Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: New Releases (page 1 of 38)

The Writing Retreat – Julia Bartz

The latest addition to the mythology of the artistic process is The Writing Retreat, a “dark and atmospheric” thriller by Julia Bartz (kindly sent to me for review by Oneworld and Bloomsbury).

Struggling writer Alex manages to stumble into a spot at an intensive writers’ workshop run by her idol, Roza Vallo, a queer feminist horror writer who relishes her enigmatic reputation. Unfortunately, Alex’s former-BFF, Wren, will also be in attendance. There’s some bad blood between them, and it all threatens to come to a head at Roza’s remote (haunted?) mansion.

Why would Alex attend at all, then? Aside from the chance to meet Roza, there’s also a major publishing deal on offer to whichever attendee writes the best book. It’s like the Bachelor, except instead of dates and roses, there’s word counts and editorial feedback.

Now, here’s where blurb is a bit misleading. On the back of my copy, it says: “Alex’s long-extinguished dream now seems within reach. But then the women begin to die.” That’s not quite what happens. One of them goes missing in a snowstorm, and while trying to track her down, the other attendees discover some horrifying secrets about the true nature of the writing retreat.

Bartz leans heavy into the haunted house tropes, without the masterful prose to hold them up (“Her voice was soft and steely,” for instance, page 102). I think she was aiming for a Carmen Maria Machado vibe, but the end result goes way wide. Plus, it bore almost no resemblance to any such retreat I’ve ever encountered – The Writing Retreat is to actual writers’ retreats as Grey’s Anatomy is to doctoring.

If you really need something to read on holidays, you could pick worse from the Little Free Library than The Writing Retreat, but don’t expect too much from it.

Buy The Writing Retreat on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

The Matchmaker – Saman Shad

The Matchmaker - Saman Shad - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Matchmaker here
(affiliate link)

The decision to marry someone is complicated: do you want the same things? Will you in ten, twenty, fifty years? Will your love last as long as you both shall live? Being part of a community with cultural and religious expectations around marriage adds layers of complication on top of that, even.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone guiding you, helping you make the big decisions, giving your marriage the best shot possible? That’s Saima’s job in The Matchmaker – a brand-new debut novel from Sydney author Saman Shad, which Penguin Books Australia sent to me for review.

The story follows Saima as she tackles a particularly challenging assignment: finding a match for a sexy, wealthy bachelor, without letting him know that his parents are pulling the strings.

Books+Publishing bills The Matchmaker as “A light read that still delves deep into the complexities and heartbreak of immigrant and first-generation experiences,”. It’s like an Australian-Pakistani Failure To Launch, meets The Wedding Planner. Saima and Kal both find themselves caught between the traditions and expectations of their parents’ homeland, and all the modern promise of the country in which they grew up.

The prose and dialogue were patchy in places, but completely forgivable for a debut author with such striking insight. It was a particular delight to read a rom-com set in my home city of Sydney. I recognised many of the spots that Saima and Kal visit – not to mention the “types” they encounter. Given that there’s no mention of COVID, and no spice (except for the frequently-mentioned delicious-sounding meals), The Matchmaker is the perfect blend of escapism anchored in reality, a wonderful end-of-summer read.

Buy The Matchmaker on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

The Marriage Act – John Marrs

The Marriage Act - John Marrs - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Marriage Act here
(affiliate link)

I was excited to receive a copy of The Marriage Act, the latest John Marrs novel, from the wonderful team at Macmillan Australia. It sounded like a banger: in a near-future Britain, a right-wing government enacts a Sanctity Of Marriage Act that punishes singles and monitors couples.

It started off strong, too, with creepily realistic government propaganda punctuating the chapters and excellent representation of non-hetero couples. I was looking forward examining the ways that government policy and surveillance impact couples and families… but I’m afraid The Marriage Act didn’t deliver on that front.

I think Marrs maybe tried a bit hard, and tried to incorporate too much into his “high-concept” novel. There were a lot of characters, introduced very quickly. All their relationships and personalities were overshadowed by Marrs’s apparent attempts to make The Marriage Act a political thriller. The legislation on its own would have made for an interesting story, but he threw in a bunch of other “scary” stuff for no apparent reason: finding your soulmates through DNA! Driverless cars! Deepfakes! “Woke” curriculum in schools! Somehow, it was all COVID’s fault, though the mechanism for that was never really explained.

And, it must be said, Marrs hates influencers. Like, really hates them. Throughout The Marriage Act, they were killed off or otherwise violently punished, they tore apart families, they were revealed to be vapid narcissists at every turn. I kept wanting to ask him: what did an influencer ever do to you?

Here seems as good a place as any to offer some trigger warnings, too: suicide, violence, sexual assault, and a horrifying description of cruelty to dogs.

The Marriage Act could have been used to make some really interesting point, about policy-making, about surveillance, about patriarchal institutions… but instead, there was no critical thought to accompany the concept, beyond “Wouldn’t be scary if the government used Alexa to listen to our marital spats?”. That, along with some very obvious plot “twists”, made for a rather disappointing read.

Buy The Marriage Act on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

Becky – Sarah May

Becky - Sarah May - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Becky here
(affiliate link)

Ambitious and determined, Becky Sharp is going to scheme her way into high society. She slips unnoticed through the ranks, weaponising the secrets she uncovers about the movers and shakers, until she gets what she wants. Is it William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or the latest novel by Sarah May, Becky? Believe it or not, it’s both – but I’m specifically talking about the latter, because Macmillan Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Becky begins in 1989, when Becky Sharp starts working as a nanny for a family of newspaper moguls. She doesn’t have her sights set on a career in childcare, though – she wants to work at The Mercury. Amelia Sedley is the widely-adored almost-too-nice nanny for the family upstairs, and the two form an unlikely alliance.

Becky, of course, eventually lands her dream job, breaking the biggest stories of the decade at the country’s most notorious tabloid newspaper. She marries up, levels up, and she seems unstoppable. But, as we all know, journalism has a big shake-up coming (a couple of them, actually) and our (anti?)heroine may yet topple from the top.

Becky is like if a British Ottessa Moshfegh told the story of the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal, using Vanity Fair as a template. May touches on everything – gender inequality, colonialism, celebrity culture, corruption in politics, the wealth gap – without overegging the pudding. She offers incredible moments of blazing insight (“There are no female toilets on the executive floor,” page 149), and a rollicking story to boot – far more fun to read than the 19th century version.

Buy Becky on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

The Silence Project – Carole Hailey

Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo called The Silence Project “engrossing and original, political and unpredictable… [a book that] will get people talking,”. That’s a tantalising blurb, so I was thrilled when Corvus Books (via Allen & Unwin) sent me a copy for review.

The premise: on Emilia Morris’s thirteenth birthday, her mother Rachel moves into a tent at the bottom of their garden. From that day on, she never says another word. Inspired by her vow of silence, other women join her and together they build the Community. Eight years later, Rachel and thousands of her followers around the world burn themselves to death.

The Silence Project is styled as Emilia’s account of her mother’s silent protest, and the fall-out. It’s a kind of alternate history in two halves – a biography of Rachel up to the Event, and an exposé of the Community afterward.

The prose is frank, and completely believable. It reads like it is an actual account of actual events. I did notice a few small inconsistencies in the story, but as this is an advance review copy of The Silence Project, they may be ironed out by the time the final version hits the shelves. And besides, they didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed foreshadowing.

This is the kind of quasi-dystopian feminist fiction that will definitely appeal to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. I don’t doubt it will be popular with book clubs as soon as it’s released, and there’s probably a film adaptation in our future.

Buy The Silence Project on Booktopia here.

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