Butter by Asako Yuzuki 

Crime fiction fans craving something a little quirky and different in among the vast feast the genre has been offering in recent years, a palate cleanser if you will, may do well to dip into Butter by Asako Yuzuki. A cult bestseller in Japan several years ago, it’s now available for English-speaking readers thanks to the translation of Polly Barton. 

Somewhat inspired by a true crime, Butter is a weird and rather wonderful slow-burn psychological thriller about a female gourmand and serial killer. Tabloid journo Rika Machida leads a rather empty existence; late nights at her male-dominated office, ramen noodles in her apartment, occasional sex with a sorta-boyfriend.

But things start changing when Machida secures an interview with notorious killer Manako Kajii, said to have seduced lonely businessmen with her gourmet cooking. Kajii refused all interviews until Machida sent a letter asking about her beef stew recipe. Machida hopes to crack Kajii open via foodie chat, and serving as Kajii’s proxy with home cooking and dining at back-alley teppanyaki and Michelin-starred restaurants, but is she the one being manipulated?

Yuzuki, ably translated by Polly Barton, offers a sensuous, highly original tale where food is at the forefront of an underlying exploration of misogyny, fatphobia, past trauma, and patriarchal society. This doesn’t really fit with the modern Japanese noir or classic crime that has been increasingly translated in recent years, but it’s strangely delicious. 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Asako Yuzuki, authorAsako Yuzuki was born in Tokyo in 1981. She won the All Yomimono Award for New Writers for her story, Forget Me, Not Blue, which appeared in her debut, Shuuten No Anoko. She won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Award in 2015 for Nile Perch No Joshikai.

She has been nominated multiple times for the Naoko Prize, and her novels have been adapted for television, radio and film.

Visit the publisher’s website

Why Do Horses Run? by Cameron Stewart

Although well written, this is not an uplifting story. Ingvar is a man haunted by his failures. When tragedy destroys life as he knows it, he takes off. He leaves his wife, his work and all the comforts he has known to walk, just walk.

He must stay on the move. If he stops, he will remember, and his self-loathing will overtake him. He believes he is ‘darkness itself’ and wants to die but not by his own hand. He wanders across the Australian landscape sleeping rough, eating whatever and whenever he can. ‘Now I eat roadkill.’ 

Among all this suffering Stewart manages to evoke the beauty of the land with such descriptive language, it offers welcome relief from the angst.

When Ingvar stops in a small community in a valley for the first time in three years, he surprises himself by wanting to stay. He meets an older woman, Hilda, whose husband has just killed himself. Hilda brings a touch of humour to the story; she talks to her dead, philandering husband. Hilda and Ingvar have love and loss in common, but Hilda seems more resilient.

He encounters people in the valley, they are all misfits, who are at first wary, then slowly, kind. Ingvar realises how much he needs people, even though he is trying to run away.

The back stories are cleverly told using short chapters and changing points of view. The ending is, on one hand, shocking and, on the other, emotionally incomplete for the reader.

Reviewed by Sue Stanbridge

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cameron Stewart, authorCameron Stewart lives and works on Gadigal land in Sydney, Australia. He grew up on farm near Mullumbimby, by way of Alice Springs, Canberra and Cairns. Diversity of place informs much of his writing as does an interest in flawed characters trying to do their best.

Cameron holds an MA (Creative Writing) from the University of Technology, Sydney and a BA (Performing Arts) from the University of Western Sydney. His debut novel is Why Do Horses Run? 

Visit Cameron Stewart’s website

 

Birds of a Feather by Rhianna King

The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is a special one. And it’s a lifeline for Beth Dwyer, who feels like the odd one out in her boisterous family. With an artist mother and musician father, Beth’s childhood was loving but chaotic. As an adult, she prefers the controlled and organised over the unpredictable. Her routine involves spending lots of time with grandmother Elise, a botanist who shares her love of nature with Beth, an environmental officer at a local council. 

After one family lunch, where she feels stung by her older sister’s criticism that she isn’t spontaneous enough, Beth buys a lotto ticket. Her numbers come up, and she wins more than $250 000.

