Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘short stories’

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro


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.




Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas


Merciless Gods is a collection of short stories by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, who is best known for writing The Slap. I read and enjoyed both The Slap and Barracuda, which although occasionally brutal, are well written contemporary stories which are set in my home town of Melbourne.

I finished reading Merciless Gods some time ago, and have been dithering about whether to post a review or not. The writing in Merciless Gods is up to the author’s usual high standards, but this book did not leave me feeling good about myself. I felt squeamish and anxious reading most of these stories, many of which depict physically and emotionally violent exchanges between characters, as well as graphic (and again, sometimes violent) sex between gay men. The characters in this collection are absolutely brutal to each other.

The first story in the collection is the title story and tells of a group of friends telling each other true stories. One of the characters tells a story of revenge which left me and the other characters feeling emotionally shattered. Merciless Gods is an amazing story, but had I realised each story in the collection was more confronting than the last, I probably would have stopped reading after the second story.

Reading so many stories about unhappy, sometimes unpleasant people behaving viciously towards each other flattened me. I wish this author would show people at their best more often, rather than always at their worst.

I’ll continue reading books by Christos Tsiolkas for the quality of the writing and for my enjoyment of the familiar locations and times, but this confronting collection of stories is not for everyone. I’m prudish at the best of times and if you are too, then give this collection a miss.


All the Sad Young Men by F. Scott Fitzgerald


All the Sad Young Men is a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of which were new to me.

The collection starts with The Rich Boy, which tells the story of an exceedingly rich young man with commitment issues (as we would say now). Sadly for him, this young man felt himself unable to love any of the various women who loved him due to a sense of his own superiority, and by the age of thirty, felt as if he had missed his opportunity for happiness in the form of marriage.

I’m more than a bit cynical about the plot of The Rich Boy, even though the quality of the actual writing puts this author up with the ‘greats.’ One of the other characters ought to have told this precious fellow to get over himself.

Winter Dreams was a sadder story. A poor young man made something of himself, then fell in love with an ‘It Girl.’ The ‘It Girl’ dangled the young man on a string for her own amusement until she fell in love with someone else, got married and turned into a sad frump and of course the poor young man thought he would never get over the disappointment. Again, I felt as if someone should have advised this character to give himself ten years, by which time he would probably have forgotten the girl’s name. Perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic to this character’s troubles when I was young and romantic myself, but that is such a long time ago now….

My favourite story in the collection was Rags Martin and the Pr-nce of W-les. This story has the most glamorous heroine of all time in Rags Martin, who is everything any woman could want to be, except for feeling bored with people falling in love with her. Rags is rich, clever and charismatic. When she returned to the USA after five years in Europe she pushed an old flame into the Hudson River when he annoyed her by trying to command her attention, but there is more to this old flame than immediately apparent. If anyone is interested, you can read the story here;

There are a number of stories in this collection about young men who are desperate to get ahead in the world. Hot and Cold Blood is the story of a man who discovers he must be true to his own nature in order to be happy. I don’t know why this theme isn’t used more often in fiction as it seems truer than many other things authors write about.

Absolution is supposedly a forerunner to The Great Gatsby, and features a boy who realises that God is not all-seeing. The Baby Party tells the story of a group of badly behaved new parents who discover that their children mean more to them than anything else ever will again.

All of the stories in this collection are set in the Jazz Age, a time which appears to be almost unbelievably glamourous. The joys and tragedies seem greater to these characters than anyone had ever felt before, and life for these characters is all or nothing. Probably this is true of every age, but F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses the urgency of young men who are desperate to experience life better that most authors.










Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin


Do you ever go read something so good that when you attempt to write a review, you think to yourself, who am I to make comment on this author’s work? Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin falls into that category.

Each of the stories in this collection left me feeling completely sated. I found myself finishing each story and then putting the book down to do something else while I mulled over the story I had just read for a while.

The Age of Reason was my favourite story in the collection. The main character is a solitarily-natured criminal who master-minded the theft of a priceless Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ along with some other fine art.


