Several months ago, I volunteered to be one of the judges in the Northshire Bookstore’s Short Story contest. In the course of reading the various entries and, some time later, seeing the winning stories bound in the Shires Press EBM printing- Short Stories Winners of the 2010 Shires Press Award– I had occasion to be frequently surprised.
All of the judges were given two to three stories to read at any given time. We each then returned those stories with our comments and soon enough would receive another two or three stories in our mailboxes. As luck would have it, the first couple of batches I received to read contained absolutely none of the winning stories. Admittedly, then, my initial impression of the story entrants I was reading was, well, a tad less than enthusiastic. So imagine my surprise when I first “stumbled” upon Shawn Mackenzie’s Trespasser’s Will, an impressionistic, fantastic, mysterious tale with a slightly wiccan slant:
“Without fanfare, a blush crept into the late March air. Drifts receded, crocuses turtled from mufflered necks, and spring returned. A full year come and gone. Bud and bloom were everywhere, even in the uncivilized patch that used to be the garden. ‘Any witch without bulb and leaf in garden and galley should have to turn in her broom. I forget who told me that. Good words to plant by, though.’ “
This was head and shoulders above what I’d read prior to this- imagine my delight. Bravo Shawn, thought I.
In the next batch, the story that captivated me was Vous Etes Ici by K.D. Norris. “What a charmer!”, I remember noting in my post-reading remarks. The dialog and characters are crisp and true- the story of two parents meeting their daughter and her lover for dinner in a Montreal restaurant glowed with love and warmth without being cloying or syrupy, also effectively personalizing the current and former politics of the “gay marriage battle” .
Next I came across my personal favorite among the winners: Edward’s Animals by Brandon Ayre. Such a unique and inventive “tale” has not crossed my path in quite some time. The language and story crackled and sparked, the absurdist humor making me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Taken out of context, the following line may not be too much of a spoiler nor, unfortunately, quite as hysterical as it was to me in context, but I’m issuing a spoiler alert nonetheless as I share with you my favorite line(s) from the entire contest:
“He looked a bit like Rodney Dangerfield. For a second I wondered if it was Rodney Dangerfield, reincarnated as a Hassidic Jew living with his young wife- his very pretty young wife- in an overturned tangerine box in a back alley of Manhattan. As cosmic jokes go, it wasn’t all that crazy.” (Brilliant! Especially in context, of course.)
In Aaba and Other Mysteries (our Grand Prize winner, by the way!) author Deven Sansare takes us away to another time and place. Admittedly I did not first realize or know exactly where that other place was, only that it was somewhere across the globe where there are “Udupi restaurants”, towns such as “Colaba” and an unseen character named “Aaba”. It is a testament to Sansare’s storytelling abilities that it did not really matter to me where, specifically, the story was set- such a clear and vivid portrait was painted of a place I’d never experienced but could so very clearly see courtesy of Sansare’s lucid prose. (The setting is India.)
“We were all uniformly poor- not so poor that we couldn’t afford two meals a day, but not rich enough to afford more than one outing to an Udupi restaurant once a month. The Irani restaurant at the end of the lane stayed open till eleven but only the rough guys, young men in their early and mid-twenties who couldn’t find or hold down a job, hung around there, sharing two cups of tea among three and smoking cigarettes bought on credit.”
And finally, the 5th story that surprised me with its cleverness, its tightly crafted suspense and drama, was Final Flight by Joe Moore. I won’t spoil the tension by giving away any of the Twilight Zone-esque plot, but suffice it to say that you will never quite know where this story is headed until the very end.
Which leads me to the “final surprise”. For some reason, I imagine due to this being our first Short Story contest, but also because it was being held by an independent bookstore in small town Vermont, I had imagined all the entrants to be local and novice writers . The bios printed after every story in the bound edition of “Short Stories”, therefore, took me completely off guard. Grand prize winner Sansare actually lives in India; the author of my favorite story, Brandon Ayre, is an ER doctor in Bennington! Outrageous. And all of the other winners had impressive writing resumes of their own. Foolish me, then for being surprised by the quality of their collective writing. But don’t take my word for it- pick up or order a copy for yourself. ( The beauty of this book after all, as with any published by the Shires Press, is that if we happen to run out, we can always print more!
Jon has been managing the Northshire’s Receiving Department since 1999. His interests and passions include great books, music, movies and even television, as well as Boston-based sports. He is also a writer-as time allows.