Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘short stories’

Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson

Hold Your Fire is a book of short stories by debut Australian author Chloe Wilson.

Some of the stories were flash-fiction while others were twenty or so pages long. They were all told in the first person and were generally unsettling. Most of the characters were not likeable or were portrayed in such a way that I did not feel sympathetic towards them, which suited the element of black comedy running through the stories.

Some of the stories told of events which might really have happened, while others were more fantastical.

The following is a taste of the collection.

In Tongue-Tied, Amy, a gym teacher, and her bully of a boyfriend Peter were shown through a series of houses for sale by one of Amy’s former students, Cilla. Before becoming a teacher Amy had been an athlete, and was highly competitive and extremely driven, but Peter was even less forgiving of those who he considered to be a loser than what Amy was. When Peter exposed Cilla as a loser Amy unexpectedly found herself siding with Cilla.

Harbour was the story of hypochondriac half-sisters who went to a tropical health resort where they discover that starvation would either kill or cure them of their maladies.

In Monstera, a young woman agreed to stay on at her friend’s father’s home to nurse him while he tried to pass kidney stones. She nursed him capably but without showing any particular kindness towards him, but the sucker-punch moment was when she took a photo of her patient at his most vulnerable.

The title story Hold Your Fire was narrated by Fiona, who considered her husband and child to be weaklings. Fiona’s husband suffered from IBS and the story includes details of bodily functions that I could have done without. When three-year old Connor turned into a bully at pre-school, Fiona started liking her son better.

The stories were very polished, with funny moments here and there but on the whole, none of the characters were people who I would choose to spend time with in real life. I would gladly read a novel by Chloe Wilson in future but would prefer to see more warmth in her characters to balance out their more unpleasant traits.

Shirl by Wayne Marshall

Have a close look at the cover art of Shirl, a collection of short stories by Australian author Wayne Marshall. The picture of the man dancing and seemingly in love (or at least in lust) with a kangaroo is strange and disturbing, funny and beautiful, and I don’t ever remember being so intrigued by a book’s cover. And, the 14 stories in this collection are even better than the cover art – strange and disturbing yet familiar, funny and beautiful and memorable, and now that I’ve finished the book all I want is more stories from this author.

The collection began with Cod Opening, the story of a mad-keen fisherman nicknamed ‘Cod’ who regularly fished on the Murray River with a group of mates. Cod knew that running an unmanned spring line was illegal because it caused a cruel death for fish and birds caught in the lines, but he was so desperate to catch a huge cod that he set one anyway. When Cod caught a silvery green mermaid in his line, he was completely unmanned.

Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball is the story of a sporting theme park in Melbourne (and where else in the world could this story have been set is what I’d like to know? Melburnians believe that Melbourne is the sporting capital of the world and considering that we celebrate a horse race and a football grand final parade with a public holiday I’m inclined to agree with this opinion). Anyway, the theme park celebrated cricket, football, tennis, fishing and horse racing and more, although I don’t recall any mention of netball which was obviously a major oversight by the author, although this might have been on purpose as the stories in this collection were mainly concentrated mainly on men and their hopes and dreams, and only a very few men are brave enough to play netball.

Bruce is short but memorable. What happens when a shark showed up in the local swimming pool? Well, derr! The locals named him Bruce and fed him BBQ chickens from the local IGA supermarket (IGA supermarkets abound in small towns in country Victoria where the population isn’t big enough for a Coles or a Woolworths to swoop in and take all of the business).

A Night Out tells the story of a bloke who begrudgingly turned down a weekend with the boys because a mate asked him come around and meet his new missus, Shirl. When the narrator got to Geoff’s place, he was more than a bit surprised to see that Geoff’s missus, Shirl, was a kangaroo.

Later in the evening, Geoff asked the narrator what he thought of Shirl all the narrator could say was,

“What I reckon, Geoff,” I said as gently as possible, “is you’ve gone and shacked up with a kangaroo. Domesticated the thing too by the look of it.”

Geoff convinced the narrator to give Shirl a proper chance and after the trio spent a night together watching footy and drinking (Shirl wore a Carlton jumper) the narrator was ready to hop into a relationship with a kangaroo of his own.

