A chilling social satire and remarkable cultural mystery from New Zealand



The Sharp
Bret Easton Ellis, Swift, $32.99

Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel in 13 years should generate widespread interest, although I suspect only those who have acquired a taste for his novels will believe in this round. The novel follows a young man named Bret Ellis (a device he previously used with an older alter ego moon park) lived in LA in 1981.

Bret is rich, emotionless, and ruthlessly disillusioned – drifting through drugs, casual sex with both men and women, and all the glamor that an affluent lifestyle can offer. Meanwhile, a serial killer ritualistically murders teenagers – a horror all of his friends seem too indifferent to.

Bret half-heartedly wants to escape the decadent splendor of his gilded cage and the dread and existential dread that lurks beneath it, but finds himself drawn to the exploration of a hippie cult, the Horsemen of the Afterlife, as the death toll mounts and the author switches to a thriller, who is so cruel and terrifying it could almost be a parody of Bret Easton Ellis.

Ellis’ chilling social satires may not be for everyone, but the author is a consummate stylist, the intense alienations of his novels both softened and enhanced by the driving rhythm of his prose.



Gray Nomad
Alison Ferguson, Brio, $29.99

70-year-old Joyce Campbell is an unlikely candidate for a space odyssey, but making the unlikely seem possible is part of the charm of this book. Alison Ferguson’s Gray Nomad sees Joyce – a map member of the Country Women’s Association and an avid knitter – accidentally shot into space after visiting a launch site in Canberra to view the spacecraft there.

Alien adventures, interstellar intrigue and a battle for the future of space ensue as Joyce discovers strange new forces that put her at the center of a galactic showdown. (Their old skills don’t fail them either: Joyce’s knitting skills prove surprisingly handy, too.) It’s a whimsical and heartfelt sci-fi film, written for and about an underrepresented demographic in the genre — Pace Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and it’s a lot of fun to follow Joyce as she goes where no seventy-year-old has gone.



13 ways to look at a fat girl
Mona Awad, Head of Zeus, $22.95

13 ways to look at a fat girl handles the details of body image and identity. Mona Awad has produced a soulless, keenly observed, black graphic novel in stories that follows a woman whose weight seems to alter who she is. We meet her as a burly teenage Lizzie gulping down McFlurries (and reveling even more in the self-loathing it inspires).

We watch as she morphs into Beth, a calorie-counting college student, then Elizabeth, married and slim but with an eating disorder, and finally Liz, a skinny thirty-year-old whose weight fixation drives her into other aspects of human existence malnourished by desire.

It could have been a depressing book. The inextricable nature of body image from Elizabeth’s perspective on herself, the way her obsession with food and dieting affects her self-esteem, relationships and life choices will be immediately apparent, especially to women, and it would make a melancholy read if it were not for the poignancy of Awad’s humor, which incorporates scathing cultural commentary and uses sharp wit to create a believable inner landscape for her tormented protagonist.



The Mystery of Garlic
Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, $34.99

Serial novels were hugely popular in the 19th century and were the driving force behind Charles Dickens’ rise to fame. They’re rare as hen teeth now, which is what Alexander McCall Smiths does The Mystery of Garlic even more impressive. It’s one of his 44 Scotland Road Novels compiled from regular fiction columns written for The Scot Newspaper spanning almost two decades and featuring an eclectic mix of characters living in a tenement in Edinburgh.

Prepared to reveal what happens at Big Lou and Fat Bob’s wedding, the latter sees the return of all the familiar faces (who often face new predicaments) from previous books. Newcomers shouldn’t be afraid to try out the author’s panache – its episodic structure makes it easy to dive into at every point – and there’s just as much wit and wisdom in McCall Smith’s portrayal of Scotland and its people as there is in its phenomenally popular Ladies No. 1 detective agency novels.

Nonfiction books of the week



Te Motunui Epa
Rachel Buchanan, Bridget Williams Books $49.99

In 1971 at Taranaki, New Zealand, five wood-carved tablets, Te Motunui Epa, were unearthed from a swamp where they had been buried 150 years earlier for their own protection. Historian Rachel Buchanan has meticulously researched the astonishing history of the tablets, from being smuggled out of the country and acquired by a Swiss collector to involvement in a kidnapping case and a court-challenged auction at Sotheby’s.

But it’s also a very imaginative, poetic display, the panels are not just animated by the story, they’re animated – sometimes like a fable-like novel or a folkloric tale. The panels “meet” their buyers and become active, not passive, actors in their own story. My only caveat is the frequent use of Maori words without a glossary of terms. Distinctive and beautifully presented work.



votes from us
Tim Dunlop, NewSouth, $29.99

Was the Independents’ success in May 2022 an isolated one as Scott Morrison was so on the nose that he brought out his nemesis? Tim Dunlop makes a compelling case for the phenomenon’s historically long tail in this latest study.

He points out that the voices of this movement go back years to the 1980s, neoliberalism, the crisis of our national identity, particularly our much vaunted egalitarianism, and the emergence of the centralized Victorian Women’s Trust in 1998 in response to the Kennett government .

In legible writing, he grapples with the notion of happiness and the misunderstood “lucky” country: May 2022 was not happiness, it was a planned kitchen table, now being delivered to us by polarized US politics. The challenge is not to waste this opportunity to reshape our democracy.



A heart that works
Rob Delaney, Hachette, $34.99

In 2014, screenwriter and actor Rob Delaney, his pregnant wife and two sons relocated to London to film the television series Catastrophe. Not long after, their third son, Henry, was born with a brain tumor. Delaney’s memoir is a moving account of Henry’s short life (he died when he was two and a half) but also a portrait of the various stages and manifestations of grief.

There’s helpless outrage, joy at witnessing Henry’s vigor and determination, grim humor and deep sadness as he documents his son’s struggle, particularly the lengthy period in hospital (Delaney is full of praise for Britain’s NHS), who Chemo and eventually childbirth Henry home where he died. It is simply told, but it must have been extraordinarily difficult to write that roller-coaster ride of reflection, the rawness of the grief that is all too obvious, along with an immense dignity.



my last drink
Eds., Ross Fitzgerald & Neal Price, Connor Court, $29.95

A common thread running through these 32 confessions from recovering alcoholics is that they had to hit rock bottom before they could take any meaningful action in rehab and/or AA. Interestingly, her memories of her last drinks vary from vivid to vague. It’s crystal clear for Ross Fitzgerald – he drank his last drink in the Melbourne pub where he drank his first as a schoolboy. It’s a blur for Gail, who has kept her drinking hidden from most people (including her young daughter). Her ego wouldn’t let her go to AA, but when she ended up in rehab, she met a man in his late 70s who proved an unlikely savior. These stories from people from all walks of life can get a little bumpy, but they’re also a testament to the determination participants eventually found to challenge the power alcohol had over them and take control of their lives take.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from book editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/a-chilling-social-satire-and-a-remarkable-cultural-mystery-from-nz-20230123-p5ceru.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture A chilling social satire and remarkable cultural mystery from New Zealand

Jaclyn Diaz

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