A host of short story collections photographed against a red background

Sometimes life doesn’t give you time for a novel, even when what you desire is intriguing characters, layers of meaning and settings full of depth. At times like these, the short story comes into its own.

These 12 short story collections offer everything you’re looking for from fiction, and can be read from cover to cover in a couple of sittings, or savoured story by story over a longer time, allowing you to dip in when you have some time to spare…

Selected Stories by Elizabeth Bowen (2021)

This book brings together a collection of stories by Bowen, chosen and introduced by author Tessa Hadley, and spans the 1920s to the post-war years.

Taking in her native Ireland and the streets of London after the Blitz, the stories told involve a girl with a secret den, a couple strolling through a ruined city and a teacher who dreams of killing her pupil.

Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899, and her first book, Encounters, a collection of short stories, was published in 1923, with her first novel, The Hotel, following four years later.

In an essay for the London Review of Books, partially reproduced in the introduction to this collection, Hadley writes: ‘Bowen is one of those rare writers who is equally good at novels and short stories; in fact, because her novels are short, densely written, formally deliberate, it’s not easy to particularise any difference between them and the stories, apart from the obvious length and development. In her style and way of seeing, she’s a short writer: less rather than more, concision rather than expansion.’

A Vision of the World by John Cheever (2021)

Cheever’s career spanned almost 50 years, during which time his short stories – often published in the New Yorker – gave voice to an America that was seeing huge changes in the 1950s and 1960s.

In his obituary, the New York Times wrote: ‘Long regarded by critics as a kind of American Chekhov, Mr Cheever possessed the ability to find spiritual resonance in the seemingly inconsequential events of daily life.’  

With stories hand-picked by Julian Barnes, A Vision of the World is the first authorised selected collection of Cheever’s short fiction.

Cheever, who wrote four novels and more than 100 short stories, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in his lifetime.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett (2013)

The winner of the 2014 Guardian First Book Award, Young Skins transports readers to locations including a small rural Irish town called Glanbeigh, where the youth have the run of the place.

All the stories deal with menace and desire, whether their subjects are young or old, and each clearly evokes the lives of the people it’s concerned with.

Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Chris Power said: ‘Chekhov once told his publisher that it isn’t the business of a writer to answer questions, only to formulate them correctly. Throughout this extraordinary debut, but particularly in the excellent stories that bookend it, Colin Barrett is asking the right questions.’ 

Young Skins also won the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2014 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Secret Lives & Other Stories by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1975)

Kenyan writer and academic wa Thiong’o writes political novels and plays, and was imprisoned for over a year by an authoritarian Kenyan regime in 1977 after he staged a play in his native tongue, Gikuyu.

Secret Lives & Other Stories, first published in 1975, is as political as his other work, and addresses the modernising forces of colonialism, the pervasive threat of nature and the meeting between magic and superstition.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called wa Thiong’o ‘one of the greatest writers of our time’.

The New York Stories by John O’Hara (2018)

O’Hara holds the record as the most published short-story writer in the history of the New Yorker; over the years he had 247 stories in the publication. This collection of 32 of his tales will show readers why he holds that record.

The New York Stories is a collection showcasing portraits of the title city’s so-called Golden Age. The Wall Street Journal said that O’Hara’s ‘mastery of conversation was such that he is today remembered, disparagingly, as a kind of human tape recorder. Undoubtedly, between the 1930s and the 1970s, he was American fiction’s greatest eavesdropper, recording the everyday speech and tone of all strata of mid-century society.’ 

O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra, won him instant acclaim when it was published in 1934. He won the National Book Award for his novel Ten North Frederick.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (1996)

Although he is perhaps best known for his extraordinary Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders has actually made a career as a master of the short story; his collection Tenth of December was the first book to win the Folio Prize.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is Saunders’s first collection, and offers a look at a vision of a near future that is dark and funny. Saunders takes readers on a trip to the shopping malls and theme parks and environmental hazards that lie just around the chronological corner, introducing a gang of misfits and losers struggling to survive in an increasingly haywire world.

The Guardian said of Saunders: ‘Aside from being one of the funniest writers around, it is difficult to think of anyone better than he is at describing how commercial imperatives deform individual lives.’ 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (1981)

This collection of Carver’s stories was the first to be published in the UK. Set in the mid-west, it’s about the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time.

Carver’s first short stories appeared in the magazine Esquire in the 1970s, but it was not until the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he began to achieve real literary fame.

Carver wrote two more collections of stories, as well as several collections of poetry.

Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein (2018)

Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is the debut collection from the celebrated Indonesian writer.

Paramaditha’s tales are set in the everyday – a boardroom, a shanty town, a dangdut stage – but use the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

Tatler said of the collection: ‘Here are fairytales and myths reworked with a feminist bent, with plenty of blood, revenge and horror thrown in… A fun – if unsettling – collection.’

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction 2019 and the Gordon Burn Prize 2019, Heads of the Colored People is a collection of stories exploring Black life and experiences.

Wry and funny, Thompson-Spires’s works interrogate the supposedly post-racial era we’re living in through a series of scenarios and settings: a teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer.

Thompson-Spires’s work has appeared in the White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, the Feminist Wire and more.

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

With Dubliners, Joyce has created a vivid and unflinching portrait of Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as a history of a nation and people whose ‘golden age’ has passed.

Across 15 stories, Joyce captures the realism of his characters’ inner and outer lives.

Writing in the Paris Review to mark 100 years since the release of Dubliners, Paul Murray said: ‘Dubliners is one of those books that tracks you through life, that you return to again and again, finding something new every time.’

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan (2019)

Logan’s collection explores women’s fears, from female bodies to domestic claustrophobia, desire, violence and more.

Through chilling contemporary fairy tales to disturbing supernatural fiction, Logan tells the story of a woman in Iceland alone in a remote house, another who can only find respite from the clinging ghost that follows her by submerging herself in an overgrown pool, and a schoolgirl who becomes obsessed with the female anatomical models in a museum.

Suzi Feay in the Guardian said of the book: ‘There are strong individual stories here, but the book also works cumulatively, building up an impressive atmosphere of dread.’

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter (1979)

One of the most famous feminist short-story collections ever, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a set of twisted fairy tales.

The stories within are not retellings, but new stories created by Carter and first published in 1979; The Bloody Chamber was her second short-story collection.

‘Her work caused shock waves when it appeared, and it continues to shock,’ wrote Helen Simpson in a reflection on the book in the Guardian in 2006.

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