One story tells of a lonely Yowie who ambled on into town to go to the Desperate and Dateless ball, while another was about a rich and easily bored man who got more than he bargained for when he bought himself a mail-order bride from another planet. Another story told of a bloke who got drunk and crossed an uncrossable line, with terrible consequences.

The very last story, Weekend in Albury was about a man whose mother went away on a Pokies weekend and never returned to her husband and children. This story felt so autobiographical that I was convinced that the narrator’s mother, the (fictional) author Wendy Thompson, is out there somewhere in the real world writing stories.

Most of the stories in Shirl are about Australian men and how they get through life, and how important their mates and sport are to them. The stories are imaginative and funny, heartbreaking and thoughtful. No pressure, Wayne Marshall, but hurry up and write something else because I really want to read it, too!

My purchase of Shirl by Wayne Marshall goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (August).

Rural Dreams by Margaret Hickey

The characters and their stories in Australian author Margaret Hickey’s short story collection, Rural Dreams were very familiar to me. Some of them could have been people I knew from the local footy club in the farming region where I grew up, or beloved community members, weirdo neighbours, or even my own irritating and interfering family members. In some stories, I even recognised myself.

The characters in each of the 18 short stories had in common that wherever they were in the world, the ties that attached them to the regional area where they were from held tight. Saturday Morning featured a character whose life was in Melbourne but every weekend he drove a six-hour round trip to play footy with his mates in the team in the dying town where he grew up. I know people who have done this.

Some of the characters are young school-leavers who are busting to leave the family farm and their loud, ignorant rellies and the flies and the heat and the smell of cow dung, but the reader knows that once they are off having the time of their life partying with fellow backpackers from all over the world in Europe, the Americas or Asia regardless of the enticing bright lights and the non-stop fun, they will be dreaming of home.

Fowler’s Bay was the story of a woman who left it too late to reconnect with her father in the remote coastal town in South Australia where he’d lived. When she heard the pride in a local’s voice at admitting to having been born and bred in town she felt a twinge of jealousy. Regional areas and small towns are like that. You’re only a local if you, your parents and your great-grandparents were born there and lived all of their lives in the area. I was also interested in the story’s location having recently read the following article about Fowler’s Bay being overtaken by the sand dunes.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-22/fowlers-bay-in-south-australia-fights-encroaching-sand-dunes/100440452

Overcoat Joe is a story about a woman who hates her husband’s home town and the blokes he grew up with, mostly because they never were and never will be her husband’s mates.

A Bit of Scrapbooking tells the story of a bogan mother-in-law who loves the glitz and glamour of Surfers Paradise. She has little in common with her black-clad, coffee drinking, cultured daughter-in-law from Melbourne, but despite their differences the pair love and care for each other.

The collection included stories about murders and murderers. In real life, when you live in the area and know the people involved in these types of stories you don’t repeat them, especially not to outsiders.

Local Australian Rules football features heavily in many of the stories Rural Dreams, just as it does for the people living in country areas. Coach is told from the point of view of a man who cares about the kids he coaches in ‘this little old town of ours.’ The coach also dearly loves his own son, Jeremy, who is autistic and will never leave him.

Mind Your Language cracked me up from start to finish. The narrator knew a woman from Corio had a set of twins she had named Benson and Hedges. The twin’s mother was called Tahleesha. Bogans, all of them, but if the narrator’s son, Brayden, turns out to be even half as brave as his mother, he’ll go a long way.

All of the stories in Rural Dreams held my interest with their characters and events that were as varied as the rural locations where they were set, men and women, old and young, sophisticated city folk and rural yobs, compassionate greenies and mean-hearted bullies living anywhere from a small towns to an inland dust-bowl farm, or a remote spot up in the Snowys or somewhere back down on the coast. All of the stories are easy lengths. I tried to read them one at a time but ended up reading them all in one go.

I can’t wait to read Margaret Hickey’s next book.

My purchase of Rural Dreams by Margaret Hickey continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (December).

I purchased this book from Blarney Books and Art in Port Fairy.

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch is a collection of four short stories for adults. Each story is a perfect showcase for Roald Dahl’s talent for entertaining readers by creating nasty characters who behave in nasty ways.

