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Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. Many thanks to the fine folks at Macmillan for sending me this copy for review, and inadvertently keeping me humble…
The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Big Lies In A Small Town is fictional, but the town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are very real. Don’t skip past this one at the airport – it’s worth it!
Pssst: Christine at The Uncorked Librarian featured my write-up of Big Lies In A Small Town in her fantastic round-up of books set in North Carolina here!
Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher
The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely true crime stories in recorded Australian history, and this new book turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Though it’s presented in classic true crime fashion, complete with glossy photograph inserts, Shark Arm is the perfect read for Aussie history buffs, particularly those with a keen interest in law enforcement bungles.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job, employed by the feminist advocate and “personal brand” Alix. One night, at a supermarket, Emira is pulled up by security, suspected of kidnapping the young (white) child in her charge. The whole incident is filmed by a witness, Kelley, but he swears to Emira that he’ll never release the footage. As love blooms between Emira and Kelley, she discovers that he and Alix are connected in a way she never could have predicted. Each has their own account of their history, and their own opinions about what’s best for Emira’s future…
Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
Bunny lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. Rabbits For Food is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me this edition from Serpent’s Tail for review.
Bunny is flawed, no doubt about it, but she is also wry, sarcastic, and extremely endearing. I’m almost certain I’ve already found one of my best reads of the year. Before I was halfway through Rabbits For Food, I knew I wanted to press it into the hands of all of my friends. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.
The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale
The Strangers We Know is the new domestic drama-slash-thriller by Pip Drysdale. Simon & Schuster were kind enough to provide a copy for review, and it was just the ticket for taking my mind off this stifling summer heat!
Charlie and Oliver had the perfect meet cute, a whirlwind romance, and a happy marriage… until one night, Charlie joins her single friends for a girl’s night out, and the unthinkable happens: they’re swiping through her best friend’s Tinder matches, and Oliver’s profile comes up. The story quickly spirals into a world of DIY detective work, danger and intrigue. I really loved how Drysdale showed that the kind of forensic online investigation so commonplace in 21st century relationships isn’t all that different to tracking down a criminal. This is the perfect thriller for readers who generally prefer rom-coms.
A Tall History Of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
In the late 1950s, shortly before Jamaica seizes independence from colonial rule, an infertile couple finds an infant in a basket made of reeds, among a tangle of sea grape trees by the water. They name the child Moshe (Moses), and A Tall History Of Sugar tells his story, an epic romance that sweeps generations and continents. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
This book – the fifth work of fiction from Jamaican writer and professor of Caribbean literature Curdella Forbes – interrogates what it means to be “other”. The narrative is a game of snakes and ladders, and the seemingly-omniscient narrator’s interest in Moshe’s story is revealed as the story moves two steps forward, one step back. A Tall History Of Sugar would be a great pick for fans of Elena Ferrante or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or anyone else seeking a slow-burn love story to see them through the holidays.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
From my review on Primer: Erin Morgenstern has been off the grid for years. After the tremendous success of her debut novel, The Night Circus in 2011, she withdrew to the woods of the Berkshires with no internet access. There, beyond the reach of her dedicated fans and demanding critics, she set about writing her follow-up novel: The Starless Sea.
Morgenstern’s self-imposed exile has produced a book that is as singular in style as her first, a novel that is set in the contemporary world but branches off into the realms of the mythical and magical. She offers a modern twist on classic fantasy, an elaborate quest narrative for the 21st century.
Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas
I loved Christos Tsiolkas’s 2008 novel The Slap (so much so that I named it one of my must-read books by Aussie authors), but I knew just looking at the blurb of Damascus that it was going to be very different: “a work of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than the events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church”. Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review, and I was happy to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone.
I’m a big ol’ heathen, so I didn’t have a lot of religious context for what was happening. To me, it almost read like a historic dystopia. But I think that made it all the better, for me to appreciate the poetic language and visceral imagery and raw emotion that Tsiolkas used to depict this world. What I’m saying is you don’t need to be a Christian, or familiar with the historical aspects of Christianity, to read Damascus (and it might actually be better if you aren’t).
Island On The Edge Of The World by Deborah Rodriguez
Island On The Edge Of The World is just as bright and colourful as its cover! In it, four very different women come together to do the impossible: find a lost child, and a missing mother, in Haiti. My radar is set to ping at anything that smells like a white-saviour story, but Rodriguez does the work to show a multitude of perspectives and emphasise the importance of self-determination and respect for countries and people in need. I’m really impressed with the way that Deborah Rodriguez managed to take some really heavy themes and issues and turn them into a fun summer read.
