There were so many ways to go with this anthology, but I decided to go with, ‘stories that mean something to me.’ It’s the only way I really know to talk about reading, when it comes down to it, and it’s what feels true.

Ultimately reading is a selfish act, even when we read to know other people’s minds. We want to know more, and feel more, we want to look at something and go, ‘Oh I understand!’ or ‘Oh! this person understands me!’ or we want to learn a new thing, or a new thought, or a new way of looking at the world. We want to laugh with recognition or horror, or sit at the kitchen table, trembling with the everythingness of everything.

We want to connect.

At least, I do. And as this is My Personal Anthology, I’m going with that. Reading is a glinting collage of a thousand double-sided mirrors. Or something.

‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

My first thought upon being asked to do this was, ‘Well, it has to be A Christmas Carol,’ and then I felt embarrassed for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. THEN I looked it up and realised for the first time at the grand age of 41, that it’s (obviously) a novella not a shorty story. But, it would be wrong not to put it in here, because to me it had always been a short story.

It’s everything a piece of short fiction should be, when you’re eight, under your duvet, shivering with the pure brilliance of it, earnestly nodding at its meaning. I feel the same about it now though, and love it, without measure.  I love it so much, and reread it every year at Christmas, and can’t imagine life without it.

Also, whenever I stand near an open window at night I think of this: The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they wentSo, thanks for that, Dickens.

First published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843, and now available from so many places, including online, you’d find it in seconds

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe

For a short while in my teens everything was rich and swirling and sinister in my reading and writing. We had to write Gothic fiction for A Level, and I wrote a story called ‘The Bride’, about a newly married couple who find a house full of strange paintings and cello music. The husband gets entranced by a figure in a painting and walks about the house look for him, forgetting his wife. By the end, she has disappeared and is now in one of the paintings, on a bed of nails. My teacher wrote, ‘I love the ambiguity of the man’s sexuality and his ultimate ambivalence for his wife.’ It was pretty much a copy of this story, when I think of it, but I was proud of myself as though it was all my own doing.

ANYWAY, I blame this Poe story (and The Picture of Dorian Gray) which I still dream about now, for all that. It’s so visual, and full of the strange spyglass of sulphuric detail that Poe’s fiction is full of, somehow exterior and interior. It’s the kind of story you read in the dark, even if you’re reading it on a park bench in the sunshine. I could say lots about it, about Poe, about writing that thrills, or disturbs, or about short stories that do that. But I won’t. We’ve all been there.

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.
First published in 1839. My copy from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics; Rev Ed edition 2003

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

My first thought is anyone who’s ever read this story would surely put it in their personal anthology. I know things are subjective, but I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t.

There was a room in my grandparents’ bungalow that I’d sleep in, there was rose patterned wallpaper, white and pink and green and ugly. There were faces in it, and the room was cold, like a pantry. I’d lie in the dark, touching the tassels of the bedside lamp, trying not to look at all the faces in the petals, missing my mum, thinking of the faces staring at me. When I read this story, I remembered all this, and more.

I remember the first time I read it, too, holding my breath and not really being aware of my physicality from beginning to end, and yet being totally aware of it too – the claustrophobic way there were not enough pages and not enough words and yet exactly the right amount of everything. This story is words as secrets, as saviour, as desperation, as confession. I was seventeen when I first read it and I wanted to talk about it all the time. it is perfection, and I go back to it again and again.

It has everything. Powerlessness, condescension to the point of imprisonment, gaslighting, disapproval, and the bright-faced utter rebellion of it. The tone, so light, so bright, at first, then the hurtling towards despair and ESCAPE, in its own way, in the only way possible. So much said, in so few words.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
 It’s terrifying, and brilliant, and everyone should read it.
First published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. My current version is the Vintage Classics, 2015

‘The Snow Child’ by Angela Carter

When I was very young – probably too young – my Mum used to read me Grimms’ Fairytales as a treat, and I was transfixed by them, utterly repulsed and delighted. All the things I hadn’t really felt again from stories until I read Angela Carter. Her work is a gift, on repeat, and I’ll never tire of it. It’s not surprising that the story I’ve chosen is a retelling of the Grimms’ of the same name, and that its significant detail change that makes Carter’s last in the memory. The man calls The Snow Child into being, instead of the woman.