Beth wants to spend some of the money treating Elise, but Elise wants nothing except to find out what happened to her first love, Gerry. When Beth discovers Gerry is alive, and a woman, she is determined to right the wrongs of the past – and reassess some of the choices she has made in her own life. 

I loved Birds of a Feather. It’s a delightful, charming story, about love in all its forms, and how it is never too late to allow fate into your life. 

Reviewed by Melinda Woledge 

 

Rhianna King, authorABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna King has spent her professional career communicating about the work of State Government environmental agencies and an Aboriginal-led not-for-profit organisation. Keen to expand her toolset and combine her love of words and pretty things, she studied graphic design and launched a freelance business in 2015. In 2020, she turned her hand to fiction writing.

Rhianna draws inspiration from the natural environment, Australia’s army of magnificent female authors, the dynamics of human relationships, and the wisdom of her two idols – Stevie Nicks and Moira Rose.

When she’s not spending time with her husband and two kids at their home in Melbourne, Rhianna is chasing her next marathon PB and dreaming of travel.

Visit Rhianna King’s website​

Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin 

There’s a special magic about a circus. Even today, with digitally enhanced, technology generated entertainments at our fingertips, nothing quite equals the big top, the high-flying acrobats, the clowns, the smell of sawdust, the glitter of spangles, and the electrified crowd. 

Context aside, Dusapin’s novel is not as overtly thrilling as the title might suggest. Vladivostock, in the far east of Russia, does in fact boast a State Circus. Now a state-of-the-art fixture that accommodates some 2000 spectators. The Vladivostock circus of the book, however, is another entity. It’s dingy and cold, pungent with the smell of malodorous empty animal cages. With winter approaching, the season is coming to a close, performers are going home and the place is emptying out. 

In comes Nathalie, a young costume designer graduate, who is hired to create costumes for the only remaining performers, Anton, Nino and Anna. Masters of the Russian Bar, one of the most dangerous acts, the threesome and their choreographer, Leo, have stayed on to fine-tune their act for a forthcoming circus festival. They’ve set their sights on performing the death-defying triple jump four times in succession, which has never been done.

Narrated in Nathalie’s voice, Dusapin’s prose is spare, almost surreal. Its dreamlike quality has the effect of distancing the reader from the story, as if we’re watching events unfold on a stage, or in a circus ring. In a subtle correlation between the physical tenseness and shifting motions of the performance, the interpersonal dynamics between Nathalie and the others play out in unpredictable ways. As Nino remarks, ‘the hardest part is trust’. 

Reviewed by Anne Green 

 

THE AUTHOR

Elisa Shua-DusapinElisa Shua Dusapin was born in France in 1992 and raised in Paris, Seoul, and Switzerland. Winter in Sokcho is her first novel. Published in 2016 to wide acclaim, it was awarded the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges and has been translated into six languages. In 2021, Aneesa Abbas Higgins’s English translation of Winter in Sokcho won the National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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Fourteen Days edited by Margaret Atwood & Douglas Preston

I was not entirely sure whether I was yet ready to read a novel set amid the worst days of the pandemic in New York. However, when you are offered a reading experience featuring a line-up of some of the most extraordinarily talented writers, how could I resist?

There are 36 American and Canadian authors responsible for the stories in Fourteen Days and part of the allure is that no authors are by-lined in the body of the novel. You must look up who wrote what in the list at the end. 

The action takes place on the roof of Fernsby Arms, a rundown apartment building on New York’s Lower East Side, where the residents gather each evening to bang pots and pans to cheer on and applaud the pandemic frontline workers and first responders. As the pandemic progresses and the city empties, as those rich enough to escape desert their luxury penthouses for their houses in the Hamptons, the rooftop gatherings become a place of refuge. As the novel progresses, more and more residents start to wander up to the space, bringing their own chairs and beverage of choice. 

The price of entry to the gathering is you must have a story to share and the characters and stories being shared are as richly diverse as the authors who penned them. The story threads are cleverly woven together through the narrative of the building’s super, who has inherited a ‘bible’ of sorts from the previous super and who, each night, faithfully transcribes that evening’s story into the tome.