The Visitor is an extract from the diary of the fictional Oswald Hendryks Cornelius when he was tom-catting around the Sinai in 1946 at the age of 51. Although Oswald didn’t look dangerous (he wasn’t tall, dark or handsome), he could seduce any woman he wanted with his fascinating voice and a flare of his nostrils. Once the conquest had been made, Oswald moved speedily to his next challenge.

Unfortunately for Oswald, his expensive and glamourous sportscar, a Lagonda, broke down in the desert as he was fleeing his latest victim. Luckily a stranger with an exceptionally beautiful wife and daughter took Oswald in for the night.

For those who are interested, the following photos shows a Lagonda. I was more smitten by the car than by Oswald.

The Great Switcheroo tells the story of two married men who came up with the idea of swapping beds for a night without telling their wives who they would be sleeping with. Moral qualms, anyone? The Great Switcheroo is effectively a story about two men raping each other’s wives.

The main character in The Last Act was a widow who loved her husband dearly. After he died the woman’s doctor put the idea into her head that she would never be happy again until she found herself another man. Despite the doctor’s ridiculous advice the woman eventually moved past the first stages of grief, took a job and found that life was worth living again, until she met up with an old boyfriend who took his revenge on her for having dumped him many years ago.

Bitch was another extract from Oswald Hendryks Cornelius’ diaries. In this account Oswald invested in a perfume which sent men into a frenzy, in the way of a male dog in the vicinity of a female dog on heat. Due to a series of unfortunate incidents all except one sample of the perfume was destroyed, but Oswald managed to save the last sample with the intention of using it to bring down an American President.

The stories all have a nastiness about them but happily most of the darker characters got their comeuppance except for those The Last Act, which was a particularly cruel story. The other three stories were at least amusing, despite the moral questions they raised.

I admire writers who aren’t afraid to write stories that offend or disturb their readers, although I don’t always want to read these types of stories. I suspect this collection won’t be for everyone but for anyone who appreciates dark and twisted characters and doings, it’s hard to go past Roald Dahl.

Labels and Other Stories by Louis de Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres’ short story collection, Labels and Other Stories was a delight from start to finish and left me the sensation of having spent time in person with an interesting and charming storyteller.

The collection began with the title story, Labels, which is told in the first person by a man who had been brought up in a time when people had actual hobbies. After trying and discarding a variety of hobbies for himself, the narrator eventually settled on collecting labels from tins of cat food but over time his hobby became an obsession. Eventually his wife left him, then he lost his job and perhaps not surprisingly, went broke. Luckily the man thought up a resourceful solution to his biggest problem, which was how to make enough money to continue to grow his cat food label collection.

Gunter Weber’s Confession returned to Greece and the characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin began with a hilarious story of a formerly deaf man who could hear again after a pea that had been stuck in his ear since childhood was removed and although I read this book many years ago, the ‘pea’ story still makes me laugh whenever I think of it. It was a pleasure to meet several of the characters again in this short story, which told of an event from the novel from another character’s point of view.

The Turks Are so Wonderful with Children was the story of a lovely couple who, for reasons unknown to everyone including themselves, had a child so horrible that even they could not love him.

Stupid Gringo was a funny reminder to readers not to generalise or stereotype people because of their race.

Romance on the Underground was one of my favourite stories in the collection. The narrator told his story of a romantic interlude from many years ago to his fourteen year old son in an attempt to warn him that he could expect to be perplexed by women for the rest of his life.

Mamacita’s Treasure, Our Lady of Beauty, The Complete Continent, Two Dolphins, The Man Who Sent Two Dead Fish to the President, A Night Off for Prudente de Moraes were all set in South America and were mostly set further in the past than other stories in the collection. Some of these stories used magic realism which I’m not a great fan of, although possibly because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books I am more accepting of this style when a story is set in this part of the world. The Complete Continent, which told of a woman who had baby after baby who she and her husband named after South American countries amused me enormously.

The Deposit told the story of an English junkie who sold his beloved violin so he could buy drugs. The stories in the collection were set all over the world but this was the only story set in the UK.

