BOOK REVIEW / Short and sweet and back in vogue: Maggie Traugott on the cream of the year's short stories, from crime mysteries to fairy tales

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The Independent Culture
IT'S OFFICIAL: the short story is alive and in rude good health. Publishers seem to be more inclined than they have been for years to collect and anthologise short fiction about whatever your heart desires (and plenty that it doesn't).

Long-standing guardians of the form like Constable, whose Winter's Tales ( pounds 13.99) has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic since 1955, are optimistic. Editor Robin Baird-Smith writes: 'Not so long ago, this very particular form seemed to be underrated, neglected. The tide has turned . . . the short story has had a resurgence as a highly respected genre.' His selection for this year, which veers towards nasty shocks, includes a new talent to watch, Sarah Gracie, whose 'Goodbye Riccardo' will give horrified pause to any married man blundering into adultery. Equally edifying are Tom Wakefield's cautionary tale for bullies and Clare Colvin's dark antidote to gluttony.

The book I think women everywhere should be receiving from their sisters this Christmas (I know mine will) is Shena Mackay's unmissable collection, Such Devoted Sisters (Virago pounds 14.99). It includes a fiercely moving Janet Frame story and a fine Jean Stafford tale featuring a blind, keening polar bear and a supremely awful grandmother. Ajana Appachana evocatively demonstrates the onerous burden of secrecy some sisters must bear. Nann Morgenstern's sisterhood calls itself the MMs, or Messhugena Madlichno (which is Yiddish for Crazy Girls), and their story has a fine finale.

A similarly mixed bunch of established and new talent is offered in The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories ( pounds 9.99). An early sighting of 'gay' meaning homosexual is hammered home by Gertrude Stein (39 times on one page): 'They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there.' Virginia Woolf, Anas Nin and Colette each take an elegant turn. Merril Mushroom elucidates Fifties lesbian dating rituals and Jeanette Winterson is incandescent in 'The Poetics of Sex'.

Heading the pleased-with-itself division of short fiction is the Giles Gordon and David Hughes annual, Best Short Stories 1993 (Heinemann pounds 15.99). The editors protest that they tried this year to cast their net a bit wider than the 'golden oldies' (their term: I wonder how Fay Weldon likes it) but came up with excuses such as that the work in Iron, an excellent small publication from the North East, was 'a mite too regional', that recent detective stories 'creaked' and that they found 'no SF story brilliant enough to join the party'. Still, with his golden party hat on is Martin Amis in a hilarious role-reversal sketch where poetry is big box-office and poets jet between jammy meetings while a sciptwriter only yearns to get his work noticed by a wayward little magazine editor. Bernard Mac Laverty wryly examines decorum at a wake, Michael Carson is uplifting on dotage, Rose Tremain encapsulates adolescent sexual lift-off and Geoff Nicholson dreams a haunting dream of moist guitars.

Twelve more authors from Malcolm Bradbury's exhaustively celebrated MA writing course at the University of East Anglia are introduced in the fifth edition of Mafia ( pounds 4.99). Several of the authors themselves design, produce and promote this attractive, sturdy volume; mainstream publishers should note what literary value is available at under a fiver. (Hats off to publishers Eastern Arts.) Some of the terrain here is seriously bizarre. Jackie Lofthouse's 'The Effigy' is narrated from beyond the grave by poet William Congreve, whose wax effigy plays a pivotal role in the daily round of the Duchess of Marlborough. Matthew Singh-Toor brings his aversion to capital letters (evident throughout), his obsessions with jewels and destruction and an Alasdair Gray-like knack of fiddling with the magnification setting on his typography: his story makes you feel as though you've been on a roller-coaster.

Other fresh talent was gathered in the London Short Story Competition, sponsored by London Arts Board and Capital Radio, for which Londoners were invited to capture their own experience of the city in fiction. Maureen Duffy, Ruth Rendell and Capital's Nick Wheeler judged more than 600 entries and the 15 winners appear in Smoke Signals (Serpent's Tail pounds 7.99). It is an impressive and lively mixed bag (though leaving the reader feeling none too complacent about tube travel or racism) with the added sweetener of five veteran London chroniclers - Roy Heath, Shena Mackay, Kate Pullinger, Tom Wakefield and Michael Moorcock, the last of whom will acquaint you with the Clapham Antichrist. As one of the winners, Alison Love, says in 'The Glass Citadel': 'You only look at a city properly three times: once when you arrive, once when you're leaving. The third time is when you're in love.' Perhaps a fourth should be added: when you stroll through the pages of Smoke Signals.

For evocation of place, in this case Ireland, you can hardly surpass Soho Square VI (Bloomsbury pounds 13.99). In his introduction, Colm Toibn says of his contributors: 'They have nothing in common except a beginning under the same sky, the same uncertain weather. And there is no collective consciousness, no conscience of our race . . .' (ie, no axe-grinding). And what diversity: Patrick McCabe on a holy miracle turned nightmare, Joseph O'Connor on family angst, Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Tom Paulin on Jack B Yeats. There is poetry by Derek Mahon, Anthony Cronin and Seamus Heaney and an extract from a television play by Roddy Doyle ha ha ha. In its new, larger format, Soho Square is exploding with Jeff Fisher's raffish design and decorations.

Still in Ireland, spanning 150 years and with scarcely a creak to be heard, is Great Irish Detective Stories (Souvenir Press pounds 14.99). Yes, there is such a genre: they were all at it, from Flann O'Brien and Brendan Behan to James Joyce himself. An enraging multiple-choice teaser by Cecil Day Lewis writing as Nicholas Blake has a hidden solution at the end of the volume, and there is Lord Dunsany's piquant and compelling 'Two Bottles of Relish', which Ellery Queen deemed one of the finest detective stories ever written.

Peter Lovesey, Nancy Livingston, Michael Z Lewin and H R F Keating, the fab four of crime anthologies, feature in both the bloodthirsty Midwinter Mysteries 3 (Little Brown pounds 14.99) and the Crimewriters' Association's 2nd Culprit (Chatto pounds 11.99) edited by Liza Cody and Lewin himself. The latter volume is the more whimsical concoction, with acrostics, cartoons, surprisingly effective crime poetry, and with several tales verging on the ghost story, such as 'The Frustration Dream' by this year's Diamond Dagger winner, Ellie Peters.

For your purist hauntings, Marvin Kaye boasts that his selection in Ghost Stories (Little Brown pounds 15.99) is free of 'all miscellaneous demons', witches, elder gods and invisible damn things, though a pair of vampires slithered through. While leaning heavily on Victoriana, with swashbuckling Dickensian wraiths, Robert Louis Stevenson's ghoulish revenge on the body snatchers and - my favourite - E F Benson's little spectral twins in 'How Fear Departed from the Long Hall', there are also a few specially commisioned (American) stories in this successfully spooky tome.

One of the richest veins of literary wonder has been brilliantly mined by Jack Zipes in The Penguin Book of Western Fairy Tales ( pounds 9.99). From two millennia of the form, which curiously only came into the child's domain the mid-19th century, Zipes has chosen 60, with faultless radar for enchantment, including stories by Perrault, Rousseau, Voltaire, Goethe, Wilde (a keen practitioner), Yeats, Rilke, Calvino and of course Angela Carter. This is a thoroughly magical collection.

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