The residents’ stories are happy and sad, heartbreaking, full of angst, surprising and triumphant, and I found myself increasingly invested in their lives and loves as I raced through each chapter, eager to discover more.

COVID-times were such a surreal period for all of us across the globe, and this collection of tales reflects the best of the creative response to this unforgettable experience and is a testament to the power of storytelling to find the light in the darkness. 

Reviewed by Maryanne Vagg

 

ABOUT THE EDITORS

Margaret Atwood authorMargaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays.Her novels include Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and the MaddAddam trilogy. Her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, was followed in 2019 by a sequel, The Testaments, which was a global number one bestseller and shared the Booker Prize.

In 2020 she published Dearly, her first collection of poetry for a decade, and in 2022 Burning Questions, a collection of essays, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Atwood has won numerous awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

In 2019 she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

Douglas Preston, authorDouglas Preston has published 39 books of fiction and nonfiction, of which 32 have been New York Times bestsellers, some reaching the #1 position.

Two of his novels, co-written with Lincoln Child, were chosen in a National Public Radio poll of readers as being among the 100 greatest thrillers ever written. His recent nonfiction book, The Lost City of the Monkey God, was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and National Geographic magazine. In addition to books, Preston writes about archaeology and paleontology for the New Yorker Magazine.

He worked as an editor for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards in the U.S. and Europe, and he served as president of the Authors Guild from 2019 to 2023.

Visit Douglas Preston’s website

Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey  

Here are five short stories, following the pattern in the title of ‘Only the Animals’, but this time set in space. Sadly, this collection, for me, is perhaps not as well developed. Despite my misgivings, there’s no doubting that Dovey’s imagination is wideranging, as she liberally uses anthropomorphism in this collection of futuristic speculative fiction.

The first story, ‘Starman’, has the eponymous crash-test dummy seated in the Tesla Roadster Elon Musk propelled into space. Starman narrates his journey, but is in a reflective mood, riffing on the love he left behind. Elon Musk holds Starman’s heart, although – in dramatic irony – the reader knows that love is unrequited. Distance from Earth provides perspective, and Starman feels the freedom of being unrestrained by Earth’s hierarchies (situationally ironic, since he’s bolted into place in the Roadster). 

In ‘Requiem’, the International Space Station narrates its own demise, detailing the experiences of prior occupants. ‘E’ is symptomatic of the unrealised possibilities within the book. E is one of the female astronauts and is given menial jobs – entrenching essentialist stereotypes in space. How much more powerful would that message have been if hers was the sole story?

Similarly, ‘We, the Tamponauts’ discusses gender disparity – this time narrated by ‘tampon astronauts’ – but the message is diluted by off-beat comedy. The granddaughter tampon writes a play and asks her grandmother to critique it. I couldn’t help but agree with the grandmother, and perhaps the story might have been tighter had they been followed.

I can appreciate the premise and applaud the research in Only the Astronauts. The end result, however, despite achieving lift-off, fails to reach escape velocity.

Reviewed by Bob Moore

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ceridwen Dovey, Australian authorCeridwen Dovey is an Australian fiction writer, creative non-fiction writer, science writer and filmmaker based in Sydney. Born in South Africa, she grew up between South Africa and Australia, went to Harvard University on scholarship as an undergraduate, and did her postgraduate studies in social anthropology at New York University.

Her debut novel, Blood Kin, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Award and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honours list. Her second book, Only the Animals, won the inaugural 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award.

She is also the author of In the Garden of the Fugitives; On J.M. Coetzee: Writers on Writers; Life After Truth; Inner Worlds Outer Spaces; and Mothertongues (with co-writer Eliza Bell and original songs by Keppie Coutts). She’s the author of the bestselling Audible Original audio-novel Once More With Feeling, and writes feel-good, audio-only romance fiction for Audible as Adeline Knight.

Ceridwen’s science writing has been recognised with an Australian Museum Eureka Award and two UNSW Press Bragg Prizes for Science Writing.

Visit Ceridwen Dovey’s website