Andouil and Andouillette‘s adventures made me laugh. The middle-aged couple set off on a caravan holiday when she became tired and convinced Andouil to let her sleep in the caravan while he drove. This is of course illegal because it is dangerous and not surprisingly, things went terribly wrong for this couple, as they tend to do when stupidity is involved.

While I enjoyed some stories better than others the writing in each was excellent and I appreciated the humour and delighted in the immediate connection I felt with each of the characters. It has been some time since I’ve read a novel by Louis de Bernieres but I intend to rectify that soon.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives edited by Sarah Weinman

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is a collection of short stories written by female writers. All of the stories are psychological thrillers written between 1940 and 1970.

The collection began with The Heroine by Patrica Highsmith. This was the story of a young woman who took a job as a nanny for a family with two young children. It wasn’t long before the young woman became overly devoted to the children and wanted to demonstrate her worth to the family.

A Nice Place to Stay by Nedra Tyre told the story of a poor woman who lived on charity, earning small amounts by caring for the elderly and unloved. It wasn’t lost on me that this is a role which is not much better valued today. When the woman was sent to jail for a crime which she had not committed the silver lining was that she had at last found a safe haven.

I’ve been wanting something by Shirley Jackson for some time and was happy that this collection contained Louisa, Please Come Home. The main character, Louisa was a runaway who made a life for herself away from her family.

The next story, Sugar and Spice was by Vera Caspary. I had previously read Laura by this author and enjoyed it very much, so had high hopes of the short story, which did not disappoint. Sugar and Spice is the story of two female cousins, one of whom was beautiful and poor and the other rich and plain. When the husband of one was murdered and both women were suspected, a man living on the other side of the country who had known both women since they were teenagers instantly knew which of the women was the murderer.

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree by Helen Neilsen is about a woman who had an affair with a married man then went on to marry him. I can see two things the heroine should not have done in that first sentence. The ending was so ambiguous that I can’t imagine what the heroine did next.

Everybody Needs a Mink by Dorothy B. Hughes told of a woman out shopping who had a stranger in a department store inexplicably purchase an extraordinarily expensive mink coat for her. Surprisingly, the woman’s husband didn’t ask many questions, although both were mystified by the unknown man’s behaviour.

The next story, The Purple Shroud, was by Joyce Harrington. A weaver and her artist husband spent every summer at an art colony, where her husband taught an art class and had an affair with a different student every year. Finally having had enough of her husband’s infidelity, the woman wove a shroud for her him.

I had previously read the novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding so was eager to read the short story, The Stranger in the Car. This was the longest story in the collection and it also turned out to be my favourite. This story followed a husband and father who did his best to protect the women in his family after his daughter was exposed to blackmail. The man also tried to prevent his ill wife from learning what has happened only to learn that he was the one being protected by his wife and daughter.

The Splintered Monday by Charlotte Armstrong was another story I particularly liked. An elderly woman who had been staying with her nephew after the death of her invalid sister suspected she didn’t know exactly what had been going on in the household so she poked around and asked questions until she did.

Lost Generation by Dorothy Salisbury Davis was the only story in the collection that is entirely about men. It is a horrible story about the actions and values of a group of men in a small town who believe they act for the good of their town.

The People Across the Canyon by Margaret Millar contains a warning for readers to spend time with their children instead of watching television and ignoring them. If the story were written in this day and age I expect the plot would have revolved around excessive use of social media.

Mortmain by Miriam Allen Deford was about a nurse caring for an elderly dying man. Elderly people can be quite vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know what is going on around them.

The final story, A Case of Maximum Need by Celia Fremlin featured an elderly woman who lived alone but refused to have a telephone because she said it would be too dangerous. Ha! I enjoyed the twist in the tail of this story very much, as would anyone who has ever been subjected to sexual harassment in any form.

I didn’t think there were any weak links in the collection.

Stories of Suspense Selected by Mary E. MacEwen

I didn’t realise that I had previously read Stories of Suspense as selected by Mary E. MacEwen until I was reading these nine short stories, but having foreknowledge of what was going to frighten me didn’t affect my enjoyment at all!

I saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie of The Birds at a slumber party as a teenager and was traumatised, as prior to that my television and movie viewing had been quite sheltered. If I remember correctly the movie had a different setting and more glamorous characters to Daphne du Maurier’s short story, but similarly to my reaction after watching the movie, since reading this I’ve been watching out for killer birds when I go walking.

Of Missing Persons by Jack Finney is the story of a man who is offered the opportunity of a better life on the planet Verna. The people photographed in the brochures advertising Verna look relaxed and content, the grass is greener, the sky is bluer and the air is cleaner than on Earth. I’d go there myself. The only thing that dated this story was reading about people enjoying a relaxing cigarette after their breakfast swim.

I found myself feeling sad while reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This is the story of a man with a lovely nature and a low IQ who was chosen to take part in an experiment that increased his intelligence threefold. The story was written as a diary and watching his mind expand was a joy, until he got to the point where he became too clever to communicate with the people he had previously loved and esteemed.

Taste by Roald Dahl featured several of the nasty characters that this author creates so well. This story squared a pair of wine snobs off against each other, as one bets his daughter against the other’s property.

Knowing what had happened to the missing person didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Lord Dunsany’s Two Bottles of Relish. I won’t say anymore for fear of giving away the end, although the title gives the reader a very big clue.

The Perfectionist by Margaret St Clair was funny and awful all at the same time. The narrator’s Aunt Muriel was a terrible artist who blamed her artistic failings on her subject’s inability to sit still, until she thought of a way to make them sit still. If my lovely Aunty G is reading this, please don’t ever ask me to sit for one of your beautiful paintings 🙂

The remaining stories were Charles by Shirley Jackson, Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets by Jack Finney and Midnight Blue by John Collier.

My copy of Stories of Suspense is stamped as having being the property of the Kent Road Primary School in Hamilton in western Victoria, which closed about twenty years ago. There is a pocket inside the back cover for the cards and a leaf where the due date was stamped, both of which brought back happy memories of being a library monitor at my own primary school many years ago. I vaguely remember buying a pile of books from an Op Shop when passing through the town some time ago.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I read Stories of Suspense when I was in primary school myself, as Victorian schools then were probably all issued with the same books. The stories certainly stood up well to a reread.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Uncommon Type is a collection of short stories by Tom Hanks. Yes, that Tom Hanks, actor, director, producer, screenwriter and all-round good guy. As it turns out he can write short stories, too.

Each story in this collection features a typewriter. I was reliably informed by Honey-Bunny in a conversation about what we were each reading, that Tom Hanks collects typewriters and that the photographs at the beginning of each story were of his typewriters.

The first story in the collection, Three Exhausting Weeks, tells of an affair between two long-time friends. The romance only lasted three weeks because by the end of that time, Anna had worn the narrator out with scuba diving lessons, long distance runs, yoga and worse. Happily, the narrator and Anna’s friendship remained intact after they called it quits.

Christmas Eve, 1953 is the story of a World War Two veteran who has a lovely wife, three great kids and a thriving business. Every Christmas he phones up an old war buddy for a catch-up and to urge his buddy to come for a visit, knowing it will never happen. The narrator is lucky in many ways, despite the loss of an eye and a leg, and his terrible, terrible memories of the war.

A Junket in the City of Light tells of a whirlwind press tour for an upcoming movie taken by a beefcake actor who only exists to support the leading lady, who is the most famous and desirable woman in the world. This story would make a would-be actor think twice about their career if they weren’t already aware of how superficial their work might be.

Welcome to Mars offers a sad look at family life. A young man went surfing at Mars Beach with his father early in the morning of his nineteenth birthday, only to be shocked by learning his father was having an affair.

A Month on Greene Street was one of my favourite stories in the collection. It tells of a divorced mother of three moving into what might be the perfect street, if it weren’t for the overly friendly, divorced man living next door.

I also enjoyed Who’s Who? which tells the story of a would-be actor who had moved from Hicksville to New York and couldn’t find anywhere to live or get a foot in the door in the showbiz industry. Luckily, her fairy godmother found her before things got too dire.

A Special Weekend was the sad story of a boy spending a weekend with his mother after his parents divorced.