The fine folks at Bantam Books were kind enough to send me a copy of this one for review, and I think it would be a great book club pick – especially because this edition includes discussion questions, Haitian recipes, and a guide to ethically helping Haitian people in the back.
Beauty by Bri Lee
If you were to stand naked in front of a mirror right now, in full fluorescent lighting, what would run through your mind? Would you be brave enough to put those thoughts on a page, and send that page out into the world? That’s what Bri Lee has done in Beauty—a literary essay (longer than a think-piece, shorter than a book), and the fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
In the first half, Lee gives a candid account of her experience of disordered eating (and, by extension, her disordered thinking about food and body). She details the money she spends on various beautification endeavours, and her difficulty to reconcile the idea of self-improvement without self-loathing. Then, in the second half, she looks at how thinness has become an ethical imperative, she starts to explore the racial intersectionality of the beauty ideal, and she takes aim at the hypocrisy of women’s media and their symbiotic industries. I am HERE FOR IT!
This is an intimate and laudably honest account of what it means to strive for a beauty (read as thinness) ideal. I devoured it in a single sitting.
Find Me by Andre Aciman
We all know that happily-ever-afters aren’t realistic… that doesn’t stop us demanding sequels when authors leave us hanging on an ambiguous ending! Find Me is the continuation of Oliver and Elio’s romance as depicted in Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. The fine folks at Faber Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The story picks up ten years after the original ended. Aciman’s writing is still dripping with passion, the emotions of the characters are still intensely felt and rendered, but it’s not quite as suffocating as Elio’s youthful infatuation. This is more of an extended epilogue to Call Me By Your Name than an actual sequel, and I’m not sure how it would read as a stand-alone, but Aciman still manages to weave a beautiful story (or, really, stories) of all-consuming love. And there are no loose ends dangling at the end of this one – the story is done!
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili
No matter what they say about our shortened attention spans, the days of the sweeping multigenerational epic are not over. The proof is in the pudding: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili recounts a crucial period in history, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, through the lives of one exceptional family with a magical recipe for hot chocolate. Scribe has published the English translation for the first time in Australia, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
This translation is the fine work of Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (#namethetranslator!). Most reviewers liken Haratischvili to none other than the master of the epic, Leo Tolstoy. I must agree; in fact, I’d say her writing falls smack bang in the middle of the Venn diagram between Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t honestly call The Eighth Life an “easy” read in any sense, but it is a deeply worthwhile one. Your heart will swell, get torn to pieces, then stitched back together again; you’ll feel part of the Jashi family, with all the joy and devastation that entails.
If the chocolate-y elements are what draws you in, you might want to check out my round-up of the best books for chocolate lovers here.
Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni
The wives, widows, and children of IS fighters are currently languishing in refugee camps; we’ve all seen the footage on the evening news. That’s what makes Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni a particularly timely read, and Scribe was kind enough to send me an early copy for review. In it, a seasoned Middle East reporter explores the questions at the heart of the crisis: what would make a woman leave a cosmopolitan life to become an ISIS bride? Where do we draw the line between victim and conspirator? Is it possible to empathise without being complicit?
Guest House For Young Widows challenges you to see these women as humans, not monsters, subject to the same foils and foibles as the rest of us. They reside in the shades of grey between “good” and “evil”, the liminal space that it’s more convenient for us to forget. Their stories are unique, and yet, strangely relatable.
So many of the young people in this book were frustrated by broken promises of radical change. Are there lessons we can learn here, say, for the Climate Strikers that aged politicians have failed to mollify? Perhaps. I suggest you read it and find out for yourself.
Girl by Edna O’Brien
Girl is a fictionalised account of the experiences of one of the young women captured and held by Boko Haram in Nigeria. O’Brien imagines the events of 2014 through the eyes of her narrator, Maryam. She dedicates the book to the mothers and daughters of North East Nigeria, and according to her acknowledgements, she spent quite some time in the area, researching and developing this novel in consultation with their communities. Faber Books sent me a copy for review.
