Review: Short story collections by Clarkson, Sparks, Matsuura

A good short story is bit like a shiny jewel, perfect and self-contained. You can reflect on it in the moment, and hold up to the light days, weeks, even months after first reading. When my kids were little, I read and wrote short stories because that was all the time I had for reading and writing. Now that I have the time and energy to read and write longer works, I read short stories in-between times.

I find myself drawn to short stories in the lapse between picking up one novel and starting another. Some novels are so full of emotional impact and so resonant that it seems wrong to start a new one the same day, or even days after finishing. This happened recently with Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge, which I will review in a later post. I have two books of short stories I’ve been keeping beside my bed for such occasions, and will take a moment now to review each of them for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The other short story I had the pleasure to read recently was a draft for one of my critique-swap writing buddies, Kelly Matsuura. As an Australian living in Japan (as I have done), a student of Asia and deeply embedded in Japanese culture, the themes and motifs Kelly chooses for her stories never fail to surprise me. Some of her stories are as delicate as Ikebana flower arrangements, others as bright as a geisha’s lipstick. The one I read recently was dark and eerie, blood on snow, an adult fairytale. In this post with reviews on short story collections by Australian Women Writers, I’ve also added my review of Kelly’s self-published collection, Stirring Winds so that it can be linked to the challenge.

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Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson

There’s something highly addictive about the suburban patchwork that Rebekah Clarkson has created in this collection of linked stories. Each story has a different viewpoint and style – first, second and third person are all represented to great effect making this a potentially useful creative writing text.

Set in a small town on the outskirts of Adelaide that is being built up as the city expands, neighbours grow closer together in proximity but not always in intimacy. Each household has a story and the reader is afforded a glimpse from the outside, where people seem reasonably normal to their neighbours, before being invited inside to see clearly the issues faced by Australians here and now, both big and small. Families are affected by illness, by financial troubles, by annoying builders, by their social circles, by simply not understanding one another, and of course – by barking dogs.

A bit like the art of a miniaturist, it’s difficult to see exactly how Clarkson does what she does, but it’s easy to enjoy it.

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The Bride Price by Cat Sparks

This collection couldn’t be more different from Clarkson’s. The only similarity I can point to is the pleasure of recognition that those who know Australia will find in the work of both authors. In Clarkson’s it’s the characters and situations that are familiar (especially as I don’t know South Australia well), in Sparks it is the actual physical landscape south of Sydney that rang true, even if altered.

The Bride Price is a collection of science fiction stories by Cat Sparks who is a mainstay of the Australian speculative fiction scene. Where Clarkson’s work is gentle and understated, Sparks specialises in tough, straight-talking mostly female leads having exciting adventures in dangerous post-apocalyptic worlds. I’d call them fun but they don’t always end all that happily, and the pleasure is in the journey and the intellectual gymnastics of keeping up with Sparks’s world-building and the twists and turns of her tales. As with much great science fiction there’s a lot of political allegory and I find myself thinking of modern situations as I read of worlds where women’s rights are eroded, where there are slaves, and where the poor have to fight every minute for survival while the rich live comfortably.

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Stirring Winds by Kelly Matsuura

I’ve read a lot of Kelly’s stories over the years in draft and final form and I’ve chosen this collection to add to the Australian Women Writers Challenge because it has one of my favourite of her stories in it – ‘The Smell of Peaches’.  Mono no aware is the term in Japanese for the appreciation of a particular kind of beauty that is impermanent (like cherry blossom season) and, as I wrote in my original reviews of this collection in 2012 when it was released, this is the feeling that Kelly captures so beautifully in these pages. Stirring Winds and its sister anthologies Whispering Woods and Parting Skies represent Kelly’s more realistic contemporary fiction and are available digitally on all platforms.

Kelly has gone on to publish many more short stories with a focus on fantasy and YA, as well as editing the Insignia series of anthologies. These are stories by various authors in English taking different settings around Asia as the backdrop. Because translations of fiction from Asia aren’t widely available in English, these stories are a fantastic sampler of storytelling style and theme from around Asia from authors of Asian heritage and also from those with a passion for the region.

As a bit of a lazy reviewer I find reading all these stories a lot more pleasurable than recording what I’ve read and analysing why I liked it, but I hope that other readers might find something in these reviews that sparks their interest in one or more of these collections of short stories.

 

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2 thoughts on “Review: Short story collections by Clarkson, Sparks, Matsuura

  1. Hi Aislinn, what a lovely surprise to see your post including my book!

    Thank you for all the lovely words, and your recent critique of my new story.

    I miss reading your short stories! Please write some new ones soon!

    I will definitely check out Cat Sparks and Rebekah Clarkson’s books too.

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