Joanna Rubery: prize-winning writer

Read my prize-winning short stories, travel writing, and articles on language (for the OxfordWords blog). I’m also a songwriter and pianist.

Short stories and microfiction

Right of Way (first prize, 1000 Word Challenge) (“a beautifully-written story, focusing on the relationship between a driving instructor and his pupil. The characters are skilfully built, with genuine ambiguity.”)

Date with a Sociopath (published as a Narrative magazine iStory)

Fallout (finalist, Gotham Writers ‘Be a Hero’ competition)

The Photograph (highly placed, Grindstone Literary Academy) (“you tread that fine line between vagueness and giving just enough away to piece together a backstory. My first reactions were very strong for this piece and I championed it”)

Trapped (shortlisted for Writers Online)

Rewired (shortlisted for the Limnisa Short Short Competition)

Gooseberry (longlisted for the Irish Fish Flash Fiction Prize)

Travel writing


Lost in Translation…so I was: adventures in Irish English (published in New Zealand’s Christchurch Press)

Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn? (published on the OxfordWords blog)

Zucchini Flowers (Greece)

Fallen Angel (Belgium)

Why learn Italian? (published on the OxfordWords blog)

Jèrriais, the language of Jersey (published on the OxfordWords blog)

Paris in the spring? (published on the OxfordWords blog)


Loving Latin (Peru, Chile, Bolivia) (published on the OxfordWords blog)

Peruvian Blues

Niagara Flaws (Canada)


Vis-à-visa (published in Wanderlust magazine) (Cambodia)

Stranded in Sihanoukville (Cambodia)


The First Tomorrow (New Zealand)

Articles on language (for the OxfordWords blog) include:

Foreign languages

Let’s just “call a cat a cat”: cat idioms in foreign languages

Can the Académie française stop the rise of Anglicisms in French?

From pralines to pasteurized milk: everyday things named after French people

From silhouette to leotard: more everyday things named after French people

This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

TEFL and EFL ((Teaching) English as a Foreign Language)


10 British animal idioms and expressions (Advanced/Proficient)

10 common mistakes with prepositions made by learners of English (Beginner/Elementary)

10 mistakes made by learners of English (for teachers)

Other articles include

Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan

From room to zoom: a short history of the camera

Chasing the rainbow connection

The language of leap years

Relational language: the language of cousins


Favourites (Best of 2015-2019)

Latest album: Glass Heart (2020)


[The following short story made the shortlist of the recent Limnisa Short Story Competition 2020:  Although your story couldn’t make it into the top five it was on the short list of twenty five, out of five hundred entries, and was rated highly by some of our judges.”]

There it is. Just one word.

Down in the corner at the bottom of the screen.


I skim the ad, breath held. Catherine, I think. This would be perfect for Catherine.

My phone rings, on cue.

“Catherine?” I try.

There’s a muffled sound. My sister is crying, which isn’t at all like her.

“What’s happened?” I ask in a low voice. “Is it” – what was his name this time?  – “Nick?”

Continue reading “Rewired”

More competition news


[I recently discovered that one of last year’s stories had been shortlisted for the Writers Online 750-word short story competition, so – quite happily – I’m reposting it here!]


We feel sorry for Justine because she has a – I’ll keep my voice down – boyfriend.

Mimi and I have long been Free, but Justine’s still shackled to a man. She’s tied. She’s tangled up. She is – in other words – Trapped.

“She’s late,” says Mimi. “What’s her big news, anyway? Has she seen the light?”

“About time!” I say. I was Trapped once. Last year, I spent several weeks entangled with a green-eyed guy called Sam. He kissed me up against the fridge, but left trails of laundry everywhere. When I found his dirty socks in the sink, I saw sense.

Continue reading “More competition news”

Competition news


[I was very pleasantly surprised to read – in the Galician rain – that my latest microfiction story had been longlisted for the Irish Fish Flash Fiction prize. So here it is:]


The third seat – the window seat – was empty. So was the aisle one. Violet toyed with her book in the middle. A chill was slicing in.