He creates his perfect women, with his actual flesh and bones wife right there next to him.

Angela Carter does so many things so well, but for me, it’s the physicality of the women in her stories that grab me. They inhabit their bodies from the inside out and I found that startling and overwhelming when I was sixteen, that they could appear fully formed and bloody, not just peered at with clean or structured desire.

AND YET, this story shows women as that exactly, clean and structured, a man’s-eye view, conjured and controlled by the Count, to his tastes. The way it’s done, though, doesn’t collude with him, it smashes him to bits, and laughs at him, but is always aware of how dangerous it is, the laughing. It may be short, but this story manages to pick apart, build, laugh and destroy so many things at once. The Count’s sexuality is ridiculous and terrifying. The women he desires are dead or a scatter of objects, a series of two-dismensional photographs framed by his eyes. It, like everything Carter wrote, is spectacular.

(There’s something about the black fox furs jumping from the Countess’ shoulders onto the girl’s that has stuck with me, since that day in 1993 when I first read it, and, as an aside I’m still, all these years later, longing for a pair of high, black, shining boots with scarlet heels, and spurs. When I have a pair of these, I will know I’ve made it.)

From The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979 by Gollancz. Now Vintage Classics.

‘Medusa’s Ankles’ by AS Byatt

What happened in an eight-month period in 1997-1998 was both my parents died. I was twenty. I had dropped out of University twice and didn’t know what I was doing. I kept running away from jobs in my lunch hour. A book shop in Camden. Past Times in Covent Garden. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

My friend gave me A.S. Byatt’s Possession the Christmas that sat neatly between their deaths, and it changed everything.

I sat, reading it, over that Christmas holiday. I was reading the same writers, or writers mentioned by those writers, and then I read that book, that one book, and I read every single writer she referenced in the half a year after. Goethe, Coleridge, EVERYTHING. I was hungry for all of it, and it opened up the world for me. Because of that book, in the summer of 1999 I applied to do a Literature degree at the University of Essex, and never looked back. It would have never happened without A.S. Byatt because I didn’t realise reading could be a thing you studied to that level, because I’d been taught that things you enjoy were too easy to study. Study should be suffering. Well. No.

That says nothing about this story, in this collection, which I bought immediately after I’d finished Possession. A woman in a hairdresser’s chair, thinking about her age, and being invisible, and how she first went into that hairdresser’s purely because of the Matisse she saw through the window, and all the things the hairdresser says, as she sits, and he talks, and they sometimes look at each other in the mirror.

I love this story. I love all of A.S. Byatt’s work, and all her books of short stories especially, are like gleaming treasures, brightly wrapped, beautifully formatted, carried about, on and off, in various handbags over decades as a reminder of something that I still can’t quite articulate.

This story has the line: She came to trust him with her disintegration.

It’s worth it for that alone.

From The Matisse Stories, Vintage, 1994

‘On the Gull’s Road’ by Willa Cather

I think the best thing about the spark decision I made, when asked over the phone by someone at the University of Essex during clearing in the summer of 1998 ‘Would you like to do English and European Literature or English and United States Literature?’, to answer ‘United States’, was Willa Cather. The fact I made that decision because Plath and Poe and Sweet Valley High and Jackie Collins jumped into my head when I was asked the question, is by-the-by.

I’m not sure I’d have discovered Willa Cather so soon (or ever?) if I hadn’t. My Ántonia is one of my favourite books, and I love it wildly and loyally, and this story is its worthy companion in my heart.  She writes with spaces and rhythm and, somehow, a soaring plainness, if there can be such a thing. Vast and clear without every being fussy, but also, detail of the like you can’t imagine not having known before you read it. She also is a champion when it comes to unrequited love.

Though when we are young we seldom think much about it, there is now and again a golden day when we feel a sudden, arrogant pride in our youth; in the lightness of our feet and the strength of our arms, in the warm fluid that courses so surely within us; when we are conscious of something powerful and mercurial in our breasts, which comes up wave after wave and leaves us irresponsible and free.
 I just, absolutely and unapologetically to my bones, love stuff like that.
First published in McClure’s in December 1908. You can read it here

‘A Clear Well-Lighted Place’ by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway. How lazy and obvious to pick him, for so many reasons. I wish I had discovered and been shown so many other writers when I was younger. I wish, at school, we’d been shown all those stories and voices that never had their chance. And I really did think about doing this anthology without this story, from the perspective of me now, not me as I went through life, and the stories I clung to, or that rose up unexpectedly and captured me.