The prose is blunt and staccato, and at times seems detached; perhaps this is a deliberate attempt on O’Brien’s part to echo a dissociative traumatic response, along with strange shifts of tense and point-of-view within chapters, sometimes within paragraphs. The story’s conclusion shows that escape, rescue, and homecoming weren’t necessarily the happy affairs that the media might have had us believe. Still, I struggled to get past the friction of a privileged older white woman writing the story of a young woman of colour, particularly a story so emotionally and politically charged. It is an interesting read side-by-side with other #ownvoices and non-fiction accounts, but perhaps not one to be read in isolation.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
The Weekend is the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Charlotte Wood’s 2016 Stella Prize-winning The Natural Way Of Things, and Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review. The story is set on one Christmas weekend, but it’s far from a cozy Christmas read. Four women—Wendy (the academic), Jude (the perfectionist), Adele (the bohemian), and Sylvie (the peacekeeper)—have been friends for decades. But now, Sylvie is dead, and the remaining three are charged with cleaning out her holiday house and readying it for sale.
It’s wonderful to see the complex interior worlds of older women reflected in contemporary fiction, to see the lives of women in their seventies represented as something other than simply “over”. This would be a great book club pick! It will inevitably bring up a Sex And The City-style debate: “which one are you?”. (I like to think I’m a Wendy, but I worry that I’m a Jude at heart.) A must-read for the fast approaching Aussie summer…
Bruny by Heather Rose
Set in a too-near future, Bruny is part political thriller, part family drama, part love story. The protagonist, Dr Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is a UN conflict resolution expert, called back to her homeland of Tasmania to sort out some brouhaha about a bridge. Okay, that might be understating it a bit: the state and federal governments have combined forces to build a bridge between Tasmania and the tiny offshore island of Bruny, a $2 billion project, and someone has just blown part of it up. Yikes.
This is Rose’s fifth adult book, and it’s very (very!) different to her last, The Museum Of Modern Love, which won the Stella Prize in 2017. It’s not a straight mystery thriller, in that Rose isn’t following the formula of a hard-boiled detective chasing up clues and red herrings, but it’s not a highbrow literary offering either. It sits where the political and the personal intersect, and meditates mostly on the wheeling and dealing of politics, the complexity of modern life. Rose leaves no stone unturned, she covers it all: agriculture, economics, stability, jobs and growth, environmentalism, family, loyalty, betrayal, corruption, power…
Act Of Grace by Anna Krien
From the blurb: “These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant story of fear and sacrifice, trauma and survival, and what people will do to outrun the shadows. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and cultural reconciliation, Act Of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation bestows upon the next, and the potential for transformation.” Full review forthcoming on Keeping Up With The Penguins!
Bone China by Laura Purcell
From the blurb: “Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken. But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home. Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Moroven House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last…”
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
From my review on Primer: She Said is the “untold story” of what it takes to bring accusations against powerful men to light, and the revelations that forever changed the way we understand power and harassment in the #metoo era. Kantor and Twohey don’t simply paint a portrait of Harvey Weinstein as a monster (though they have plenty of evidence to do just that). They know you know that story. You’ve read the details over and over: the bathrobes, the hotel rooms, the massages, the potted plants. Instead, they examine the social mechanisms—the company policies and the power-brokers and the “boy’s club”—that enabled a monster to thrive, unrestrained and without consequences, for decades. “Must-read” doesn’t even begin to cover it…
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
Never Have I Ever is set in Pensacola, Florida, where Amy Whey hosts a monthly book club. She’s exactly what you’d expect in a “suburban mom” protagonist, and she loves her sweet-and-wholesome family more than anything. Her perfectly normal life of simple pleasures is all up-ended, however, when a Cher-lookalike stranger, Roux, shows up to book club, and a modified game of Never Have I Ever opens a can of worms. Raven Books (Bloomsbury) was kind enough to send me a copy for review.
This is one for the Liane Moriarty fans. It felt very The Husband’s Secret-esque, just not quite as compelling. Don’t come in expecting a lot of bookish chat; that part of the plot is over and done with quite quickly, and you’ll learn more about scuba diving than you will about running a book club.
The Breeding Season – Amanda Niehaus
When a scientist turns to writing poetry and fiction, I can’t help but sit up and pay attention: the merging of oil and milk is too fascinating to resist. Amanda Niehaus, author of The Breeding Season, reconciles her two worlds in this literary debut (kindly sent to me by Allen & Unwin for review). It is a story of all-encompassing grief, intensely poetic and full of natural imagery and metaphor. Niehaus brings together all kinds of binaries: art and science, grief and hope, birth and death.
I’m worried that The Breeding Season will be pigeonholed as “women’s” literature (vomit), because it deals with the grief of losing a child and relationship rifts. Let me tell you, it investigates the male role and experience just as much as the female one—it just so happens that the author is a woman. Fight the patriarchy, and buy this book for a man in your life for Christmas.
