OX-TALES edited by Mark Ellingham, Peter Florence

Book Quote:

“This was just one of the many thousands of little ways in which the length of time he and Joanna had been together had made it harder for them to communicate.” (from “Sandcastles: A Negotiation” by William Sutcliffe)

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (APR 28, 2010)

If you find short story collections a great way to discover new authors, then you might want to take a look at Ox-Tales. These are 4 pint-sized volumes featuring stories loosely based on the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. As these volumes are designed to raise money for Oxfam International (hence the title of the series), they are the publishing world’s version of Live Aid, but unfortunately even though these slight volumes are good, I doubt that they will raise the $280 million netted by the now-famous 1985 rock concert (RIP Freddie Mercury). All of the stories in the volumes were donated by 38 authors, and each book contains at least 9 original stories or extracts of new, unpublished work.

I read quite a bit of British fiction, so some of the names in the Ox-Tales volumes are not new to me–in fact there are many old favorites here: Zoe Heller, Marina Lewycka, Hanif Kureishi, Giles Foden, and Beryl Bainbridge. Along with these names are names of authors I’d noticed but hadn’t got around to reading yet, and then, finally there were some brand new names. So for this reader, the four Ox-Tales represented a marvellous opportunity to take a sneak peek at these authors.

With no less than 37 short stories in the series, I can’t possibly write about them all, and so I narrowed it down (painfully) to just a few.

In Air, my favourite is Beryl Bainbridge’s “Goodnight Children, Everywhere.” Fans of Bainbridge know that she often blends childhood and adolescence with dark, off-kilter elements, and this is what happens in this marvelous short story which should delight this author’s readers. This is eleven-year-old Thomas:

“Thomas’s mother had a full-time job as a typist in the estate agent’s; recently she had become very anxious because there was a slump in house buying and she feared being made redundant, whatever that was. She’d started smoking again. Mostly Thomas was in the care of Mildred, his grandmother. She was pretty old, bad at climbing stairs and always mislaying her teeth. She also talked a lot about god who had mostly let her down. When he was seven and had asked his mother what this meant, he was ordered to mind his own business. Aged ten and putting forward the same question, he was told she’d been handed a cruel slice of life, that hers had not been a happy journey.”

One day Thomas is snooping around Mildred’s home when he finds an ancient wireless….This is vintage Bainbridge, and what a delight to read her again.

Special mention for Louise Welsh’s story, The Night Highway (Air). This is a tantalizing glimpse at a work-in-progress from her next novel. This is a tale of a professor and his all-too brief affair with the departmental head’s libidinous wife, Rachel. I’ll be watching for this novel.

In Water, my favourite is “Rice Cakes and Starbucks” by Esther Freud (a new author to me). This is the tale of Dan Linden, a British actor who’s persuaded by his unhappy wife to transport his entire family to California. The idea is that once he’s transplanted closer to Hollywood, his career will take off….This story is an excerpt from Freud’s novel Lucky Break, and for its piercing observations of family dynamics, this is a novel I’ll be watching for in 2010. Special mention here for Zoe Heller’s story: “What She Did on Her Summer Vacation” and William Boyd’s entry: “Bethany-Next-the-Sea”

In Earth, one of my favorite stories is “The Nettle Pit” by Jonathan Coe. This is the tale of two families who merge together for a holiday, and as it turns out, this may not be the best idea. Max, Caroline and their daughter, Lucy join Chris, Miranda, and their two children Joe and Sara. While Max, a man who’s “perpetually nervous and uncertain” claims that Chris is his “oldest and closest friend,” Max’s wife Carolina wonders why these two men claim to be close when they are such opposites. Close confinement with Chris and Miranda causes Caroline to experience envy as she compares the two men and their vastly different approaches to marriage and fatherhood.

In Fire, my favorites stories are: “A Family Evening” from Sebastian Faulks and “Sandcastles: A Negotiation” by William Sutcliffe. I’d read neither of these authors before and found their different representations of family life vastly diverting. Faulks’s story is an excerpt from his upcoming book A Week in December , and it presents a bored, wealthy woman whose husband lives, eats and breathes for the financial markets:

“What Vanessa hadn’t foreseen was either the narrowness of her husband’s life or the peripheral sliver of it that would be set aside for her.”

Finally, in complete contrast to Faulks, Sutcliffe’s story “Sandcastles: A Negotiation” (from a work-in-progress) presents a rather chaotic scene of family life with a harried father, resentful mother and two small children on holiday. Sutcliffe’s version of family life includes the father, Phil resenting the childless couple next door and all the “screwing” they can enjoy while he is stuck changing nappies and entertaining his children.

There are a lot of names here, some great short stories, and some intriguing future novels to investigate….

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Profile Books (April 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
WEBSITE: Wikipedia Page on Ox-Tales
LINKS ON MOSTLYFICTION: AIR features stories by Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Simpson, DBC Pierre, AL Kennedy, Kamila Shamsie, Beryl Bainbridge, Louise Welsh, Diran Adebayo and Helen Fielding.WATER features stories by Esther Freud, David Park, Hari Kunzru, Zoe Heller, Michel Faber, William Boyd, Joanna Trollope, Giles Foden and Michael Morpurgo.

FIRE features stories by Mark Haddon, Geoff Dyer, Victoria Hislop, Sebastian Faulks, John le Carre, Xiaoulu Guo, William Sutcliffe, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver and Jeanette Winterson.

EARTH features stories by Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Buckley, Jonathan Coe, Hanif Kureishi, Marti Leimbach, Marina Lewycka, Ian Rankin, Nicholas Shakespeare, Rose Tremain.


  • Air (2009; April 2010 in US)
  • Water (2009; April 2010 in US)
  • Fire (2009; April 2010 in US)
  • Earth (2009; April 2010 in US)

April 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Short Stories, World Lit

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