The Lottery And Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

I started the work of American author Shirley Jackson the wrong way round.  My recent introduction to her was via her last novel, published in 1962, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” which I loved.  Thirteen years earlier this collection of short stories appeared with the title work really establishing her reputation. It is here as the final story alongside 25 others and a poem linked to one of the tales which rounds things off.

Having not read many short story collections for years I have read three in fairly rapid succession; Truman Capote’s festive themed compendium “A Christmas Memory”, bringing together tales of his from throughout his career and Bryan Washington’s award-winning collection of themed stories in “Lot”.  I can’t get out of my head that this format can feel inconsequential and somewhat unimportant compared to a writer’s longer works.  Capote and Washington went a little way to changing my viewpoint on this, but Jackson’s collection, on the whole, doesn’t.

There is no doubt that she can write and is a major American twentieth century literary figure.  The stories are beautifully set up, often they deal with a newcomer whose arrival changes dynamics, often they have a character named Harris in them (not the same character but this is obviously a name the writer liked to use).  In the space of a couple of pages a situation and characters are vividly drawn but too often for me the ending comes without the story feeling fully realised.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific short story writer publishing over 200 and this was early on in her career where she may still be finding her voice to some extent.  She has become famed for tales where a veneer of respectability hides a layer of darkness and this is something which really appeals to me and this was certainly evident in the novel I read but not so fully established with these earlier stories.  It is certainly present in the title piece “The Lottery”.  This is where I experienced the most dread and it had a satisfactory twist and works best as the most complete of the tales here.

A number of the others reminded me of one of USA’s most celebrated short story writers (perhaps now out of fashion) O Henry (1862-1910), naturally with a more contemporary feel, but with his richness of language and scene setting if not with the clever endings which made his name.

I did enjoy these stories, at no point did Shirley Jackson bore me by going on too long but she did regularly leave me wanting a bit more, which now and again is a very good strategy but over the whole collection I must admit to finding it a little frustrating.

The Lottery And Other Stories was first published in 1949.  I read the Penguin Modern Classics  paperback edition.

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid (2020)

On the day I finished this it was announced that Philadelphian resident Kelly Reid had won the Best Debut Award at The Goodreads Choice Awards, voted for by readers.  I am not surprised that this book has won a popular vote as I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year.

There are a lot of complex issues in this book presented in a highly readable, involving form.  I found myself holding my breath when reading it, I was so gripped by the turn of events and felt on edge for the characters.  It is very much a book for our age, certainly in keeping with a couple of other books written by women of colour I have read this year which feel so relevant, as well as being very well-written, Kia Abdullah’s stunning legal thriller “Truth Be Told” and Candice Carty-Williams’ British take in “Queenie”.

Reid’s richly drawn main character is Emira, a 25 year old young black woman living in Philadelphia who works part-time as a babysitter for two white children.  One night, whilst at a party, she is called on for emergency child-care in order to remove the toddler Briar from the house for a time.  With limited choices available at that time of night, Emira takes Briar to a supermarket which sets off a whole chain of events.  This makes for a jaw dropping, tense beginning and repercussions and analysis of this event occupies all the main characters.  At the supermarket the proceedings are filmed by a white man, Kelley, who Emira begins a relationship with.  Her white employer, Alix becomes obsessed with this event and with Emira herself.  The multi-layered plot thickens continually until the characters are in a right old stew.  Whose behaviour is without blame?  Who is using who to score points and how far can all of the characters’ actions and justifications be classed as racist? It is especially pertinent (following the publication of this book) with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s non-fiction work “Why I’m Not Talking To White People About Race” (2018) belatedly topping the UK best sellers list but here we have some of these issues within a vibrantly written, involving fiction work which is so impressive.  There is great warmth and humour which also deepens the issues raised.  If we are to class this as an issue-led book it is so rich in character.  I would imagine this could well be a very big bestseller when the paperback is published on 29th December. 

My only reservation is the title and I know it’s ironic but it doesn’t convey the feel of the book and may detract purchasers, especially in the UK, where it has a kind of a “jolly hockey-sticks” air about it but surely this will be compensated by the very good word of mouth and its featuring in end of year lists, including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Books, that Goodreads win, a Booker longlist nod and The Independent calling it “the book of the year.”

“Such A Fun Age” was published in hardback in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.  The paperback edition is scheduled for 29th December.

Lot- Bryan Washington (2019)

This critically acclaimed collection of linked short stories is the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize (given to the best work by a writer under the age of forty), was a New York Times Top 10 Book Of The Year and was publicly lauded by Barack Obama.  I don’t often seek out the short story format in my reading choices but I do have Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” due out in the UK in early 2021 on my reading schedule and I was interested in finding out more about this writer before I begin his novel and short stories are often a good way to get to know a writer.

