who believed in and spoke out for concepts like equality and justice. And to a man (and one woman) they were determined, against all odds, to demolish a 300-year-old system that would strike at the very heart of the British establishment: That system was Slavery.
Katherine Neville is the author of four adventure novels.
The Mystery Box comes out today! Did you miss Part 1 by Jan Burke? Read it here. And don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for one more guest post by a Mystery Box contributor . . .