‘Hardened Brides of the Lord’ by Lauren Van Schaik

All you need to know is that this is about a bunch of nuns in mediaeval France going bonkers for a litter of kittens – and that hysteria, and, inevitably, murder ensues. It’s comedy, it’s historical fiction, it’s satire: it’s got felines and feminism and perhaps best of all, an inspiring origin story: Lauren (whom I know) was feeling very down about her writing, and after a few rejections lacked the confidence to send even this belter out, so I offered to do it for her – that way, she wouldn’t have to hear about it again until she got an acceptance. I picked The Cincinnati Review because anything with Review in the title often indicates the three Ps of Prestige, Print and Payment – and a few months later a superb story of which she’d despaired not only appeared in a very respectable journal, but was named as an Other Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2021. Also, I’m chuffed to have suggested the title: the previous working title, Cat Nuns, being too on the nose 😊

First published in The Cincinnati Review, June 2020, and named an ‘Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2021. Read an extract here

‘The Lyrebird’s Bell’ by Caitlin Galway

The lyricism of the writing and the hotbed intimacy of the relationship between the girls is what really impressed me about this piece, as well as the tantalising mystery of Antoinette’s antecedents and true name. Set in postwar Australia, it initially hints at being a fictional reworking of the famous New Zealand case where two girls murdered one of their mothers, filmed as Heavenly Creatures – however, reading on, it develops into very much its own story, curious and unsettling, with a memorable and compelling voice.

Winner of the 2020 Morton Prize, published in The Ex-Puritan: Issue 51, and available to read here

‘The Wind Has Swept Away What the Fire has Spared’ by Michael Tod Powers

Elegant writing and a great title: a killer combination for any short story. It’s historical fiction, which I write and which I love to read, set during WWII and flashing back to a devastating 1871 firestorm in Wisconsin. The protagonist Ansel designs (conventional) bombs, but the shadow of the A-bomb hangs over the whole piece like a mushroom cloud. The relationship between Ansel’s son Ritchie and daughter Claire, and his wife Caroline are delicately drawn, poignant and credible. A keeper.

First published in The Boston Review, February 2023, and available to read here

‘The Elephant in the Tower’ by David McGrath

The elephant narrator, wrenched from the side of his beloved King Louis, finds himself in the Tower of London as part of Henry III’s royal menagerie. The other animals hate his stuck-up attitude, and the zookeepers end up feeding him red meat and barrels of wine as he slowly descends into lonely alcoholism. My absolute favourite stories – the ones I can neither resist nor forget – are those which manage to combine profound pathos with moments of genuine humour (or arguably, the tragedy’s concealed inside the comedy all along, like a bitter literary Creme Egg), and this little gem of a story does it with gutwrenching brilliance. McGrath has just appeared in The Stinging Fly’s Debuts issue and is one to watch. I’m also very fond of Ed Cooper Clarke’s sublime performance of this story, complete with Cockney Polar Bear.

First published on Liars’ League “Kings & Queens” in July 2013. Read for free here; Reprinted by Arachne Press in Weird Lies, Winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Anthology) 2014 – buy it here

‘A Long Way Round’ by Delia Radu

A policeman, a translator and a Roma woman who’s been involved in an “incident” at Wimbledon tube sit in an interview room – but it’s not what it first appears. The tension between what’s said, heard and replied in this triple-layered conversation, everything that’s lost in translation, is intriguing and makes for a thought-provoking story about identity and survival which reads almost like a piece of poetry or a three-hander play. This one stands out for its underexplored but ever-relevant subject, formal innovation and its striking and unusual presentation on the page. Its brevity is a great strength, lending it a certain scriptlike succinctness, and the voices of all the characters, but especially those of Mrs Nadira and the impatient translator, ring clear. It’s an interesting angle on a hot topic, and a compelling, down-to-earth yet lyrical narrative voice for Nadira, especially at the end. 

