From an emotionally wrenching story about pregnancy, to an endearing fairy tale, to a historical fiction novel by Ann Patchett. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.

Bron is reading…
#Sadgirllit (despite herself) plus more

I confess that I am rather tired of sad girl lit, but when Little Plum by Laura McPhee-Browne landed on our shelves I knew I had to read it. After reading Cherry Beach a couple of years ago, I found myself drawn to her writing style, and into the interiority of her protagonist. The same thing happened with Little Plum.

Coral is a twenty-something struggling to get going with her adult life. She probably has OCD and is on the verge of having an alcohol problem. She works hard to keep the negative, destructive voices in her head at bay. After a couple of dates/sexual encounters with Jasper, she finds herself pregnant. Her way of dealing with the situation is by ignoring it. A phone app though keeps her updated as to the growing size of her unborn baby by comparing it to food, hence the title of the book. At some point we all know she is will have to face her problems, but how?

I do enjoy an introspective novel that isn’t afraid to deep dive into the murky depths of the protagonists feelings and thinking processes, but they can be intense and emotionally draining on the reader. At least this reader!

I needed something a tad lighter after that, so turned to debut writer Michael Thompson and his delightful book, How to Be Remembered.

It the story of Tommy Llewellyn who goes through a ‘Reset’ every year on the 5th January – his birthday. After a Reset everybody in his life forgets who he is and all his belongings disappear, except for the items he is wearing at the time. This includes his parents and other carers and friends that populate his young life.

This could have been a terribly sad story in any other hands, but Thompson has crafted a page-turning, endearing story about what it means to love and how kindness and generosity is never forgotten.

A new biography about Katherine Mansfield by Clare Harman is absorbing me in between other books.

All Sorts of Lives focuses on ten of Mansfield’s short stories, using them to show how each one reflects where Katherine was in her life at the time and what they reveal about her writing journey. Naturally I have to read each story before I move through the relevant chapter. Just as well I have a lovely Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories collection published by RHNZ Vintage a number of years ago on my bedside table!

One of my favourite longlists every year is the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I always find an unexpected gem or two, even if it fails to be shortlisted by the judges.

The first surprise package from the 2023 longlist is Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh – a dark, violent fable about the stories we tell, to ourselves and to others, to make our lives bearable. It begins when a glamorous, mysterious new couple move to town, and Elodie, the baker’s wife, is drawn into their world. Anything is better than the life of quiet desperation she is living with her unresponsive husband. But will her envy and desire to be more like Violet appease her or destroy her?

The book is loosely based on a real event, the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning, Le Pain Maudit, which affected 250 people, killing seven, and committing fifty of the townsfolk into an asylum. Mackintosh uses this event as a jumping-off point to speculate rather than investigate what might have happened.

The result is a tale of madness, hysteria and suspicion, where an entire village pays the price for one woman’s obsession.

Kate is reading…
A book Bron read in 2020

Whenever I start reading and elegantly written, engrossing book, a part of me wonders: has Bron read this? And most of the time, she has.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is one she’d read all the way back in 2020 (and indeed written about here). I picked it up after whirling desperately around my casita following a horrendous illness where I could not read, listen, watch or suffer any of my senses to pay attention to anything. It was on a TBR pile I had forgotten about (there are many such towers, large and small, around my home) and while I didn’t go much on the cover I remembered a special aura around the name ‘Ann Patchett’. So, I began.

Beginning in the middle of the last century, the book is about a brother and a sister, and the incredible circumstances that first propelled them from poverty into a preposterous and splendid dwelling called The Dutch House – and then, when they were still children, turned them out. Their lives thereafter become fatally bound up in this home; Maeve, the sister, is particularly obsessed by it. There’s a passage in the book where her brother (and our narrator) Danny reflects that if he had to say where they were from, he would say the street where he and Maeve had often sat like agents on a stakeout, just looking at their would-be home and would-be life, and for their ‘evil stepmother’ in the windows.

Patchett is a brilliant, gentle and subtle observer of character. Over five decades, occasionally moving back and forward through time, we see Danny and Maeve become adults, and see how much of their vital selves (their longings and idiosyncrasies and pains) is bound up in one piece of real estate, which their father bought long ago in a sensational act of class leaping.

A finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Dutch House is a captivating story about class, aspirations, silences, secrets and sibling love.

Next up: Praiseworthy, the first novel in over a decade from Australia’s best author (imo), Alexis Wright.