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A varied collection of stories drawing on the paintings of an American master

Short Stories: In Sunlight or in Shadow Edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, £17.99 Review by Darragh McManus

Short Stories: In Sunlight or in Shadow. Edited by Lawrence Block
Short Stories: In Sunlight or in Shadow. Edited by Lawrence Block

Don't say you know nothing about Edward Hopper: everybody knows his work because it's become an integral part of 20th century American culture and, thus, world culture.

I'm no art critic, but if pushed I'd probably say Hopper's pictures are generally urban, nocturnal, interior. They're suffused with a certain film noir-style of glamour and, sometimes, the hint of potential danger.

We often get a sense of the painting's central figure being somehow outside the scene; a sense that significant things are taking place off camera. You're never quite certain who exactly this person is meant to be or why they're here, or what they're doing. Which, of course, makes them perfect for adaptation or interpretation in a short story.

Block has assembled a superb and very varied group of writers to spin their own golden thread from Hopper's raw flax: crime writers such as Michael Connelly and Jeffery Deaver, literary giants like Joyce Carol Oates, horror legend Stephen King, even the art historian who did the first full catalogue of Hopper's output, Gail Levin. It's a sumptuous production in beautiful hardback, with each story accompanied by a colour reproduction of the painting which inspired it.

As is to be expected in a collection, not every piece works. For instance, and perhaps surprisingly, the stories by big-hitting thriller writers Connelly, Deaver and Lee Child feel a little flat.

But there's much to admire elsewhere. Oates spins a viciously funny story of an illicit romance in which both partners appear to be counting down the seconds to the other's murder.

Nicholas Christopher's Rooms by the Sea is a strange, almost hallucinatory tale. Jill Block's The Story of Caroline is sweet and surprising; Taking Care of Business by Craig Ferguson is even sweeter and more surprising. I also really liked Warren Moore's ghost story of sorts, Office at Night, and Justin Scott's open-ended A Woman in the Sun.

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The piece de resistance, though, is Robert Olen Butler's Soir Bleu. This tale of jealousy, insanity, murder and clowns is almost a distillation of what makes a perfect short story: tight, ambiguous, unnerving, able to summon dread or whip the ground from under you with just a few words. It's a story you could reread over and over, always finding a new angle.

A Hunt In Winter by Conor Brady New Island Books. £12.99. Review by Darragh McManus

For some reason that I don't quite understand, certain times really lend themselves to settings for crime novels. The Thirties, the post-Second World War era, the near-future, the sleazy Seventies - and the late Victorian age.

For whatever reason, I and many of you love the whole fictional world of Victoriana - and that's squarely where we're landed in Conor Brady's Joe Swallow series, of which A Hunt in Winter is the third book.

It's November 1888. Joe Swallow, of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, has been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector. And he has plenty on his plate, professionally and personally.

A teenager on her way home from work is brutally attacked with a blunt instrument, and subsequently dies of her injuries.

Swallow's men in G Division set to investigating, but there are complications ahead. First, two more attacks on young women. Is a local lunatic copying the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, currently terrifying the populace over in London? Swallow doesn't want to believe it.

Even worse, our hero and his boss, Mallon, are in a tricky bind: the Crown wants to fit-up Charles Stewart Parnell, and insists on G Division handing over their logs of all Parnell's comings and goings in Dublin - including, naturally, his dalliances with Kitty O'Shea.

Mallon is reluctant, believing that removing the moderate Parnell from the Irish political scene will unleash darker, deadlier forces: Fenians, IRB and other violent revolutionaries. So he and Swallow 'lose' those logs, which brings down the wrath of Major Kelly, an arrogant and dangerous English intelligence man.

Meanwhile, Swallow must balance an ever-heavier workload with his romance with young widow Maria Walsh, who has just became pregnant.

From here on, Brady, a former Irish Times editor and member of the Garda Ombudsman Commission, brings us on a rattling tale which draws in real-life historical events, a multi-strand thriller plot, the complex web of personal relationships between Swallow and his friends and enemies, and even a trip to the freezing reaches of Berlin.