First published in Piccioletta Barca, and available to read here

‘The Manual’ by Beau Lee Gambold

A weirdly compelling monologue by an unnamed technician in a factory where wheeled machines consume gel to produce bricks, gradually turns into what I understood as a metaphor for life, art and existential meaning. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong – see what you think 🙂 The author glosses it thus: “A worker tries to unravel their place and purpose in an infinite factory, where nobody knows what the factory makes”. Nothing like anything else I read that year, so I had to share!  

Winner of the 2021 Valhalla Fiction Award from Tempered Runes Press & published in Vol 1, No. 1 of Bluing the BladeAvailable to read here)

‘Birth Plan’ by Uschi Gatward

Gatward’s debut collection English Magic, published only a few months before her tragically premature death at the age of 49, has generated a couple of other mentions, but since Liars’ League had the privilege to publish ‘Birth Plan’ first, it’s my pick. The story is narrated by a pregnant mother and told in the beguilingly novel form of a hospital birth plan: I read it when I was a week overdue with my first baby, and at the end I just completely dissolved. It has that wonderful mixture (which I also love in ‘Elephant in the Tower’) of humour and pathos: there are some superbly acid laugh-out-loud moments, and yet it ultimately, inevitably transmutes into something so tender, so tentative, so hopeful, so fearful, that anyone who’s had a child, or been one, can’t fail (I hope) on some level to identify with it.

First published on Liars’ League “Beginning & End” May 2014 and available to read here. Reprinted by Arachne Press in We/She, 2018 (ed. Cherry Potts & Katy Darby) – buy it here

‘Hope v Texas’ by Read Cook

Without spoiling it, this is a highly unusual piece (and pushes the sort of formal & [non]fictional boundaries I like to see dissolve) and stood out effortlessly from the crowd for its unusual format and style; it is a fascinating and compelling example of fiction masquerading as fact/history. The Atwood influence is clear, but the story remains highly original, with a genuine “gasp” moment about two-thirds of the way through. Some truly breathtaking and hard-hitting moments in this piece which, sadly, continues to be relevant.

First published in The Illinois Law Review, September 2021, and available to read here

‘Bodies of Water’ by Denise Heyl McEvoy

This is a slow burner, really blossoming for me on a second read, with some haunting and gorgeous turns of phrase. Beautifully and clearly observed, some lovely writing, and pleasingly eerie with the voices in the water. “Water desires water” – the personification of the water, trapped in a pool in the San Fernando valley is insinuating, haunting, and slightly sinister. The three family members’ separate consciousnesses are also explored: husband Eric, wife Lisa, an ex-dancer, and 13-year-old daughter, Camille, until an unexpected mini earthquake brings them together. By the end, it’s about desire and escape, solitude and connection, and it’s got some great lines: “With her family asleep, needing nothing from her, it is not possible for her to fall short. The burden of loving them feels lighter.”

First published in American Short Fiction, August 2022, and available to read here

‘The Box’ by Alistair Daniel

I love the way that the box is subtly anthropomorphised and cared for like a child from the start – its size and weight both recall an infant, it cannot get too hot etc. and how later it (and the loft in which it’s kept) transform into a substitute womb for the man. There’s humour in here, too – the way the woman enjoys the company of her nieces and nephews “for up to an hour” and the cliched gifts (the Give Peas a Chance bibs) the man buys for others’ babies. I also really liked the sinister absence of knives in the kitchen, which imply the possibility that the woman may self-harm if pushed too far … This story is so much about what is unspoken yet tacitly acknowledged between the two central characters: the impossible irreconcilability of their conflicting desires, expressed through the neutral and anonymising (“the man” & ”the woman”) third-person narrative voice. The voice reminds me somewhat of Carver or Hemingway: the way it presents the characters, their actions, thoughts and words, without comment or judgement is a very hard trick to pull off and still allow the story to carry its own significant emotional weight.

Bridport Short Story Prize: Highly Commended 2020. First published in the Bridport Prize Anthology 2020. Buy the anthology here

‘Galway Sinking’ by Claire-Lise Kieffer

Successfully combines a sort of Irish magical realism with climate dystopia (and a nod to recent history reminiscent of scenes from New Orleans after Katrina) in a tale of what happens when Galway Bay is flooded, and a “hold-out” community grows up around the disaster zone. In addition to the intriguing plot and premise, lovely precise descriptive writing and convincing characterisation won me over. 

