The Family Tooth: Ellis Avery

In this trio of very short but moving memoirs, the American author Ellis Avery revisits three key moments in her life. Each involves an uncomfortably close encounter with mortality, and a form of grieving, whether that’s for a person she once knew and loved, or a part of her life that is over. The quirky title is taken from the tooth, mounted as a pendant, that Avery finds among her late mother’s jewellery in the first part of this memoir-sequence. It becomes a symbol of the strange remnants that we leave behind us, a mere fragment of the life its unknown owner once lived. The two later memoirs show us Avery dealing with her own mortality, as she confronts a cancer diagnosis. When I first read the three bite-sized books, almost exactly a year ago on 20 February 2019, I found them engaging, pragmatic and compassionate explorations of the way we deal with grief. Little did I realise at the time that Avery had died only five days before I read them. Having read them again, knowing that, her courage and honesty – coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality – is all the more striking.

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Famous Trials: Alex McBride

★★★½

In this set of three bite-sized books, barrister and author Alex McBride presents six cases adapted from Penguin’s Famous Trials. This classic series gave readers the chance to read the transcripts of court cases, to study the evidence and to judge for themselves whether the final verdict was correct. In their newly edited form, these cases are short enough to read on a commute, each offering a glimpse of a notorious murder trial. Penguin and McBride have grouped them thematically. In Unwanted Spouses we explore two crimes motivated by marital strife; Thrill-Killers introduces us to two criminals who developed too much of a taste for blood; and Lucky Escapes shows us two people who were acquitted and walked free. But did they deserve it? While I’m not a fan of modern true crime, these cases are old enough to cast light on a different age – while reminding us that human nature, worryingly, might not have changed all that much…

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Bite-Sized Fiction

Bite-Sized Books

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.

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Bite-Sized Russians

Bite-Sized Books

Penguin’s Little Black Classics series includes a number of works by Russian writers, who haven’t figured very prominently in my reading to date. It was time to correct that. These short stories gave me the chance to have brief encounters with Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, none of whom I’d read before, as well as renewing my acquaintance with the towering Tolstoy. It has felt rather like speed-dating with Russian authors. Along the way I’ve been introduced to ambitious officers, unhappy wives, unscrupulous peasants, mentally unstable dreamers and an errant nose with a penchant for disguise. My appetite has certainly been whetted and, in due course, I’ll be looking into some of these authors in greater detail. By the way, I must stress that I’m well aware Gogol is Ukrainian by birth, but I hope I can be forgiven for including him here, as he’s often cited among the great Russian-speaking writers. Now, don your fur hat, grab your tot of vodka and hie ye to your troika, as we delve into the 19th-century Russian mind…

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Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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