Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘short stories’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Deep South edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood

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Deep South is a collection of short stories from and about Tasmania, Australia, edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood. Each story is by a different author and is from a different time in Tasmania’s history. Together, the stories, which are not told chronologically, create a picture of Tasmania. It is not always pretty.

Some of the authors are quite well known Australian writers, and others were well known in their time. Others I had never heard of but am glad to have met. There are no weak links in the collection.

The following stories were the ones that hit me hardest.

The first story, Black Crows: An Episode of ‘Old Van Diemen’ by A Werner is from 1886. It is the story of a man who didn’t believe it was right to kill Aboriginals and was prepared to hang for his beliefs, although at the time killing Aboriginals was not illegal, and was actually encouraged and even considered a sport by some. This story leaves no doubt as to how devastating European settlement was to the Aboriginal population.

Nectar of the Gods is by HW Stewart and was written in 1928. It is a story of an Aboriginal community from a time before Europeans arrived, when a young man named Merriwee found and enjoyed a fermented liquid in a cider tree. The magic of Merriwee’s discovery were celebrated in corroborees year after year at the same place and season.

Death of a Ladies Man by James McQueen was written in 1985 and showed me an Australia that I recognised. In hindsight, it isn’t one that I should feel particularly proud about, although this story will probably be the one I will remember. The story is narrated by a young man whose brother, Chris, has just died. Chris was a football star, a larrakin who was loved by everyone, including their father, a tough old bugger if ever I’ve seen one. At the time of Chris’s death he was knocking about with an Aboriginal girl, soon after, there is speculation that she might have been pregnant with her and Chris’s child. The racism in this story made me cringe, because this is the Australia of my childhood. The setting felt familiar and comfortable, but also terribly, terribly wrong.

How Muster-Master Stoneman Earned His Breakfast by Price Warung (William Astley) is probably the most brutal story in the collection. It was written in 1890 and tells the story of a convict’s last day on earth before he was to have been hung for killing a bullying overseer on the road-gang he was working on. Thinking that he couldn’t be punished further, Convict Glancy escaped the morning he was to be hung to spit on the grave of the man he murdered, then returned to be hung. Unfortunately for Convict Glancy, it turned out that he could be punished further. My understanding is that this story was based on real people and their lives.

The Magistrate, written in 1930 by Roy Bridges is a romantic story of a family of wild boys, their beautiful and spirited sister, and the handsome young Police Magistrate who has been sent to capture the bushrangers. This story was more predictable than others in the collection but still enjoyable.

Preserves by Margaret Scott was written in 2000 but told a story from an earlier time, of an industrious and capable woman who could “make do with whatever lay to hand.” Mrs Zena Bromyard “was one of the best cooks in the district, famous for serving three vegetables every day for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Her picnics were legendary and her fruitcakes and sponges sure-fire winners at every show. Her jellies and jams, her chutneys and sauces, her bottled fruit and vegetables had carried off trophies all over the state.” Mrs Bromyard questions everything she believes in after a child was fatally injured and she was as helpless as anyone else to do anything to save the child.

There were stories of young men in the early days of Tasmanian settlement working (idling) for the government, gold miners and fraudsters, and convicts mutinying and sailing their ship back to England. Contemporary stories were recognisable to me as either the Australia I live in now or recent history, although with a Tasmanian flavour.

Before I finish, a note on the cover art of this book which is titled Three Truchanas children at Lake Pedder in 1971, before the flooding of Lake Pedder by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. Before 1972, Lake Pedder had been a glacial-outwash lake and was a National Park. This status was revoked by the Government and the lake flooded, although not without much protest. The unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder led to a successful campaign to save the Franklin River from damming and to the formation of the Australian Greens political party. A present-day group continue to push to have Lake Pedder drained, to let time restore the flora and fauna and to expose the unique pink quartzite sand beach below.

 

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The pink sand beach of Lake Pedder prior to 1972.

Photo: Peter Sims

Lake Pedder was flooded when I was a very small child, but I remember the outcry when the government proposed damming the Franklin River. This would all have passed me by except that I thought the cover art was beautiful and looked up the story behind it.

I would welcome a second collection of Tasmanian stories along the lines of Deep South.

 

 

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

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Stephen Orr, where have you been hiding? Somewhere in Adelaide, I’m guessing, due to the distinctly South Australian flavour of the short stories that make up Datsunland. Many thanks to Whispering Gums for bringing this book to my attention.