First published in Seaborne Magazine, Issue 2: October 2021. Buy the issue here

‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

When I was two, my family – Mum, Dad, and my new-born brother – left the UK, and settled in a suburban town around thirty miles from New York for a few years. We lived in a stocky, clapboard house; the garden was enclosed by tall strands of yews and firs. In winter, you had to use a shovel to excavate the car from the heaped-up snow. My memories of The Velveteen Rabbit – certain scenes, some intermittent sense of its tone and feel – have become so confused with the patchy impressions of childhood that when I re-read the story now, the narrative unfolds into those impressions – the terrible bonfire of toys is about to take place in that snowy, out-of-town garden; the woodland in the story – initially the site of the rabbit’s shame but where his final, joyful liberation takes place too – belongs both to Margery Williams’ description, and to some dim, watery sense of early life. Mum must have read the story to me again and again: the velveteen rabbit’s humility, his yearnings and disappointments, the finely judged material presence of the bedroom and garden settings – the “mechanical toys with their superior ideas” and “the games in the raspberry thicket” – the first story I consciously remember bringing with it some kind of atmospheric change.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1921 and widely in book form since

‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

To Chapelizod’s “most quiet quarters” now (I lived in Dublin in my twenties) and Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico’s late evening walks. Joyce lays the ground with exacting authority: Duffy’s aloofness and self-regard are tenuous buffers to a solitary, regimented existence (have a read of the description of Duffy’s monastic room, the assiduous itemisation of a solitary life, the lens moving closer and closer in…). The principal characters, too, are carefully and finely woven – this delicate work (although there’s a wonderful instinctual ease to Joyce’s prose here too) paves the way for subtle, human paradox. Duffy is haughty and dry – we’re told about his “unamiable mouth” and the “harsh” character of his face – but then we’re made to dwell on his gaze: “there was no harshness in his eyes which… gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others…” Similarly, Mrs. Sinico – a forty-three-year-old mother whose husband captains a boat which sails to and from Holland – is revealed by the almost anatomical investigation of her eyes: “their gaze began with a defiant note but was confused by what seemed a deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris, revealing for an instant a temperament of great sensibility.” Mr. Duffy’s final wanderings in the park – that beautifully realised transition from age-old defensiveness into a hard and honest accounting of his “moral nature” – is a remarkable passage. All the while, below the crest of the hill, Dublin “burns redly and hospitably.”    

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, and widely republished since, including by Penguin Classics, 2000

‘Ping’ by Samuel Beckett

In a letter written about ‘Ping’ from Ussy in August 1966, Beckett explained that “months of misguided work have boiled down to 1,000 words.’” And that he’d written “something suitably brief and outrageous all whiteness and silence and finishedness.” Its outrageousness? No personal pronouns, very few conjunctions, definite articles, prepositions. Punctuation is winnowed down to a series of full stops. But in spite of the text’s brevity – its “whiteness and silence” – some sense of a “scene” emerges. A body (I imagine a man) lies in a white(ish) room of indeterminate size. The body’s parts – legs, heels, toes – seem to be “joined like sewn” or, in the case of the face, “nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over.” Only the eyes – “a pale blue”, a rare intrusion of colour – are perhaps operational and unfixed. They track momentary changes in the “grey almost white” surroundings: “blur”, “light”, “traces.” The terse descriptions (nouns placed side by side, the occasional adjective) are initially rooted in immediate sensory experience: dim, fleeting, impressionistic. An interior life, beyond the momentary and the physical, feels remote. Then comes line 21 (my copy numbers the sentences, separating them out on the page): “Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone.” The brilliance of ‘Ping’ – aside from its formal audacity, Beckett’s smashing up of all the rules – lies in these tiny, vivid eruptions of feeling and memory, the flickering presence of some long-buried self, still somehow just about present, even as the body gets ready to let go.

First published in French as ‘Bing’, Editions de Minuit, 1966, and collected in First Love and Other Shorts, Grove Weidenfeld, 1974; also in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014