There were a few last-minuters loping down: a red-faced guy with a belly, and a sun-kissed young man. Violet looked straight ahead.

The red-faced guy shuffled into the row opposite with a grunt and a trace of onions.

“Ah,” said the sun-kissed young man, stopping short, and Violet’s heart took a breath. He looked round with a frown. “I thought there were three of us?”

No way, thought Violet, suppressing a grin. There’s no way he’s on this project too.

“I guess they’re running late!” she said, and offered her hand, but he was busy stowing his case.

“Well,” he said, to no-one, “I guess they’re running late!” and he folded his limbs into the aisle seat.

“Violet,” said Violet, after a second.

“Robert,” he said, with a yawn, and started rifling through the magazines. The pilot crackled an announcement. Violet looked sideways, at the shape of his nose, the sweep of his hair.

She opened her book, and closed it again.

“So,” she began, “Is this your first posting abroad?”

“What?” said Robert, and then there was a flurry and a voice, a female voice, calling, “Sorry! Typical me!”

Robert was already on his feet. The red-faced guy was gawping.

“So sorry!” said a young woman. “I’m always late!”

“We’d have held them up,” said Robert, grinning, and she smiled back: “Wouldn’t be a first!”

Violet curled up tight and let their third colleague slide past into the window seat.

“So,” called Robert, leaning over Violet’s lap, and she contorted forward, and then back. “Is this your first posting abroad?”

The chill was beginning to prickle. The flight was thirteen hours.

© Joanna Rubery 2018

More competition news – Fallout

Olive branch

[I’m very happy to say I made the finals of this flash fiction competition with a ’50-word story about a hero’. I wanted to salute the small, kind gestures that transform the ordinary. Here in Japan, acknowledging another person’s humanity seems to be a way of life, even when it means reaching out to (quite possibly) the descendant of someone who was – not so long ago – The Enemy.]

Microfiction in 250 words: The Photograph

[I’m very proud of this one, which came sixth in a recent microfiction competition hosted by Grindstone Literary Services. We were asked to write about a Snapshot in 250 words.]

I step on scarlet toes (“Sorry, love!”) and breathe in sugared scent. The girls are like butterflies, flitting under frangipani blooms.

“Madame?” He’s got a walkie-talkie. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my friend,” I shout, above the bass. Then I see him across the street. A tuk-tuk swerves, and misses me.

“All alone?” I ask. The beer is sharp, cutting through the evening heat.

“I’m in love,” Pete tells me, through a haze of smoke and flowers. “Not with you.”

“Just as well,” I say. “With who?”

He nods across the road. “With Nita.”

I look over – the girls are glowing neon – and back to him.

“Nita from the Good Time Garden??”

“I’m obsessed!” he says.

A boy clatters in the gutter with empty cans of paint.

“Does she know?” I ask him. Pete isn’t young.

He shakes his head. “But I’m going to give her this.”

He smooths a photograph with tar-stained fingers. She’s laughing, he’s drinking something lime.

“I’ve written to her,” he says, draining his glass. “On the back. Dutch courage!”

Then he grins, gets up, and weaves his way across.

The fan above is broken. Something scuttles by my feet.

After a while, I spot him coming back, and then I see her, I think, on the balcony, a sliver of red. She leans out and drops something. It flutters into flowers.

“I think she was surprised,” says Pete, sitting down. “We’ll see. Fancy another?”

I wonder. I wonder what to say.

© Joanna Rubery 2017


1001 Words: Vis-à-visa

Elephants in Siem Reap

[Update: I’m delighted to say that my story below has just been published in the glossy print May 2017 edition of Wanderlust magazine, so I’m bumping it back up the blog!]

“You have wrong visa!” shouted my new boss down the phone.