Pain And Prejudice – Gabrielle Jackson
Women’s anger is felt, understood, and reflected in this jaw-dropping new book from Gabrielle Jackson, Pain And Prejudice. Braiding together memoir and science, she explores the ways in which social structures—particularly the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, for far too long. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Jackson is a journalist; in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. “Women are socialised to believe their pain is normal,” she says, and she wrote Pain And Prejudice to give voice to the silent suffering of centuries.
You can read an extract from Pain And Prejudice here.
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
From my review on Primer: “It’s no understatement to call The Testaments the most anticipated book of the year, perhaps even the decade. Not since Harry Potter have we seen such fervour. The Testaments begins 15 years after Offred’s final scene in The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead is no longer a burgeoning state, finding its feet. Now, an entire generation of children raised under its strict established regime, with no memory of the old world, are coming of age. A compelling must-read (and must-re-read) celebration of resistance.”
The Dutch House – Anne Patchett
From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.”
You Daughters Of Freedom – Clare Wright
You Daughters Of Freedom is out now in paperback! From the blurb (Text Publishing): “For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s suffrage campaigners won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration. Clare Wright’s epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players…”
The Man That Got Away – Lynne Truss
From the blurb (Bloomsbury): “It is summer in Brighton and the Brighton Belles are on hand to answer any holiday-maker’s queries, no matter how big or small. The quickest way to the station, how many pebbles are on the beach and what exactly has happened to that young man lying in the deckchair with blood dripping from him? Our incomparable team of detectives are back for another outing in the new instalment of Lynne Truss’s joyfully quirky crime series.”
The Unforgiving City – Maggie Joel
From the blurb (Allen & Unwin): “Colonial Sydney in the final weeks of the nineteenth century: a city striving for union and nationhood but dogged by divisions so deep they threaten to derail, not just the Federation, but the colony itself. There are chasms opening too when a clandestine note reaches the wrong hands in the well-to-do household of aspiring politician Alasdair Dunlevy and his wife Eleanor. Below stairs, their maid Alice faces a desperate situation with her wayward sister.”
The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware
I’d seen The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware billed as a modern-day Turn Of The Screw. Now, I’m not a Henry James fan (far from it!), but that description drew me in: it’s a story ripe for adaptation! A governess alone with weird children in an isolated house, complete with bitter housekeeper, mysterious caretaker, and unexplained bumps in the night? Yes, please! Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.
It’s a very contemporary take, but the supernatural elements keep it in Turn Of The Screw territory, away from your Girl On The Trains and your Gone Girls. It was chilling, more than outright scary, and the twists kept coming right up until the final page. I’m not one for the supernatural or the paranormal—I find the natural, normal world to be quite enough to deal with, thank you—but I still found myself creeped out.
The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard
If you like your non-fiction niche, but comprehensive, I’ve got the book for you! Text Publishing was kind enough to send me a copy of The Mosquito, by Timothy C. Winegard, for review. I wish they’d sent a reminder to warn everyone in my life that they were about to get hit with a barrage of mosquito-related fun facts.
Only female mosquitos bite. Of the 108 billion people who have ever lived on this planet, mosquitoes (or, more accurately, the viruses and parasites they carry) have killed nearly half—52 billion. Do you know how elephants defend themselves against the mosquito’s bite? You’ll find the answer in Chapter 1, and it will surprise you.
The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour
The front cover of The Gap by Benjamin Gilmour promises the story of “a paramedic’s summer on the edge”, and it delivers! See, The Gap is the name of a notorious suicide spot, a clifftop at Sydney’s Watson’s Bay, and for the summer of 2008, Gilmour worked as a paramedic based out of the nearest ambulance station. This is his memoir, and Penguin Random House Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Again and again, he circles back around to The Gap, where 50+ people die by suicide each year. The paramedic’s job is usually to talk them down, sometimes to help with retrieving a body, or informing loved ones. Gilmour wrote this book, from his detailed notes and diaries, at the urging of fellow paramedics, who want to open a conversation about suicide and mental health in this country.
Sanditon by Jane Austen
It might sound strange to call a book written in 1817 a “new release”, but this new edition definitely casts a different light on Sanditon and Jane Austen’s body of work leading up to this final, unfinished, manuscript. Oxford University Press was kind enough to send me a copy for review. Evidence abounds of the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Oxford World Classics: a well-researched author bio, high production values, a note on the text, a full chronology of Austen’s life and work, and generous explanatory notes. All told, this is a wonderful, fresh take on Austen’s most experimental and poignant work.
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