The Past is Important to Us told the story of an extremely rich man who happily spent six million dollars a pop to go back in time to a particular day in 1939 where he visited the World Fair in New York. His repeat visits were inspired by a pretty young woman who he met there.

Several of the stories featured the same characters, although they each told a different story and generated different emotions. While I don’t think any of the stories from Uncommon Type will live on in my mind forever, I certainly enjoyed them while I was reading them.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James is the perfect collection for this time of year. The collection incudes four murder mysteries, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I only figured out one of the mysteries before it was revealed by the story.

The title story is The Mistletoe Murder. A young woman was invited to spend a quiet Christmas with her extended family, but a murder in the house left a lot of questions to be answered. I read this story before bed and the plot was the first thing I thought of when I woke up. This story was my favourite in the collection.

The second story is A Very Commonplace Murder. In this story the narrator witnessed a murder but had a nasty reason for not coming forward to protect an innocent man from being hung for the crime.

The Boxdale Inheritance was the next story. It features Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgleish, who I believe features in a number of this author’s stories. Dalgleish is commissioned in this story to find out the truth about a murder which happened nearly 70 years prior so that his godfather could inherit family money with a clear conscience.

The last story The Twelve Clues of Christmas also featured Dalgleish. This story features a family who had “an aversion to natural death.” Cuthbert Harkerville supposedly suicided rather than eat his niece’s Christmas pudding ever again, but Dalgleish rightly suspected murder.

This collection was my first experience of P.D. James’ writing and I’m thrilled to have found an author whose writing I’m going to enjoy for years to come.

The Best of O Henry by O Henry

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

O .jpg

In my quest to get through the collection which is made up of over one hundred of William Sydney Porter’s short stories, I’ve read a story each night for what feels like forever, starting with the collection that makes up Cabbages and Kings.

The stories in Cabbages and Kings are about the mostly American inhabitants of Coralio, a town in the Republic of Anchuria, a fictitious Central American country whose main export is bananas.

cabbages

I loved the plots and conversational writing style in this collection, although I was surprised by the level of racism towards anyone who wasn’t white. I hadn’t expected this and found it to be offensive. Even taking into account that these stories were written in a different time, I think most modern reader would struggle with this element in this collection.

The characters include the runaway President of the Republic with his misbegotten bag of cash and his opera singer, various American diplomats, a detective and handfuls of business people in Anchuria to make their fortunes. The characters come and go, wheel and deal, and involve themselves in intrigue, secrets, politics and lies. The stories felt very loosely linked until the last chapter, when they were cleverly pulled together with a very funny twist.

The next collection of stories was Roads of Destiny. The theme of this collection is luck and the part it plays in our lives. This collection were mostly set all over America, although the title story was set in France. All of the main characters were men who had set off to achieve something and their stories leave the reader wondering if there is any point in trying to change our destinies.

roads

The title story of Roads of Destiny tells us that if something is meant to happen, then it probably will. The plot has a runaway poet coming to a fork in the road which gives him three choices; this way, that way, or return. We learn how things would have worked out for him had he taken each road, similar to the plot of the movie, Sliding Doors.

Many of the stories in this collection were funny and had a twist in the tail, but like Cabbages and Kings, most also included examples of the racism of the author and his times which don’t stand up to a modern read.

I enjoyed The Discounters of Money, which was a romance and The Enchanted Profile, the story of a miser who had a fondness for a young woman whose profile was similar to that of a woman’s head on a coin, but my favourite story in the collection was Friends in Rosario. Who would have thought that the old-time owners of banks in the wild west would have done anything dodgy? Not me, that’s for sure.

By the time I got to the last story in this collection, The Lonesome Road, I was ready for a break from O. Henry. Although the stories are well-told, humorous and about all sorts of people and their lives, I was beginning to feel as if I was never going to finish this book which is big enough to be a doorstop, so I put it aside for a few months before coming back to it.

The next collection of stories was from Whirlygigs. I enjoyed this collection all the better for having had a break and found the stories to be quirkier, funnier and more clever than those in the previous collections.

whirl

The Whirligig of Life was one of my favourite stories in this collection. A married couple who wanted to divorce paid $5 to be free, but soon realised they wanted to be married to each other again. Luckily, the judge who charged them $5 for the divorce was prepared to marry them again for another $5.

