Kiran Dass rounds up the must-reads for winter
by Tracey Slaughter
(Victoria University Press, $30)
Slinky and lusty, this knockout collection of short stories from Waikato writer Tracey Slaughter is full of slow-burning dark pleasures that simmer off each page. Thirty-one heart-thumping stories that look at female desire and rage, loss, sexual politics and fumblings, illness and death are beautifully observed with language that drips with visceral detail. Like the effects of the flower devil's trumpet, or, datura, these stories crackle with a feverish, hallucinatory heat. Sometimes brutal and often tenderhearted, some of these stories clock in at just one short and sharp page, while others move at a languid speed in a heady rush of sensory overload. Not for the faint-hearted but highly recommended.
Bright Burning Things
by Lisa Harding
Sonya had a promising acting career treading the boards in London but left it behind for the drab suburbs of Dublin when she became pregnant. Toughing it out as an isolated solo mother to 4-year-old Tommy and rescue pup Herbie, she seeks solace in cheap white wine swigged straight from the bottle while standing at the sink each night. She constantly burns the fish fingers and cheese on toast for Tommy's supper when she blacks out. Self-destructive and prone to quicksilver moods, Sonya has altercations in public spaces with strangers. When her estranged father reappears and forces her to attend a 12-week Catholic rehabilitation centre, she reluctantly agrees, knowing she's at risk of losing Tommy. Bright Burning Things is a nerve-jangling and intimate look at neglect, and a raw but compassionate portrayal of addiction in a similar vein to Douglas Stuart's 2020 Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain.
by Gwendoline Riley
With a tart bite and savage humour that recalls Anne Enright, Gwendoline Riley is an expert at zoomed-in character observations and relationship dynamics. With her Women's Prize For Fiction-shortlisted First Love she examined a hostile husband and wife; now with My Phantoms she turns her acutely tuned eye to the fraught but compelling relationship between Bridget and her exasperatingly performative mother, Hen. My Phantoms is set in the "exhaust-flavoured squall" of London, where Bridget, an academic, lives with her analyst boyfriend. Bridget reluctantly meets up with Hen every year for her mother's birthday when they exchange a series of terse, short-leashed exchanges. Comedy is found in the many minor tics and irritations which Bridget refers to as feeling "like we were doing a bit of studio theatre". With a skilful push-pull of empathy and contempt that culminates in a quietly devastating and powerful conclusion, this slender novel is a beautiful and fluid read.
The End of the World is a Cul de Sac
by Louise Kennedy
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Irish writer Louise Kennedy spent nearly 30 years working as a chef before writing this debut collection of short fiction. These 15 stories are bite-sized but pack a punch, infused with the politics and folklore embedded in Ireland's past, present and future. Moving between domestic life and the natural world, a pregnant woman accidentally sees her husband cheating on her in a lambing shed, a widow takes her American mother-in-law on a tour of Ireland to scatter ashes, a mother tenderly encourages her non-verbal autistic son to speak, and an artist runs off to rent a cottage with the money she and her husband saved for IVF. I'm already waiting in anticipation of Kennedy's forthcoming first novel, which is set during Ireland's Troubles.
From the Centre: A Writer's Life
by Patricia Grace
Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed film adaptation of her 1992 novel Cousins comes this generous and clear-sighted memoir from one of our most important writers. Patricia Grace was the first wahine Māori writer to publish a collection of short stories, 1975's Waiariki. Now 83 years old, award-winning Grace reflects on her childhood, education, family life, her work as a teacher and her career and process as a writer. Grace recounts her successful legal battle against the government who sought to purchase her land in Hongoeka Bay north of Wellington to build an expressway, and the importance of Māori children seeing themselves reflected in the stories they read. Worth noting, too, is the beautiful production of this hardback, which features stunning photographs throughout.
In Memory of Memory
by Maria Stepanova
(Fitzcarraldo Editions, $42)
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, this Russian prose memoir blends personal, family and social history. Part essay, part memoir and travelogue, it begins when poet and essayist Maria Stepanova's elderly Aunt Galya dies. Upon clearing out her aunt's house, Stepanova sifts through the "layered strata of possessions" – stacks of photographs, letters, diaries, old postcards and artefacts – that reveal the history of three generations of her Russian-Jewish family. This immersive book explores the power of memory and remembrance in all its slippery unreliability. Written with a careful poet's eye, the fragments that make up this story are rich in detail.
The Believer: Encounters with Love, Death and Faith
by Sarah Krasnostein
In this fascinating and sometimes bonkers investigation into self-delusion told through character studies, we meet a wide range of ordinary people who are unified by one thing – they believe in extraordinary things that many other people don't. Things like UFOs, ghosts and the devil. Sarah Krasnostein spent four years researching and writing this book, in which she gets up close to six groups in Australia and America. We meet a Buddhist death doula, paranormal investigators, a woman out of prison after murdering her husband, and Rhonda, whose fiance Fred's plane mysteriously went missing. After watching the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Rhonda comes to the conclusion the disappearance is UFO-related. While some of the stories are wacky, Krasnostein takes care to get inside her subject's heads to find out what makes them tick.