Short story collections: Radiant writing adds colour to the darkest of lives

From Lauren Holmes's Barbara the Slut and Other People to Adam Johnson's second short story collection Fortune Smiles

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The Independent Culture

Lauren Holmes's Barbara the Slut and Other People (Fourth Estate, £12.99) speaks candidly to a Girls-watching generation (eight of the ten stories first-person narrators are female). Schooldays are shown to be a minefield – from the politics of ever-changing friendship groups in "New Girls", to the titular Barbara, an early Princeton acceptance and doting big sister to her autistic brother, who's also the victim of a vicious slut-shaming campaign.

While being a twenty-something is all about figuring out what to do with one's life – the law graduate in "Desert Hearts" who annoys her father by working in a sex-toy shop instead of climbing the corporate ladder, or the lab technician at an STD clinic: "I was thinking I might want to study public health, but I was also thinking I might want to move to the forest and eat berries and mushrooms and hibernate with the bears in the winter."

As something of a flipside to Holmes's feisty artifice-free portraits of modern life, in Man v. Nature (Oneworld, £8.99) Diane Cook transports us through a distorting carnival mirror of a looking glass into a parallel universe. She excels when it comes to the allegorical – the horrors of 9/11 are explored in "It's Coming" as workers in a high-rise ascend the building in fear of their lives as a bloodthirsty beast stalks the floors beneath them; in "Somebody's Baby" the fears of early motherhood are manifested in the figure of a kidnapper who lurks outside a new mother's home waiting for his chance to grab her baby; and in "Moving On" a widow is locked up in a state-run facility until she's chosen by a new husband. It's a deeply original collection, each of the 12 stories ranging from deliciously unsettling to downright chilling, but all in some way uncomfortably resonant.

In "Nos Da", the final story in Thomas Morris's We Don't Know What We're Doing (Faber, £12.99) we find ourselves in a Cook-like version of reality – an afterlife that mimics the environment in which the dead spent their life: in this case, the castle town of Caerphilly in South Wales, the shared setting for the stories in the collection (bar "all the boys", recounting a stag weekend in Dublin). "Nos Da" is a marked departure from the rest of the stories, each of them dealing very much in the everyday lives of ordinary people. "It might sound like we're piling it on," Morris writes of a single mother struggling to make ends meet, "but this is the life lived in Amy: with spider's legs, scuttling in all directions." His characters' lives are not often pretty, but there's something radiant about the frankness of his writing.

Compared to these debuts is Adam Johnson's second short story collection Fortune Smiles (Doubleday, £16.99). Each of his central protagonists is lost is some way – a Silicon Valley coder who reanimates an assassinated president in an attempt to find answers to bigger questions about life and love; a self-loathing paedophile; a former Stasi prison warden in denial about his and his country's past; a woman with cancer picturing her family without her; a UPS driver searching for the mother of his son in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and two North Korean defectors struggling with the freedoms of life in the South – something of the direct follow-up to Johnson's previous novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master's Son, a dystopian satire set in North Korea. At over 300 pages, but comprising only these six stories, there's nothing fleeting or fable-like about each of these offerings, they're formidable, meaty tales that cling on and don't let go.

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