The criminal uses his own brand of reasoning (threats and violence) to make other people behave as he wants them to, although he struggles to convince his own mother not to talk too much about his criminal activities. His character was formed by a stint in a Youth Detention Centre, where violence and erotica became entwined in his psyche, and by his alcoholic mother, who continues to use her son to protect her when her own behaviour isn’t acceptable. While the criminal doesn’t particularly value the stolen Rembrandt portrait as art, he believes that the woman in the painting looks as if she would be difficult to reason with.

A Song is a sad story about a young man who sings in a pub band, whose mother was a famous singer in the 1970’s. The young man hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 20 years, since he was nine years old, when he found himself in a pub where she was singing. They noticed each other and seemingly connected, although they did not speak to each other. The young man left after her song without learning if his mother recognised him or not.

The Name of the Game is another sad story. (Come to think of it, all of the stories in this collection are sad). A widow who found herself left with a failing family business and a hungry family built up the business with the intention of selling it for a better life someplace else, but her decision to sell disappointed her son who had expected to run the business himself someday.

In Famous Blue Raincoat, a teenage boy discovers a pile of old records, amongst them a record by a band which his mother and his dead aunt sang in, long before the boy was born. The band was always on the verge of enormous success, but they never quite made it. The son blindly transfers the records to CDs, telling his mother some of the songs were great and wanting to listen to them with her, without understanding that it breaks his mother’s heart to hear her dead sister’s voice again.

Who would want a Priest in the Family in this day and age? No, me neither, and this story goes exactly where you just thought it would.

The Journey tells of a woman collecting her depressed son from hospital and bringing him back to the family home to care for him. The woman’s husband is recovering from a stroke, and waiting for them at home. I felt depressed reading this story, on behalf of that poor woman.

Three Friends shows that life goes on for the living after a death. After Fergus’ mother dies, his friends come to her funeral and wake, and later collect him for a night out. They go to an all-night rave at an isolated beach, then swim in the morning. While they are swimming, Fergus and one of his friends, Mick, become filled with desire for each other, and the story finishes on the cusp of the two becoming lovers.

A Summer Job is the story of a grandmother who is desperately attached to her favourite grandson. Without going too much into the plot, this story has left me conflicted about the character’s motives, as I can’t decide if the grandson’s behaviour towards his grandmother or his mother stemmed from love or from a sense of duty.

I liked A Long Winter, the longest, and last story in this collection the least. An alcoholic mother disappears in the first snow of winter in the Pyrenees after a fight with her husband over her drinking. The son is grieving for his mother and missing his brother, who has gone to serve in the military for his two years of service. I wanted this story to have a definite end, and it didn’t.

Generally I prefer happier stories, but as I said earlier, who am I to quibble with someone who writes this well?






How it Ended by Jay McInerney


How it Ended is a book of short stories by Jay McInerney. By the end of the first story, I was hooked on this author’s writing style, and asking myself, does anyone know how anything ends?

The first story is called It’s 6 A.M. Do You Know Where You Are? The author makes an interesting point in this story about how hours go missing when you are out on the town, specifically between 2 and 6am. I remember this from when I used to get out and about, (back when the dinosaurs walked the earth, if either Honey-Bunny or Miss S are reading). Nobody knows where that time goes, including the unnamed narrator of this story. Anyway, the narrator and his friend have been out all night, only having one drink in each place they go because they are terrified of missing out on having more fun somewhere else. The narrator is the sort of person who always wants something else, other than what he already has, which seems a sad way to live a life.

Next was a story called Smoke. The moral of this story (if there is one) is that giving up smoking is difficult, and while you are giving up, you will be aggro with your partner and more likely to cheat on them with someone who will give you a ciggie. I’m always glad I never took up smoking.

Invisible Fences is a story where the lesson is for people whose relationships are broken – sometimes a divorce is best. Another story about a transsexual prostitute encountering his own father as a potential client in The Queen and I was enough to make me cringe.

Simple Gifts had a feel of that fantastic story where the woman sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, and he sells his watch to buy a comb for her hair.