The narrative unfolds slowly enough, but it's all tied up satisfactorily by the end, with a few nice twists and a well-earned sense of resolution. A Hunt in Winter is an entertaining read, particularly if your preference is for historical crime.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, Jonathan Cape, £14.99. Review by Dan Brotzel

The premise of his latest story is simple. Dovaleh G, a fading stand-up who is short of stature and low in self-esteem, gives one final performance.

His routine is that of a man in complete meltdown, and some of his audience, it gradually emerges, have been specially invited to witness it.

And that's about it. The entire book is taken up with a description of the comic's monologue, of the stories he tells and the memories he shares.

Does it sustain us over 200 pages? Just about. Raw and utterly unvarnished, self-justifying and self-lacerating, Dovaleh's spiel is that of a modern-day Ancient Mariner, who buttonholes us with his tale, lightening the hard-to-stomach parts with gags.

In staunching his own wounds, he brings an uneasy catharsis to those who have stuck with him.

Book of the week: The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed, Bloomsbury, £18.99. Review by Erin Bateman

There is something curiously fascinating about being offered a snapshot of another person's everyday life, their internal dialogue, their everyday struggles and the choices they make.

Often, it is the more seemingly mundane stories that deliver something unexpectedly poetic and poignant.

This is exactly what Christine Sneed has accomplished in her collection of short stories, The Virginity of Famous Men. Author of Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry, Sneed now ingeniously utilises the short story to offer a small, but powerful, glimpse into the complex web of the human condition that would not have been possible in a different form.

As is to be expected, some stories are stronger than others. The Prettiest Girls, for example, feels a little tedious and predictable.

But there are many stand-out inclusions, such as the opening story Beach Vacation, where a family holiday exposes the deteriorating relationship between a mother and a son, and Roger Weber Would Like To Stay, where a woman contemplates the demise of her relationship with a ghost.

The stories tend to end abruptly and without a satisfying conclusion, and there is something oddly fitting about that.

It is a perfectly imperfect collection. A true accomplishment and an irresistible read.

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills, Headline Review, £16.99. Review by Michael Anderson

Mark Mills has enjoyed a strong career since transitioning from screenplays to prose, even if the twin successes of debut Amagansett and 2006's bestselling follow-up The Savage Garden have proven difficult to repeat.

A franchise therefore makes sense: his default milieu of a mid-century Europe riven by war and espionage offers myriad characters to play with. Unfortunately, Where Dead Men Meet is not the franchise-launcher Mills might have hoped for. All elements are present, as murder in 1937 Paris sparks a country-hopping plot, encompassing mobsters and Nazis, but the construction feels rote.

Hero Luke Hamilton is a dark-skinned, blue-eyed English orphan, disgraced RAF pilot turned Embassy officer, and the dullest fugitive imaginable; a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, in a clearly labelled cardboard box.

Mills keeps the pages turning, but resistance fighters and assassins blend into a haze of predictable action and leaden dialogue. Perhaps Mills is keeping his powder dry for an incendiary sequel.

Children's book of the week: The Queen's Present by Steve Antony, Hodder Children's Books, £11.99. Review by Kate Whiting

Redundancy can be a surprisingly positive thing. When Steve Antony lost his job at a call centre in Swindon six years ago, it spurred him on to fulfil his dream of becoming a writer-illustrator.

His first book, the award-winning The Queen's Hat, inspired by a picture of Her Majesty trying to keep hold of a fuchsia number in high winds, was published in 2014 and Antony' has been prolific ever since, with the Mr Panda series and the likes of Betty Goes Bananas In Her Pyjamas - a particular favourite in our household.

Here, he revisits the Queen for the third time as she tries to buy Christmas presents for Prince George and Princess Charlotte - and is taken on a magical tour of the world's most famous landmarks - from the Eiffel Tower to Himeji Castle - by Santa and his elves.

Eventually, an empty-handed Queen is dropped off at Sandringham House on Christmas morning, where the tiny royals get the best present of all - a cuddle from grandma.

All carefully drawn in a muted palate of festive red, green and white, the illustrations are mind-boggling - rows upon rows of tiny green elves line the Sydney Opera House - and the ending is a timely reminder that love, not consumerism, is the true meaning of Christmas.

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