In “Lot” we have 13 stories ranging from 3 pages in length to around 30 pages for the collection’s closer “Elgin”.  All are set in regions of urban Houston, which is where the author resides.  The majority of them feature the same characters at different parts of their lives, a narrator Nicolas, his brother Javi and sister Jan and their parents, a Latino father and Black mother. The family run a restaurant and the young Nicolas is coming to terms with his sexuality in a very macho culture. 

Occasionally the stories stray away from this family grouping.  One I found very involving was the more mystical “Bayou” where a couple of teens discover a creature of legend – the Chupacabra and see it as a potential means of escape from their existence and also the equally impressive “Waugh” where a young street hustler finds his own way out and attempts to save a recently diagnosed HIV+ friend.  Looking for escape is a common theme but most often the characters are so embroiled in their everyday existence that they do not take it.

This is a selection of powerful, often brutal stories which certainly have me looking forward to reading Washington’s debut novel.

“Lot” was published in 2019.  I read the 2020 Atlantic paperback edition.

Madam – Phoebe Wynne (Quercus 2021)

Here is advance notification of a title scheduled to appear in February 2021,  a debut novel set largely in the early 1990s.  Twenty-six year old Classics teacher Rose is offered a job at a prestigious private girls’ school in coastal North East Scotland.  Caldonbrae is offering a Head of Department job and more money which will enable continued care for her mother in a residential home.  It doesn’t take Rose that long to realise the school is not all that it seems.

This modern Gothic tinged tale is good at establishing atmosphere especially at the beginning when Rose becomes aware that she is an outsider to events going on around her in a way which felt reminiscent of horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby”.  The school is keeping secrets from her and she is being manipulated by them but just how dark are these secrets? 

It takes the best part of a school year for Rose to fully cotton on to what is happening and this gives it the feel of a modern-day school-based slant on “Rebecca”.  Rose struggles to keep up normality, we find out much about the content of the curriculum and classic and mythological women are introduced to the students with Rose increasingly using these as teaching aids to help convey her concerns to the extraordinarily educationally passive girls.

I do think the book is a little too long, a little tweaking would have intensified the atmosphere, I think we linger a little too long in the classrooms and this slow build up isn’t quite justified by the final revelations and the working out of the plot’s climax.  Nevertheless, it is very readable and I enjoyed the feminist slant to the modern gothic novel.  It also has the potential to make a very good film/tv adaptation.

Madam is scheduled to be published by Quercus on 18th February 2021.

A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

This is a book which often appears in best crime series debuts and mystery/thriller recommendations lists.  I did the unusual thing (for me) of reading the third in this series “Smoke And Ashes” when it came out in 2018 and with the recent publication of the fourth in paperback I thought I’d start off at the proper place – the beginning- especially as I enjoyed very much the book I did read.

“A Rising Man” introduces Police Captain Sam Wyndham, recently arrived in Calcutta in 1919 and billeted in a British run guest-house where the food he is served up puts him at greater risk from illness than if he took his chances on the streets of Calcutta.

He is called to a street murder of a senior Civil Servant and he meets up with Surendranath Banerjee, nicknamed “Surrender-not” by British officers unwilling to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, who becomes Wyndham’s sidekick in this series.  The pair set out to uncover the murderer amongst growing unrest in the local population which comes to a head when news of a massacre by British troops in Amritsar travels to Calcutta.

This novel won the 2107 Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers Awards so I was expecting big things.  I was impressed by it but I think I just slightly preferred “Smoke And Ashes” which felt a little pacier and by which time Abir Mukherjee had confidently established the characters.  Wyndham’s flaw is a predilection for opium as a result of the trauma of the war years and the loss of his wife in the flu epidemic straight afterwards, an addiction which he will certainly have the opportunity to explore in early Twentieth Century Calcutta.

This is a strong debut with a satisfactory conclusion and has set the series up appealingly and I am keen to seek out the other titles.

A Rising Man was published by Harvill Secker in 2016.  I read the 2017 Vintage paperback edition.

A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote (Penguin Classics 2020)

With the reign of my current Book Of The Year “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott coming to an end I have made good my promise to myself to explore further the writings of her central character, Truman Capote.  Penguin Classics have put out for this festive season a collection of six of his short stories around the theme of Christmas.

I read an early review edition which was without any introduction which I would have really appreciated to put these tales in context.  I’m not sure whether this would be put right in the published version but it seems the stories span from 1945 when Capote was a callow youth of 21 to a tale which is copyrighted 1982 so may not have seen the light until a couple of years before his death, but I guess was probably written much earlier.