I was twenty when this story found me, came to me, as it was, by being read aloud to those who had turned up to an American Short Story seminar by one of my university professors. I was finding it hard to be alive, sometimes. The world was (is) so big, and human beings so small, so insignificant, or as I suppose I felt, was so insignificant, what would happen if I just… disappeared.

He read this story, in his beautiful voice (I still think of him reading this, or pieces of Moby Dick in The American Novel seminar, and nothing I’ve ever heard read aloud has ever come even vaguely near it) and I was moved. So. I found an old copy of the collected stories in a second-hand bookshop and cut this one out, stuck it in the back of my diary, and if I ever felt like I might be alone in the universe, I read it.

Obviously, I’ve moved on. I’ve read much better and more complicated and more stylish, more beautiful stories since. I’ve read more important ones too, ones that crack open the world and write it new.

But, this story, it made me pause and think that maybe there wasa point to me, that there was this huge café, with thousands upon thousands of tables, where the occupants were just looking for a clean well-lighted place, to feel connection. And it made me feel better, about everything. So.

It can be found in so many places, but I have a copy of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The First Forty-Nine Stories, Scribner, 2014

‘The Philanderer’ by Mahesh Rao

I love the book of short stories this comes from and my favourite changes each time I’ve reread it. The title of the complete book comes from there being “1.2 billion people living in India; more than 1.2 billion stories in one country”. Each story focusses on one of those stories, and does so with the sort of deft, humorous, gentle, brutal, careful skill that makes me know I’ll never truly be a proper writer of short stories.

‘The Philanderer’ is a story that’s so simple in tone that it belies the sophistication of the telling. A divorced man who seems outside of his sexual conquests, who happens to wear a range of ties, all different shades of cerulean, is awful, yet longing, and hoping, and also so matter of fact and unaware of his inner self, that there are moments where you feel empathy, or disgust, or you laugh. Or something else. It’s such good writing, without ever showing off.

It makes me laugh. It also makes me wince. It says far more than the amount of words in it really should, and that’s all to do with the skill in the writing, which is not show-offy but subtle, elegant and funny. I love it.

He dissuaded his partners from chatter during sex, whether it was talk of private parts, immanent manoeuvres or, more simply, praise. He found it gauche and distracting. But not everyone would comply.
‘What this country needs,’ one woman had said, her face glistening as she held onto the headboard, ‘is more Muslims. Like you. Secular.’
Unwilling to respond at that precise moment he said, ‘I’m very close. Here, bite on my thumb.’
 You should read the whole book, really. But, today, this is my favourite.
from One Point Two Billion, Daunt Books, 2015

‘I Told You I’d Buy You Anything So You Asked For A Submarine Fleet’ by Owen Booth

This story won the White Review Prize in 2015, so you’ve probably read it, and if you haven’t, go away and do that (and read all Owen’s stories, because doing that is better than anything I could possibly say about any of them).

I was having a bit of an awful time when I read this one. I was struggling with my writing. I was reading, reading, reading, but I couldn’t write, and I’d become a bit of a recluse because some awful stuff had happened, and I wasn’t sure how to navigate it, or if writing was the way forward, or… what. Stories are always about the words, but they’re about when those words come to you, the exact time and place when read them. I read this story on a day when I was wondering how and if to be, and other than it being, very obviously, brilliant, in style, it hit me somewhere that I will always be thankful for.

It’s just brilliantly done, for starters. I love writing that is deceptively simple, has a voice that is consistently funny, without ever laughing at anybody, at least, not cruelly, or at least, not without making you laugh at yourself first. When you laugh, you’re laughing about things you know to be true about you, as well as others. I always admire writers who can do that, who make you laugh without holding back any punches when it comes to the absurdity of what human beings, and ultimately yourself, really are.

It’s also absurd, and moving, and has simple yet perfect descriptions like this: The air was so cold it smelt like iron.