Jet-lagged, culture-shocked, and helpless in the heat, this was not what I wanted to hear. I’d come to Cambodia to teach, but I was already questioning a country that had a) no pavements and b) frogs for lunch.

“What do I do?” I asked, chasing an unknown creature under my hotel bed.

My employer sighed.

“Leave country and come back in,” she said, and hung up. Then all the lights went out.

Continue reading “1001 Words: Vis-à-visa”

[For the OxfordWords blog:] From room to zoom: a snapshot of the camera

Girl with camera

How many photographs will we take in 2017?

Over a million? Not even close. Over a billion? Way more: conservative estimates are that we’ll take 1.2 trillion pictures this year, with our smartphones snapping the vast majority of them. That’s twice as many as four years ago. We are, some believe, drowning in digital imagery, saturated in snapshots, seemingly captivated by an invention whose rapidly evolving nature reflects our own: the camera.

A Camera with a View

Like taxi, camera is one of very few words that’s understood almost everywhere – except in a couple of places, including (rather ironically) the most photographed country on Instagram. If you ever lose your camera in Italy, explaining “Ho perso la mia camera!” might get you some odd looks. The Italian word camera has retained the sense of its Latin predecessor, and means (bed)room or chamber. (Instead, you can say you’ve lost your – take a deep breath – macchina fotografica.).

But how did we make the etymological leap from a room to a photographic device? To find out, we need to zoom out and take a longer look at history.

Continue reading “[For the OxfordWords blog:] From room to zoom: a snapshot of the camera”

[For the OxfordWords blog:] Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan

Nested Russian dolls

Here’s a tongue-twister of a question: just how short should a short story be?

When it comes to word count, the literary short story has always resisted absolute rules. Outside the specifications of individual publishers, there’s no real definitive guide to how long a ‘short’ story should be.

Instead, it could be more useful to think of a short story as a standalone work that can, as Edgar Allen Poe said, be “read at one sitting” – or as a tale that has been whittled down to its essentials in a way that makes it “almost impossible… to summarize”. Or, perhaps, to consider the defining element of a short story as not so much its length, but its effect. It could be argued that the best short stories resonate in the mind for long after the last word has been read, triggering a “complexity of afterthought” in the reader.

In short order

Given the nebulous nature of the short story form, it’s not surprising that several sub-genres have sprung up in recent decades with word counts that are more sharply defined. Since Anton Chekhov is widely considered the original “supreme artist of the short story”, it’s nice to picture these sub-genres as a series of Russian dolls, each one fitting neatly inside the other.

Continue reading “[For the OxfordWords blog:] Flash fiction: short stories with a long lifespan”

Books of the Year 2019

woman and books

As before (will this become a tradition?), I’ve listed below all the books I’ve read this year.

I choose books mainly based on recommendations from friends, followed by recommendations from reviews in the papers and on the radio, and then from suggestions on my Kindle and on sites like GoodReads.  This year, too, I’ve joined a book club, which has prompted a few of these titles. In the same way as last year, I also wanted to include some classics that I had never looked at properly before.

Here’s the list, this time in chronological order. I’ve marked the ones that surpassed my expectations with *, and any that I thought were overrated with !