Stephen Orr, Datsunland (#BookReview)

The following stories were my favourites;

Dr Singh’s Despair. This story is a ripper. The title character, Dr Singh, came to Australia to work as a doctor in Coober Pedy, an outback town in South Australia, with the intention of bringing his wife and son to Australia once he settled in. (Australia has a shortage of doctors in remote and rural areas, so the Australian government offer overseas doctors working visas to fill the vacancies). What Dr Singh didn’t know in advance was that Coober Pedy was no place for him (or for any civilised person, you would think after reading this story). After a traumatic (and hilarious) three days in Coober Pedy, Dr Singh writes to the South Australian Health Commission to tell them he has returned to India and to stick their job up their jumper.

The Shot Put is a tragic account of an elderly couple in a remote farming area who are doing it tough. Their dearly loved son Tom went missing during World War 1 at Fromelles and never returned, and is presumed to be a coward. After the war the Department of Defence advise they intend publishing the Coward’s List and naming the deserters, self-mutilators and cowards, causing Tom’s parents to try to have his name removed from the list.

The One-Eyed Merchant is the story of a young boy working as riveter in a ship-building yard. I felt a physical jolt when the ending of this story was revealed.

The Adult World Opera was for me the stand-out story in the collection. I suspect the story of six-year old Jay Foster, who is neglected and mistreated by his weak mother and her no-good boyfriend will haunt me for some time to come. The author didn’t spell out how things worked out for Jay, but I felt uneasy and sad for Jay and other children in similar homes as I read this story.

Datsunland is the longest story in the collection and tells of the friendship between teenage Charlie and his music teacher at Lindisfarne College, William Dutton. Charlie’s musical talent comes to the fore as William introduces him to the blues and punk rock, but Charlie is not always ready for the experiences he seeks out. Datsunland itself is the used-car lot where Charlie’s father struggles to make a living selling cheap second-hand cars. Although I had the feeling that William had already settled for a similar numb life to Charlie’s father, there was still hope for Charlie to live a fuller life.

There is a strong religious flavour through this collection of stories. The stories are all about men and boys, many of whom are Catholic. Quite a few of the stories refer to or have characters with links to Lindisfarne College, an elite school where the boys are taught by the Christian Brothers. There are religious zealots and mad priests everywhere you look in these stories.

I liked Stephen Orr’s plain writing style, which led me clearly through a variety of emotions, from laughing at (and with) poor Dr Singh’s failure to see the funny side of things in Australia (!), to feeling horror, sympathy, pity and joy. The stories have a very Australian feel about them, but as a Victorian, the stories also felt ‘South Australian,’ which I enjoyed. I’ve been told by friends who live in SA that there is a rivalry between the Crow-Eaters and the Vics, but as a Vic, I’ve never heard of it. Possibly Goliath hadn’t heard of David before the big fight either.

I’m looking forward to working my way through this new-to-me author’s works soon.

 

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

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Too Much Happiness is a book of sad short stories by Booker winning author Alice Munro.

The first story, Dimensions, is about a young woman who visits her husband in the psychiatric ward of a prison after he murdered their three children. She lives an almost invisible life and is looking for answers which probably don’t exist. This story set the depressing tone for the collection.

The next story, Fiction, tells of a marriage breakdown. He fell in love with another woman, she moved on. Years later she meets the now adult child of the other woman, who has written a memoir of her childhood. The woman features in the memoir but the author doesn’t recognise the woman when she lines up to have her copy of the book signed.

Wenlock Edge is sad and creepy. Two young women share a room in a boarding house while one attends university and the other seeks life experiences. One of the women is being kept by a old man who would be described as a pervert if he weren’t so rich.

My favourite story was Child’s Play. It features two girls at a summer camp whose behaviour is as unexpected as it is terrible. I can’t say more without giving the plot away, but I was shocked by the outcome.

The title story, Too Much Happiness is the longest in the collection. This story was set in the 1800s and features a Russian female mathematician who lives a bohemian life. Like all of the women in this collection she doesn’t live a fairy-tale happy life either, but she had more choices than most women of her time, partly because of her education and brains, and partly because of her personality.

I expected a happier read from this book – clearly I was led astray by the title. The writing itself was lovely but the stories were too depressing for my tastes. I’ll probably read a novel by Alice Munro sometime but will know to get in truckloads of chocolate in advance so I can endure the misery of her character’s lives.

 

 

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