Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

8 Outstanding Short Story Collections

Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Nine Bar Blues by Sheree Renée Thomas, published by Third Man Books.

The stories collected in Nine Bar Blues weave emotion, spirit, and music, captivating readers with newfound alchemy and the murmurs of dark gods. Rooted in rhythm, threaded with magic, these tales encompass worlds that begin in river bottoms, pass through spectral gates, and end in distant uncharted worlds. These stories describe the pain that often accompanies the confines of sanctuary and the joy that is inextricably bound to the troubles of hard living. Nine Bar Blues sings a multiverse of fully realized worlds that readers will remember for ages to come and cherish from page to heart thumping, foot-stomping page.

If you’re interested in reading a new author but don’t know where to start, a short story collection can be a great place to dive in. Sometimes you have collections that are merely okay with a few standout stories, but then you have story collections that are full of life, where each character brings something different and each story pulls you in and ends far too soon. Short story collections and anthologies can be hit or miss, but when you find a truly outstanding story collection it’s well worth it.

Here are some short story collections that you won’t be able to put down.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

This was one of the first literary short story collections I can remember reading, and it knocked my socks off. Packer is adept at character and story building, and the stories in this collection center on people on the periphery, who don’t really fit in any one place. Race, class, ethnicity, and identity are threads running through these stories and the result is a collection of complex, layered examinations of what it means to be human today. Wanting a life different from the one you have now, the wait to attain the elusive American Dream, figuring out where you stand on issues, and looking for work because your life depends on it—these issues and more are all exquisitely portrayed in Packer’s debut collection.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is a master of the short story. Her novels are dark and wonderful, but the short story is where she really shines. It was too hard to pick between the two collections of hers, so I picked the entire collection. Justice and mercy are common themes in the writing of O’Connor, and they twist in ways we may not like or want. These are weird and dark and ironically humorous at times. If you’ve read some of her before, this is a more in-depth look; if you haven’t read O’Connor, you’re in for a treat.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-SpiresHeads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

This is a stunning short story collection that places the reader directly into the lives of the characters, many of which will haunt you long after you close the book. Race, class, culture, and identity are all topics that are examined and addressed in these stories in smart, funny, and gut-wrenching ways, but there are no blanket statements or answers with these characters.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope edited by Patrice Caldwell

I couldn’t stop reading this, but tried to savor it slowly because I didn’t want this collection to end. A collection of science fiction and fantasy centering Black women and gender-nonconforming individuals, these stories are beautiful and heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Writers in the collection include Ibi Zoboi, Justina Ireland, Rebecca Roanhorse, Amerie, and Elizabeth Acevedo.

19 Love Songs by David Levithan

Levithan has a way of writing short stories, especially interconnected stories, that is just so good. This collection brings new and familiar characters for you to read, and the stories include fiction, nonfiction, and even one in verse. Levithan’s prose breathes life into these stories that never feel hackneyed or stereotypical, but instead fresh and new.

How Long Til Black Future Month by NK Jemisin cover imageHow Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin

If you’re new to Jemisin, or newer to science fiction or fantasy (SFF), this collection is a great place to start. The stories in this collection offer sharp, incisive commentary and observation on society today through the lens of SFF. She writes about destruction and hope, resistance and rebirth. Her language is lyrical but direct, strong and gentle. Even if you don’t think you’re a SFF fan, try this one out. You won’t regret it.

If I Had Two Wings: Stories by Randall Kenan (August 4)

Southern lit is my jam, and Kenan is a master storyteller in this genre. This collection, out in August, doesn’t disappoint. Set in the fictional town of Tims Creek, North Carolina, we get a range of stories from people young and old, from all different kinds of backgrounds. Body and spirit are two major themes that anchor these tales, along with history, place, loss, and resilience. Kenan is a sharp-eyed, lyrical writer and this collection of stories will be one you return to again and again, especially if you love Southern literature.

Best American Short Stories 2019 edited by Anthony Doerr

This might seem like a cop-out, but this collection is titled “best” for a reason. With stories from Weike Wang, Wendell Berry, Deborah Eisenberg, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, this is a collection that spans topics and settings and offers a range of voices. Especially if you’re just dipping into the short story genre, this is a great place to start.