Anyway, I read this story and I remembered writing could be new, and I wanted to read everything he’d written, and I remembered there were not only one way to read, or write. It’s a story that reminded me human beings are ridiculous and brilliant and utterly baffling and wonderful. Which is pretty much everything I want from a short story. It’s obvious why it won. And it’s not even his best story. And yes I am a bit jealous.

Published in The White Review, 2015, and available online here

‘Ritual Stitches, Good Red Wounds’ by Helen McClory

I will ready anything by Helen McClory and so should you. One of the things I love about using Twitter is the writing it’s brought to me, that I may have missed had I never joined.

Helen does things differently. Her stories are written like poetry, are funny, are bright, are complete and vivid and make you think. She deconstructs old ideas and makes them new. She is a proper artist. I loved her first collection On the Edges of Vision, and her novel Flesh of the Peach.

And this story, from this collection, got me right from the very beginning.

Muggy air. Plum in up to the wrists. Picking rinds from the stopped waste disposal. He’s pulled the machinery out so nothing can get you. But you know there are so many ways in which you can be gnawed upon. It scares you into effrontery, into brittle spectacle. No roses, you say, no damn chocolate, like thin poise is going to help you live intact.
 Yeah, that’s the opening.

It’s a story about physicality, and memory, and damage. It’s about who owns you (and who you own), and for how long and in in what ways. It’s about the body and the mind and how they are separate and the same, and how they tell stories, together and by themselves. It’s about escape and power and the nearness and farness away of everything. Reading it always takes my breath away, and I can’t articulate why, really.

It’s very short, and it’s dazzling.

from Mayhem and Death404 Ink, 2018

‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ by Patrice Lawrence

I was at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference earlier this year, talking about representation in children’s books, how each child deserves to see themselves in stories, and it was such a wonderful event. When I agreed to do it, and looked at the line up, I squealed when I realised Patrice Lawrence would be there. I loved Orangeboy, and Indigo Donut, and I’d loved this story, in this collection.

The panel was brilliant, Lawrence was joined by M.G. Leonard, and it was chaired by Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, talking about this book which was published to celebrate women and girls, to coincide with the anniversary of women’s suffrage. I’d loved this story when I’d read it, so it was a proper treat to hear her talking about it.

It’s about Olive Christian Malvery, who came to London at the turn of the twentieth century, from India and was shocked by the working and living conditions of women and children in the city. She investigated, reported, and campaigned on the lives of some of the capital’s most vulnerable and marginalised people. I wish we’d learned about her at school (there’s a lot to say, somewhere else why we didn’t). The story is about lots of things: sense of self, how a person loves and cares, feels, and exists and is able to champion others when they themselves have very little. About bravery. And family. And unfairness.

It’s beautifully written, and the opening image has stayed with me.

Angel’s hair was full of spiders. That’s the first thing I remember about that day. I’d thought they were ants, but I should have known. I’d dug out enough ants’ nests in the dry earth down by the canal. These were what Nanna called penny spiders, tiny things, running down Angel’s forehead and cheeks in a quick, grey stream, dodging my hands as I tried to sweep them off her. But I didn’t want to squash them.
 All the stories in Make More Noiseare worth reading. And, for me Patrice Lawrence is one of those writers I would happily read a shopping list by. So, read all of her books, immediately.
From Make More Noise, Nosy Crow, 2018. You can read it online here through Booktrust

‘Meat’ by Padrika Tarrant

Sometimes you read a writer’s work and want to tell them how much you are in awe of them, but you don’t say anything because it would just embarrass them, and you, so you stand blinking in the corner, imperceptibly nodding.

That’s how I felt when I read Padrika Tarrant’s novel,The Knife Drawer, how I felt when I read her book of short stories Broken Thingsand it’s how I felt when I read this year’s The Fates of the Animals. Gosh. Some writers, they transcend space and time and you can’t really say anything about their work other than, ‘Please read it.’

This story starts: They are waiting. They are meat.

I think it might be my favourite opening to a story, ever. You should just read everything she’s written because it’s all like that.

Or like this.

There is a part that wants to kill, to open its bloody maw, screw its eyes and sink its fangs into the men in spattered Wellingtons, into their strong and red-flecked arms. But champing against empty air is torture for the jaws.
When people I know say, ‘Who’s an author I should read, who I might not have heard of?’ I always say Padrika Tarrant. And, I say that to you, too.
from The Fates of the Animals, Salt Publishing, 2018