Top Story Collections: A Quintet of Award-Winning Women Authors

It is difficult to single out a few stories in a collection as good as Hadley's; Hall deserves a closer look for her beguiling collection; Hunt admirers will find much to love; Lively's gifts have only ripened with age; if readers are meeting Simpson for the first time, these engaging selections are an excellent place to begin

redstarHadley, Tessa. Bad Dreams and Other Stories. Harper. May 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780062476661. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062476685. F

A loss of innocence lies at the heart of these stories from Windham Campbell Prize winner Hadley. Tinged with sadness and regret, they are often set in bygone eras, viewed through the sharper lens of the present. In “An Abduction,” awkward 15-year-old Jane is spirited away by three older boys riding around in search of mischief and adventure. Over a day of shoplifting, recreational drugs, and reckless sex, Jane’s naivete begins to fall away. In “The Stain,” Marina, a competent and caring housekeeper for an elderly gentleman, finds her feelings toward him gradually become compromised when his brutal South African past comes to light. “One Saturday Morning” begins as ten-year-old Carrie, home alone, answers the door to an old friend of her parents who has arrived unexpectedly. Too shy to entertain him herself, she hides away until her parents return from their errands. Later that day, Carrie overhears conversations that will broaden her understanding of the adult world. In “Flight,” old grievances resurface when two estranged sisters reunite after many years apart, with one of them nursing the faint hope of a rapprochement while the other holds fast to her bitterness. Verdict It is difficult to single out a few stories for special attention in a collection this good. The best advice is to read them all. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/16.]

Hall, Sarah. Madame Zero. Custom House. Jul. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780062657060. $23.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062657084. F

A woman who morphs into a fox, a feral 12-year-old discovered out on the moors, a woman consumed by strange new appetites, and a world transformed by catastrophic windstorms are some of the bizarre themes in this collection. In “Mrs. Fox,” a happily married couple is worried about the wife’s sudden illness. What seems at first to be morning sickness turns into something far more sinister. While on a therapeutic walk in the woods, the husband is stunned to see his wife shed her skin, grow fur, and become a fox. The reverse of “Mrs. Fox” is “Case Study 2,” in which an undernourished wild child is found wandering alone on the moors. Treatment attempts to humanize him prove extremely difficult. Mystery lies at the heart of “Evie” when a woman develops a voracious and unexplained appetite for food, alcohol, and raunchy sex. Finally, the entire world is rendered unrecognizable in “Later, His Ghost,” a postapocalyptic tale about a man’s risky search for provisions and books. ­Verdict Hall (How To Paint a Dead Man), a Granta Best of Young British Novelists, is not as well known as some of her contemporaries. She deserves a closer look for her beguiling collection. [See Prepub Alert, 2/13/17.]

Hunt, Samantha. The Dark Dark. Farrar. Jul. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780374282134. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780374716523. F

Among the most striking of the stories in this strange and surprising ­collection from Bard Prize winner Hunt is the opener, “The Story of,” about a woman named Norma, newly unemployed and longing to be pregnant, who encounters another Norma, dirty and homeless and possibly the recently discovered half-sister of her husband. The closing story, “The story of of” is another version of the opener, in which the original is repeated, expanded, and modified several more times to dizzying effect. Like the ­Normas, many of the characters in these pieces are teetering on the edge of sanity. In “The Beast,” after discovering a couple of ticks on her body, a woman imagines she turns into a deer when she goes to bed each night. In “Love Machine,” an FBI agent sits in an unmarked van watching his comely, potentially lethal female robot pay a call on the Unabomber. Verdict Admirers of Hunt’s Splitfoot will find much to love in the effortless writing, indelible images, and unforgettable stories in this collection. [See Prepub Alert, 1/18/17.]

redstarLively, Penelope. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Viking. May 2017. 208p. ISBN 9780735222038. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780735222045. F

Many stories here feature women getting on in age, reflecting on their long and interesting lives. In “Old as the Hills,” two women meet for lunch at a quiet restaurant to discuss what they have in common—namely, a recently deceased husband who one stole from the other. In “License To Kill,” 84-year-old Pauline is out on a shopping trip with her young minder, who has fixed ideas about her elderly charge, until she learns that Pauline once worked as a spy. Booker Prize winner Lively is equally good at writing about the younger generation. In “The Weekend,” a couple and their young daughter are invited to the swanky Cotswolds cottage of the husband’s old college friend. While the couples mingle uncomfortably, their daughter makes an unusual friend. The final story, “The Third Wife” is a wicked delight: A wily scoundrel who marries and then abandons rich women from whom he embezzles fortunes finally gets his comeuppance when the third wife catches on to his game. Verdict Lively (How It All Began), like many of her octogenarian characters, remains an acutely perceptive observer of the human condition. This charming collection, ranging from ancient Pompeii to modern-day London, is proof that her gifts have only ripened with age.

Simpson, Helen. Cockfosters. Knopf. Jun. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780451493071. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780451493088. F

For anyone unfamiliar with the London subway system, Cockfosters (of the title story) is the name of the last stop on the Piccadilly line. It is also the destination for a couple of old school friends who have reunited after many years and are retracing their steps to recover a misplaced pair of glasses. The journey back provides the women with an opportunity for a midlife reexamination. A number of other stories in this collection give their characters a chance to take stock at midpoint. In “Cheapside,” over the course of a long lunch, a fiftyish lawyer attempts to interest the apathetic young son of a friend in a career in law. A case of negligence involving a live body placed inside a coffin does little to distract either the preoccupied lawyer or the utterly bored teen from their desire to flee the scene. In “Berlin,” the last and longest story in the collection, a seniors’ trip to Germany to see performances of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle offers a middle-aged couple time to reevaluate their marriage while in the company of a group of older people who have a little more life perspective. Verdict If readers are meeting Granta Best of Young British Novelists Simpson (Getting a Life) for the first time, these engaging selections are an excellent place to begin.

Barbara Love, formerly with Kingston Frontenac P.L., Quebec, is a longtime LJ reviewer

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