Books: Independent choice

Short stories
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See this: an astronomer, female, perched on the narrow walkway that encircles a giant telescope. High above the ground, she is peering into the heavens. Beside her, the man for whom the stars were everything until she opened his bedroom door. Suddenly, she falls. "I did not push her, which is probably what you believe," insists the narrator of Erica Wagner's title story in Gravity (Granta, pounds 9.99). He simply declined to reach out his hand. And inaction has deadly consequences.

In "A Simple Question", a woman who has just separated from her husband spends a week in Provence with her daredevil best friend. By some mischance, the hotel in Avignon puts the two women in a double bed, leaves them there for a week, and one 2am, they are tempted. Instead, they go off sightseeing in the middle of the night, sneak into the ancient Roman arena at Arles, climb too high. The audacious friend begins to jump across the dangerous open places. The narrator, unable to keep up since childhood, hisses "I wish you were dead." At that moment the friend mis-steps, falls.

Wagner's is a world in which wishes can kill, and often love conquers nothing but the first of the commandments. One thinks of Poe - of the inexorable illogic of physical events. One thinks of Carver, because here so many still waters run deep. But in this, her first collection, the 30-year-old American who is literary editor of The Times has already found her own voice, a voice with perfect pitch.

The flirty realism of Typical Girls (edited by Susan Corrigan, Sceptre, pounds 6.99) is hell-bent on showing us what girls do when they go Trainspotting. Amid the posturing and Prozac, there is some good stuff here. Jennifer Belle is someone we may all be talking about soon, and the joint effort by Poppy Z Brite and Christa Faust is technically able. Brite and Faust yearn to be Quentin Tarantino, and are already as coolly violent. Many of these writers are London-based Americans. They write rougher and readier prose than Wagner's, but show, as she does, that the special relationship that so eludes politicians is alive and well and cross-fertilising the arts.

Margaret Atwood and Will Self joined the Independent on Sunday's literary editor Jan Dalley and Bloomsbury's distinguished editor Liz Calder in sifting 800 competition entries to find the 14 stories in IOS (Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99) The stories are amazingly good, but only Joe O'Donnell's "Seraphim Preening" made every judge's shortlist. Its author won the pounds 500 prize. It is funny and sad, but I am tired of reading about incarcerated dwarfs. My winner would have been Will Self's favourite, "Memoirs of a White Slave": Aleksandra Lech's cheerily miserable account of a passion for a rich and autocratic Arab sheik.

Sara LeFanu's collection Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99) has bigger names - Michele Roberts, Ursula Molinaro, Christopher Hope, among others. They deliver strong stuff, carefully brewed, but they are not writing from any bold, naive frontier. These writers spurn innocence and cast a cool eye. In "A Bodice Rips", Michele Roberts's Maria yearns for childhood sex and childhood hope: "Aged fifty-five and feeling restless and dissatisfied, she could look back and know what she missed." Molinaro's narrator says: "I'm not giving up sex until I'm dead all the way." Hooray.

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