Today’s book review of a short story collection is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey.
Synopsis: Nancy Christie’s short stories are brilliant, disturbing, and exquisitely written. Hers is a hypnotic, lyrical voice that captures your heart with its deep, rich humanity. “Girl,” my mama had said to me the minute she entered my hospital room, “on the highway of life, you’re always traveling left of center.” (from Traveling Left of Center)
What happens when people face life situations for which they are emotionally or mentally unprepared? They may choose to allow fate to dictate the path they take—a decision that can lead to disastrous results. The characters in Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories are unable or unwilling to seize control over their lives, relying instead on coping methods that range from the passive (The Healer) and the aggressive (The Clock) to the humorous (Traveling Left of Center) and hopeful (Skating on Thin Ice). But the outcomes may not be what they anticipated or desired. Will they have time to correct their course or will they crash?
This collection is available via links listed on http://www.pixelhallpress.com/TLOC.html.
Review (of an advanced proof copy)
After a sobering introduction by novelist Morrow Wilson, the collection starts with the title story. It feels very autobiographical, told from the point of view of a young woman who has a series of unreliable men, her supportive but frustrated mother looming in the background. Like any girl, our protagonist is more interested in nail polish and hairstyles than responsibility which makes for a vivid tale, although for me it was too long and detailed. The first half could have been summarised to avoid repetition but then I prefer more dialogue-heavy stories to description but lovers of the latter should enjoy this tale.
The Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a bookworm who escapes her mundane life and demanding mother through the written word. We’re given one impression of Alice in the first couple of pages but then our view of her quickly changes in a clever twist. Poor Alice endures as the story progresses from trips to supermarkets and doctors. She reflects on how simple her life once was and how she tries to compensate through the written words. Characters are often what make a story – and for me the most important aspect – and I feel so much empathy for Alice that it wouldn’t surprise me if this turned out to be my favourite story of the collection. Early days, I know.
‘The Sugar Bowll’ bring us our third female protagonist and another that we can easily become attached to. The story is the shortest so far but, pun not intended, the sweetest.
‘The Shop on the Square’ takes a darker turn and contains the first male protagonist and again is packed with description. The only pick I have – and this may have been changed for the final version – was that the narrator tells us that the man hasn’t come to buy anything then the character repeats that to the Mexican owner. I guessed the ending a page or two before it came but still enjoyed it.
Next up was ‘Watched for Billy’, another cautionary tale and this time, I really felt for Agnes and while the ending was left open (which worked), I wanted it to end well for her.
‘The Healer’ was an interesting story with Cassandra as the title character. Cassie is a tortured soul who feels guilty at various stages of her ‘cursed’ life. A confrontation brings about a change in her with a conclusion that the reader can only feel is the right one.
‘The Clock’ features Margaret and Harold, a typical well-worn couple (the wife nagging, the husband doing as he’s told). Nancy is clearly a mistress of short dark pieces in true Roald Dahl style (a big compliment).
‘Anything Can Happen’ features Charlotte – another creature of habit, plagued by self-doubt. An incident in a bank compels this and her caution thereafter creates another sad tale.
‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ is about another troubled soul, the sort that makes ideal characters especially when told – as this story is – in first-person and we can get their justification of their actions.
‘Misconnections’ stays in first-person where the protagonist dreams unusual – negative and positive – stories that take their toll on her waking hours.
‘Skating on Thin Ice’ is a circular tale starting with a near-tragedy, through a marriage breakup and an ‘expected’ existence.
As ‘Still Life’ starts and ends, ‘This is how it should be’ and I longed for that to be true for the protagonist as what is wanted of life contrasts with reality. A short piece but beautifully described.
‘The Storyteller’ is another poignant tale, this time about an old lady, Connie, who spends her time telling stories to children in hospital. She receives some bad news, however, and knows that things will change. Nancy is skilled at endings and this one was no exception.
‘Exit Row’, although set in one of my least favourite locations – an aeroplace – it became another favourite of this collection and although long, the action is maintained throughout as we read about the male protagonist’s view of the people around him, mainly his wife and an air stewardess who seem to be ganging up on him.
The fourth from last story is ‘Waiting for Sara’, a similar tale to the collection’s title story but from a mother’s point of view and her recollecting their relationship. It has an open ending but again slightly uplifting.
‘Beautiful Dreamer’ is a story of Eleanor who is almost oblivious to her surroundings while people notice her. It makes the reader think about paying more attention which most writers should do as what we know (experience) is often how we create great stories.
‘The Kindness of Strangers’ is narrated, in third-person, about Mona, an old lady in a nursing home who is losing her faculties but determined to leave her surroundings. Mona has a difficult relationship with her daughter, Kate, and the story ends in Kate’s point of view.
‘Annabelle’, Anna, is a painter’s daughter whom I – as a photographer’s daughter – can relate to. Also like me, she is poor at keeping flowers alive through water starvation. Anna is waiting to meet a man like her father as her mother promised but similarly to Eleanor, Anna is obvious to some of her surroundings, including a man who passes by her desk, and another male who appears at various points in the story. Anna reflects on her father and her life at the time of the story and like the theme of this collection this is a very poignant story and a lovely closing piece.
The eBook then ends with an Author’s Note, and biography of Nancy Christie and notes of her publisher, Pixel Hall Press, who had asked me to review her collection. I’m delighted they did.
Although I would have chopped out a number of adverbs and clichés, overall it’s very well written. As you can see from my review, I have several favourites and few I would have excluded from the collection but we all like different things so I’m sure some readers would probably disagree with me on the exclusions, but that’s what reviews and readings are all about.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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