I also enjoyed Tommy’s Burglar, where the main characters are aware that they are fictional and are fed up with the cliched lives they live within their 2000-word story. This story is very, very cleverly done.

As a wife who hides how much chocolate she eats from her husband, I thoroughly enjoyed Suite Homes and Their Romance, where ice-cream eating is a secretive and illegal pleasure which wives hide from their husbands who wonder what they are dropping their coin on…

Madame Bo-Peep of the Ranches was another favourite of mine from this collection. This is a longer story of a romance between a likeable young woman from the city, who moves to a sheep ranch in Texas due to poverty and a young man-about-town she used to know. O Henry’s stories often have a way of things working out for the best for the characters and this one left me feeling happy.

The next collection was Heart of the West which had romance and their Texan locations in common. Again, most of the stories have a surprise at the end.

heart

Hearts and Crosses tells of a husband and wife who both want to wear the pants on their ranch, a problem which confuses their ranch-hands and took time, a happy event and new ways of thinking to resolve. I enjoyed seeing a capable heroine in this story, as many of the women in previous stories were only tokens, in the manner of the ‘little lady.’

The Ransom of Mack was an amusing story of a gold-miner who was prepared to pay big money to save his friend from matrimony.  I also enjoyed The Pimienta Pancakes, a story where the most devious would-be lover won the girl.

Other stories in this collection tell of friends falling out over the same woman and in others of hardened men finding their hearts.

The language in this collection is as funny as anything I’ve read before. The Handbook of Hymen tells of two gold miners who were caught in the mountains over winter.

If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen-by-twenty foot cabin for a month. Human nature won’t stand it.

Luckily, they had a book each which by the end of winter, they’d learned by heart. However, once they returned to civilisation the pair of them became enamoured of the same widow, and which of the men do you think won her heart, the one who had the book of poetry or the one who had Herkimer’s Handbook of Indispensable Information?

One thing about O. Henry, he wasn’t particular with his racism. In this collection it was mostly the Mexicans who copped it, although black people and Native Americans were also added to the mix.

The last short story collection was The Four Million and Other Stories. This collection is set in New York  and I believe ‘The Four Million’ refer to the population of New York at the time the stories were written, and was in response to someone who had said there were only about forty people in New York at the time worth knowing. Many of the characters in this collection are from the working poor and their lives were hard. Some of the stories in this collection have a touch of the unexplainable about them. Unlike most of the stories in the previous collections, there are suicides and other unhappy endings in this collection, although there is also joy, love and happiness amongst them.

The most famous stories from this collection are The Gift of the Magi and The Furnished Room.

My favourite story was Sisters of the Golden Circle, where a bride did a favour for another bride as they ride a Rubberneck Coach around the city. I was surprised to find a lump in my throat when I finished this story. There aren’t too many writers who have the ability to make the reader feel a strong emotion from a four page story. As a romantic, I also enjoyed Mammon and the Archer and The Green Door, both of which also had happy endings.

In The Cop and the Anthem a homeless man does his best to be sent to jail for the winter. An Unfinished Story tells of a poor and starving  shop-girl who the reader knows will eventually choose a good meal with a man she despises and whatever comes next rather than starve.

This collection had all the usual twists in the tail, however this time, the racism was expanded to include Italians.

O. Henry’s own story is fascinating. The introduction in my edition says he headed off to Texas at the age of twenty where he married a rich young woman who had tuberculosis. There, he took a job in a bank in Auston but was dismissed because of an unexplained discrepancy of $1000 in his accounts. The family then moved to Houston where he became a journalist, but when he was charged with embezzlement his father-in-law posted bail and he took off for New Orleans and Honduras, leaving his wife and daughter with his in-laws. When his wife became seriously ill O Henry returned to America but she died and he went to jail. While in prison, he worked as a druggist and wrote short stories. His daughter was told he was away on business. Once he was released, he married his childhood sweetheart but by this time he was an alcoholic and she later left him. He died at the age of 47 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Putting aside the racism, sexism and stereotyping in O. Henry’s writing, I loved the playfulness of his plots, the amusing language and the often ironic twists in his short stories.

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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