  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Lost Dog – Michelle de Kretser
  • The Rooster Bar – John Grisham !
  • The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf
  • India: Another Way of Seeing – various authors
  • The British in India – David Gilmour
  • City of Djinns – William Dalrymple
  • Blokes, Beers, and Burritos – Jo Blakeley
  • I am, I am, I am – Maggie O’Farrell *
  • Devil’s Peak – Deon Meyer [in translation]
  • Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
  • Love Factually – Laura Mucha
  • The Unexpected Joy of Being Single – Catherine Gray
  • The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  • Slade House – David Mitchell !
  • I know why the caged bird sings – Maya Angelou
  • The Second Plane – Martin Amis
  • Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  • Problems – Jade Sharma
  • By Jeeves – P G Wodehouse *
  • The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
  • The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  • Selected Tales – Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton *
  • The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky ! [in translation]
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  • Normal People – Sally Rooney
  • The Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  • Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White *
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata [in translation]
  • The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory
  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite *
  • Moby Dick – Herman Melville !
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  • Goddesses in Everywoman – Jean Shinoda
  • Collected Ghost Stories – M R James
  • The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  • The Antidote – Oliver Burkeman
  • Antisocial Media – Siva Vaidhyanathan
  • Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys – Will Self
  • Fox 8 – George Saunders
  • Dead Famous – Ben Elton
  • I Owe You One – Sophie Kinsella
  • The Mother-in-Law – Sally Hepworth
  • What Red Was – Rosie Price
  • The Potter’s Field – Andrea Camilleri [in translation]
  • The Longest Way Home – Andrew McCarthy
  • Attached – Amir Levine, Rachel Heller
  • Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty !
  • Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver *
  • Doughnut Economics – Kate Raworth
  • How to be a Kosovan Bride – Naomi Hamill
  • Watching You – Lisa Jewell
  • The Better Sister – Alafair Burke
  • Hunger – Amélie Nothomb [in translation]
  • The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
  • The Prenup – Lauren Layne
  • The Holiday – T M Logan !
  • Christmas Shopaholic – Sophie Kinsella *
  • The Understudy – Sophie Hannah, Clare Mackintosh, B A Paris, Holly Brown !

Films of the Year 2019

Since I’m always on some kind of mission to see films that various people have recommended over the years (read: decades), why not list the films I’ve caught up with this year?

As with the books, those that I was particularly impressed with are marked with *, and the ones I thought had a budget that would have been better off spent on regenerating my home town are marked with !

In chronological order:

  • Disobedience – 2017
  • A Most Wanted Man – 2014
  • The Other Boleyn Girl – 2008
  • 28 Days – 2000
  • The Age of Innocence – 1993 *
  • The Jane Austen Book Club – 2007
  • White Chicks – 2004
  • Mr Turner – 2014
  • The Handmaiden – 2016
  • Call Me By My Name – 2017
  • Wolf of Wall Street – 2013
  • Book Club – 2018
  • The Second Mother – 2015 *
  • The Post – 2017
  • Casanova – 2005 *
  • Philomena – 2013
  • The Bucket List – 2007
  • Finding Your Feet – 2017 *
  • Gandhi – 1982
  • Plein Soleil – 1960
  • Bridge of Spies – 2015
  • Night Train to Lisbon – 2013 !
  • Crazy Rich Asians – 2018 *
  • Queen of the Desert – 2015
  • Downsizing – 2017
  • Infinity Chamber – 2016
  • Molly’s Game – 2017 *
  • The Color Purple – 1985
  • Fitzcarraldo – 1982
  • Spaceballs – 1987
  • 10×10 – 2018
  • Mary, Queen of Scots – 2018
  • The Favourite – 2018
  • Midnight’s Children – 2012
  • The Life of Brian – 1979
  • Isle of Dogs – 2018
  • A Star is Born – 2018
  • The Incredibles 2 – 2018
  • 500 Days of Summer – 2009
  • How to be Single – 2016
  • The Aftermath – 2019
  • Aladdin – 2019
  • Boy Erased – 2018
  • The Hate U Give – 2018 *
  • Vice – 2018
  • Kimi No Nawa (Your Name) – 2016
  • Pete’s Dragon – 2016
  • Matilda – 1996
  • Close – 2019
  • Escape Room – 2017 (Will Wernick) !
  • I am Mother – 2019
  • There Will Be Blood – 2007
  • Oranges and Sunshine – 2011
  • El Camino – 2019
  • Avant l’hiver – 2014
  • Une nouvelle amie – 2015 !
  • Belle Epoque – 2019 *


The Genie and the Lamp

Indian scarves

Namaste from India! As Aladdin is hitting our screens, here’s something I wrote several years ago…

The Genie and the Lamp

“You have three wishes!” he proclaimed.