Capote writes with a sense of nostalgia which is so appropriate for the festive period and I could see some of these stories ending up in my “read yearly” list.  I don’t know enough about him to know how autobiographical they are (again an introduction would have helped).  The first three feature the narrator’s relationship with an elderly yet almost child-like female cousin, Miss Sook, who the young protagonist adores.  “A Christmas Memory” is a wistful tale of seasonal preparations and their relationship is explored further in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” (okay, not quite Xmas) where her role as care-giver and educator is enhanced.  The young boy spends Christmas with an absent father in “One Christmas.” The least successful story “Master Misery” dates from 1949 and is a more brittle New York tale with a female main character which deals in the importance of dreams and will no doubt have some bearing on his later (1958) novel which confirmed his literary superstar status, “Breakfast At Tiffanys”.

My favourite story is also not especially Christmassy, “Children On Their Birthdays” shows strong characterisation and his plot of a new young female arrival in town is highly involving.  It is also characterisation which is the strong point of “Jug Of Silver” but it is not as fully realised as its predecessor in the book. 

This has really whetted my appetite for more Capote.  I like his style.  He handles the short story format well and I’m even beginning to feel a little more joyous towards the coming festival after reading it.

A Christmas memory was published by Penguin Classics on 5th November 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – A Real Life Review

I know who Grace Dent is.  I occasionally read her restaurant reviews in The Guardian and in other publications over the years and she generally makes me laugh.  I know her as a talking head on nostalgia programmes reminiscing about a biscuit or forgotten gem of Children’s TV. I don’t know much more than that about her but my interest was certainly piqued by the arrival of this work.  Subtitled “A memoir of wanting more”, when I finished it I was the one who was certainly wanting more.

Grace won me over from the Epigraph which conveys the wisdom of Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples circa 1965; “When I was a little lass, the world was half a dozen streets, an’ a bit of waste land, an’ the rest was all talk.”  Grace’s all talk is an upbringing in Carlisle and the importance food played in her working class Cumbrian home runs throughout as she develops a palate from the tinned Fray Bentos pie to unimaginably posh food at top London restaurants.  As Grace moves into a world of journalism, London magazines, working with Piers Morgan (life’s not always a bowl of cherries, I suppose) she remains the girl who swung around lampposts waiting to be called in for her tea.

Her relationship with family is beautifully conveyed, especially her parents and particularly her Dad as he begins to slip away from them with dementia which as the book moves towards the present day has a potent pull on Grace’s priorities. 

It is full of superb observations on life and the recalling of the 80’s and 90’s is palpable.  I relished her reflections, such as the most significant person in eighties Cumbria being the woman who worked in the big Asda in Carlisle with the price reduction gun.  I like a memoir where the writer carries you along establishing points of common contact and yet telling their own story and I think Grace Dent does this brilliantly here. 

I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (2003) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Hungry was published by Mudlark on 29th October 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.

To Be A Gay Man – Will Young (2020) – A Real Life Review

I am a big Will Young fan.  A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58.  He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues.  This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.

Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.

Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function.  Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.

I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame.  I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model.  This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.

In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed.  Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media.  Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again.  Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.

As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking.  It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that such a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.

To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.

Shadow Sands – Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

I really enjoyed Robert Bryndza’s fairly grisly “Nine Elms” earlier this year and so was really looking forward to the second in his series featuring ex DC Kate Marshall, now working as a university lecturer and her assistant, Tristan.

At the end of the last novel it looked like a career change may have been in the offing with the duo moving on to private investigations but here two years later both are still at the university.

A new case is triggered when Kate, out diving with her teenage son in a reservoir near her home in Devon, encounters the corpse of a young man.  Initial post-mortem reports seem implausible and the youth’s mother gets in contact to get Kate to carry out her own investigations.  Alongside this we get more insight into the two lead characters who Bryndza is fleshing out nicely, especially the very appealing Tristan in this novel and their working relationship shows much potential for the future.

This is a strong crime novel.  Last time round I felt Bryndza was hovering too closely towards the horror of torture and abduction and said of it; “That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living now.”  I do think here the author has reined it in a bit.  It’s still admittedly a dark tale with some difficult scenes to read but it feels less over the top and this lighter touch has made for a second in the series novel which is even stronger than the debut.

At the novel’s satisfactory conclusion Kate announces her intention to give up academia for private detective work.  Whether this happens remains to be seen but I am certainly looking forward to more cases for her and Tristan.  This is a strong partnership in what is developing into a high-quality crime series.

Shadow Sands will be published by Sphere on 3rd November.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.