Around the middle of the book, I started to feel a bit jaded with characters who were struggling with misery and emotional pain. All of the narrators until then were male, and had fairly similar outlooks. Sex with lots of different women is important to them, as is drinking and drugs. Quite a few were writers, there were a few stories with political themes, but the one thing they had in common was that these blokes all found being monogamous impossible.

At this point, I really wanted to tell Jay McInerney that not all stories need to have a sad ending. I’m not a child, I know that happy ever after only happens in fairy stories, but wow, leave me with some hope can’t you? Then I thought about this a little more. Not just about how his stories end, but questioning if there can be a story at all if nothing sad, adverse or disappointing happens.  I’m answering my own question here with; probably not. So then, my next question is, as a reader, does this mean I’m the sort of person who preys on and enjoys other people’s misery, for my own entertainment? Well, again, probably not, but only because of a technicality; these are made up stories, with characters who are not real. Hmmm.

So with a different outlook I kept reading, and enjoyed the rest of the stories in the collection, including a few stories told by female characters, who were every bit as disfunctional as the male narrators in the other stories.

Funnily enough, my favourite stories were both told by female narrators. These were Summary Judgement, a story about a woman on the hustle for a rich husband, and The Debutante’s Return, where a young woman returns to her home town to look after her ageing mother.

Despite the plethora of sad-sack, discontented characters who mess up their lives in stupid, stupid ways, I enjoyed How it Ended and am looking forward to reading a full length novel by Jay McInerney.


The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe


Happy Australia Day. In honour of the day, today’s blog features an Australian writer.

I read the short stories from The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe over a few weeks, just picking the book up and reading a few pages here and there, which is much easier to do with short stories than a novel.

All of the stories in the collection feature Australian characters from three generations of a family and are set on Australian beaches. The character’s romances and lives seem almost to change with the tides. The author makes the point over and over again that when Australians escape, or dream of escaping from their own lives, they go to the coast, and this is true in my own case.

The story I most enjoyed was ‘The View From the Sandhills,’ which is told by a man who spends his days watching women on the beach using his binoculars from the sand dunes. He has spent over 23 years in jail for violent and sexual crimes and no doubt he’ll end up there again, but the reason I liked this story is because the narrator was so open. He told his story seemingly without hiding a single thought or emotion, regardless of how socially unacceptable or nasty he appears to the reader.

The title story, ‘The Bodysurfers,’ is told by David, a man who recently left his wife for his lover, Lydia. On the weekend this story is told, David, Lydia and David’s three children are spending a weekend at a beach shack which David recently bought on an impulse. Soon after arriving, David realises that the nearby beach never has any surf, which disappoints all of them. Lydia, who is younger than David and a sexual exhibitionist, swims and sunbakes topless. Poor David’s oldest son doesn’t know where to look. Possums running all over the shack’s roof drive them all crazy at night. The reader gets the feeling that David’s ownership of the shack and his relationship with Lydia will be fleeting.

A later story, ‘The Stingray,’ has David being stung by what may or may not be a stingray, and phoning a woman named Victoria for assistance, Lydia obviously long gone.  In an earlier story, ‘Looking for Malibu,’  David, his first wife and their children are living as expats in the United States.

‘Sweetlip’ tells the story of the death of Rex Lang, on a junket weekend on Sweetlip Island with a 24 man party from the Company. The report tells of a great many of the men becoming ill, some most likely from drinking too much and others from suspected food poisoning. The autopsy is vague and there are a number of unanswered questions following Rex’s death.

Characters use expressions like, “So put that in your pipe and smoke it,” and are described as “scallywags,” which are expressions that for an Australian reader, give these stories a distinctive time and place.

It took me a while to realise that the characters in The Bodysurfers were part of the same family. The characters weren’t all that sympathetic either, quite a few were ungrateful, spoiled brats or middle aged men having indulgent mid life crises. Some characters who are predatory and dangerous. I’ll probably re-read this book though, because the words are beautifully chosen and I feel as if I must have missed something on my first read, as some of the stories didn’t seem to have a point that was obvious to me.

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