“I’ll grant your heart’s desire!”

“I want to fall in love!” I said,

“I want to feel on fire!”


Lo and behold, I fell too quick

And soon became obsessed.

With somebody who failed to be as

Equally impressed.


And so I called my genie friend,

And told him that, instead,

My ideal guy should think I was

The best thing since sliced bread.


Hey presto! Such a man appeared

To brighten up the dark.

But still, behind those starry eyes,

I couldn’t feel that spark.


I called my genie back, with “You know

Full well what I mean!

I want to fall head over heels

With someone just as keen!”


The genie smirked, and magicked up

The lover of my life.

And we were living fairy tales

Until I met his wife.


I shouted for my genie.

I cried. I cursed my fate.

I said, “I want another wish!”

But he said, “It’s too late.”


© Joanna Rubery 2017

Books of the Year 2018

woman and books

In a departure from the usual, I thought I would list all the books I’ve read this year. I choose books mainly based on recommendations from friends, followed by recommendations from reviews in the papers and on the radio, and then from suggestions on my Kindle. This year, however, I wanted to include in my reading some classics that I had never looked at properly before. Here’s the list, in reverse order. I’ve marked the ones that surpassed my expectations with *, and any that I thought were overrated with !

  • White Oleander – Janet Fitch
  • Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
  • Vox – Christina Dalcher
  • Less – Andrew Sean Greer *
  • Help me! – Marianne Power *
  • Release – Patrick Ness
  • The Spare Room – Helen Garner
  • Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
  • The Power of Acceptance – Annemarie Postma
  • The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way – Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison
  • Letting Go – David R Hawkins
  • C’est La Vie – Fabrice Midal (in translation)
  • Journey by Moonlight – Antal Szerb (in translation)
  • Four Seasons in Rome – Anthony Doerr
  • The Forgetting Time – Sharon Guskin
  • The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing
  • The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler
  • Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  • Say My Name – Allegra Huston
  • The Wife Between Us – Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig
  • The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell
  • There are No Grown-ups – Pamela Druckerman
  • David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe *
  • Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (in translation)
  • Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K Jerome
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac !
  • Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit
  • Hunger – Roxane Gay
  • Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel (in translation) !
  • Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  • Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  • Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry
  • The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** – Sarah Knight
  • Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
  • Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
  • Lolita – Vladimir Nabukov
  • Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (in translation) *
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë !
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot *
  • Beloved – Toni Morrison
  • The Photographer’s Wife – Suzanne Joinson
  • The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye – Barbara Vine
  • Where Have All the Boys Gone? – Jenny Colgan
  • We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Doll’s House – Tania Carver
  • All the Single Ladies – Rebecca Traister
  • Lullaby – Leila Slimani (in translation)
  • The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
  • The Return – Victoria Hislop !
  • Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  • The Sun also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  • The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafron (in translation) !
  • The Hours – Michael Cunningham
  • Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  • Memory Wall – Anthony Doerr
  • Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto (in translation)
  • My Education – Susan Choi
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Power – Naomi Alderman
  • Force of Nature – Jane Harper
  • Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell
  • How to Break Up with your Phone – Catherine Price *
  • I See You – Clare Mackintosh
  • The Anchoress – Robyn Cadwallader
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
  • Friend Request – Laura Marshall
  • Anatomy of a Scandal – Sarah Vaughan

Thanks for tweeting about this, Allegra Huston!

Shot in the Dark

Brandenburg Gate

At this time of year, Europe always turns a shade darker. I’m reminded of a quote from the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, whose Journey by Moonlight I have just finished: “In London November isn’t a month, it’s a state of mind.”

I mentioned back in February that one of my flash fiction stories from last year had been selected for publication in an anthology, but then didn’t give any more details: it’s the story below, which has always been one of my favourites.

Microfiction in 250 words: The Photograph